EDITORIAL: Decentralization and service delivery in African cities!

Jan 13, 2021, 10:06 AM

Sub-Saharan Africa is currently the fastest urbanizing region of the world; by 2030, a majority of Africans will be living in urban areas.

As a result, providing adequate services in urban areas - such as sanitation, potable water, sustainable housing and electricity - is an increasingly important priority for African governments.

Yet, due to the embracing of decentralization policies in Africa, a trend that has been enthusiastically supported by the international donor community, responsibility for providing these services has often been transferred to sub-national authorities. Where a situation of vertically divided government prevails - meaning that an opposition party is in control at the sub-national level - fulfilling these responsibilities can become more complex.

Today, vertically divided authority is a growing trend within the region, and a number of important African cities, ranging from Cape Town to Lagos to Nairobi, currently are in the hands of the opposition.

UNU-WIDER’s Decentralization and Urban Service Delivery in African Cities project examines the impact of politics on decentralization and urban service delivery by focusing on four countries: Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda. In all four countries, recent fieldwork was conducted with local government officials, decentralization ministries, civil society organizations and the donor community.

These four countries were chosen for a number of reasons. Among the reasons is that major decentralization reforms were implemented in each country during the mid-1990s, and all four are considered to be among Africa’s most decentralized countries.

Third, there are key differences among them that can be leveraged to uncover when and why vertically divided authority is most problematic for service delivery. For instance, South Africa is a quasi-federal country with its decentralization laws clearly enshrined in its constitution.  Moreover, inter-governmental transfers play a much larger role in Uganda and Kenya, while urban areas rely much more on their own tax revenues in Senegal and South Africa.

Finally, while Senegal and Uganda have highly personalistic party regimes, South Africa possesses the most institutionalized party system, with Kenya occupying an interim position.

Findings show that vertically divided authority augments the trade-offs between autonomy and accountability that are inherent in the decentralization process, with attendant impacts on service provision. Under circumstances of vertically divided authority, service delivery performance may provide one party an advantage, or disadvantage, among voters in subsequent elections.

As such, both central and local government actors will opt for a decentralization process that maximizes their autonomy, but they will prefer to be held accountable only when service delivery outcomes are favourable.

The central government will, therefore, have a preference for employing “strategies of subversion”, or tactics to purposely reduce the autonomy of local government under conditions where the latter may be held accountable for good service delivery and increase autonomy when local government can be targeted for poor performance.

A Guest Editorial

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