Moving from top-down to bottom-up no easy process

Urban poverty has a familiar face—the image of the overcrowded and garbage-strewn slum. It may surprise many to hear, then, that three quarters of the world’s poorest people—about 900-million persons—live in rural areas.

“Not simply poverty, but extreme poverty is the normal experience of the majority of the rural population,” says the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad) in its 2002 Regional Strategy Paper for Eastern and Southern Africa.
Ifad is a United Nations agency that focuses on ending rural poverty in developing nations.

Decentralisation—the transfer of power from governments in often distant capitals to local authorities—is frequently depicted as one of the strategies that hold the greatest promise for helping the rural poor. At present, most of these people rely on agriculture for their livelihood. Yet, they have tended to exercise little control over the policies which are drawn up for rural areas, and which have a direct effect on the success of farming.

While governments and aid agencies have embarked on decentralisation initiatives, the jury—in many instances—is still out on the success of these efforts. Last week, Ifad and Uganda’s government jointly hosted a workshop in the capital, Kampala, to discuss how decentralisation policies in three East African countries—and Ifad initiatives in rural areas there—could be improved.

“What we want to do is understand how we can enhance our country presence by putting some more resources into the country itself, the institutions that are here, and the governments,” said James Carruthers, assistant president of the Programme Management Department at IFAD. The countries in the spotlight were Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Decentralisation has been underway in Uganda for more than a decade, this after the so-called Resistance Councils which enabled the National Resistance Movement (NRM) to take control of the country, were given the authority to manage local communities. The NRM took power after a five-year war against dictator Milton Obote.

Almost 70% of Uganda’s 24-million-strong population makes a living from agriculture.

“Decentralisation has transformed the political landscape of this country. This policy has taken root, and is more or less irreversible,” said Henry Muganwa Kajura, second deputy prime minister and minister of public service.

However, he added a rider to this statement: “In Uganda we are fully aware that decentralisation is not a panacea—but has a high potential to deliver good governance, a reduction in poverty and development.”

Local Government Minister Tarsis Kabwegyere had similar thoughts.

“The process of transformation still has to be advanced and supported because we are still a long way from where we are expected to be,” he noted. “We are at a stage of greater demand for converting decentralisation into transformation and development.”

In part, problems with decentralisation appear to stem from the fact that local authorities—while mandated to manage certain day-to-day operations in communities, and plan for their development—often lack the funds to do so.

“Lack of financial resources (in Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania) is affecting even basic aspects of service delivery. And the paucity of resources for operation and maintenance in all three countries makes it highly unlikely that the infrastructure entrusted to the care of local governments will be sustained as designed,” notes a 2004 Ifad report, Ifad’s Performance and Impact in Decentralizing Environments: Experiences from Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda.

As with Uganda, the economy of Tanzania, which has a population of 31,3-million, is dominated by agriculture: about 70% of Tanzanians are based in rural areas.

But, while decentralisation initiatives there date back to the colonial era, the notion of devolving power from the capital remains controversial in certain respects.

“Decentralisation is a political process, and governments will only allow it along if it will not rock the boat,” said Charles Keenja, Tanzania’s minister of agriculture and food security.

The 2004 Ifad report also hints at political constraints to decentralisation. It appears that establishing local authorities is no guarantee the concerns of citizens will make themselves heard over those of central government.

“By design, the executive rather than the elected branch of local government dominates decision-making in all three countries,” the report notes. “The executive branch, in turn, is controlled by a political party or coalition that has been in power at the centre for 12 years in Ethiopia, 33 years in Tanzania and 18 years in Uganda.”

Effective decentralisation policies would address the ills that typically plague African farmers, such as limited access to land, adequate water supplies—and the capital that could enable them to move beyond subsistence level.

Lifting these farmers out of poverty is also crucial for attaining the Millennium Development Goal that seeks to halve the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015. (Eight such goals were agreed on in 2000 during the Millennium Summit, held at the United Nations in New York. They include pledges to reduce extreme hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and combat diseases which are taking a particular toll on developing countries.)

“It is now clear that you cannot have a continent poor and its people miserable and the world continues normally. The misery here is now the misery everywhere,” Uganda’s Kabwegyere said this week, during the March 10 - 11 workshop.

“It is upon all of us to make sure that we all advance.”—IPS

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