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No, decentralisation does not take away from national vision

Eden Getachew
By Eden Getachew

Centre of Government and Delivery Lead, Tony Blair Institute. Eden has 13 years of experience, primarily as a strategy consultant in development and effective government across Africa.

Margaret Muthama
By Margaret Muthama

Strategic Advisor, Tony Blair Institute

Posted on Friday, 2 July 2021 12:05

Gambia's President Adama Barrow addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, US - 25 September 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Subnational governments are already playing an important role in strengthening public-service delivery and socioeconomic transformation across Africa, often in the context of highly constrained financial and human resources.

Therefore, Patrick Smith is right to applaud the contribution that devolution and local initiative can make in driving progress in Africa.

Decentralisation helps the national vision

But there is no conflict between decentralisation and a strong and compelling national vision. National governments are critical to setting and delivering national development policies, coordinating between subnational mechanisms towards a common goal and representing a country’s geopolitical interests internationally.

To effectively do all that, national governments rely on subnational administrations to cascade policies and deliver for their citizens.

What matters most, at all levels, is effectiveness, and governments and leaders are increasingly exploring ways to enhance the implementation capacity of their devolved administrative divisions through delivery mechanisms.

Delivery is an approach that translates the promises of political leaders into action through solution-driven processes and the four Ps framework – prioritisation, policy, planning and performance management.

The concept and practice of delivery operated initially in Africa at the national level (president, prime minister and vice president offices as well as line ministries). In recent years, however, governments have increasingly sought to cascade this mechanism of delivery down to different layers of government administration, to enable leaders to successfully bridge the gap between their political promises and the services provided to citizens.

This investment in delivery at the grassroots level is vital to the maintenance of public confidence in government and the political process.

As Robert Behn, public policy lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy school put it in 2014: “Citizens may not be able to judge the President’s macroeconomic policy, but they can certainly tell whether their Mayor is filling the potholes, trimming the trees, and trucking off the garbage.”

Examples of success

This approach is already bearing positive results in subnational governance structures across the continent. In Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr was determined to serve the country’s capital city as a transformational leader.

Having launched her “Transform Freetown” agenda in 2018, which outlined an approach to addressing the issues faced by local residents, with a special focus on how to achieve and monitor progress towards set targets, the Mayor’s Delivery Unit was established as a mechanism by which to fully drive this ambitious programme.

The structure of the Unit was informed by the agenda, with technical experts selected to shape and support four priority areas: Resilience, Human Development, Healthy Cities and Urban Mobility.

Each of these sectors comprises a cluster of three to four individual interventions (for example, Healthy Cities incorporates health, water and sanitation interventions).

The Unit’s work has been particularly crucial in the context of the global pandemic in ensuring that targets and milestones of the “Transform Freetown” agenda are met, including the successful completion of the city’s first faecal-sludge-management plant, which is expected to increase the proportion of matter that is treated after disposal at Freetown’s dumpsites from zero to 80%.

The Unit has also contributed to the successful rollout of revenue mobilisation strategies, including approximately $700,000 raised from property tax and $130,000 from business licences, representing 15% and 9% of potential annual revenue from these two taxes respectively.

Delivery mechanisms have been established at national and subnational levels in The Gambia, with the establishment of the Department of Strategic Policy and Delivery (DSPD) anchored at the Office of the President and a delivery mechanism at the country’s largest municipality – Kanifing Municipal Council, under the leadership of Mayor Talib Bensouda.

The delivery support given to the mayor has helped to establish systems and processes which enable better implementation and monitoring of priority interventions. This has helped build relationships between the council and external actors, including development partners and donors who have helped to address critical funding gaps for key services and interventions.

It has also served as a bridge between council and development partners for the raising of resources for a sanitary landfill as well as supporting the project management of initiatives with external implementers including UN agencies and NGOs.

In Kenya, 27 out of 47 county governments have established what are commonly known as service delivery units which have improved the delivery of services to county residents in line with county-integrated development plans and have driven progress towards the completion of key development projects in line with the plans.

These units identify and address challenges that might hinder or derail the implementation of these plans and ensure accountability to citizens by regularly sharing information with the public on progress towards the completion of key projects.

Bottom line

All of the delivery initiatives have been informed by national governments, and their support and initiative in this area are vital. By aligning subnational development priorities with national and international ones, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and other regional and continental strategies, political tensions and bureaucratic obstacles which could prevent full implementation of a subnational agenda can be overcome.

Strengthening the capacity of subnational mechanisms to deliver effectively will enable more such successes across the continent. That is best done in synergy with national governments, not at their expense.

This was written in response to the article: ‘Africa: National governments are losing their grip’. 

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