Introduction: Decentralization on the Agenda
One of the major features of democracies is the extent to which the state is decentralized. With the advent of democratic transformations in the Arab world, decentralization already is or will soon be on the reform agenda. Decentralization is desired for two reasons: one, it enhances democracy, and participation in managing local affairs; two, it consequently leads to better developmental outcomes. The assumption here is that delegating authority to lower echelons of authorities will make service provision more effective, as it will be more responsive to the actual needs of the beneficiaries, while political representation will also be enhanced through better participatory practices. Moreover, decentralization is believed to increase representation for religious and ethnic minorities, and to empower local communities. An additional claimed advantage is that decentralization encourages flexibility, creativeness, and innovation. Local governance is also believed to hold local politicians responsible, and thus to increase direct accountability.
In the context of the Arab world, decentralization was partially put in place by colonial authorities to control the power of strong local leaderships. After the establishment of independent nation-states, governments favored social welfare policies to gain support and legitimacy, often privileging authoritarian rule. During the 1980s and 1990s, socio-economic challenges made these policy choices more difficult to sustain. Progressively, structural adjustment policies and neoliberal reforms drastically altered the sociopolitical system in place in favor of the governing authorities and their associated elites, at the expenses of the low and middle-income categories. Poverty levels increased drastically. Governments in the Arab region continued advocating decentralization, often under the auspices of foreign donors, but very little effective decentralization of authority was being implemented. Deconcentration was the actual dominant practice, which namely served to strengthen the central government’s domination. This led to a major crisis of accountability between different levels of governments as well as vis-à-vis citizens. Simultaneously, on the ground, local governments increasingly gained strength. The Arab uprisings demonstrate this growing significance of the local and territorial scale of politics.
In 2013, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) led a research project funded by the Open Society Foundation on decentralization, democratization, and the role of regional administrations for better service delivery in the Arab world. The framework used to study decentralization and service delivery in the Arab world is structured along three components: i) the making and the politics of decentralization, ii) the legislation and practice of service delivery, and iii) the fiscal structures of decentralization. In all three components, we seek to understand the legal framework guiding the studied issue, and its evolution over time, and its actual practice. One of the objectives is to identify and qualify the gaps and hurdles that impede the implementation of a more decentralized and democratic system of governance, but also to study carefully how these gaps are being navigated, circumvented, and regulated. The project aimed to lay the ground for sharing decentralization and service delivery experiences in five Arab countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen. Five crosscutting themes emerged from the case studies and are presented below.
Colonial Legacies Determine Decentralization Policies
The first theme observes how colonial legacies and regional histories determine contemporary decentralization policies and discourses. The analysis of the political history of each country`s case reveals that interactions and hierarchies between groups living in regions of the Arab world prior to colonial rule were very much regulated according to a decentralized architecture of power. Colonial regimes deeply reconfigured these relationships via the drawing of new territorial and administrative boundaries that cut across regions and hinterlands. They used the technical and administrative dimensions of decentralization to justify their reforms and to control territories and opposition groups. The aim was to have a firm grip on the newly formed nation-state’s territories, applying the classic “divide to rule” adage. With the establishment of independent nation-states, this approach was further consolidated, using the narrative of the need to build a strong modern state. Deconcentration reforms continued with the same objective of extending the eyes and ears of the central state to localities. However, municipal elections started to be held, and democratic representation began to emerge at the local scale.
This colonial legacy of decentralization is not the same across Arab states. While in Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan, the building of post-colonial nation-states used centralization to consolidate state power, in Yemen, decentralization was preferred as a tool to balance the power of regions. In either case, centralization and decentralization narratives were used to consolidate the interests of the ruling elites and their networks. These narratives were often accompanied by a modernization rhetoric that praises the values of the strong state needing to control service delivery and secure its authority over the national territory, against enemies’ threats of secession. In Jordan, the King advocates decentralization to secure further the power of original Jordanian families, create jobs and maintain social peace, while controlling the emergence of Islamist groups within municipalities. In Lebanon, municipalities are also taken up by sectarian ruling powers to further their control over territories and access economic development rents, as well as distribute services to their clientele.
