The author is part of a group which has
just completed a study of Decentralization Reforms in South Asian countries.
Our book being published by Zed Press, London is titled: Pro Poor Growth
and Governance in South Asia - Case Profiles of Participatory Development
and Decentralization Reforms. This brief article reports some of the findings
of the book.
Almost every country in South Asia has undertaken decentralization reforms
with the stated purpose of empowering the poor and thereby achieve good
governance. Yet the implementation of these reforms indicate the pitfalls
of decentralization. Unless they are addressed at an early stage, decentralization
could intensify rather than alleviate the oppression of the poor. As Pakistan
embarks on its own strategy of devolution, it may be useful to point out
some of the lessons learned from the experience of other countries of
In this article we will first examine the contrasting forms in which the
elite and the poor constitute power. We will then highlight some of the
lessons learned from the case studies of Decentralization in South Asia.
1. ELITE, THE POOR AND FORMS OF POWER
The ruling elite with rare exceptions, practice a form of power that is
counterposed to that used by the poor. The power of the elite is constituted
by creating a sense of powerlessness in their subjects: internal relationships
of fraternal loyalty and support within the community are ruptured, and
the individual isolated and made dependent on the economic and social
support emanating out of elite power. In this way the poor are made dependent
on the patronage of the elite. The basis of seeking patronage by the dependents
is the fear that comes from being isolated and powerless. The exercise
of this form of power, involves constriction of the space for autonomous
initiatives by the dependents. Therefore the power of the patron is predicated
on the loss of freedom of the clients. This dialectic is fuelled by the
assertion of the patron's ego drained of any sense of relatedness with
By contrast the poor communities in South Asian countries are imbued with
a folk tradition where the process of actualizing the self is experienced
as a transcendence of the ego and progressive integration with the community.
Empowerment of the poor involves a reintegration with their community
as much as with their inner self. It is therefore an awakening of the
nascent counter consciousness of love, relatedness and creative action.
In contrast to the power nexus of the elite, when the poor are empowered
the isolation of the individual is replaced by integration with the community.
This relatedness with the other and with the inner self creates a sense
of freedom and opens the space for autonomous initiatives by the poor.
This is in contrast to their earlier condition of isolation and fear.
Empowerment for the poor signifies relatedness, freedom and autonomous
2. LESSONS FROM CASE STUDIES
Four major lessons emerge from the case studies of South Asian countries:
Lesson No. 1
Formal decentralization of administrative power in itself does not necessarily
help the poor as Shri Krishna Upadhyay points out in the context of the
Nepal case study. Empowerment of the poor, he argues, requires that formal
decentralization be accompanied by a rigorous process of social mobilization.
This involves consciousness raising, conscientisation and building organisations
of the poor. It is only such a process that will enable the poor to acquire
countervailing power. Without this dimension of countervailing power,
decentralization will merely result in the appropriation by elites of
the "fruits of decentralization for their own narrow benefit".
In this context the Bangladesh case study by Dr. Shaikh Maqsood Ali makes
an important distinction between decentralization of administrative power
in favour of its regional/local offices as opposed to decentralization
in favour of the local people. Apart from this it could be argued that
in areas where asymmetric structures of power prevail (for example, coalitions
of rich peasants/landlord, local influentials such as traders, revenue
and police officials) mere decentralization of administrative power could
intensify the oppression of the poor.
In the case of the otherwise successful Kerala experiment in India discussed
by Dr. Madhu Subramanian where the Peoples Plan Campaign could not fulfill
its potential of empowering the poor and achieving pro poor growth, because
social mobilisation was not rigorously conducted. The efforts at mobilisation,
by various local government institutions have been "largely mechanical
and in a top down fashion that only served to maintain or further the
patron client relationship between the local government functionaries
and the poor."
