Monday, February 15, 2010

Don't Bring the Power to the People?

Decentralization is a key part of Mozambique’s strategy to reduce poverty…To improve governance and accountability, the government should empower communities as local agents of change.

Sounds good. I found this digging through one of many (insert sarcastic tone) enormously fascinating World Bank papers while researching for my TechnoServe paper. As an American and staunch believer in democracy, I love to hear this kind of stuff. I mean, if you get past the cult of personality, what do you think the average Cuban would have said about whether to overthrow Castro back in the day? What would a regular Zimbabwaen say about Mugabe and the power he wields from his office in Harre? Let’s spread the power out, bring it closer to the people. Empowerment, right?

Wrong. Maybe. I’ll admit, these are just a few pieces of anecdotal evidence, but when my American friend, who will remain unnamed but we’ll call Ben, told me what he experienced in a government planning session, I was quite shocked, and it got me thinking.

Ben, who works for the Ministry of Development & Planning, went to Xai Xai (pronounced “shy shy”) to help with the three year budgetary planning for 2010 – 2012. Mind you, Xai Xai is in the bordering province to the capital Maputo AND we’re already in the new year AND this is the provincial not district government, so one would think the officials had already done some prep work and Ben was just coming along to finish the job. One would think, and one would be wrong. When I asked him how Xai Xai was, he basically said something to the extent of “That place is f****ed for the next 100 years, or at least as long as I’m alive.” He sadly related the provincial government to his sister’s high school. She went to a mediocre high school in Omaha, and he surmised that the middle 50% of her class, not even the top quarter, would do a better job than the people he met with there. When Ben tried working with them in Excel to figure out how they got certain numbers, they pulled out their cell phone calculators.

Not only had they not really done anything, but as Ben explained, they “didn’t budget for anything that would provide any public good.” It was all for things for the office. Either they wanted AC or new computers – things that would ‘help them do their job’. At one point he saw they had budgeted 1,800,000 meticais (or $60,000) for a new office vehicle. He brought up the fact that this sum would buy a Mercedes SUV, but seemed to be the only crazy one in the room.

Sitting around the pool one weekend at Clube Naval, this development topic came up, and I haven’t heard people rip into local government quite like these experienced development workers did. When I was doing interviews in Nampula, I talked with the District Administrator, who was happy to report that with the new decentralization in the past two years, they had been given $300,000 to use for community projects. Only later did I learn from a local that these ‘community projects’ become homes and other pet projects for the higher ups in the district government., rather than engines for job creation.

This last point, to me, is compelling. Personally, I have always envisioned corruption on the grand scale, stuff like embezzlement, Swiss banks, and the prime minister. But it seems it might be more widespread on the local level, where oversight is thin. In local government, as Ben explained, things like building a house for the provincial doctor are legitimate expenses. Houses, cars, trips - all fair game. Jobs for friends happen all the time.

But beyond the corruption question, what if local governments simply aren’t ready for decentralization? I’m not espousing Communism, but maybe top-down planning has had something to do with China’s success. Their local governments may be inept, the country knows it, and the guys at the top are quite sharp. Ben admitted he was twiddling his thumbs in Maputo working with federal government; he said he was embarrassed to be taking another Mozambiquean’s job. There were competent people around him, unlike at the local level.

Sure enough, the World Bank report admitted, "Weaknesses in capacity—within both the state and civil society at local levels—threaten to undermine reform’s potential benefits." So you need to build up capacity. Training is good, but it only goes so far. Maybe the decentralization thinking goes that at some point you just have to accept that you’re going to have some rough early years, but in the end you’ve got to learn by doing. When the citizens see who is in power and how things have changed for better or worse for the local populace, will they connect the dots and demand more competent leaders? Let’s hope so. Decentralization is happening regardless.


  1. I think you hit the nail on the head just by saying "decentralization." It implies a move away from a centralized government which, all too often, doesn't actually exist in the first place. Decentralization as a concept is fine when there's already a coherent something in place to move away from. If there's not, then you need an entirely different concept (and set of supports) to get people to function effectively and efficiently in smaller groups (which is what I think they mean by "decentralization").

  2. Good point. I'd bet that for Mozambique - a country which, over the past 25 has gone through colonialism, one-party socialism, and now capitalism/quasi-democracy - they're boundaries and institutions are probably not quite to what you'd call 'coherent'.