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Decentralisation Hybridized

Annina Aeberli

1. Introduction

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1“The world’s newest country” – this honourable title adorns the newly emerged Republic of South Sudan, born 9 July 2011. For the over 8 million South Sudanese, the declaration of the new state, covering an area of 644,329 km2, symbolized the end of a long struggle against Northern subjugation (Southern Sudan Centre for Census, Statistics and Evaluation 2010, 1). It also marks the end of the Interim Period that began with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Sudanese Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in 2005 and saw the January 2011 Referendum on Southern independence, which the South Sudanese overwhelmingly voted to support. The Peace Agreement ended a long civil war between the North and the South that started at the time of Sudanese independence from Britain and ceased only for a decade in the 1970s and early 1980s.

2In spite of these reasons for celebration – obscured by the flare-up of conflicts around the border, between the South and North within the new Sudan and within South Sudan – the huge challenges facing South Sudan cannot be ignored. The government and the people of South Sudan are currently engaged in a unique process of state-construction: state-institutions are being constructed in a context where physical infrastructure is almost inexistent and where the illiteracy rate is over 70 per cent (Southern Sudan Centre for Census, Statistics and Evaluation 2010, 1). South Sudan will face an enormous negotiating burden in forging the social contract – a concept often mentioned in the international discourse referring to the relationship between society and the state. South Sudan is now confronted with processes that other African countries faced during decolonization in the middle of the last century.

3The South Sudanese are not alone in their efforts to build a state. They are in the position to count on the support of an international community which is more than willing to assist the new country with state-building – a concept highly en vogue. All major development organizations have developed policies for intervention or “best practice” advice for state-building. Most of this literature and these practices are based on an institutional modernization theory that sets the Western nation-state as the ideal for all other countries to emulate, and from which state-building policies are derived. One such concept, which, as we will see, is also desired by South Sudanese, is decentralisation. Decentralisation represents hope for the development and reconciliation that are badly needed in the context of South Sudan. So, the international community is applying a concept of state from one region of the world outside of its area of origin. This thus raises the question:

4What happens to a Western concept of state such as decentralisation when introduced into a localized, non-Western context, in this case, South Sudan?

5This broad question implies several sub-questions:

6How is decentralisation understood by Western theorists, and the international community, in the wider context of state-building? How is this understanding altered by the members of the international community currently active in South Sudan? How does the South Sudanese government understand decentralisation? How do non-government people interpret decentralisation? For all these groups, we also must ask: What goals, hopes, expectations, and underlying assumptions are connected to their understanding?

7How have these different ways of understanding emerged historically? What is the nature of their interactions? Who has which tools and powers to influence others’ understanding? How is decentralisation used in political debates?

8On the whole, my research has evolved around an interface. South Sudan may be seen as a physical interface where actors interact. Decentralisation, however, should be perceived as a “social interface”, in the sense of Norman Long:

“Interfaces typically occur at points where different, and often conflicting, lifeworlds or social fields intersect, or more concretely, in social situations or arenas in which interactions become oriented around problems of bridging, accommodating, segregating or contesting social, evaluative and cognitive standpoints” (2001, 65).

9Long (2001, 50) utilizes the concept of “social interface” to explore “how discrepancies of social interest, cultural interpretation, knowledge and power are mediated and perpetuated or transformed at critical points of linkage or confrontation”. Similarly, Hagman and Péclard (2010, 543–544) explain that the state is not given, but forged and remade “through processes of negotiations, contestations and bricolage” by “local, national and transnational actors”. This statement also applies to decentralisation in South Sudan.

  • 1  “Historicity.”
  • 2  Approximate translation by the author: “The historicity of the imported state.”
  • 3  Approximate translation by the author: “historical trajectories.”
  • 4  Approximate translation by author: “internal dynamics.”
  • 5  Approximate translation by author: “external dynamics.”

10Finally, I want to mention Jean-François Bayart who inspired the title of my thesis with his concept of hybridization and “historicité”1. In his famous article on “l’historicité de l’Etat importé”2 (1996), he refutes the argument that the African state is merely an empty shell imposed by the West. Instead, he describes the process of hybridization and appropriation of the Western model of state by the local population. Central to his analysis is the notion of “trajectoires historiques”3, which are constituted by the interaction of the “dynamiques du dedans”4 and the “dynamiques de dehors”5. Thus, internal and external dynamics inform the contemporary manifestation of the state. In contrast to Bayart, however, my analysis refers to the concept of decentralisation rather than its concrete, material form, though the latter of course strongly influence conceptual constructs.

