Decentralization in the Arab World

Screenshot 2014-07-15 at 2.21.10 PMBased on a book published by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) and funded by the Open Society Foundations, Mona Harb and Sami Attalah recently wrote a policy brief entitled “Decentralization in the Arab World Must be Strengthened to Provide Better Services.”

The authors note that decentralization in the Arab world falls behind other regions in the world. Their study focuses on five countries: Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen. The study aimed to identify the gaps in implementing decentralized and democratic governance in these countries, and to study how these gaps are being addressed. They begin their introduction by acknowledging that decentralization is a feature of democracy, and present five cross-cutting themes that emerged from the case studies:

    • “Colonial Legacies Determine Decentralization Policies.” This theme notes the effect of colonial history on current politics, saying that “centralization and decentralization narratives were used to consolidate the interests of the ruling elites and their networks.” The colonial powers used decentralization to justify reforms and control territories.
    • “Central governments support and subvert decentralization policies,” because governments understand that international donors would like to see decentralization but often merely pay “lip service” to it. Legal, fiscal and territorial tools restrict the effective empowerment of local authorities. As a result “international donors are indirectly contributing to the increased centralization of state power and services, not to mention furthering corruption and inefficiency.” Following the Arab Spring, however, debates have arisen about regionalism in all five countries.
    • “Decentralized services need more resources and partnerships with public-private and civil society actors.” Infrastructural and technical services have become the responsibility of local governments, who often lack the necessary human and fiscal resources. They then turn to public-private partnerships that are opaque and legally complicated. Without a clear definition of who is accountable, local governments bear responsibility for management and provisional problems. There is a “lack of citizen engagement [that] delegitimizes local governments and reinforces the role of central state agencies.”
    • “Municipalities are reluctant to collect local taxes to secure political loyalty.” The authors note that most municipalities in all five countries have low revenues, because the central governments are reluctant to give them tax authority.
    • “Leadership and networks of local officials make municipalities perform better.” This theme can explain why some local governments have succeeded, and their successes can “demonstrate that decentralization policies can open up avenues for improved service delivery and urban management.”

The policy brief is available here.


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