Why Doesn’t Devolution Work So Well? A Look at Primary Education

Decentralisation is not the magic bullet against poor service provision that experts usually assume it is.

Photo from Research Outreach

Towards the end of the 1980s, when the donors decided that it was time to finally push African governments to implement critical reforms in the economic and political spheres, one of the issues on which they laid emphasis was ad­ministrative reform. The proposed reform consisted of pushing gov­ernments to decentralise power from the centre to local levels. Governments had long central­ised power and decision-making, issuing orders and edicts to offi­cials who had been delegated by central authorities to ensure that one thing or the other happened. Whatever needed to happen, ac­cording to the wisdom of bosses in the capital cities, could happen without consultation. The opin­ions of would-be beneficiaries or objects of such decisions were rarely or simply not sought. At the end of the day, their views did not count. Donors attributed poor service delivery in all spheres to these arrangements. They believed that, for things to improve, the ordinary citizen had to be brought into decision-making. How was this supposed to happen? Three broad measures were proposed.

The first one was to democratise local authorities. Democratisation consisted simply of requiring local leaders to be elected directly by the people they were going to lead, and in whose name, they would exercise authority. Next, power to make decisions, responsibility for service delivery and overall wellbeing of the communities over which they presided, and the required finan­cial resources would be handed over to them. With the power and the resources, there would be no reason why they would not make decisions and deliver services to popular expectations. The third measure was to require elected lo­cal leaders to refrain from making decisions without consulting their constituents and taking their wishes into account. This, it was assumed, would ensure that decisions reflect­ed the aspirations of the people on whose behalf and for whose benefit they were being made.

As with many reforms, these par­ticular ones were ‘sold’ as a package. Democratic decentralisation – as they called it – had worked in many places outside Africa. Experts were flown in from Asia and Latin America to design decentralisation programmes based on their ex­perience acquired from wherever they had done similar work. Little regard was paid to local peculiari­ties. Context was not considered to be important at all. What mattered was to get the technical details right. The rest would follow.

While some African governments were happy to embrace these changes without much ado, others resisted and had to be arm-twisted to comply. With­in the donor community and pretty much within Western academia, there was unanimity that what was being proposed was what needed to happen to turn things around in Africa, where ordinary people, especially in rural areas, had long had to endure collapsed education, health and agricultural services for years, courtesy of bad politics and mismanagement. We are now al­most 40 years down the road. Much stock-taking has occurred. There are countries where these reforms led to a notable improvement in the lives of ordinary citizens. These, among them Ghana and Uganda, became the poster children of how to carry out decentralisation suc­cessfully, the ones that other coun­tries struggling to get things right sought to learn from.

In the late 1990s, I sounded a note of caution about the enthusiasm for democratic decentralisation. I believed there was something unrealistic about reforms that sought to put a lot of power in the hands of local elites over whom the central state would have minimal supervisory authority. It sounded to me like a recipe for local elite capture of the benefits of reform at the expense of ordinary citizens. I was sceptical about local elites being necessarily public-spirited in ways that would compel them to not seek to take advantage of the power and resources at their disposal, and the space they were being accorded to use them. I was not persuaded that, simply because they had a vote and could in the­ory use it to change leaders if they so wished, ordinary citizens were capable of holding the said leaders to account on an on-going basis via public meetings. Over the years, I have written several critiques of these reforms based on local-level observations about what has tran­spired since they were instituted. The bulk of my observations have been in the health domain, where glaring failures and systemic weaknesses have ensured that service delivery continues to be of poor, sometimes abysmal, quality. Accounting for these failures are complex political factors which, until fairly recently, donors round­ly ignored because they sought to avoid politics, preferring to “focus on development” instead.

In recent times, I have turned my attention to the education sector to see how it has fared under de­centralised administration. The countries in which these observa­tions have been made shall remain unnamed. How good are elected – and therefore democratic – local governments at providing ser­vices in the education sector? My observations are not about educa­tional outcomes. Rather, they are about inputs: those things which local authorities are supposed to provide to ensure that learners get the services they need. What are these things? They include, at the infrastructure level, classrooms and sanitary facilities. At the level of human resources, they include ensuring that there are enough teachers, and that they actually turn up to teach when they should be teaching, and that they do not engage in illegal or illicit activities.

One of the common sights upon venturing into rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa are school buildings, mainly of primary schools. They come in differ­ent states of repair. Some are high-quality, brick and mortar buildings with cemented floors, complete with doors and windows, boasting good-quality furniture, and sanitary facilities. Some have roofs on them, but lack windows and doors, and have dirt floors, the stuff that jigger infestation is made of. Others are in such states of dis­repair that they aren’t fit for human habitation. Here, sanitary facilities may or may not be available. When they are, the terms ‘sanitary facil­ities’ are a contradiction in terms, given the poor hygiene standards. And then, there are schools with­out buildings, where children study under tree shade. If there are sanitary facilities here, they will be of the make-shift type, usually rather dangerous to venture into. Otherwise, both learners and their teachers will be making use of nearby bushes, with all the implica­tions for hygiene education. What accounts for these differences?

Usually, the critical factor is not an activist local community that is capable of asking the right questions and seeking answers, let alone a political savvy, one where­by members vote into office pub­lic-spirited individuals and vote out those that do not measure up to expectations. Two things often make a real difference. One is the public-spiritedness of leaders that set out to make a difference not because they fear they will be voted out of office if they don’t, but because they have a particular understanding that leadership is about making people’s lives better. The other is the coming together of local parents, in their par­ent-teacher associations, driven by a felt collective responsibility for ensuring a good learning environment for their children. Here, elected local leaders may be involved as mere participants but not as mobilisers – a responsibility reserved for PTA chairpersons.

Where school buildings are usual­ly in bad repair, the responsibility for that state of affairs falls either on the shoulders of parents who failed to mobilise themselves to find a solution or to press their leaders to do something and sort out the situation, or on local lead­ers who failed to mobilise com­munities and to allocate whatever meagre resources at their disposal to address this problem. In both cases, there is no evidence that decentralisation makes the dif­ference experts usually claim it makes, simply by placing power, resources and responsibility for service delivery in the hands of elected local leaders.

Another observable reality in ru­ral contexts is the lack of teachers. Like health workers, teachers dis­like being sent to work in out-of-the-way areas that lack even the most basic of amenities. Among those who are sent there, some simply do not report for work. Others report, spend a short time, and secure transfers to better are­as, usually by bribing the officials responsible for effecting transfers. Both factors leave glaring gaps in teaching. Elsewhere, teachers will stay at the schools to which they have been posted, mainly for purposes of earning salaries, but spend ample amounts of time away from their duty stations, teaching far fewer hours than they ought to. Usually, this happens when some teachers find ways to supplement their meagre salaries, such as riding motorcycle taxis (bodaboda) or teaching in more than one school. If elected leaders are vigilant enough to check, these malpractices are easy to stop. However, they are so common one cannot but conclude that lo­cal leaders are simply not paying attention, or that they are simply unable to measure up to the de­mands of leadership, including holding service providers to ac­count.

Suffice to say that in coun­tries where governments retain a degree of supervisory control over local authorities, and where pub­lic-spiritedness is the dominant value, things of this sort do not happen or where they do, correc­tive steps will be taken to address them. It goes to show that creat­ing autonomous local authorities which are supposedly accountable to members of the public by vir­tue of being elected, regardless of context, is not the magic bullet against poor service provision that experts usually assume it is.


This article was extracted from Africa’s Health and Education magazine that’s currently on the stands.

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