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Fonds documentaire dynamique sur la
gouvernance des ressources naturelles de la planète

Sharing Power. What is decentralisation?

Why is it an interesting tool to promote a sustainable co-management of natural resources?

Documents sources

Borrini-Feyerabend Grazia, Pimbert Michel, Farvar M.Taghi, Kothari Ashish, Renard Yves et al, Sharing Power - Learning by Doing in Co-management of Natural Resources throughout the World, IIED, IUCN, CMWG, CEESP, 2004

Co-management is almost synonymous with local governance, because it requires local power and capacity to exist and succeed, but also because it is, by its very nature, an instrument of local empowerment. The institutional landscape of local governance is complex and varies greatly from country to country. In most respects, local governance is much more than local government; it encompasses a wide range of organisations and institutions, both formal and informal, all of whom have a role to play in the allocation and use of rights and responsibilities at the local level. Local partners in co-management processes and agreements can be of various types, and policies are required to facilitate their participation in management.

An important innovation for the sustainable management of natural resources is a component of broader policy principles that goes under the name of “subsidiarity”. Basically, this calls for a government to decentralise, delegate or devolve authority and responsibilities in several branches of social life to the lowest possible level with capacity to take responsibility for the relevant tasks (see Boxes 10.9 and 10.10).

Box 4.1 What type of decentralisation?

(adapted from Ribot, 2002 and Alcorn et al., 2003)

The term “decentralisation” describes an act by which a central government formally cedes power to actors and institutions at lower levels in a political-administrative and territorial hierarchy. If those are local branches of the central state (e.g., prefects, or local administration and technical ministries) the process is referred to as “administrative decentralisation” or “de-concentration”. If those are private bod- ies such as individuals, corporations or NGOs, the process is called “privatisation” or “delegation”. If those are local authorities downwardly accountable to local people, the process is called “democratic decentralisation” or “devolution”.

The powers that can be transferred are: legislative (elaboration of rules), executive (implementing and enforcing decisions) and judicial. These powers and the financial resources to implement actions are rarely transferred together in integrated packages or ways that create positive synergies, a fact that com- plicates the process and often creates conflicts.

Box 10.9 More perspectives on decentralisation and devolution

As already mentioned in Box 4.1, the words “decentralisation”and “devolution”are sometimes used inter-changeably. Yet, they connote very different processes.

The term decentralisation is used to refer to the physical dispersal of operations to the local level, but also to describe the delegation of a greater degree of decision making authority to lower levels of government administration. Decentralisation thus refers to the distribution of functions and powers from a central authority to regional or local authorities, but the latter are essentially part of the same structure as the central authority. A federal structure with strong provincial control, for instance, is more decentralised than one that is solely controlled by the central government.

Devolution is more radical, involving the transfer of authority and control from one agency to a completely different one, usually more “local” and of a different origin. Effective devolution is as yet rare in the world, for the simple reason that those in power do not want to give it up, or do not believe that local institutions can perform! Even governments willing to devolve the rights to manage and use local resources, tend to retain conflict management functions, budgetary controls, and other functions that keep the local institutions effectively under their control.1

Checklist 10.1 Devolving to whom? What kind of organisations can manage common property resources?

(adapted from Shackleton et al., 2002)

A recent compilation and analysis of case studies of natural resource governance examined experiences in three Asian and eight southern African countries and from those derived the following typology of organisations found to exercise local authority over common property resources:

  • District organisations. These included local government organisations such as Rural District Councils in Zimbabwe and Panchayats in India, and multi-stakeholder district structures aligned to line departments such as Wildlife Management Authorities in Zambia and forest farms in China.

  • Village committees. These are typically initiated and encouraged by government agencies, e.g. the Village Natural Resource Management Committees in Malawi and Forest Protection Committees in India.

  • Corporate, legal organisations. These are composed of all rightholders and/ or residents, as Trusts (Botswana), Conservancies (Namibia), Communal Property Associations, Villages and Range Management Associations.

  • Households and individuals. In these cases, households and individuals are found to exercise varying degrees of authority over species selection, wildlife harvesting practices, sale and consumption, and the distribution of benefits.

  • Indigenous and traditional rule-making institutions. These are largely self-initiated organisations that operate outside the state hierarchy, and include traditional leaders, resident associations and share- holding schemes. Examples include the Councils of Elders in the Solomon Islands or the traditional adat village governance institutions in Sumatra that have re-emerged after the New Order period. Throughout the world, such traditional organisations still play important roles in natural resource management and represent local voices to external agencies.2

While the specific policies and arrangements for local governance vary greatly between countries and regions depending on social and political history and conditions, many co-management bodies include representatives of local government structures (see some examples in Box 10.11). Local administrators and government agencies are important actors in co-management for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • local administrators should be elected bodies and thus provide a measure of local representation;

  • local government agencies are expected, at least in theory, to provide a measure of public accountability;

  • local government agencies are also expected to advance “fair rules” in institutional arrangements.

Yet, we should refrain from assuming that local administrators and agencies always and effectively represent the interests and concerns of their local constituencies. On the contrary! In situations where the electoral process has been recently introduced, is poorly understood, unfairly practiced and/or limited to making a choice among candidates who have little to do with the local environment, the experience is not flattering for local governments as natural resource managers. Customary NRM bodies or even local civil society organisations would have much better chances to succeed. As a matter of fact, it is good to promote the involve- ment of both local governmental agencies and traditional authorities in co-management bodies, to introduce a good measure of transparency and to promote local communication and mutual learning.

Box 10.10 Examples of government decentralisation policies

With the overthrow of long-time dictator Moussa Traore in Mali, a new constitution was framed, provid- ing for the empowerment of local communities. A process of widespread consultation with various sec- tors of the population resulted in the demand to grant land tenure and resource management rights to local communities. In 1992, these demands were included in a rural development policy, and in 1993, a law on decentralisation was passed, granting to the local Communes sizeable independent administrative powers, including the right to manage the resources in their territories. The state retained overall tutelage, i.e. the right to intervene to enforce the law and public interest. Benjaminsen30 refers to this setup, in which governments delegate considerable responsibility and powers to manage local resources, while providing the policies, laws, and technical support, as “the core of co-management”. Yet, some have been doubtful about the real reasons behind this policy and its sustainability, as it was at least partly a result of the urging of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, whose structural adjustment model requires loosening of governmental controls.

In India, two constitutional amendments of far-reaching consequence have been adopted in 1992, one granting village bodies (Panchayats) several powers, and the other doing the same for municipal bodies. A follow-up law in 1996 has extended considerable autonomy to tribal areas, though not the self-rule that some of the tribal movements have been asking for. Later, however, state governments provided their own interpretations, usually highly watered down, to these changed constitutional provisions. When it comes to actual implementation, a considerable control seems to remain with centralised bureaucracies and politicians, unless grassroots movements force actual devolution.

In Uganda, the deposing of Dictator Idi Amin in 1979 marked the beginnings of a hesitant move towards democracy. But it was not until the National Resistance Movement (NRM) took over in 1986 that extensive decentralisation of political functioning started. Through constitutional changes and new legislation (such as the Local Councils Statute, the Local Governments Act, and a new Constitution in 1995), greater power to decide about natural resources has been granted to parishes and other local-level bodies.

1 Parodi, 1971; Burns et al., 1994.

2 Esman and Uphoff, 1984.