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Reviewed by:
  • Democratic Decentralisation through a Natural Resources Lens
  • Kyla Tienhaara
Ribot, Jesse C., and Anne M. Larson , eds. 2005. Democratic Decentralisation through a Natural Resources Lens. London: Routledge.

Decentralization, which involves the transfer of power from central government to lower tiers in a political-administrative and territorial hierarchy, is occurring in one form or another in the vast majority of developing countries. Initially touted as a miracle drug to reform inefficient and corrupt political systems, decentralization has been fraught with difficulties in practice. Democratic Decentralisation through a Natural Resource Lens sheds light on the experiences of developing countries with decentralization in the management of natural resources. [End Page 128] It addresses issues of implementation, and also questions some of the basic tenets of decentralization theory.

The editors differentiate between two main forms of decentralization. Political or democratic decentralization "integrates local populations into decision-making through better representation by creating and empowering representative local governments" (p.3). On the other hand, administrative decentralization involves "transfers of power to local administrative bodies" to help ministries "read the preferences of local populations and to better mobilise local resources and labour" (p.3). The title of the book may suggest that attention is focused exclusively on the democratic form of decentralisation, but in fact many of the contributions describe "partial, blocked and hybrid decentralisations" (p.5) as opposed to truly democratic ones. In the view of Ribot and Larson, democratic decentralization is the stronger, and theoretically more effective, form; they concede, however, that real world examples of its application to natural resource management are scarce.

Although the volume focuses on what is essentially a phenomenon at the national level, it has broader connections to, and implications for, global politics. It is often international organizations, such as the World Bank, that push for decentralization in the resource sectors of developing countries, as several authors in the volume point out. Moreover, Meynen and Doornbos argue in the final chapter that if decentralization of natural resource management is to stand any chance of success in developing countries, it is necessary both that there are well-organized and effective local bodies and civil society groups, and that there is an enabling environment at the global level. Perhaps as acknowledgment of this need, decentralization is increasingly a topic of discussion in global environmental policy forums. Only last year, for example, The Interlaken Workshop on Decentralization in Forestry was held as a country-led initiative in support of the United Nations Forum on Forests.

Decentralization is a particularly pressing topic in forestry and this volume reflects that, with five of the ten case studies focusing almost exclusively on forest management. Other chapters cover water, pasture, and land management. While the book deals solely with decentralization in developing countries, the geographic scope remains broad, with case studies from Africa (Cameroon and South Africa), Asia (Indonesia, Mongolia, China and India), and Latin America (Nicaragua, Brazil and Bolivia). The editors create a framework for the case studies which requires each author to focus on 1) the extent to which central governments have given authority over natural resources to local governments or other sub-national entities, 2) the relations between these local entities and the population, and 3) the effects of these processes on local peoples and natural resources. The opening and closing chapters provide discussion on theory, while one further chapter looks at one method for decentralizing power through local committees that assist implementation (so-called "user committees").

The conclusions of the authors are largely pessimistic. They observe that [End Page 129] the process of decentralization can face many obstacles and that outcomes are highly varied. They also find that the promises of enfranchisement and popular participation found in decentralization discourses rarely materialize in practice. Instead of facilitating downward accountability, which is the "substantive essence of democracy" and "the mechanism by which decentralizations are supposed to secure participation" (p.6), central governments tend to transfer power to upwardly accountable institutions in order to maintain central control over natural resources. The editors infer that the "failure" of decentralizations to work as theories suggest they should is a result of both improper implementation and the influence of external factors (local capacities, incentive structures, ideologies...