Decentralization and Popular Democracy: introduction

Enthusiasm for, and experiments with, decentralization have swept the world over the past four decades. Theory strongly argues that decentralization should increase citizen voice and participation in the political process, and so make government more responsive and accountable to the governed. These intuitions have prompted a massive policy response across the globe, with an estimated 80-100 percent of the world’s countries experimenting with some kind of decentralization reform.

And yet the empirical evidence in favor is strikingly weak. Literally thousands of studies have yielded scattered successes – a city here, a village there, the odd region. But even these findings are heavily qualified, and arrayed against a large number of failures where decentralization produced indifferent or negative results. Forty years of research has failed to yield a single national success. The bizarre paradox of strong arguments in favor, widespread and persistent policy enthusiasm, and the comprehensive failure of evidence to either support or contradict theory has led many authors to condemn decentralization as a distraction, a mistake, or even a conspiracy.

This book, the culmination of 15 years of research, ends this paradoxical state of affairs. Covering the period 1987-2009, it is a generational study of what happens when a highly centralized country undertakes radical decentralization reform. I use a blend of quantitative and qualitative evidence, which allows me to bring a huge and varied amount of information to bear on a clearly defined question and solve it. The combined strategy achieves a higher-order methodological rigor than either approach can alone, and is itself one of the book’s innovations.