To better meet citizens’ expectations, the local level should be allowed to determine for itself which competencies it is capable of assuming
By The Alliance for Rebuilding Governance in Africa (May 2006)
Decentralisation redistributes power by consecrating the principle of free administration of communities and by giving them precise competencies. The State, which has the ‘competency of its competency’ according to a well-known formula, decides on and organises the transfer. But there is a problem inherent in this means of proceeding: there is no guarantee that the competencies the State transfers to the local level will be performed optimally. There is no way of knowing in advance if the local level is able or willing to take on the missions assigned to it by the State and there is no way of knowing whether or not actors’ and citizens’ expectations will be met efficiently. Consequently, the way in which competencies are shared between the local and national levels should be revised to allow the local level to express what it is capable of managing. The remaining competencies, which the local level is not capable of performing, should then be assumed by the State.
Decentralisation gives the local level greater importance primarily by bestowing on it a certain number of competencies that it is then expected to implement. The State decides which competencies will be transferred to the local level, and as a result which missions it will no longer be responsible for. Clearly, the State cannot be an impartial judge under such circumstances. To defend its approach, the State first of all points to the subsidiarity principle: the distribution of competencies is based on assigning to each level the competencies it can best assume. The State then claims to be acting equitably by announcing an illusory principle: the simultaneous transfer of competencies and the resources required to take them on. Finally, the State points to proximity as a factor in determining which competencies are transferred. Yet it retains the power to define sectoral policies in the fields it has transferred.
Experience has shown that in most decentralised African systems, local actors claim that the State has transferred problems, not competencies. The State is suspected of having taken advantage of decentralisation to foist off on the local level the difficult missions it cannot assume itself. In the end, competencies granted to the local level are either purely and simply abandoned or, in the best cases, taken on but performed with persistent difficulties.
In a decentralised system, however, exercising competencies that the State has transferred is not optional; it is a legal and political obligation incumbent on the local level. Clearly, all competencies recognised at a level of governance are vital to social organisation and the life of the community. So it is worrisome that entire blocks of vital missions have been abandoned, and that this widespread and long-lasting situation is indeed becoming the norm rather than the exception.
This state of affairs reveals a deep-seated malaise caused by the way in which competencies are distributed. The local level should have the right and the opportunity to indicate which missions it can and should undertake. It should be able to enter into a dialogue with the State and determine, in a consensual, objective and rational manner, the competencies of each level and their articulation.
The efficacy of local public action remains closely linked to the local level’s determination of its own sphere of competencies and the default definition of competencies for which the State is responsible.