The social and territorial organizational system of Tunisian tribes provided services to constituencies according to a decentralization hierarchy that was replaced under colonial rule with a new administrative geography aiming to control their power. The independent Tunisian nation-state further consolidated this territorial subdivision and positioned its representatives to supervise regions and localities and administer service delivery. In Morocco, the deconcentration of state services similarly serves to place "eyes on the street" of the most remote tribal regions, via an extensive administrative system. This ambivalent system that both centralizes and decentralizes authority illustrates well the policy tensions and contradictions that characterize decentralization issues in Morocco, and oppose the monarchy to nationalist parties. This duality is also found in how the state sometimes opts certain cities and regions out of the rest of the decentralization architecture, depending on their strategic stake.
Central Governments Support and Subvert Decentralization Policies
The second theme investigates how the state advocates but also subverts decentralization reforms. National actors in Arab countries understood the importance of promoting decentralization as a reform tool, because this was what international donors desired. Many public officials were wary of relinquishing power and resources and paid lip service to decentralization. This meant both a push towards adopting decentralization policies and simultaneously finding ways to circumvent their full implementation. Such dual positioning often leads to paradoxical situations where governments issue decentralization policies that are halted by other policies, often fiscal, that restrict their applicability. The findings show that international donors are indirectly contributing to the increased centralization of state power and services, not to mention furthering corruption and inefficiency.
Yemen is a case in point where decentralization is strongly encouraged by the central state in terms of policy-making, and thanks to extensive donors’ aid, leading to relatively effective deconcentration of technical and administrative services. However, when it comes to political decentralization, legal, fiscal, and territorial tools are used to restrict the effective empowerment of local authorities. In Morocco, the monarchy exercises stringent controls over elected local authorities via fiscal and administrative mechanisms. In addition, it uses international aid dedicated to decentralization to strengthen central state services and appointed regional authorities that supervise locally elected governments, at the expense of their empowerment. The Lebanese Ministry of Interior is another example, as it uses multiple sources of funds to study decentralization reforms, train its employees and establish in-house service structures—ultimately consolidating its own constituencies and networks at the expense of enhancing local and regional governance. A major tool the central state uses to backstop the works of local and regional governments is fiscal control. Indeed, it can provide municipalities with many prerogatives on paper, but can impede their ability to operate and execute by withholding payments, like in Lebanon, or requesting additional fiscal contributions for unexpected expenses, like in Tunisia. It can also, illegally, operate unequal payments, favoring its partners and challenging its enemies.
In most studied cases, regional governments are not elected and operate as deconcentrated authorities representing the central state. However, since the Arab uprisings, debates about regionalism are gaining ground as possible means to tame opposition forces, as exemplified in Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, and Lebanon.
Decentralized Services Need More Resources and Partnerships with Public-Private and Civil Society Actors
The third theme examines urban management and service delivery, public-private partnerships, and the role of civil society groups. Urban management and service delivery are in most cases relatively centralized services led by national scale public agencies. Increasingly, infrastructural and technical services are being decentralized to local scales, often without sufficient human and fiscal resources to manage and maintain them. These are usually coordinated via public-private partnerships according to complicated legal and institutional setups. Such opaque setups lead to management and provision problems, which local governments are directly bearing because issues of accountability have not been clearly defined.
