Being a keynote address presented by Ndiva Kofele KALE , University Distinguished Professor & Professor of Law(from USA), during a Public Dialogue on Decentralization Organized by the Buea Municipal Council of Cameroon, under the theme “Participation: the challenge for Decentralization in Cameroon” at Pan-African Institute for Development Buea, 26-27 May, 2010
Exponential growth and overwhelming pressure on municipal services
o deconcentration can merely shift responsibilities from central government officials in the capital city to those working in regions or divisions (essentially it is the assignment of specific functions and tasks performed by the staff of the headquarters of central administrations to staff posted in peripheral locations within the national territory), or
Colonial heritage aside, does a country’s political configuration advance or retard decentralization?
• Do federal systems, for example, facilitate decentralization and development better than unitary systems?
The Challenges and Opportunities of Decentralization
Decentralization creates both challenges and opportunities. I limit myself here to three of the principal challenges:
The Lack of Political Will: Despite pronouncements to the contrary, central governments often do not want to devolve power to the local level. National political leaders and civil servants may resist decentralization for any number of reasons, from the narrow, parochial interest of retaining power to the broader concern of maintaining national oversight in the interest of uniformity.
The Management Challenge: As the process of decentralization, it will not take that long for reality to sink in that many local governments have limited financial and human resources and inadequate governance capacity to fulfill the mandate thrust upon them. Many of our municipal governments lack the necessary institutional capacity to manage their rapidly growing populations. As central administration shifts to untested local governments responsibility for, say, public health, education, shelter, waste management, and so on, few of them are equipped with the technical and managerial expertise needed to take on these new responsibilities. Will the next fifty years make a difference?
The Challenge of Unrequited Expectations: Decentralization may not be the panacea that it is touted to be if it is only limited to the “deconcentration” of national authority and services to the local level, without the devolution of revenue-generating and decision-making authority necessary for true decentralization. Absent this degree of autonomy from the central government, local governments may be circumscribed in their ability to track and account for local government funds and make wise decisions on how to spend the funds.
Decentralization is about the shifting of assignments and responsibilities and comfortably ensconced within this realignment of tasks and authority are boundless opportunities to be harnessed. Let me mention only two:
The Promise of Good Governance: decentralization helps to clean up government, improve services and improve local administration; it makes local governments more participatory, more accountable, and, consequently, more effective.
The Expansion of Political Space: decentralization can bring government closer to the people and can become a means to empower citizens locally. That is, beyond simply devolving administration or management of service delivery to sub national units, decentralization can also lead to the creation of sustainable democratic processes that guarantee popular participation in local governance through town meetings, public hearings on major issues, participatory planning and budgeting, and opinion surveys.
But these opportunities can only be exploited only when the necessary conditions for creating more transparent, accountable, responsive and effective local governments are in place. That is:
An appropriate legal and regulatory framework, especially one that supports market-oriented municipal finance
Allows access to private sector borrowing facilities becomes necessary when public sector resources are insufficient to meet all infrastructure investment needs;
A strong civil society, and increased opportunities for participation in the governance process, and
Local governments with the capacity to manage, finance and deliver services. At the end of the day, what matters most is that the Buea local government is able to deliver services to its residents and that citizens of this town have recourse through democratic means should their local government be unwilling or unable to deliver those services.
These crucial basics respond to both the supply of and demand requirements for good governance. If by the year 2060 the Buea municipal government is in a position to improve the delivery of key services (e.g., education, community health care, potable water), the tangible benefits that result can demonstrate the value of decentralized democratic governance.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have rambled on for much too long and your patience is beginning to wear thin even though you are much too polite to say so. Let me now mercifully bring this to a close by offering this thought: when the population of Buea gathers in the year 2060 to celebrate three centuries of their city’s existence, many of us assembled in this room today will not be alive to behold that momentous event. But a few of you here would and it is to you then that I wish to extend a happy birthday in advance! I extend my heartfelt thanks to Mayor Moki mo’Mbella whose gracious invitation accounts for my presence here today; Sir, I hope it was all worth the trouble. To you, our municipal magistrates and distinguished guests, I say thank you for listening. Moderators, this concludes my presentation!