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In the last twenty years or so political decentralization has become an integral component of the ruling paradigm of democratic governance reform in developing countries. In some countries domestic pressures for democratization and regional autonomy have constituted an imperative for central governments to promote political decentralization. In others the desire to emulate the devolutionary policies of neighbors and friends has also provided impetus for decentralization . But whatever the reason for decentralization, it appears that in all cases reformist governments have received strong support from Western donor countries and international financial institutions. Prominent among the reasons for this support appear to be, first, that many Western donors have a strong ideological preference for government legitimacy that arises from a universal franchise, free and fair elections, and political pluralism . Second, it is also widely believed by the development community and many scholars that forms of government that are highly participatory and involve downward accountability are generally best at delivering needed services to citizens efficiently and effectively.1 However, the empirical reality of developing countries has demonstrated that political decentralization often fails to deliver in practice the benefits it promises in theory. On the other hand, the developmental potential of administrative decentralization through deconcentrated forms of governance tends to be overlooked by Western donors and international finance institutions, primarily because Decentralization, Deconcentration, and Poverty Reduction in the Asia Pacific peter blunt and mark turner 7 115 10491-07_Ch07.qxd 5/3/07 2:53 PM Page 115 deconcentrated forms of governance rely on upward accountability and, in theory , are therefore less amenable to popular influence and less capable of delivering needed services efficiently and effectively. If it were possible to compare empirically the effects on poverty reduction, and value for money, of political decentralization versus deconcentration the likelihood is that circumstances rather than ideology would determine the relative merits of each case. It seems, however, that in too many instances the faith that donors invest in political decentralization diverts attention from more pragmatic calculations concerning the effects of political decentralization and deconcentration on poverty reduction. To this extent, and despite the rhetorical claims of donors to be interested first and foremost in poverty reduction, it (poverty reduction) frequently falls victim to what in practice turns out to be an overriding ideological preference for certain forms of democratic governance. The tension between these twin aims—of poverty reduction and the institutionalization of democratic forms of governance—is clearly exposed in the experience with political decentralization and deconcentration in postconflict, or so-called fragile, states such as Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Timor-Leste. But this tension is not confined to postconflict states and is even evident in supposedly successful decentralization experiments. The authors argue that if poverty reduction rather than participatory democracy were the overriding concern of leading donors then much more development financing would be directed at improving and promoting systems of deconcentration than is currently the case. Other possible explanations are also considered for the way in which governance reform (including decentralization and deconcentration) in developing countries evolves. This is reflected in what could be termed local-level politics and sociology of development practice. The “formal goals” of the rich, mainly Western donor countries may not be congruent with their “operating goals,” the ones that tell us what the organization is actually trying to do.2 One aspect of this is the character of governance reform in developing countries: Decisions are often left to local, midlevel donor officials (whom this chapter refers to as “donorcrats”), their agents (hired consultants), and a host of government officials . The widely varying capabilities, attitudes, and political interactions of such officials and consultants within and between countries help to explain the seemingly haphazard non-evidence-based and technically weak governance reform that takes place. Decentralization and Deconcentration Decentralization in its various manifestations has a long and unbroken history of being regarded as “a necessary condition for economic, social and political development.”3 For example, in the early 1960s the United Nations’ Handbook 116 peter blunt & mark turner 10491-07_Ch07.qxd 5/3/07 2:53 PM Page 116 of Public Administration declared decentralization’s “special importance” for generating “increased understanding, co-operation and participation in the new national programmes of social and economic development.”4 But it is political, invariably democratic decentralization rather than administrative decentralization that has attracted the most attention and support. The optimistic case for democratic decentralization dates back to John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century and rests on the twin pillars of participation and local...


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