Friday, 11 May 2012

Local accountability in development

Fascinating article on Global Dashboard: City Development States - Why Lagos works better than Nigeria. Kaplan says that Nigeria "has a major metropolis that increasingly is acting like one of a handful of city development states–large urban areas in developing countries that are driving progress forward in a way typically associated with well-managed central governments."

One of the reasons he identifies is that the city of Lagos is largely dependent on local revenue. I'd love to see a study on the relationship between accountability and locally-sourced revenue. My gut feeling is that it makes a huge difference. As much as national-level indicators and high-level policy tend to be the focus of a lot of development advocacy, the reality is that most development takes place at a local level. Revamping a country's health system is great, but the real development impact takes place when the local clinic can hand out the medicine people need because they now have access to a functioning stock management system.

If that's true, then local accountability plays an important part in driving development forward. South Africa has wonderfully pretty development policy on paper, but in many parts of the country that simply does not translate into service delivery. An awful lot of those places depend for their income on far away urban centres. The majority of the money is in one place, the majority of the need in another. The accountability of the people spending the money, therefore, is to the central government, not the local people. The places where things appear to be working a little better seem, in general, to be places where the city or town is largely dependent on local funds. And service delivery isn't only better for the people who actually pay the taxes. Local accountability means that a public outcry about potholes in Joburg gets the roads fixed but Joburg also gets upset when Diepsloot doesn't have water. Is it possible that the reasonable expectation that the city will deliver creates a context in which the city is more likely to deliver for everyone?

On a national scale, that expectation just isn't as easily generalised, because there isn't the same direct accountability. In South Africa, again, improving education results in most of the country can exist simultaneously with one province (the Eastern Cape) firing thousands of teachers, including many maths and science teachers, leaving already-struggling schools understaffed and contributing to the worst school results in the country, with apparently no repercussions.

Of course, this is one of those almost-impossible-to-fix problems: the people who need the help don't have the money or they wouldn't need the help. It's hard to see how accountability like this could be generated in those places where the income has to be derived mostly from central government because there isn't enough money locally to pay for service delivery for all the people. But it's still an important idea. If local accountability really does impact on development, then a lot more attention should be paid to finding ways of building local accountability. Perhaps decentralising the development agenda - even if it means that not all people in all places will have access to exactly the same development outcomes - would allow local accountability to drive a more effective development process than national policy is creating in some of the emerging African economies. 

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