11My thesis, therefore, emerges around such an interface, decentralisation, and wants to see what kind of understandings meet there and how the understanding has been hybridized. I want to stress at the outset that I am not examining the actual decentralised structures implemented in South Sudan, but rather how different groups of people think of decentralisation which is of course also influenced by practices and its implementation. I analyze how the concept changes as it travels through different contexts. Specifically, I examine the ways in which different groups have appropriated the concept of decentralisation over time, and how such processes of hybridization inform today’s structure as outlined in the primary decentralisation legal framework, the Local Government Act of 2009. However, a theoretical analysis of how practices influence the abstract, conceptual aspect of decentralisation is beyond the scope of this project. It will correspondingly touch only briefly on the different powers of various actors to impose their specific understanding on others.

12At this point, I would like to parenthetically clarify the usage of the term “tribe” in the context of South Sudan. I use it rather than other terms such as “ethnic group” or “ethnicity” because “tribe” is used by most South Sudanese themselves. I refer to it, therefore, in the sense of a socio-political construction as common within anthropology. “Tribe”, as well as other identity categories, should not be interpreted in an essantialized, but rather relational, manner. Tribes emerge out of relationships and, as all forms of identity, are always based on a mixture of self-definition and external perception (Eriksen [1995] 2001, 263). Tribal structures and forms are never fixed, but produced through interactions between different actors (Bocco 1995, 7). Consequently, as asserted by Barth ([1969] 1998) in his pivotal 1969 book, the proper subject of inquiry is the negotiation of these boundaries between different groups, not the cultural differences themselves. Tribes, therefore, are not discrete unities with clear boundaries, but are amorphous and permeable. Furthermore, individuals always possess multiple identities, of which the tribal identity is just one. Consequently, I agree with Schlee’s (2006) argument that “tribal conflicts” are not caused by tribal differences, but instead appear around other issues. Fragmentation then emerges around tribal categories. Which category of identity commands the strongest loyalty, and in what context, is dependent on historical issues and their contemporary political instrumentalisation.

13This project should be seen both within the specific context of South Sudan, a newly emerging country, but also with reference to the international debate on decentralisation and the discourse around state-building. Correspondingly, I will now first present the international understanding of state-building and decentralisation. I will then go on to elaborate on my methodology before outlining the structure of this thesis.

1.1. Reproducing Western states through state-building and decentralisation

  • 6  I refer to these terms because they reflect a certain language within the international community. (...)

14The connection between decentralisation and state-building may not initially appear compelling if state-building is understood in a narrow sense – as a process only taking place in “conflict-affected” or “fragile states”6 – because it is often used to describe processes in the so-called developed world, too. If state-building is understood more broadly – as a negotiation between state and society taking place in all states – then, decentralisation is undoubtedly part of the process of state-building. Interestingly, in the case of South Sudan, decentralisation is directly coupled with state-building even defined in the narrower sense: a decentralised system of governance is the base for state-building policies in South Sudan.

15Significantly, I do not provide any additional definitions of either state-building or decentralisation, as the aim of this project is to map the varying uses of each concept, rather than settle concrete definitions. That said, however, I will begin with the international community’s understanding of state-building and decentralisation to provide the theoretical grounding for my preliminary statement that state-building is based on an “institutional modernization theory” and the understanding of decentralisation as a “Western concept of state”. Correspondingly, I first present how state-building is commonly understood in the dominant international discourse before turning to the role decentralisation is thought to play within it. I will explain how the international community, the first of several groups in South Sudan I will shed light on, understands decentralisation. The usage of the term “state-building” is analyzed with reference to the three main agencies shaping the international discourse: the World Bank, the UNDP, and the OECD. To analyze the usage of the term “decentralisation” I will refer to a broader spectrum of organizations.

1.1.1 Deconstructing state-building

16International organizations use a wide range of terms to refer to interventions connected with the state. The broadest of such terms is “governance” which is used by the UNDP, the OECD, and the World Bank. The term, however, is mostly supplemented with other terms such as “public governance” (OECD 2011), “democratic governance” (UNDP 2011b) and “public sector and governance” (World Bank 2011c).

Fragility and conflict as criteria for intervention

17Whereas programmes of “governance” normally refer to all so-called developing countries, “state-building” mostly appears in the context of fragility and conflict. This corresponds with a common academic definition of state-building provided by Daoudy:

State-building falls within the scope of international programmes through which bilateral or multilateral agencies mobilize resources in order to set up or reinforce weakened or non-existent institutions in those states that are considered to be fragile, weak, moving towards failure, or which have already collapsed. The objective is to build peace and promote security through the political, economic, and social development of states either threatened or affected by violent conflicts (2009, 351).

