What does power asymmetry mean for decentralisation?

Graeme Ramshaw, Director of Research and Evaluation

An organic milk factory in the rural heartland of Ukraine may seem an unusual place to contemplate the impact of power asymmetries. However, on the way to a workshop on the local experience of decentralisation, I witnessed a sense of physical exclusion that was connected to a feeling of political disempowerment among participants.

This location provided the perfect opportunity to reflect on the forms of power asymmetry identified in the 2017 World Development Report: exclusion, capture and clientelism.

We were greeted by the local mayor, newly elected following the process of community amalgamation that was the subject of our visit. He was clearly proud of his town but also acutely aware of its limitations and challenges. There were ambitions among the local council to use decentralisation as a means of reducing the impact of exclusion, but this would not be a simple endeavour. Early evidence from surveys in Ukraine suggest that initial reforms are improving service delivery and increasing citizen trust in local government. Yet, despite this progress, the process of decentralisation remains incomplete, with key legislation stalled in the national parliament.

The main stumbling block for decentralisation in Ukraine is clearly the conflict in the east. The process has now become linked with the implementation of the Minsk II Agreement, meaning that action in any direction is bound to alienate either the Russians or significant sections of the Ukrainian public who don’t wish to see any concessions made to the separatist regions. Below these context-specific headlines, however, the political manoeuvrings around the rollout of existing decentralisation legislation are all too familiar and illustrate two further elements of power asymmetry explored by the WDR17: capture and clientelism.

There is a temptation among development actors to perceive decentralisation as principally a technical exercise, to be addressed through the provision of capacity-building. Ukraine’s experience suggests another approach is needed. While there is undoubtedly a need for expertise in local structures to manage the new financial and service provision responsibilities, the main obstacles to the institutionalisation of decentralised governance are largely political. Different sides of the debate believe that the other is trying to capture the decentralisation process. Proponents of decentralisation see the government’s plan to appoint ‘prefects’ as local executives as a power grab by the central state, designed to undermine local power. By contrast, critics of decentralisation argue that local elites will or have already captured the existing financial decentralisation process and are undermining efforts to reduce inequality and exclusion. Reconciling these competing visions will require political, as well as technical, support.

But this is complicated by the kinds of clientelism highlighted in the WDR17. At the local level, Ukrainian politics is dominated by prominent individuals who shop around for a political party with which to campaign, based on likelihood of victory not ideology. As such, the relationship for constituents operates at a personal rather than party institutional level, facilitating the formation of patron-client linkages. Many of these emerging leaders are likely to play a prominent role in the 2019 elections. At the national level, politics is immensely expensive, not only excluding vast swathes of the population but also distorting the incentives of politicians once in office. A WFD report on the cost of politics in Ukraine found that while the situation was improving from its nadir in 2012, there is still a long way to go. In the past, the Ukrainian legislature has passed a modest number of relatively well thought-out laws that were supposed to prevent the spread of political corruption in the country. Unfortunately, many of them were never implemented.

This is a common theme in Ukraine. The parliamentary culture is very legalistic, with even minor changes to process or policy requiring legislative action. WFD’s recent work providing research and evidence to the parliamentary committee on local self-government is likely to result in a flurry of bills; the extent to which they will be implemented in is less clear.

So what about decentralisation in Ukraine in the coming years? The mood on the ground is mixed. Local and international actors are pleased with the progress made on fiscal decentralisation and the community amalgamation process that has begun. There are concerns, however, that even these gains are under threat as the 2019 elections approach. As long as the outstanding constitutional amendments remain stalled, the sustainability of Ukraine’s reforms seems tenuous. Those looking to move the process forward will need to operate within the tight confines of international diplomacy dictated by the Minsk II Agreement. But they will also have to consider the power asymmetries that operate beneath this top-level, whose influence is likely to play a far greater role in determining whether even the existing decentralisation reforms will last.


(Photo: embroidery festival and organic milk factory in a local community outside of Kyiv, Ukraine)

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