When you decentralize, democratize


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At least 60 countries have recently decentralized some aspects of how they manage their natural resources, with mixed results. One can certainly point to examples where the reforms have permitted disadvantaged groups to have more input into decisions about forests, provided more revenue to local governments, and improved the way people manage their forests. But you can also find a lot of examples of the opposite.

The failures have led some people to say that governments have decentralized too much. But Jesse Ribot from the World Resources Institute says most of the failures are because governments have not decentralized enough. In "Democratic Decentralization of Natural Resources, Institutionalizing Popular Participation" he argues that for decentralization to deliver on its promises local governments have to be truly democratic and have to have real power over major decisions. Moreover, central governments cannot be allowed to arbitrarily take away those powers whenever they feel like it. Not only that, for decentralization to really work, you have to give it time.

Ribot draws those conclusions based on detailed case studies from fifteen countries – Bolivia, Brazil, Cameroon, China, India, Indonesia, Mali, Mexico, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Senegal, South Africa, Thailand, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. In many of these countries, central government agencies have given confusing and contradictory signals about local governments’ rights and responsibilities. They tend to hand over burdensome tasks and low value resources, but keep the attractive activities and resources for themselves. They often complain that local governments don’t know how to manage their resources but don’t explain exactly what local governments need to learn or help them to do it.

Local governments are no angels either. Many don’t really represent their local constituencies, and a lot are inclined to over-exploit their natural resources and to mistreat certain segments of their populations – and more democracy alone won’t necessarily make that better.

To solve those problems, Ribot says you need a clear system of checks and balances. Central governments should establish a small set of minimal environmental standards that local governments must meet. They ought to ensure the rule of law, the democratic process, fiscal transparency and the rights of individual citizens, women, and minorities. It would also be good if they provided training and information. Local governments should be able to manage and benefit from their natural resources within that larger framework. This is the only practical way to institutionalize truly democratic decision-making about natural resources on a large scale and over a long period of time.

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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of this paper in a pdf file or send queries or comments to the author, you can write Jesse Ribot at: mailto:JESSER@wri.org

You can order a printed hard copy, for a price, from the WRI web-site at: http://www.wristore.com/demdecofnatr.html