18So, state-building takes place or is applied in conflict-affected, weak, fragile, etc. states. The terminology for describing states selected for intervention varies with the organization. The World Bank describes them as “fragile and conflict-affected states” which are characterized by “weak institutional capacity, poor governance, political instability and, frequently, continuing violence or the legacy effects of past severe conflict” (The World Bank Institute 2010, 2). The OECD (2007, 2) also uses the term fragility: “States are fragile when state structures lack political will and/or capacity to provide the basic functions needed for poverty reduction, development and to safeguard the security and human rights of their populations”.

19In contrast to the World Bank, however, this definition focuses only on the functional aspects of states and thereby leaves the conflict component aside. That said, the role of the OECD as provider of policy recommendations, which are often developed by scholars, leads to heterogeneity in definitions. As a result, another report (2008b, 18) explains fragility as occurring “in the absence or insufficiency of political processes for managing changes in the state-society contract” explicitly stresses that even states “with a well-developed political process for matching services to expectations and for generating compliance with state obligations – can be fragile”. This definition is clearly an enlargement of the category of “fragility”, the definition of the World Bank and the former of the OECD point only to so-called developing countries whereas the latter is broader and may also include so-called developed countries. A 2008 report of the OECD (2008b, 14) goes even one step further and breaks with the association of state-building with conflict and fragility entirely by stating that state-building “is also ongoing in all states – stable and fragile alike. No state-society relationship is ever permanently fixed”.

20In the case of the UNDP, state-building emerges under the label of “crisis prevention and recovery”, which implies that state-building takes place in states in crisis or threatened by crisis. These countries are described as “most vulnerable societies”, “damaged by disaster and armed conflict” that “failed to develop effective governance, strong institutions, widespread employment opportunities, and basic services and security for citizens” (UNDP 2008, vi). In this context, the terms “failed state”, “failing state”, “state failure”, and “post-conflict” all appear in the documents of the UNDP (see, for example, UNDP 2008). These terms seem to be preferred to “fragility” and “conflict-affected”.

21Overall, with the exception of certain OECD reports, the descriptions of the countries selected for state-building are highly similar: such states are characterized by weak institutions, violent conflict, and are labelled “failed”, “fragile”, and “conflict-affected” or “post-conflict”.

International stability as rationale for state-building

22After having analyzed where interventions are thought to take place, the question emerges as to why they only occur in this context of fragility and conflict. According to the OECD, functioning states, which are to be constructed through state-building, are necessary for development, peace and stability: “Today it is widely accepted that development, peace, and stability, require effective and legitimate states able to fulfil key international responsibilities and to provide core public goods and services, including security” (2008b, 3). A similar equation is made by Zoellick (2009, 68), president of the World Bank, who believes that the “trauma of fragile states and the interconnections of globalization require our generation to recognise anew the nexus among economics, governance and security”. He identifies high poverty rates in fragile states as a reason for intervention, while also pointing to the danger fragile states may affect neighbouring countries, as “fragile states can create fragile regions”. Finally, he states that the “disease, outflows of desperate people, criminality, and terrorism that can spawn in the vacuum of fragile states can quickly become global threats”. This connection between state-building and security is called “securing development” in World Bank parlance (McKechnie 2009, 4). Consequently, the main rationale for intervention is founded on the assumption of a virtuous circle between effective states, peace, development, and security.

Effective states as aim of state-building

23Following this explanation of the context and rationale for state-building, we now turn towards the different definitions, and attendant aims, of state-building provided by the selected organizations.

24The World Bank defines state-building as “creating institutions that are effective in the eyes of their beneficiaries, and which can be self-sustaining within a reasonable timeframe” (McKechnie 2009, 4). The term “effective” is a common theme in World Bank and general international vocabulary, as the establishment of “effective states” is described as the overall goal of state-building (see, for example, World Bank 2005). Effective states should be capable of delivering public services and goods to their citizens and, in some conceptualizations, they should also be capable of ensuring peace and security, and enabling growth (for example, see the World Bank 2011b; The World Bank 2005, III). In the World Bank’s understanding, then, state-building is basically equated with narrow institution-building, without reference to the state-society relationship. This is reflective of an apolitical and technocratic approach to state-building.

25The UNDP (2011a) defines state-building as: “activities [that] seek to ensure that states emerging from crisis are able to provide services effectively, maintain political stability and peace through inclusive and participatory political processes and are accountable to the populations”. “Authority”, “legitimacy”, and “effectiveness” are identified as the “three critical attributes” of states that must be restored through state-building (UNDP 2011a). The need for recovery intervention is thus traced back to the weakness of at least one of these attributes in post-conflict contexts (UNDP 2008, 146). The UNDP (148) adds another characteristic by stating that “[t]he ultimate measure of an authoritative, legitimate and effective post-conflict state is its success in re-establishing […] a social contract”. “Social contract” in turn is defined as “a reciprocal relationship between state provision of security, justice and economic opportunity, and citizen acceptance of the authority of the state”. This leads to the acknowledgment that “even the best-designed and best-resourced technical and financial strategies for improved governance in post-conflict settings can fail to generate the enabling conditions for domestic actors to negotiate a viable social contract” (148). This points to the limitations of technical blueprints.

