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Decentralisation – A Condition, Process or Mystery?

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Decentralisation is a term that has been flung around governance circles so frequently that the last thing you would expect to find is an almost-packed Makerere University Main Hall in the midst the busy season of tests. On 4th November 2014, the University Forum on Governance (UNIFOG) in partnership with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) organized a panel discussion on Seventeen Years of Decentralisation: Opportunities, Challenges and Outlook for Uganda and at the close of the day, the audience left with a greater sense of appreciation of what they thought they knew but actually knew not.

Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s interest in decentralisation in Uganda stems from our own political background where Germany’s decentralised system of governance was established in 1949 by the Allied Forces after World War II. Nevertheless Federalism has turned out to be the most valuable assets to Germany for on the good side it has increased accountability but on the negative side, slowed down legislation” said Ms. Maike Messerschmidt, KAS’ Programme Officer for Uganda and South Sudan in her introductory remarks.  

KAS’ activities in Uganda are focused on strengthening the multiparty democratic system through the promotion of good governance and leadership. Ms. Messerschmidt noted that decentralisation as a process of redistributing power from the centre plays a crucial role in the development of any country and hoped that the day’s panel discussion would greatly contribute to the ongoing debate on the same.

Ms. Rose Gertrude Gamwera-ULGA Secretary General presented on the practice of Decentralisation, 4thNov2014, Makerere, Kampala UgandaAny system that aspires to have nationwide impact ought to be supported in its operations by a cohesive force of both volunteers and societal leaders at all levels. As such, the Uganda Local Governments’ Association (ULGA) was established in 1994 as the National Association of Local Governments of Uganda; a private non-profit body. To review Uganda’s decentralisation framework as well as share challenges and opportunities the structures present, UNIFOG invited ULGA Secretary General Ms. Rose Gertrude Gamwera, whose presentation painted a vivid picture of the actual situation on the ground.

“Good afternoon Councilors” she greeted, with the audience reluctant to respond, thinking that maybe she was addressing the wrong forum. They would however soon learn that everyone above eighteen years is a Local Government Councilor and that the Village Council is the primary platform to promote citizen participation in democratic control and decision making, “you can see that you have already been given the opportunity at village level 1. It is time for you to take the reins and utilize that platform,” challenged Ms. Gamwera. She nevertheless noted that Decentralisation had empowered Local governments to build economic bases so as to become financially independent, “These structures have been empowered to come up with their own budgets, generate and collect more revenue and in addition to that, they receive a stipend through Central government transfers to run services, although I hasten to add that we are becoming more dependent on that.” Ms. Gamwera also noted that Local Government structures open up room for employment and provide an avenue for Government to conduct its oversight function on national programmes.   

Decentralisation has however encountered its fair share of challenges, the biggest arising from the creation of new districts. “This resulted in increased Administrative costs and some local governments could just not be operationalised,” shared Ms. Gamwera. She also cited failure to effectively conduct elections due to high expenses associated with the process, low caliber of political leaders due to the absence of a minimum qualification limit, conflicts arising from different multiparty dispensations, and poor remuneration as challenges that continued to dog decentralisation. She however noted that Uganda’s decentralisation drive was progressing well despite these challenges “as long as we are committed, decisive and there is good will on the part of policy makers, decision makers and implementers, we can make it” she resolved.

Assoc. Prof. Yasin Olum-CHUSS provided the academic background at the UNIFOG-KAS discussion, 4thNov2014, Makerere University, Kampala UgandaWith the audience now fully aware of what was on the ground, Dr. Yasin Olum, an Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Administration, CHUSS presented the academic side with the aim of providing possible policy options to improve the decentralisation system. Starting off with the concept and theory of decentralisation, Dr. Olum questioned “Is it a condition or a process? There are those that see it as a process and others as a condition, which presents us with an area for debate” said Dr. Olum. Touching on the forms of decentralisation, he also pondered which one was most suitable for Uganda, “is it De-concentration, Devolution, Delegation or even a fourth which is subject to contest-Privatization”

Dr. Olum further expounded on the three theories of decentralisation as; Liberal, Public Choice-the views of economists on decentralized state and Marxist-the analysis of the state at the local level. “From my assessment, Uganda seems to be unconsciously implementing decentralisation by applying either the liberal and partly the public choice and not the Marxist” he noted. He however suggested that the Marxist theory be used to understand and propose an alternative to Uganda’s decentralisation because the practices as shared by ULGA necessitated that decentralisation be located in a much wider economic and political setting in which Local Governments are situated.

Examining the methodological issues of understanding decentralisation, Dr. Olum noted that the terms centralization and decentralisation had left nation like Uganda that practices a mix of both with no middle term to describe the present situation. He further noted that the absence of indices to measure the efficacy of certain practices presented a challenge. “How do you measure decentralized power? There is a tendency to compare two different countries simply because they are implementing decentralisation or indeed comparing one country based on a single time period as if these different eras at the time of comparison are the same. I think we need to be a little bit careful” he advised. He also noted a problem of differential deficiencies-the difficulty in differentiating the degrees of decentralisation within a single country at a given time. “Are the districts being compared the same in terms of resources or geographical size?” he pondered in a bid to further clarify his point.

Dr. Simba Kayunga Ssali gave the Discussion a historical perspective, 4thNov2014, Makerere University, Kampala UgandaIn an analysis of the conditions for successful implementation of decentralisation, Dr. Olum asked participants to ponder whether the spaces created for citizen participation were actual or pseudo and furthermore reflect upon whether there was political and civil will for decentralisation at the various levels. “Do leaders have the commitment to participate simply because you have established the structures or would they rather engage in their own activities and not go to this forum?” asked Dr. Olum. He further warned all stakeholders not to “romanticize decentralisation as if it was the best thing that ever happened.” With regard to proposing possible policy option, Dr. Olum agitated for the political-economy approach that guaranteed a clear understanding of the local, national and international terrains in which decentralisation is supposed to operate.

