The day before Tyler Dickovick, associate professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, attended a meeting in Mombasa, Kenya, 60 people were killed in violent clashes around the city in disputes over land distribution. The day after he left Mombasa, a Muslim cleric was assassinated, riots broke out and several churches were burned down.
"These were the bookends to my time working with the Kenya Transition Authority in August, "said Dickovick. "Those events serve as big caveats that the work the country is currently undertaking to decentralize the government will somehow solve the deep social problems."
Dickovick is an expert on the decentralization of government and for the past two summers has spent time in Kenya under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) making policy recommendations. In 2012 he was effectively seconded to the Transition Authority — the body appointed by the president of Kenya to oversee the process of shifting power from the central government to county governments.
The decision to decentralize power came after national elections in 2007 resulted in many killings over access to land and resources. There were also ethnic grievances stemming from the sense that the central government had favored certain groups for a long period of time.
"The hope is that decentralizing the government, giving everyone a piece of the pie, will mute a lot of those tensions," said Dickovick. "But imagine county governments that have never had to run anything and all of a sudden they're being tasked with running things like health care, agriculture — a big part of the economy — roads, local markets and tourism. You've got to make sure that they're competent. It's a very tense and pressing issue in Kenya at the moment."
Dickovick was invited to assist in Kenya based on both his research and his book "Decentralization and Recentralization in the Developing World: Comparative Studies from Africa and Latin America" (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011). The book was hailed as "a path breaking work built on an insightful analytical framework sustained by excellent fieldwork in several countries."
In the book, Dickovick examined how countries in the developing world, including Brazil and South Africa, handled the decentralization or recentralization of their governments. "My book was about the conditions under which central governments give power to state and local governments and the circumstances under which local governments take back power from central and state governments," explained Dickovick. "It’s a fundamental question of governance and government."
Dickovick noted that one of the paradoxes about decentralization is that actors in politics rarely give away power voluntarily. But one circumstance under which that can happen is when the central government is in decline and recognizes that it's having a problem of governability. For example, in South Africa, at the end of apartheid, the white-dominated government recognized that it would not win government at the national level but that it would win some of the state and local governments. "There's some logic to decentralization when it happens, and they had an incentive to do so," said Dickovick.
While recentralization, when central government takes back power from the state level, is rarer, Dickovick found that it can happen under exceptional circumstances such as an economic crisis. "In Brazil, for example, the government took power and authority away from the states when the entire national economy was tanking," he said. "So a declining government leads to decentralization and a crisis leads to recentralization."
Dickovick also worked with USAID in 2010 and 2011 on a comparative study of 10 African countries and their experiences with decentralization. His work continues today in making policy recommendations.
"People in Kenya are very interested in understanding what happened in South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana and Mali when they decentralized their governments," said Dickovick. "They want to avoid the problems other countries experienced but also take some of the positive lessons as well."
According to Dickovick, many countries that have historically been very centralized hope that if power is given to state and local government it will generate stability, create more economic development and increase democracy.
"Economists, political scientists and lawyers are often optimistic about that," he said. "But it's clear to me that you can design a system to transfer money, resources and power, but it's not always going to solve the deeper problems. So I would say that a healthy dose of skepticism is in order."