26The UNDP commonly prefers the term “post-conflict” or “post-crisis” “governance” or “recovery” to “state-building”:

“The most critical governance and institutional needs for post-conflict recovery are the restoration of the state’s capability, including the creation of a professional public administration and civil service; the rebuilding of representative and inclusive political institutions; and the establishment of mechanisms for oversight, accountability and financial controls” (145).

27In contrast to the earlier stress on “social contract”, however, this statement focuses again on state-building (or “governance”) as narrowly-focused institution-building.

28Importantly, the UNDP acknowledges that today’s peace- and state-building activities are based on the democratic market model of the West, with the concomitant objectives of “promoting democratization and inclusiveness”, “ensuring accountability and responsiveness”, “empowering civil society”. It qualifies these goals by noting that while this “model may be highly desirable in normative terms”, effective states may not depend on the completion of all objectives (153). The implementation of the ideal model may even work at cross-purposes with other goals, such as peace consolidation (153). In sum, although parts of the UNDP’s definition resemble the World Bank’s understanding of state-building as efficacy-based institution-building, the concept of the “social contract”, also emphasized by the OECD, has entered the conversation.

29The OECD refers to state-building as:

“an endogenous process to enhance capacity, institutions and legitimacy of the state driven by state-society relations. Positive statebuilding processes involve reciprocal relations between a state that delivers services for its people and social and political groups who constructively engage with their state” (2010, 21).

30In this case, the goal of state-building is not phrased in absolute terms such as “building effective states”, but in relative terms – capacity, institutions, and legitimacy of the state should be “enhanced”. Moreover, in contrast to the World Bank’s, and to a lesser degree the UNDP’s, emphasis on institutions, the OECD believes that the relationship between societal groups and the state is pivotal to successful state-building. The phrasing “endogenous process” points to the limited role of external actors in processes of state-building. It is important to note, however, that the OECD’s role in the state-building discourse is slightly different from the other two organizations. Whereas the World Bank and the UNDP actually implement projects; the OECD’s activities are restricted to the determination of standards and provision of policy advice. Reports relating to the latter, furthermore, are often written by scholars.

31In conclusion, the dominant discourse regarding state-building assumes a mutual reinforcement between effective or stable states, development, peace, and security. As a result, the international community believes that it must intervene – in form of state-building in fragile or conflict-affected states – to secure international order and guarantee development. Only effective states, which may be constructed though state-building, often understood as institution-building, are perceived as able to fulfil the internationally-defined goals of poverty reduction, development, and stability.

1.1.2 Deconstructing decentralisation

32Contrary to “state-building”, “decentralisation” is not limited to so-called developing, fragile, or conflict-affected countries, but is also used by Western states to describe processes in their own political systems. The newer, but related, term of “local governance”, interestingly remains rather vaguely defined, and is primarily used with reference to so-called developing countries.

The history of decentralisation

  • 7  A segmentary society is an acephalous society, a society without any central political authority, (...)

33Briefly, prior to analyzing the contemporary understanding of decentralisation, I want to situate the concept historically in order to explain why I call decentralisation a Western concept of state. An in-depth historical analysis of the emergence of the term, however, is beyond the scope of this project, especially as while much has been written on definitions, aspirations, and problems of decentralisation, there is little literature available on the term’s origin. That said, the fact remains that every society has been organized in a more or less centralised or decentralised way – an empirical reality which in and of itself is not connected to the “West” per say. Some, however, may argue that decentralisation is the traditional form of societal organization in South Sudan, at least for the segmentary societies7. It is definitely true that segmentary societies are decentralised rather than centralised. Segmentary societies, however, as acephalous societies, lack the central political authority that forms the basis of contemporary processes of decentralisation. Consequently, one needs to distinguish between a decentralised form of societal organization and decentralisation.

  • 8  Development in today’s understanding or the “invention of development”, respectively, goes back to (...)

