Careful decentralization of power over environment promotes democracy, development in Africa


Careful decentralization of power over environment promotes democracy, development in Africa

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA, March 26, 2001 -- The World Resources Institute (WRI) today urged African countries to strategically decentralize control over their natural resources as a means of strengthening democracy and protecting the environment. "Decentralization in Africa is very promising but as it is currently implemented, it will not encourage democracy, or deliver greater efficiency, equity and environmental protection," warned Dr. Jesse Ribot of the World Resources Institute (WRI). The WRI researcher was in Capetown today addressing a United Nations meeting on decentralizing local governance in Africa.

Development agencies, non-governmental organizations, and governments in Africa are promoting greater participation by local people in the use, maintenance and restoration of their natural resources. Already, some African countries are decentralizing or transferring environmental management responsibilities and powers from the central government to local bodies.

"Unfortunately, in many African countries, decentralization merely means the transfer of powers to centrally controlled, non-democratic, unaccountable local institutions," said Dr. Ribot. These local groups include traditional chiefs, religious orders, non-governmental organizations or business groups.

He cited cases in Mali and Uganda wherein many forests, which were previously in the public domain, are being privatized in the name of decentralization. Cases also exist in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Guinea, Malawi and Zimbabwe where only local power elites - not the general population - have benefited.

Tundu Lissu, staff attorney of Lawyers' Environmental Action Team (LEAT) in Tanzania agrees with this assessment. He said that in most cases, the centralized state - characterized by authoritarianism and the lack of political space for popular democracy - has been replicated at the local levels. "The result has been called decentralized despotism -- an even more oppressive and unaccountable local governance structure at the local level."

Lissu adds that careful decentralization is crucial since whoever controls local decision-making ultimately controls local resources, which is the key to rural development in Africa.

"Decentralizing powers over natural resources without ensuring that local groups are accountable to the community at large or represent the general population is dangerous," said Dr. Ribot. "Giving public powers to un-democratic authorities slows down democratic transitions."

WRI's Dr. Ribot recommends the following:

  • Establishment of democratic local governments to ensure greater public participation in local decisions concerning natural resources. For example, Mali and Senegal changed their laws to allow independent candidates in local elections, helping to make local governments more accountable.
  • Encourage transparency and accountability of all local authorities who are engaged in the management of local resources. This has also been recommended by Alois Mandondo of the University of Zimbabwe's Institute of Environmental Studies.
  • Transfer to accountable local authorities significant powers over public natural resources and powers of value to local people.
  • Make certain that the legal instruments used to establish local accountability and to transfer powers are secure so that transfers are made as rights rather than as privileges to be given and taken back by central authorities.
"Decentralization of control over local natural resources has only began in Africa," said Dr. Ribot. "This is the right path but one that should be tread carefully."

For more information, contact:

Adlai Amor, WRI, Washington, DC, (202) 729-7736,