Lesson No. 2
The second lesson emerging from the case studies is that if decentralization
is to enable empowerment of the poor, it must be holistic. i.e. Incorporate
political power, enhanced confidence, emergence of social consciousness
and administrative and fiscal devolution. At the same time it must reach
down to the grass roots level through various intermediate levels, with
institutionalized participation of the poor in governance at every level.
Upadhyay refers to this holism and multi layered devolution in the Nepal
case study while Dr. Subramanian refers to "organic" associations
of the poor which have engendered growth with dignity and a humane set
Lesson No. 3
The political dimension of decentralization must be inclusive and capable
of absorbing what Upadhyay calls "diverse ethnic and other identity
groups as equal partners occupying spaces in the polity". He argues
that the centralized polity excludes such identities which may be a factor
in ethnic strife and social polarization. While the poor once organized
are able to generate new resources at the local level yet, as participatory
development is scaled up internally generated resources may be insufficient.
Therefore externally generated resources become necessary but these have
to be carefully applied through a sensitive support system that strengthens
rather than weakens the autonomy of the organisations of the poor. Such
a Support System could be provided by a combination of apex NGOs, state
institutions, banks and local governments. Upadhyay's emphasizes the importance
of such support organisations being sensitized by a pro poor perspective.
Dr. Shaikh Maqsood Ali in the Bangladesh case study emphasizes the importance
of the poor being accepted as efficient users of resources by the government
if devolution of power to the poor takes place within the institutional
structure of the government. Upadhyay, in the Nepal case study emphasizes
in the same context, the importance of providing external funding through
an institutionalized mechanism that meets the diverse needs of the poor.
Such a mechanism could provide a continuous source of funding support
for the development needs of those organisations of the poor which have
a proven performance on the ground.
Lesson No. 4
In the case of urban areas it appears that communities who have developed
their own funds and managed development themselves are able to establish
a more equitable relationship with local government institutions and in
some cases can even take up some of its functions. This is brought out
in Pakistan's case study by Arif Hassan. He argues that to enable urban
communities to manage their own development it is necessary to provide
technical advice and managerial guidance on the one hand and on the other
for governments to desist from undertaking development which the local
community is conducting on its own.
The issue of resources for urban community based initiatives is brought
out in the Ahmedabad case study by Amitabh Kundu and Debolina Kundu. They
argue that following decentralization under the seventy third and the
seventy fourth constitutional amendments in India in 1992, a few large
cities like Ahmedabad with a strong economic base have been able to mobilize
additional financial resources through local bodies in order to undertake
infrastructural projects. This however has not been possible in the case
of most small and medium sized towns in India. Most of the small towns
with their weak economic base have not been able to mobilize adequate
financial resources either through new local taxes or through floating
bonds in the capital market. Consequently the disparity in terms of infrastructure
for development between small and large towns is likely to increase under
On the basis of the country case studies in our forthcoming book it is
possible to propose that if the poor are to be empowered the decentralization
currently being undertaken by a number of South Asian countries cannot
simply be seen in terms of a decentralization of administrative functions
within existing governance structures. Rather, decentralization has to
create the space within which an institutionalized relationship can begin
between autonomous organisations of the poor and various tiers of local
government. Similarly pro poor growth cannot simply be seen in terms of
provision of basic services to the poor or even employment and consumption
goods through centralized administrative structures of government, or
"safety nets". Pro poor growth it is proposed would involve
building organisations of the poor, and unleashing their creative potential
through which the poor can initiate actions for increasing incomes, savings
and investment for a sustained process of localized capital accumulation.
This perspective on pro poor growth and decentralization for empowering
the poor would engender a more equitable process of both economic growth
Dr. Akmal Hussain
He has authored/co-authored ten books on economic policy. He has helped
establish institutions for poverty alleviation and participatory development
at the village level, provincial and national levels. He has also contributed
to Pakistan's Macro economic policy as an independent economist. He is
currently Senior Fellow at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics,
adjunct faculty at LUMS and member Board of Governors of the Pakistan
Poverty Alleviation Fund (Islamabad) and the South Asian Centre for Policy