34Conceptually, it is possible to trace back our contemporary understanding of decentralisation to the mid-20th century. It first appeared as a tool of imposed state reformation in post-war Germany. The occupying powers agreed in the Potsdam Agreement of 1945 on the principles of demilitarization, denazification, democratization, and decentralisation (Farçat 1992, 25). Decentralisation, in this case, referred to not only the political structure but also the economic sphere (Potsdam Agreement 1945). Shortly after “the invention of development”8, decentralisation became a tool in the repertoire of development interventions outside the West. According to Rondinelli (1981, 595), Henry Maddick (1963) was one of the first to connect decentralisation with economic growth and social modernization using the example of Sudan. Maddick was not the first to discuss the potential advantages of decentralisation; Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill argued as early as the 19th century that decentralisation led to greater participation of citizens (Agrawal and Ribot 1999, 498). This goal remains pertinent today, but Maddick’s argument transformed decentralisation into a tool for intervention in so-called developing countries – something to be applied abroad. Crucially, Maddick’s connection between decentralisation and development allowed decentralisation to become a policy tool of the international community for interventions in so-called developing, fragile, failed, or conflict-affected countries. Later on, Maddick’s understanding of decentralisation as tool to bring about economic growth and social modernization in so-called developing countries was enriched with other benefits of decentralisation, such as more participation in the context of development policies. Building upon this understanding, Dennis A. Rondinelli (Rondinelli and Cheema 1983) wrote a book that became a touchstone for the international understanding of decentralisation, and the basis of policy intervention. He developed the now-widely accepted distinction of decentralisation into the three different degrees – deconcentration, delegation and devolution – supplemented by a forth, privatization.

35Decentralisation as policy tool became popular for so-called developing countries in the context of structural adjustment policies during the 1980s and 1990s, when decentralisation functioned as an antithesis to state. Decentralisation was often, but not exclusively, seen as a way to privatize state enterprises and to support and empower civil society by redistributing powers and competencies to non-state actors (for example, see Nach Mback 2001, 95–96). After a paradigm shift around 2001 away from privatization towards a renewed and stronger role of the state in the context of “good governance” and the “Post-Washington consensus”, decentralisation today mainly refers to a redistribution of power and responsibilities or competencies within the state structure to lower levels of government. This is especially the case in South Sudan, where neither the local people nor the international community seems to have privatization in mind when discussing decentralisation. In fact, just the opposite is true, as decentralisation is part of the state-building process where the establishment, not the reduction, of the state is the goal.

36This historical overview showed that decentralisation has Western roots: it was historically defined by Western countries and then applied abroad in the context of development interventions. In section 2.3, we will see how decentralisation entered the Sudanese context and how the creation of a decentralised system of government based on local governments was inspired by the British state structure.

The international community’s understanding of decentralisation

  • 9  In addition to the organizations reviewed in the previous section, I will integrate GTZ and USAID (...)
  • 10  GTZ, DED and Inwent merged at the beginning of 2011 and form now GIZ, Deutsche Gesellschaft für In (...)

37This historical overview brings us to today’s discourse on decentralisation. The reviewed organizations9 locate decentralisation generally under “governance” issues, and not specifically under state-building, although there is some cross-over between the two, particularly in the context of “post-conflict”. GTZ10 refers to decentralisation in the context of its programs on “good governance” (GTZ 2011b). USAID speaks of “democratic decentralisation”, which seems to be used synonymously with “democratic local governance”, and locates them both within the rubric of “governance” generally (USAID 2000). At the World Bank, one finds decentralisation under “Public Sector Governance” (World Bank 2011a). However, the term “local governance” or “local government” is also quite popular at the World Bank, but refers to a slightly different concept than decentralisation, as will be explained below. The UNDP scarcely uses the term decentralisation, but speaks of “local governance”, which is located under “Democratic governance” (UNDP 2011c). The OECD, finally, has produced little on the topic.

38By comparing the different definitions of decentralisation provided by the selected organizations, it is clear that they are basically identical. A report of the World Bank often cited in the context of decentralisation defines decentralisation as “the transfer of powers and resources from higher to lower levels in a political system” (Crook and Manor 2000, 1).

39GTZ (2011b), USAID (2009), and the World Bank (2011a) begin by making a distinction between what Rauch (2009, 280–281) calls the three dimensions of decentralisation: political, administrative, and fiscal. Political decentralisation is about decision-making power, and implies that some legislative and executive power is vertically transferred to lower levels of government. Administrative decentralisation concerns the horizontal distribution of responsibilities and competencies to fulfil public duties between different state authorities on different levels. Finally, fiscal decentralisation is about access to financial resources. It concerns the authority to tax and to take out loans as well as financial transfers between different state levels and regional units (Rauch 2009, 280–281).

40Many organizations also make the distinction between Rondinell’s previously-mentioned three degrees of decentralisation. The weakest form of decentralisation is deconcentration, which refers to the transfer of a certain “amount of administrative authority and responsibility to lower levels within central government ministries and agencies” (Rondinelli et al. 1983, 14). In the case of delegation, “managerial responsibility for specifically defined functions” (19) is delegated to semi-autonomous or para-state institutions, while the central state primarily exercises its power indirectly through councils (Rauch 2009, 279–280). The strongest form of decentralisation is devolution, which requires the transfer of legislative and executive functions to independent and popularly elected regional authorities. In this case, the central government no longer has control over the transferred responsibilities and financial resources (Rondinelli et al. 1983, 24–25; Rauch 2009, 279–280).

