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  • Local Governance in Africa: the Challenges of Democratic Decentralization
  • Richard Peck
Olowu, Dele, and James S. Wunsch . 2004. Local Governance in Africa: the Challenges of Democratic Decentralization. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers. 310 pp. $58.00.

This book offers a refreshing change from analyses of contemporary Africa so full of the many maladies afflicting the continent. The author-editors and their contributors find ground for cautious optimism in a revival of democratic local politics. The success of democratic local governance is by no means guaranteed, of course (an early historical chapter sets out many earlier failures); however, they argue that with more recent approaches, it can be created, and even in some unlikely national settings. They provide a hardheaded examination of this topic, with only an occasional creation of the glazing over of eyes so often caused by, say, discussions of municipal services and rates and other details, which they admit can sometimes seem overly technical. For the most part, they avoid inappropriate social scientific pretensions poorly justified by the nature of their evidence. The result is a book of considerable interest, and one much more optimistic than much we read of Africa today. [End Page 138]

Even when national governments, often under pressure from external donors, profess an interest in decentralization, the problems of arriving at an arrangement that gives true local control and accountability are daunting. The authors encapsulate in a "model" four factors to be assessed to get a sense of how likely success may be:

  • • The availability of local resources

  • • Possibilities for local autonomy and authority

  • • Open and public political processes at the local level to allow accountability

  • • Effective local institutions of collective choice

The theoretical discussion leading to these factors is well-informed, drawing on relevant theorizing and a sophisticated knowledge of local conditions and history. We are given an excellent general discussion of those factors throughout Africa, and then an application of them (and others) to seven cases. Several of the cases are considerably limited in scope, whether in geographic coverage, in the topic they cover, or in the dates from which their data are drawn. With parenthetical indications of such limitations, the cases are: South Africa (Nelspruit in Mpumalanga province, using data from 1996), Botswana, Nigeria (healthcare, with data from the early 1990s), Ghana, Chad (education, with data from 1992 to 1998), Uganda (drawing on data from 1994), and Kenya. The author-editors themselves draw on their own previous studies for most of the cases, but Joseph Aye does an able job on the excessively top-down decentralization in Ghana, Simon M. Fass and Gerrit M. Deslovere provide a fascinating examination of the surprisingly successful local governance for education in Chad when the central government was in a state of near-total collapse in the early 1990s, Dan Ottemoeller joins James S.Wunsch on discussing the several levels of local government in Uganda, and Paul Smoke tells the sad story of missed and undermined opportunities in Kenya, but still finds room for optimism in recent initiatives. A summarizing chapter attempts to draw general lessons. Undesirably much of that chapter is given to summarizing the case studies and drawing lessons explicit in earlier chapters, but the result is a chapter that can be read by itself to get a reasonably strong sense of the book as a whole.

Much of the decentralization that African governments have undertaken is a decentralized administration of policies made at the center, with little reflection of local needs or desires and little accountability to the local level. But when the local desire for public goods is strong, and when the factors the authors indicate for us are right, the result can be a form of governance at the local level much more responsive to local needs than usual. The authors argue persuasively that more attention needs to be given to the local levels of government in Africa.

Much in the book is fascinating reading, with only a small quotient of glazed-over eyes and social scientific pretension. I look forward to sharing [End Page 139] some of this analysis with my undergraduate students. Scholars of African politics will find it valuable for their own understanding. This book is...


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pp. 138-140
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