He called for an examination of the ecological surroundings that addresses inequalities in urban and rural areas to enhance the construction of local democratic states. “We should also look at the political constraints that may affect the process of governance. We are in the era of corporatization and so we have to be very careful if we are to talk about decentralisation in a climate where the country is emphasizing marketization and corporatization.” He stressed the need to conduct empirical research on decentralisation of power with a view of unearthing whether it has led to a change in the behavior of actors rather than the formal organisational relationships. “We need to ask; has decentralisation made people better, has it changed their behavior or are they still living as the centralized?” pondered Dr. Olum.

The historical perspective of any matter always provides valuable input into any debate. Contributing to the discussion, Dr. Simba Kayunga Ssali, Lecturer-Department of Political Science, CHUSS noted that “When you look at the history of centre-local government relations, an interesting phase could be traced to the early 1940s when the British Government started the so-called indirect rule. Any good student of Uganda’s centre-local government relations will note that Uganda was operating a very detailed decentralized system of government between 1955 and 1965.” Dr. Simba decried the lack of willingness by the current policy makers and implementers to examine the challenges faced by decentralisation then so as to better implement it today.

Dr. Sarah Ssali-WGS, CHUSS evaluated the progresses and regresses of decentralisation, 4th Nov 2014, Makerere University, Kampala UgandaHe supported Dr. Olum’s proposal to use the Marxist theory to better evaluate the notion that the cause of underdevelopment is over-centralization Dr. Simba noted that “Decentralisation understood the causes of underdevelopment from an organisational perspective; that we were underdeveloped because of our internal crises, hence excluding the global factors which have led us into poverty” he said, further adding “And as long as we carry on with a development paradigm which excludes our global connections, that paradigm cannot lead us into economic transformation.” Dr. Simba however took difference to the earlier suggestion that low levels of education were a hindrance to effective service delivery. Quoting from the 17th Century French revolution, Dr. Simba observed that “’There is no correlation between high attainance of education and sensitivity to people’s needs.’ The fact that you are more educated does not mean that you are more sensitive to the needs of the people” summed up Dr. Simba.

The notion of decentralisation as an answer to underdevelopment once again resurfaced in the panel discussion when Dr. Sarah Ssali, Senior Lecturer-Department of Women and Gender Studies, CHUSS took to the podium. “Were the donors thinking the same thing when they pushed decentralisation as a conditionality for aid and as a way of reducing the powers of the state to impact on the local level?” she pondered. She also wondered whether the politicians and donors were posing these questions from the same source of inspiration and whether the eventual beneficiary community did not just see it as another opportunity to secure jobs for their children. “My considered opinion is that we are talking about different things although they are all thoughts about decentralisation as a system of governance” she added.

Evaluating the progresses and regresses as a result of decentralisation, Dr. Ssali noted that “All those who have looked at service sectors of health and education have come up with simple before and after study reports and no one is wondering where funding to put up these buildings is coming from! If you can find a building that has been put up by the district I think you will be very lucky” she challenged. She observed that most of the infrastructure had been developed as a result of conditional grants from government or partnerships with other donors. Still in line with finance and revenue, Dr. Ssali noted that “85% of district revenues come from the centre in form of conditional grants and no district; apart from Kampala can raise more than 5% of its revenue, implying that they are all dependent on the centre.” She therefore wondered whether we were talking about actual decentralisation as a country.

Dr. Umar Kakumba-CoBAMS (L) contributed to the decentralisation debate, 4th Nov 2014, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda

She also called for an evaluation of the distinct gap in knowledge and skills between the highly-educated technocrats who run the districts and lower qualified leaders who constitute the councils “And so you are promoting the elite capture from the urban to the rural areas. But elite capture is not just about educated people because we have the rural elite who are likely to secure the position by virtue of their family status. Will these then relate with people for purposes of self aggrandizement or will they work for public good?” she wondered out loud. She noted that this could lead to a perpetual source of disappointment between councilors and their electorate. In conclusion she noted that whereas decentralisation had created an opportunity for several players other than that state to contribute to political debate, it had also provided a way for donors to directly access the people thereby leading to a question of who actually owned and run the process.

Mr. Maurice Mugisha-Nation Media Group(NMG) moderated the decentralisation debate, 4th Nov 2014, Makerere, Kampala UgandaThe day’s moderator Mr. Maurice Mugisha-Nation Media Group (NMG) then opened up the debate to members of the audience. Contributors then raised issues ranging from; structures without actual power at decentralized levels, the high cost of public administration especially at newly created districts, political differences interfering service delivery due to lack of consensus, the absence of sound revenue bases implying that districts implemented very little of planned projects, all the way to lack of substantively appointed officials at the District level. In the responses that followed, Ms. Gamwera noted that ULGA and the government are coming up with statutory instruments to complement the Local Government framework and help implement devolution of power and capacity building for Local Government leaders. She also noted that interviews were ongoing to recruit Chief Administrative Officers to fill the vacant positions at Districts. Dr. Sarah Ssali noted that decentralisation had empowered people to demand for accountability despite the fact that their power to implement is hampered by delayed transfer of resources from the centre and lack of capacity to raise their own revenue.

With regard to the evaluating the level of decentralisation of power, Dr. Yasin Olum advised assessors to examine the extent of either De-concentration, Devolution or Delegation of power in the Financial, Political and Personnel aspects of governance. He urged participants not to look at either centralization or decentralisation as the cause of underdevelopment but rather consider other global factors. Regarding the complexities presented by multi-ethnic