41Often, however, the three dimensions and the three degrees of decentralisation are combined. A regularly cited World Bank report (Crook and Manor 2000, 1) – wherein deconcentration or administrative decentralisation takes place “when agents in higher levels of government move to lower levels”; fiscal decentralisation describes the process of transferring “influence over budgets and financial decisions to lower levels”; and devolution or democratic decentralisation means that “resources, power, and often tasks are shifted to lower-level authorities who are somewhat independent of higher authorities, and who are at least somewhat democratic” – is an excellent example of this conceptual blurring. The same report (Crook and Manor 2000, 1) additionally stresses the importance of accountability for successful decentralisation. Similarly, an oft-cited scholarly article (Agrawal and Ribot 1999, 474, 478–479) argues that decentralisation can only be effective and fulfil its promises if the “empowered local actors are downward accountable” and must justify themselves to the people, in contrast to upward accountability, where representatives justify their actions only to superiors.

42GTZ (2011b) points to the importance of taking the decision where the problem at hand may best be resolved. This is what Rauch (2009, 287) describes as the principle of subsidiarity: following an analysis of which goals can best be reached at which level and with what resources, decision-making power and responsibilities should be distributed accordingly. GTZ and the World Bank stress that certain services may sometimes also be outsourced to non-state actors, with the World Bank even speaking of “market decentralisation”. Correspondingly, privatization may be understood as a form of decentralisation (Rauch 2009, 279; Rondinelli et al. 1983, 28).

43Whereas GTZ, USAID and the World Bank use the term decentralisation, the UNDP rarely refers to it, preferring instead the concept of “local governance” with which it is often used interchangeably (See, for example, UNDP 2010a, 14). The World Bank also regularly makes use of the term, but not as synonym for decentralisation. Local governance “is defined as the formulation and execution of collective action at the local level” which

“encompasses the direct and indirect roles of formal institutions of local government and government hierarchies, as well as the roles of informal norms, networks, community organizations, and neighbourhood associations in pursuing collective action by defining the framework for citizen-citizen and citizen-state interactions, collective decision making, and delivery of local public services” (Shah and Shah 2006, 1–2).

44Additionally, the World Bank stresses that

“[g]ood local governance is not just about providing a range of local services but also about preserving the life and liberty of residents, creating space for democratic participation and civic dialogue, supporting market-led and environmentally sustainable local development, and facilitating outcomes that enrich the quality of life of residents” (Shah and Shah 2006, 2).

45Local governance in the World Bank’s understanding, therefore, seems to be broader than decentralisation. It seems to me, however, that the World Bank often also blurs the two concepts of decentralisation and local governance. In one report (World Bank 2005, 46), the terms “decentralisation”, “devolution”, and “local governance” seem to be used randomly, and the description of these processes once again parallels the definition of “decentralisation” as the transfer of “responsibilities, resources, and autonomy to elected local authorities”. Interestingly, the term “effective” occurs also in this context: “Effective local governance requires local autonomy and authority, sufficient resources, and an open and accountable local political process; devolution of authority is a means of achieving these ends” (46).

46Overall, it would seem that decentralisation and local governance are often not clearly distinguished. Some organizations clearly state this, while the World Bank defines local governance more broadly than decentralisation, does not differentiate precisely in all its reports. Thus, decentralisation and local governance are about transferring administrative, political, and fiscal power down to lower levels of government – or in the case of privatization to non-state actors – to varying degrees. The term “local governance” seems significantly vaguer, however, and only appears in the development context, contrary to decentralisation, which refers to political processes all over the world. That said, as the two terms are frequently used interchangeably, the following discussion regarding the hopes and expectations connected to decentralisation is drawn from statements made with reference to both decentralisation and local governance.

Hopes connected with decentralisation

47I have grouped the assumed advantages of decentralisation into the following four categories: participation and democracy, economic development, efficiency and transparency – especially in service delivery – and finally, stability and peace.

  • 11  Approximate translation by author: “Decentralised state structures work closer to the citizens, ar (...)

48The most common hope associated with decentralisation is that it increases participation and strengthens democracy. In particular, it should allow for greater participation of marginalized or minority groups. The UNDP (2011c) states, for example, that “[i]mportant opportunities for poor people, women and minorities to participate in the development of their communities are to be found in local and regional institutions of governance”. This list of marginalized groups that can be integrated into participative processes by decentralising is further expanded by the World Bank (2011a), which refers to decentralisation as allowing for “greater political representation for diverse political, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups in decision-making”. USAID (2009, 5) concludes that “[w]hen it [decentralisation] expands the range and quality of the spaces in which citizens can participate and hold government accountable, decentralisation can enhance democracy”. Finally, GTZ (2011a) stresses that decentralised state structures are closer to the citizens and therefore, strengthen democracy: “Dezentrale staatliche Strukturen […] arbeiten näher am Bürger, gehen besser auf deren Bedürfnisse ein und erhöhen die Möglichkeiten zur Beteiligung der Bevölkerung. Dezentralisierung trägt damit zu […] einer gestärkten Demokratie bei”11.

