Editor’s note: This article was originally published on The Conversation and was picked up by the National Post.

Tunis, Tunisia 16 October 2011. Tunisians demonstrate for peace, freedom of speech and for a secular state (photo by European Parliament via Flickr)
Tunis, Tunisia 16 October 2011. Tunisians demonstrate for peace, freedom of speech and a secular state. (photo by European Parliament via Flickr)

The protests that caused the overthrow of Tunisia’s authoritarian ruler in 2011 were triggered by a street vendor with no municipal permit to sell his produce who then set himself on fire after being harassed by local bureaucrats.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, poor municipal governance and service delivery contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings. These uprisings ultimately led to the arrival of a million refugees on Western shores.

This May, Tunisia will hold its first municipal elections since 2010. Experts are debating whether Tunisia’s decentralization law should be passed before the elections to make sure municipal governments have the powers and resources to meet their citizens’ needs.

The World Bank and other international financial institutions are implementing decentralization programs to improve municipal political participation and service delivery throughout the region.

But are they working?

Decisions remain in hands of elites

My research on authoritarian states in the region finds that decentralization programs simply help keep authoritarian regimes in power and, in municipalities, keep decisions and services in hands of elites.

Political decentralization is the transfer of decision-making powers and responsibilities from central to lower-level governments, including municipal elected officials.

It’s also meant to bring public input into municipal decision-making processes. With improved public participation in decision-making, the thinking goes, policies should better support local needs and provide services equally to everyone.

The World Bank and other international financial institutions first promoted decentralization in Latin America after the fall of authoritarian rulers in the 1980s. Decentralization followed democratization.

Yet in most states of the Middle East and North Africa, decentralization programs are being implemented while authoritarian regimes are still in place. Authoritarian rulers have long manipulated democratic institutions, such as elections, to stay in power.

Why would authoritarian rulers give up power?

The answer is that they don’t. To stay in power, authoritarian regimes use several clever strategies. Two are particularly important in regards to decentralization.

The first strategy is an unelected administrative system that oversees elected institutions.

Moroccan municipalities are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior that approves municipal council decisions. The ministry justifies this supervisory role based on its expertise. But in fact, it allows the ministry to facilitate mayors who are supportive of the regime and obstruct those who are not.

Moroccan flags in honor of King Mohammed VI (photo by Pierre Metivier via Flickr)
Moroccan flags in honor of King Mohammed VI (photo by Pierre Metivier via Flickr)

The second strategy is the use of patronage. Authoritarian rulers grant privileges and resources to key constituencies or political parties to ensure their support.

In Jordan, certain tribes receive privileges.

In Morocco, privileges go to specific political parties. These privileges trickle down through a party.

Accountable to the Moroccan king

The system works both ways. Municipal politicians promise votes to those higher up in the party in exchange for services they can give to those who voted for them. Services are denied to those who did not vote for them.

Decentralization need not, and does not, affect these strategies. Nor does it necessarily result in less municipal supervision. Instead, supervision is “decentralized” to a lower administrative level.

Here’s how it works in Morocco, where the greatest degree of decentralization in the region has occurred: The minister of the interior is no longer responsible for actually reviewing municipal decisions. But governors who are appointed by and accountable to the minister of the interior —and, ultimately, the king — do that job.

Responsibilities are either not handed down to municipal governments, or municipal governments gain only partial authority over them.

Only have the power to recommend

Jordan recently passed a decentralization law and a municipalities law that created new elected provincial and local councils.

But the laws removed authority from municipal councils.

Citizens no longer vote for those municipal councils. Instead they vote for mayors and local councils that are smaller than municipal councils, and have fewer powers. Municipal councils are now composed of local council heads and have fewer powers than previously. Local councils, meantime, largely only have the power to recommend.

The real authority belongs to the executive director, who is appointed by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. He determines the annual budget and sends it to the elected mayor.

And under Morocco’s decentralization, approximately 70 per cent of the roles and responsibilities of the regions, provinces and municipalities overlap. This confusion gives appointed governors authority over areas that, according to the municipal charter, belong to municipal governments.

Prof. Janine Clark
Prof. Janine Clark

Is the public really included?

Decentralization programs aim to bring the public into municipal decision-making processes. But neither public participation nor service delivery are necessarily improved.

Moroccan municipalities must create committees for “equity and equal opportunities.” Members of the public must be on the committees. The committees’ views must be included in municipalities’ development plans.

Yet many elected officials are at the same time also heads of civil society organizations such as a neighbourhood development association. They take advantage of this dual role by dominating the committees at the expense of other representatives.

By dominating the committees, councillors are able to put projects into development plans for their own political advantage. Favouritism and inequitable service delivery continue to exist.

The danger of decentralization

Decentralization can in fact strengthen authoritarianism. While authoritarian rulers can call themselves political reformers, in the eyes of citizens, elected officials appear corrupt and unwilling to improve public participation or service delivery.

Decentralization justifies administrative supervision over elected bodies. The authoritarian regime is strengthened while elected officials and democratic institutions seem ineffective.

International donors like Canada support decentralization by implementing projects to strengthen municipal leadership and administrative capacity.

The ConversationBut are we, in fact, strengthening authoritarianism?