In Morocco, local governments constantly need to negotiate with the central state access to urban services and fiscal resources, generating tensions, especially when conflicts within local governments prevent bargaining strategies. In cases where local governments are directly in charge of the service, the constraints of the regulatory systems ruling public-private partnerships and limited fiscal funds impede efficient operation and management of the service. This is comparable to the case of a regional administration in Lebanon (Suwayjani), which managed to get funding to build a waste management plant in its district but failed at ensuring a steady flow of resources to maintain the plant, and hence ended up relinquishing its operation to a central state agency. In Tunisia, local governments are unable to control urban management and planning because of their limited resources, lack of legal tools, and the pressure of private economic interests. A lack of citizen engagement delegitimizes local governments and reinforces the role of central state agencies. In Jordan, the amalgamation reform of municipalities in 2001 did not improve service delivery as planned; on the contrary, it increased clientelism and inequality in accessing services. Jordanian municipalities are thus mostly unable to effectively provide services to their dwellers and are quite dependent on the central government, mainly due to a lack of technical and fiscal resources. In some instances, local and regional governments successfully partnered with civil society groups and were able to effectively manage projects. In Tunisia, a dynamic mayor worked closely with NGOs concerned with public transportation, and coordinated a free school transportation system. In Lebanon, a charismatic mayor helped civil society groups establish a successful ecotourism project.
Municipalities are Reluctant to Collect Local Taxes to Secure Political Loyalty
The fourth theme relates to the reluctance of municipalities to collect local taxes. In all countries, municipalities suffer from low revenues. This is largely attributed to the fact that central governments have given local administrations little tax authority. Central governments have also stalled in distributing funds to local authorities from the intergovernmental grant system. In some instances, like in Jordan and Yemen, fiscal allocations to local governments followed a political logic, favoring towns from which ministers and parliamentarians originally came from.
However, some local governments have failed to optimize on the tax authority granted to them. For some, this is a matter of weak human resources and a poor system of identifying taxpayers. In other cases, municipal councils have chosen not to collect taxes or fees from its constituency. They unofficially exempted some taxpayers from paying local taxes to gain political loyalty. In Jordan, up to forty percent of municipal revenues were not collected in 2003. Jordanian mayors seemed to prefer negotiating grant transfers from the central state rather than antagonizing their immediate constituency. In Morocco, too, fear of losing their electoral base, clientelism, and mistrust of public finance, make mayors reluctant to collect taxes. Similarly in Yemen, local councils did not want to upset the popular base they needed to appease.
Leadership and Networks of Local Officials Make Municipalities Perform Better
The fifth theme investigates innovations undertaken by local and regional governments. It particularly explores the features that explain the noteworthy performance of some local and regional governments, their abilities to negotiate their ways through the hurdles to deliver better services, think holistically about development projects, and establish various partnerships for spatial planning. Such features include: leadership, networks, civil society dynamics, political competition, governance, and territoriality. Innovative experiences demonstrate that decentralization policies can open up avenues for improved service delivery and urban management, and for social and political change, albeit timid and contained.
In Yemen, some local leaders have strong abilities to negotiate with national authorities while advancing solutions that meet their constituencies’ needs, often using both legal and extra-judicial networks. For instance, one local council managed to bypass the constraints of limited resources and established cultural activities in his town while another brought water and sanitation services to its constituency despite technical and geographic hurdles. Some regional governments in Lebanon succeeded at negotiating grant packages and mobilize local partnerships in ways to promote strategic planning for their region and initiate economic development through ecotourism strategies (e.g. Jezzine, Sour, and Dinniye). Service delivery on the regional level seems to also be more successful in Tunisia where experiences of public transportation in the district of Sidi Bouzid led to positive outcomes. In Morocco, some municipalities led by charismatic figures are succeeding in using institutional setups and international grants to direct them to their locality’s needs. Matters were more complex in Jordan, where strong centralization and direct interventionism by the King prevents opportunities for maneuvering autonomously at the local level.
[This policy brief was first published on LCPS and can be accessed here in English and Arabic. It benefited from the assistance of Sophie Spaan, former LCPS researcher. The policy brief is based on an edited volume by Mona Harb and Sami Atallah entitled Local Governments and Public Goods: Assessing Decentralization Experiences in the Arab World, and published by LCPS. It includes chapters on Tunisia by Sami Yassine Turki and Eric Verdeil, on Morocco by Aziz Iraki and Ali Bouabid, on Jordan by Myriam Ababsa, and on Yemen by Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj.]