  • 12  Approximate translation by author: “Decentralisation can better align state services with local ne (...)

49This proximity to the citizens is intended to allow for the better satisfaction of popular demands, an assumption which brings us to the second and related group of expectations connected with decentralisation: better and more efficient governance through closer control. It is often mentioned that service delivery can be improved through decentralisation. The World Bank (2005, 48) acknowledges that “the shorter distance between voters and politicians is likely to make voters more informed about political responsibilities for public goods provision, and local politicians are more likely to establish credibility with voters through their track record and visible results”. As a result, “[d]ecentralisation may lead to more creative, innovative and responsive programs by allowing local ‘experimentation’”, “can help cut complex bureaucratic procedures and […] can increase government officials' sensitivity to local conditions and needs” (World Bank 2011a). Consequently, decentralisation improves the “responsiveness and efficiency of service delivery” and enhances “the transparency and accountability of governments to citizens and firms” (World Bank 2005, 46–47). GTZ stresses further that services can be better adapted to local needs through decentralisation: “Dezentralisierung kann staatliche Dienstleistungen besser an lokalen Bedarfen ausrichten”12 (GTZ 2011b).Finally, the UNDP calls for local governance in order to improve service delivery, as “[m]ost basic services for citizens are provided by local governments. The aim is to improve their ability and capacity to become better administrators, raise revenue and deliver high-quality services to accelerate progress towards the MDGs” (UNDP 2011c).

  • 13  Approximate translation by author: “In countries with strong social and economic inequalities, dec (...)

50This statement not only calls for decentralisation due to its role in efficient service delivery, but also implies its possible positive impacts for poverty reduction. Decentralisation is also understood to reduce poverty and foster economic development. USAID (2009, 5) explains that “[w]hen it improves the quality of the decisions over how public resources are deployed, decentralisation can promote economic development and improve citizens’ welfare”. GTZ adds further that decentralisation may lead to redistribution which in turn can support economic development: “In Ländern mit ausgeprägten sozialen und wirtschaftlichen Ungleichheiten kann Dezentralisierung zur Umverteilung von öffentlichen Mitteln zu Gunsten von benachteiligten Regionen beitragen und somit einen Beitrag zur Entwicklung eines dynamischen Wirtschaftsraumes leisten”13 (GTZ 2011b).

51Finally, decentralisation is also thought to support stability and peace. The World Bank (World Bank 2011a), for example, writes that decentralisation “can also increase political stability and national unity by allowing citizens to better control public programs at the local level”. The UNDP adds that “[g]overnment can promote peace and reconciliation at the local level. They can build consensus through dialogue, promote trust, and integrate conflict prevention into programmes and services” (UNDP 2011c). Finally, USAID (2009, 5) holds that “when it prevents conflict or reduces the destabilizing effects of those conflicts that occur, decentralisation can improve stability”.

  • 14  These organizations are of course aware that there are also obstacles to reaching these goals, but (...)

52To conclude, decentralisation is meant to broaden representation and foster participative processes and democracy. This in turn brings the governments closer to the people and makes service delivery more efficient. This again should lead to economic development. Furthermore, decentralisation contributes to further stability and reconciliation14. As a result, these points together allow “the State to increase its visibility and establish its legitimacy at the local level” (UNDP 2010b, 41), thus reframing decentralisation as a tool of state-building. However, a significant difference between the two concepts remains: whereas in state-building participation and democracy are a means of bringing about effective states, which are then in turn able to secure stability, participation seems to be a direct objective of decentralisation.

1.2. Data collection

  • 15  A list with all the integrated interviews can be found under 9. together with a short description (...)

53This research is mainly based on data collected during two field trips to South Sudan in 2010 and 2011. I conducted the majority of my almost thirty interviews in 201115. Half of all interviews were conducted with people from different levels of government (interview partners 1–13), a handful with traditional authorities (14–16), and the rest with people from the church, communities, civil society organizations, and so on (17–25). I was also able to speak to the Project Manager of the Local Government Recovery Programme of UNDP (26). My research was complemented by informal talks.

