Why should WFD care about devolution?

15 April 2016
David Thirlby

Why should WFD care about devolution?

Devolution and democratisation often go hand-in-hand. In practice, though, the process of transferring power away from central government often produces disappointing results and is always a complex business. These difficulties make it all the more important that organisations like Westminster Foundation for Democracy offer their assistance, writes David Thirlby, Senior Programme Manager for Asia.

Paradoxically, as the world has become more globalised, there have been further demands, and calls for, devolution. In discussing devolution the terminology itself can be confusing.  It is often associated with administrative decentralisation, de-concentration of power and federalism amongst others. For the purposes of this article, devolution refers to where the central government has passed on powers previously held to it to a sub-national unit. Devolution is often seen as a means to improve the provisions of public services, protect local rights, secure peace and reconciliation as well as consolidate multi-party democracy.

By their very nature authoritarian regimes tend to be unitary forms of government where power and decision-making are centralised. It is therefore not surprising that following periods of authoritarian rule, a democratisation process is often accompanied with devolution.  We saw this in Pakistan after Musharraf’s regime, where a return to parliamentary democracy at the national level was mirrored with provision of substantial powers to the constituent provinces, and recently, to elected government bodies. This logic applies elsewhere: post-Franco Spain’s 1978 constitution provided for strong autonomous regions whose power has extended as local democracy has been entrenched. However, it is difficult to determine how much power should be devolved before it brings into question the unity of the state itself. In the last couple of years, both in Spain and the UK, movements towards independence has called into question the nation state. Interestingly, neither are federal countries.

The principle of subsidiarity states that governments work best, so the logic goes, when they are close to citizens who benefit from better frontline services based on decisions which are more attuned to the local context.  When decisions are made closer to the people, people are also better able to oversee the execution of decisions thereby providing further pressure on accountability.  After Suharto’s New Order in Indonesia, basic services including the provision of health, primary and secondary education are the responsibility of the districts. However, when there are multiple layers of government, it can be difficult for the citizen to identify who is responsible for what – is it the local council/ municipality, region/ state or the national government?  Arguably, this is further complicated in supranational bodies such as the EU. A problem often witnessed is that although many central governments are keen to devolve powers, they are often unwilling or unable to provide the financial resources that go with them.

Protecting local rights is another key drive for devolution. In many cases these are often tied to issues concerning distribution of resources. In many resource-rich countries, local communities feel disempowered because they suffer disproportionately from the extraction of natural resources, which often are highly polluting. This was the case in the petroleum-rich Delta Region in Nigeria, which experienced especially severe conflict during Sani Abacha’s military regime.  Many countries, such as Peru, have regional governments that get a share of royalties from local developments which benefit local communities. However, often it is difficult to determine how the royalties of natural resources are shared, not just between the local region and the central government, but also between regions. This is especially the case in countries where human development index scoring is  low and money is scarce. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s vast natural resources are confined in a few states – such as Katanga– with the resource-poor states, such as Province Orientale, grumbling that the funds are not being fairly distributed. Likewise the 2010 constitution in Kenya created 52 counties with powers that sought to redress accusations that certain ethnic groups had not benefitted equally since independence. However, when resource allocation is tied to that of a region or ethnic group, it can lead to divisions. At independence in 1960 Nigeria consisted of three regions – tellingly now it consists of 36 states.

Most controversial is the role that devolution has played in conflict resolution and reconciliation. In the UK, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement provided for a system of power-sharing between both communities in Northern Ireland. In Indonesia, giving Aceh a degree of autonomy and allowing it to adopt a form of Sharia law were part of the main provisions that brought an end 30 years of conflict between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the national government. Questions of devolution are a factor in countries like Burma and Sri Lanka that are in the process of resolving long-standing violent secessionist movements by minorities.

Why WFD can help

The UK has a good story to tell about devolution – made all the more valuable by being as much about its pitfalls and challenge as its successes. Our asymmetric approach means the three devolved assemblies each have their own unique focus. In Wales there are interesting lessons on how to cope with the language issue; in Northern Ireland devolution comes in the context of conflict resolution and power-sharing; and in Scotland we see an example of devolution attempting to win the confidence of a small nation while remaining in a much larger one.

Westminster Foundation for Democracy draws on all this experience and expertise – not just from the Commons, but all the devolved assemblies. And not just from their hugely knowledgeable and insightful staff, either, but also from Westminster’s political parties. Our approach utilises the strong sister-party relationships between the UK’s parties and their overseas counterparts to encourage the growth of multiparty democracies in the countries where we operate.

In countries either going through the process of devolution, or getting used to the new system, we should be ready to work with new representative bodies at the sub-national level. It is not about being an advocate for devolution in itself. What matters is that it is often the devolved units which receive powers over the areas like education or health which can make the biggest difference to fighting poverty. The challenge is in making the devolved institutions more effective at connecting them up with their citizens and helping them understand where the responsibilities lie.

Where next?

As we look to the future there is room for both optimism and concern. We can expect many of the newly devolved units to establish themselves more effectively. For example, Lagos in Nigeria or Jakarta in Indonesia have shown how effective sub-national systems can be at improving and delivering front line services that make a real difference to citizens’ lives.

However, clear dangers lie ahead too. Critics of devolution rightly point to the perils of having multiple layers which unnecessarily absorb state resources and detract from directing those resources to where they are needed. There is a risk of creating hollowed-out institutions which do not have the manpower, or even the political will, to be effective.

WFD and parliamentary strengthening organisations like it have a critical role to play, but we have to be careful not to approach this with our own preconceived ideas in mind. The complex relationships between the different tiers of representation are all context-specific. All our work has to be driven by our partner parliaments. It is only where there is political will for reform that we should seek to operate. When that exists – and it’s clear that assisting regional bodies will help improve people’s lives – we should always be ready to offer our support.