Chapter 9 – Conclusion

The concluding chapter summarizes and takes stock of the book’s theoretical and empirical insights. I connect the findings of each chapter in order to paint a broader picture of what decentralization did and did not achieve in one vigorous reformer. Could Bolivia’s success be replicated elsewhere? Chapter 9 sets out five concrete lessons from the Bolivian experience that can help other countries use decentralization to improve the responsiveness and accountability of government.

The prominence of social interactions in the book’s model of governance is unusual in political science, but is deeply rooted in our knowledge of human behavior. Indeed, it echoes some of the most important insights of other branches of the social sciences, such as international economics and urban studies, in which trade and urban migration both serve – in very different contexts – to increase the density and leverage of social interactions in ways that increase human inventiveness, creativity and productivity. By engaging in such interactions, the citizens of a democracy do more than engage in governance. The interactions implicit in democracy turn individuals into citizens – citizens who ponder, investigate, express public views, debate specific solutions, and vote. In so doing, they take some measure of responsibility for the decisions and actions of the polity. Where the citizen cannot vote, she does not investigate, discuss, or expend effort on public affairs. Rather, she waits for policy to happen and then adjusts her personal life accordingly. She may gripe about government, but in the deeper sense she does not think about it because she is not responsible.

This book has ultimately been about the possibility of change, and its message is hopeful. The reform of institutions and their associated incentives can bring about significant, nationwide changes in social and political behavior in the space of a few years. The Bolivian experiment argues against the position that policy performance and patterns of governance are determined by centuries of historical conditioning. When reform creates opportunities to improve group welfare, people can rise to the challenge and succeed. This includes the very poor and oppressed. The conditions necessary for reform to prosper are a complex of economic, political and social characteristics, and may well be lacking as often as they are present. But under the right circumstances, which proved widely available in Bolivia, decentralizing resources and political authority can generate real accountability where none existed before and improve the quality of government a society achieves.

The experience of decentralization in Bolivia underlines a deeper point which is denied by some of decentralization’s foes, but which is nonetheless true. The poor as a rule are ignorant, but they are not stupid. They know what they want, and the things they want are by and large good for them. They can ill afford otherwise. Decentralization succeeded in Bolivia because it created more Charaguas than Viachas. It put significant power and resources in the hands of ordinary people, who then made good choices. Such a conclusion is not hopelessly naïve. It is the essence of democracy.