54Additionally, it should be noted that my data is strongly male biased, as I was only able to do three interviews with South Sudanese women. This is not surprising in light of the fact that in South Sudan, women are literally absent in public spaces. The market, as the only female public area, and the home, seem to be the sole purviews of women. The statistics on literacy support this observation: the literacy rate is 27 per cent in South Sudan, but lies at 40 per cent for men and only at 16 per cent for women (Southern Sudan Centre for Census, Statistics, and Evaluation 2010, 2).

55Geographically, I focused on four places in Central and Eastern Equatoria: South Sudan’s capital Juba located in Central Equatoria, Torit, the centre of Eastern Equatoria, as well as the Eastern Equatorian village of Magwi and the nearby Iyre communities (a map of South Sudan and Eastern Equatoria can be found in the Annex 7.). By choosing these four places, Juba, Torit, Magwi, and the communities of the Iyire, which are all located in different positions on the urban to rural-spectrum, I aimed to better represent the diversity of living conditions in South Sudan and the different levels of government. Furthermore, I chose Central Equatoria and Eastern Equatoria with security issues in mind, as this region is located far from the conflictual North-South border. The cases were also chosen with respect to time constraints, which restricted the reachable areas in the vast state, and the availability of contacts on hand. Furthermore, Equatoria’s ethnic heterogeneity and Juba’s status as a place where many different social and tribal groups meet makes them representative of the heterogeneous South Sudan. However, it must be noted that as a result of these choices, I mainly interacted with people of the different tribes of Equatoria involved in subsistence agriculture. Correspondingly, I had less contact with the people of the bigger pastoralist tribes of the North, especially the Dinka and the Nuer, both of whom play an important role in government and society.

56In addition to the data collected through interviews, I relied on various documents, such as legal texts concerning decentralisation in South Sudan, historical documents of the SPLM/A, and reports of international organizations on state-building and decentralisation.

57While this introduction already revealed the international understanding of decentralisation, we will now have a closer look at how other groups interacting at the interface interpret decentralisation in order to see whether their understandings correspond. We turn now to an examination of how the government understands decentralisation. First, the current decentralised structure as outlined in the Local Government Act is presented (2.1). I then argue that the government sees decentralisation mainly as a tool for service delivery and development (2.2), and trace the historical roots of this understanding (2.3). Finally, I show how the international community’s understanding of decentralisation has been adapted to local realities (2.4). In chapter three, we look at the perspectives of people outside the government. It is shown that although development and service delivery also appear in the people’s understanding of decentralisation, their conceptualization is dominated by the idea of self-rule (3.1). This right to self-rule, which is used to justify resource claims based on native-stranger or tribal categories (3.2), also functions as a means of appropriating an abstract and distant state (3.3). Finally, in chapter four I unpack how these different ways of understanding decentralisation interact and form part of a power structure. Consequently, similarities and differences between different interpretations are highlighted (4.1) followed by a discussion of the functions and power of both the international (4.2) and the people’s (4.3) discourse. The results of this study are then summarized and synthesized in chapter five.


1  “Historicity.”

2  Approximate translation by the author: “The historicity of the imported state.”

3  Approximate translation by the author: “historical trajectories.”

4  Approximate translation by author: “internal dynamics.”

5  Approximate translation by author: “external dynamics.”

6  I refer to these terms because they reflect a certain language within the international community. They will be questioned and deconstructed throughout this introduction.

7  A segmentary society is an acephalous society, a society without any central political authority, based on politically coequal, multistage groups as their primary form of political organization. These segments are commonly known as clans and lineages (Sigrist [1967] 1979, 30).

8  Development in today’s understanding or the “invention of development”, respectively, goes back to Truman’s “Point Four” speech in 1949 according to Gilbert Rist ([1997] 2002). Arturo Escobar (1995) dates the origin of development back to the same event.

9  In addition to the organizations reviewed in the previous section, I will integrate GTZ and USAID into my analysis at this point as these two organizations are important in the context of decentralisation in South Sudan.

10  GTZ, DED and Inwent merged at the beginning of 2011 and form now GIZ, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit. I continue to refer to GTZ due to the lack of a common appearance which implies that all the information concerning decentralisation is to be found on the website of the GTZ, not GIZ.

11  Approximate translation by author: “Decentralised state structures work closer to the citizens, are more responsive to their needs and increase the possibilities for participation of the population. Decentralisation therefore strengthens democracy.”

12  Approximate translation by author: “Decentralisation can better align state services with local needs.”

13  Approximate translation by author: “In countries with strong social and economic inequalities, decentralisation can contribute to a redistribution of public funds in favour of discriminated regions and thereby contribute to the development of a dynamic economic area.”

14  These organizations are of course aware that there are also obstacles to reaching these goals, but as such concerns are of minor importance for this work, they are not developed here.

15  A list with all the integrated interviews can be found under 9. together with a short description of the background of my interview partners. In order to protect my sources, no names are provided. I refer to my interview partners with a number in brackets.


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