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Decentralisation Hybridized

Annina Aeberli

5. Conclusion

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1To return to the central question of this ePaper, what happens when a Western concept of the state, such as decentralisation, is introduced to a local, non-Western context, in this case South Sudan?

2The example of South Sudan suggests that such concepts are locally appropriated, reinterpreted and hybridized. This hybridization has two components: the horizontal/geographical and the vertical/ historical. In other words, the concept of decentralisation changes as it moves through time and space. The ways of understanding are formed over history and differ with each other. The historical perspective shows how the list of aspirations associated with decentralisation in South Sudan has expanded over time from democracy, participation, peace between tribes or self-governance, service delivery and development up to more effectiveness and transparency. In spite of an accumulation of all these attributes, as for example in the legal framework on decentralisation, the Local Government Act, the understanding of decentralisation is by no means homogenous which leads us to the vertical aspect of hybridization. Different groups have different images of decentralisation in mind. This bears a great potential for misunderstandings between the South Sudanese, their government and the international community. The South Sudanese communities’ understanding of decentralisation-as-self-rule involves a clear distinction between “us and them”, functioning as a means of accessing state resources and integrating an abstract and distant state into everyday, community life through appropriation and personalization. The South Sudanese government, in contrast, imagines decentralisation as a technical tool to bring about service delivery and development in all of South Sudan as expressed by Garang as “taking the towns to the villages”. The international community understands decentralisation as a means to make states more effective and more similar to the Western-style states which in turn should guarantee international stability.

3These diverging understandings need to be dealt with carefully as they bear a potential for misunderstandings, conflicts and frustration. All actors active in South Sudan, but especially the international community and the South Sudanese government, should be aware that they only have one possible understanding of decentralisation which may not be shared by all people involved in a political discussion, state-building programme and so on and which should therefore not be taken for granted. Decentralisation, and other terms or concepts, may not only be understood differently by the people, but also used in ways unintended by the government or the international community with unexpected outcomes as the current proliferation of the counties against the will of the government and the international community shows.

4Hybridization and the associated power struggles over the power of defining and applying will continue. While the international community and the government are backed by powerful international discursive structures, and associated financial resources with which to develop programmes and set priorities, the people have the power to inform decentralisation through everyday practice and political struggles. Even without a full scale revolutionary spring as witnessed in the Arab world, people have the tools to influence the understanding and structures of the decentralised system and, more broadly, the form of the newly emerging South Sudanese state.

5Of course, one cannot discuss the future of South Sudan without mentioning Sudan and the relationship between the two states, which remain highly interwoven. Out of the many challenges between the North and the South such as border demarcation, the South economic dependence on the North or the question of citizenship for Northerners living in the South and Southerners living in the North, I want to mention the distribution of the oil revenues. A stable solution guaranteeing steady income for the South is of great importance, as oil is the primary source of revenue for the new state. Implementation of “take the towns to the people” will be highly dependent on the financial situation of the GoSS. However, the GoSS will also need to find other sources of revenue in order to reduce their vulnerability to potential power manoeuvring by the North and fluctuating international markets. Such financial stability will require the establishment of a functioning economy, a particular challenge given the virtual lack of current economic production in South Sudan.

6The history of the South within Sudan should teach the new country – or rather, the two new countries – a lesson. The lack of respect for diversity in Sudan or, more precisely, the marginalization of the South and disregard of demands for greater autonomy, led to the secession of the South on 9 July 2011. Neither the North nor the South became homogenous following secession, and both sides need to find a way to deal with diversity – be it cultural, political, or religious. The initial actions of Bashir after secession point to a repetition of history: the same disregard for diversity seems to have materialized in the new Sudan, provoking yet another civil war. Whether South Sudan will manage to solve the existing tensions concerning diversity still remains to be seen too. Thus, regardless of whether decentralisation actually brings democracy, development, and peace, ignoring the people’s demands for decentralisation as a means of accommodating diversity has historically led to war. The people’s understanding of decentralisation as self-rule, therefore, should be taken seriously by the government and the international community. Ignoring such demands and imposing a narrowly technical model will inevitably lead to frustration and conflict.

7This does not imply, however, that the people’s understanding should be adopted uncritically. It is, of course, questionable whether the proliferation of administrative units will lead to success, as the complex identities such subdivisions are meant to address are near infinite, meaning that some groups will always feel neglected. What is more important, then, is to understand why people advocate for such measures. For the people, decentralisation stands for a way of dealing with diversity, and its attendant goals, such as peace, equitable development, and the equal distribution of resources. Decentralisation should enhance participation and brings an abstract and distant state to the community and geographic locality.

8Obviously, decentralisation must be supplemented by other policies in order to satisfy these demands associated with decentralisation. Firstly, other mechanisms of dealing with diversity other than decentralisation must be developed. Secondly, new ways of connecting people to their state, rather than reliance on the creation of new administrative units, should be found. There is a need for social innovation and experiments based on discussions with the people, as they know their society best. Therefore, discursive space needs to be opened up and ideas should be openly discussed for example in workshops and dialogue platforms.

9This of course moves in the direction of nation-building, and establishing the mysterious state-society relationship. At the same time, however, the focus should partially shift from strict state-building to the development of alternative economic opportunities, reducing the incentive to patrimonially exploit the state. Agriculture and craft should constitute the primary focuses of such efforts, as this would also decrease dependency on foreign imports. Creating alternative opportunities, moreover, in a context where possessing a gun and using violence is the accustomed means of survival, would also decrease conflict and promote stability. Overall, the South Sudanese state should be built with the people, not without them. Such a process requires politics, rather than international experts, as cohesion emerges only from interaction and political struggle.

10In sum, the processes of local hybridization and appropriation of Western state concepts result in a high diversity of images about what the state is or what it should be. This needs to be taken into account in order to escape misunderstandings and wrongly led interventions in the area of state-building or development more general. This also implies that decisions on the ideal design for a state cannot be left to the experts as they have a specific, often very technical, understanding of the state which does not forcefully correspond with local images and desires. The state must comply with the local, not international, expectations, as the local people are the ones living there and carrying it. Consequently, only political disputes can lead to a success, technical designs by experts, on the other hand, only lead to frustration of the people which will not react in the planned way which in turn will lead to frustration with the international experts.


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