Progress and Pitfalls: Seven Core Issues

Although it is apparent that decentralization processes in the world vary in intensity and speed, the changes they bring about center around seven core issues: (i) national policy and strategy, (ii) the organization of the state, (iii) functional responsibilities, (iv) financing, (v) mechanisms of participation and accountability, (vi) institutional capacity, and (vii) the growing role of city regions. This section reviews these issues, noting trends across or within regions and drawing attention to elements of LED where they appear.

First Element: National Policy and Strategy

Though few countries have fully developed decentralization strategies, many make reference to the European Charter of Local Self-Government and the UN Habitat Guidelines on Decentralisation (boxes 1.1 and 1.2). Both documents refer to principles that have been widely discussed, synthesized, and generally accepted by the international community. The European Charter of Local Self-Government was published by the Council of Europe in 1985. The UN Habitat produced the International Guidelines on Decentralisation in close collaboration with local authorities. Though still under discussion, they have been widely influential.

Although the cardinal principles are not really debated, only a handful of nations have framed a comprehensive policy on decentralization, blending political reform (power sharing), economic development, and democratic choice making with capacity strengthening and financing in order to produce a long-term sustainable system of decentralized government. For the most part, states’ efforts to anchor national policies in constitutional or legal terms have been hit or miss. Bolivia, Indonesia, and South Africa have each established comprehensive elements, but not a complete strategy. Bolivia and South Africa have both published encompassing visions (in 1992 and 1994, respectively), and although Bolivia has since reaffirmed its intentions (Government of Bolivia, 2006), neither government has been able to sustain coherent efforts to implement its strategy. The 2008 referendum in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on that region’s autonomy can be seen as an expression of regional identity, reflecting the challenges of achieving a common strategic vision.

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