what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The politics of reform

I’ve had sadly little feedback on my paper on Chinese Administrative Reform (although I do get an occasional “hit” on my blog from there). But one friend gave me a great two page commentary on it which made, amongst other points, the following interesting comments –
• it’s difficult to absorb in one paper so much stuff both about how the Chinese public services seem to work and the reform efforts of Western European countries in the past few deadaes. Make it two separate papers!
• Although its apparent focus is China, it can be read with benefit by all public admin people (which would perhaps argue for keeping its ambitious focus on both China and the Western experience?)
• It draws (like almost all public admin literature) too much on anglo-saxon experience. What about India, South America, Indonesia for example??

I very much agree with the last point – and have indeed myself complained about the bias of so much of the material. Spanish-speaking academics are in a better position to help us understand interesting developments in the past decade in the various countries of Latin America – and indeed a bit of a search can unearth relevant material in English about that continent’s experience. For example, a recent 200 page book (which can be completely downloaded) on the various global efforts to make countries more democratic contains three chapters on Latin American experience. The book also has a chapter on the recent decentralisation in India; on Indonesia; and Lebanon. And a useful overview by Philippe Schmitter (whose 2004 paper for the Council of Europe on the democratic deficit in European countries I had missed)
But a 2001 paper by Patrick Heller on the politics of decentralisation in Kerala, South Africa and Porto Alegre is much more focussed on these issues. The purpose of Heller’s article is to - The paper rightly emphasises that effective reform of state organisations is political – and comes from external pressure (not from within). For examples, strong local government has historically come from working class pressure but this does not necessarily lead to social change and justice -
especially in an era when globalization has weakened the ability of nation-states to deploy the regulatory and redistributive instruments through which European states evened social opportunities and incomes in the mid 20th century.
Equity-enhancing reforms in both South Africa and Brazil have, for example, been frustrated. And even in Kerala, where working-class mobilization has a longer history and has wielded significant redistributive results, disappointing economic growth, the pressures of liberalization, and the declining service efficiency of the state have all combined to threaten earlier gains in social development.
This leads us to the second problematic of democratization, namely the institutional character of democratic states. Even where formal democracy has been consolidated, the question arises as to just how responsive these democracies are. Developing states have become politically answerable through periodic elections, but have the bureaucratic institutions they inherited from authoritarian or colonial rule become more open to participation by subordinate groups? Have they really changed their modes of governance, the social partners they engage with and the developmental goals they prioritize? Is the reach and robustness of public legality sufficient to guarantee the uniform application of rights of citizenship?
Decentralization in the developing world, especially when driven by international development agencies, has more often than not been associated with the rolling back of the state, the extension of bureaucratic control, and the marketization of social services.
Because such a project is tantamount to fundamentally transforming the exercise of state power, it requires an exceptional, and in most of the developing world improbable, set of political and institutional opportunities.
In South Africa, the Indian state ofKerala, and the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, new political configurations and underlying social conditions have converged to create just such a set of opportunities.
Most visibly, left-of-centre political parties that were born of popular struggles have come to power and inherited significant transformative capacities. The ascendancy of the African National Congress (ANC), the Communist Party of India–Marxist (CPM), and the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) have all been associated with the formulation of clear and cohesive transformative projects in which the democratization of local government was given pride of place. Although the parties in question have captured power at different levels of the state—the national, provincial, and municipal, respectively—they have all enjoyed, and indeed used, their authoritative powers to initiate fundamental reforms in the character of local government.
If a committed political agent is a necessary ingredient for administrative and fiscal devolution, the democratic empowerment of local government is critically dependent on the dynamics and capacities of local actors. Again, the cases examined here are quite exceptional. All three boast a rich and dense tapestry of grassroots democratic organizations—the historical legacy of prolonged mass-based prodemocracy movements—capable of mobilizing constituencies traditionally excluded from policy-making arenas, and dislodging traditional clientalistic networks.

But the building of local democratic governmentrequires not only that a favorable political alignment be maintained but that a delicate andworkable balance between the requirements of institution building and grassroots participation be struck.
Subtle differences in political configurations and relational dynamics can thus produce divergent trajectories.
In the cases of Kerala and Porto Alegre, initial reforms that increased the scope of local participation have been sustained, and have seen a dramatic strengthening of local democratic institutions and planning capacity.
In contrast, in South Africa a negotiated democratic transition that has been rightfully celebrated as one of the most inclusive of its kind, and foundational constitutional and programmatic commitments to building “democratic developmental local government” have given way to concerted political centralization, the expansion of technocratic and managerial authority, and a shift from democratic to market modes of accountability.
If democratic decentralization in Kerala and Porto Alegre has been conceived as a means of resurrecting socially transformative planning in an era of liberalization, local government in South Africa has become the frontline in the marketization of public authority. Given the similarity of favorable preconditions—capable states and democratically mobilized societies—we are confronted with an intriguing divergence in outcomes.
Finally, a nice fable from the Real Economics blog.
explore the conditions under which a distinctly democratic variant of decentralization—defined by an increase in the scope and depth of subordinate group participation in authoritative resource allocation—can be initiated and sustained.
Across the political spectrum, the disenchantment with centralized and bureaucratic states has made the call for decentralization an article of faith. Strengthening and empowering local government has been justified not only on the grounds of making government more efficient but also on the grounds of increasing accountability and participation. But to govern is to exercise power, and there are no a priori reasons why more localized forms of governance are more democratic.
Indeed, the history of colonial rule was largely a history of decentralized authority in which order was secured and revenues extracted through local despots.

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