Sovereignty through decentralization: community-level approach to development in Palestine.

AuthorBen-Meir, Yossef

DECENTRALIZING DEVELOPMENT DECISIONS and management to local communities generates wide ranging social, economic, and environmental benefits that are particularly essential for the Palestinian people at this time. One important benefit is that governments actually build the sovereignty of their country when they support strategic initiatives and partnerships that enable their local communities to control and implement development projects that meet their needs. The urgent need of the Palestinian people for socio-economic relief and opportunities makes it necessary that the Palestinian Authority leverage as much resources as possible, including social capital, for local development projects that members of Palestinian villages and neighborhoods determine (through consensus during community meetings) to be most important to them. Effective partnerships that transfer facilitation skills for participatory planning to university students, teachers, local government and non-government personnel, and others will restructure the Palestinian economy to be more self-reliant and create political benefits towards national unity and regional peace.


Decentralization serves different interests. For example, decentralization is desired by many rational choice theorists and socialists (Mohan and Stokke, 2000). It is promoted in participatory democratic systems (Green and Haines, 2002). Decentralization also plays a key role in monetarist and neo-liberal discourses (Williams, 2004) and is pursued by the alternative development movement (Hailey, 2001). These perspectives all support decentralization, but for different reasons and to different degrees--underscoring that decentralization is a flexible and fluid process (Mohan and Stokke, 2000).

In this essay, decentralization involves: 1) decision-making regarding local development within communities, 2) their partnership with government, civil society, and private groups, and 3) building the capacities (administrative, financial, and technical) of these groups, particularly local communities, to manage their own development initiatives. Generally, there is considered to be four major organizational arrangements that advance decentralization--devolution, privatization, delegation, and deconcentration.

Devolution is when legal and financial responsibilities for governing are transferred to sub-national units and are outside the direct control of the central government (Gonzalez, 1998). Robert Chambers (2005) suggests that devolution too far down society's administrative tiers may create problems of control and coordination of limited resources.

With privatization the "central government divests itself of some responsibilities and allows voluntary organizations or private enterprises to perform them" (Rondinelli, 1993). A concern associated with privatization, as well as the other approaches though perhaps to a lesser degree, is that it transfers power from one elite group to another, or strengthens richer regions and weakens poorer ones (Brohman, 1996).

Delegation involves decision-making authority along with managerial and operational responsibility of communities and their organizations in order to carry out development projects. Projects are activities intended to meet practical needs (Cheater, 1999). Finally, deconcentration involves a central government transferring authority to lower levels within ministries. An intended effect of deconcentration includes enabling provincial and district levels to work more closely with other sub-national groups within a democratic framework (Mukambe, 1996). Also in deconcentration, central and local governments share ideas and develop agendas which promote the more efficient use of financial resources (Kumar, 2002). The definition of decentralization provided above is a synthesis of delegation and deconcentration approaches.

Decentralization programs seek greater representation in development initiatives from the popular majority, local poor, and political, religious, ethnic, and tribal groups. In doing so, decentralization increases interaction, pluralism, networks (horizontal and vertical), and social movements. Greater representation from local groups is sought to satisfy local needs with local resources, such as community labor input and the latent capabilities of people. Indeed, there is a significant positive relationship between the number of households in a community that contribute to capital costs and project outcomes (Prokopy, 2005). Decentralization programs build administrative capabilities of local government and private groups, their managerial and technical skills, and capacities to plan, resolve conflicts, and manage fiscal and other resources.


Although in decentralized systems there is greater autonomy of subnational administrative tiers, national governments still retain an important role. National governments have the responsibility for macroeconomic policy to help enable local and regional economies to develop foreign policy, the national judiciary, and other important areas. However, a clear aim of decentralization is to increase self-sufficiency, which allows greater flexibility, speed, and efficiency in dealing with matters of development (von Braun et al, 2005).

Decentralization has been described as a means to transform political systems (Brohman, 1996). It depoliticizes national governments because of their reduced ability to provide direct benefits to the public (Mohan and Stokke, 2000). This can create political struggles because bureaucrats and politicians oppose the loss of power. The real potential for conflict over the redistribution of power suggests that decentralization processes should be gradually and carefully delivered over a period of time (Binswanger, 1998).

Criticisms of decentralization include:

Table One: Criticisms of Decentralization * Attempts to implement have been few--failed to produce desired results, such as democratic decisions * Control and coordination of resources problematic * Control of central authority over local maintained or deepened * Cost is not free (although benefits outweigh costs) * Local governments starved for resources and unable to function (central governments hold budgets * Meanings and objectives divergent / serves ideologies * Power from one elite transferred to another * Struggle because bureaucrats and politicians oppose the loss of power (process should be gradual) When national governments assist decentralization initiatives that are intended to help communities determine and implement priority development projects (in poverty alleviation, job creation, education, health, environment, etc.), they also create diverse partnerships at all levels within their country. These partnerships--among government, civil society, communities and their organizations, and private groups--lead to better information sharing and more effective coordination between central governments and communities within regions (U.N. Millennium Project, 2005). Consequently, local communities seek to maintain these partnerships with the national level, because they help satisfy their human needs and better enable people to shape the institutions that govern them. They have a stake in maintaining a system that is more responsive, sensitive to their interests, and equitable in the distribution of resources. Central governments benefit by creating overall targets and inter-regional balance and competition that can foster performance (Rolly, 2001), affect remote areas far from the national capital (Gonzalez, 1998), and increase political stability, national unity, and their own legitimacy (Arora, 1994). Decentralization is a potential means of conflict resolution by providing autonomy and stability to sub-regions.

Racelis (1992) suggests that decentralization of government first began in Asia in the 1950s and 1960s and then other continents. Dissatisfaction with Keynesian development in the 1960s and 1970s marks a period when most countries began decentralization efforts. There was a shift back to central control by the 1980s after the oil shocks of the 1970s and when newly implemented decentralization programs ran into problems.

One such problem, as was seen in Ghana and the Ivory Coast was when local governments, starved for resources, were unable to fulfill their function to plan and implement development (Binswanger, 1998). This is a reflection of the reluctance of central governments to decentralize national budgets and approve funding. In recent years, decentralization and local participation in development are again in favor. The following table summarizes some of the origins of decentralization:

Table Two: Origins of...

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