Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

Local Government and Post-conflict reconstruction

For national governments, NGOs, and business enterprises alike, the business of post-conflict country reconstruction is a lucrative, multi-billion dollar business. Western countries in general and the USA and its stooge the UK, have spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the last decades for post-conflict reconstruction bids on countries in which they have devastated militarily in the first place. This huge business enriched many of their big business companies while ravaging the coffers of their tax payers.
Despite the spending of very huge sums, what the historical and actual practice records of this particular endeavor informs the world is that the overall result is not at all commendable and far short of its worth of spending, as it results in the proliferation of civil wars and failed states. Not to mention failed policies and wrong post-conflict reconstruction models and strategies.
It is simple conventional wisdom to begin digging out of the hole of failed policies and strategies for more productive policies. At this juncture, the role of local governance is indispensable. In most books and papers on reconstruction, development, democratization, and or conflict resolution, however, the role of local governance in the reconstruction of post conflict countries has limited scholarship to pick apart, with only asides, anecdotes, or short briefs about a local leader or town outperforming the rest of the country. Most of the expertise exists among NGOs, who are inclined to work with grassroots and local government organizations but are short on scholarship.  Sadly, external actors tend to see local or informal organizations as too far “in the weeds” to understand or to be effective.
National government naturally involves abstractions that local governments can better avoid.  Most government services that affect the day-to-day lives of citizens and communities are provided by local or district governments, such as education, health, police, justice, real estate, and road services. The difference is that local governments are stuck enforcing or implementing national policy. Thus the alternative is granting local governments the power and the resources to decide policy as well as administer it.
Small-scale governance reforms and programs (sometimes called by the NGO circles as “small-g” programs) can better work with the grain of society, encouraging a participatory discourse that keeps citizens invested, informed, and involved in their communities’ deliverance of public goods. A noted American Sociologist, Brian Levy writes, “more participatory local governance, which may in turn promote greater accountability for the quality of local service provision can, for one thing, show a society the benefits that come from choosing collaboration over conflict. As such, “small-g” programs may serve as steppingstones to a politics that centers on programs and the public interest rather than the jockeying of cliques and clienteles. Nor should we underrate the degree to which progress at the “small-g” level can help to sustain the forward momentum of inclusive, labour-demanding economic growth”.
By keeping money, government, and projects local, supply is better matched to demand for government services, thus increasing flexibility, accountability, and service delivery. As a result, people can better see where their tax money is going and express their opinion through their local councils or elections about whether money is being spent effectively on the right projects.
Local governance has particular benefits for post-conflict countries. Decentralization divides up power and resources throughout a country, which results in less contact and conflict among groups from different areas while also giving more groups a “piece of the pie” and thus incentive to accept the existing order rather than returning to violence. Strengthening sub-national sources of power can help to accommodate diverse local demands and different visions of the post-conflict state while investing larger numbers of participants in the political system and enhancing responsiveness. 
Because local government has better information about the specific nature of local conflict, they can do a better job preventing, managing, and solving problems through local norms. It is easy to conclude that if local government can be more responsive to the constituents’ needs and give people recourse to voice their grievances, it will reduce the need for rebellion in the first place.
However, local government does not exist in a vacuum. Its effectiveness is highly influenced by its relationship with higher levels of government. Poorly decentralized states create local governments that remain pawns of the national government. For example, if the national government cannot exert its power across the entire country, it may rely on local governments delivering the support and acquiesce of its populations to the national government in exchange for resources. In this case, the decentralization is subject to national-government meddling and politicization that will undercut the benefits and effectiveness of local government. 
Despite limited efforts, there have been some important and illustrative successes. Some NGOs and State Agencies of the post-conflict reconstruction business sited Uganda and Somaliland which have both exhibited relatively strong indigenous institutions at the local level. While far from perfect societies or countries, such indigenous efforts have done better than their externally-sponsored efforts by focusing on social contracting and building substantive foundations. In Uganda for example, decentralization gave substantial power to local councils. 
However, most funding was appropriated from the national government, undercutting local council autonomy and opening the councils up to national meddling and election tampering.  Projects that involved the population in a more active role had greater success.
In post-conflict countries, local government responsiveness to its citizens can best done in a non-confrontational approach that encourages effective, legitimate rule rather than destabilizing the community. Feedback and governance mechanisms need not be a part of a formal institution so long as it has enough societal support that local officials cannot simply disregard it without consequence. Informal linkages can provide flexibility when necessary, present an alternative when formal authority disappoints, and encourage better institutional performance. 
Resource constraints are a common problem for local governments; national politicians have little incentive to give money to local governments. But without sufficient funds or autonomy the potential for development will be undercut and decentralization efforts will largely be symbolic.  As such, aid at both the national and sub-national levels should be tailored to reinforce taxation.  Taxes perform an important role in democracies. By “buying-in,” citizens have a motivation to care how the government spends its money. States that do not depend on taxation do not need their citizens for money or approval, encouraging autocracy.
Post-conflict states have a similar predicament. Aid makes them dependent on the international community, not their citizens, for approval and money. Money should be given on a matching basis, encouraging the nation to develop capacities to levy, collect, and manage taxes so that indigenous countries remain dependent on their own people for financial support. Aid and tax money that is intended for local programs or costs should be raised or given at the local level, reducing its vulnerability to corruption, mismanagement, political power plays, and overhead costs.
Encouraging the primacy of local governance mechanisms is not by any means meant that the national government is unnecessary or unimportant. A dysfunctional or too-weak national government will inhibit local governance’s success. First of all, the national government must be strong enough to counter and or remove a local leader or government that becomes parasitic, corrupt, or authoritarian. 
Likewise, it must enforce the constitution and other national laws that the local governments work within, including protecting democratic and human rights. The national government must be able to perform all of its duties and functions vested upon it by the national constitution. Nations cannot be fundamentally changed from outside. They must rely on their indigenous population to be sustainable. 
As Robert Kaplan argues, international action should be first and foremost about facilitating local processes, about leveraging local capacities, and about complementing local actions, so that local citizens can create governance systems appropriate to their surroundings. States work effectively when they are a logical reflection of their underlying socio-political, historical, geographical, human resource, and economic environments, and when they are deeply integrated with the societies they purport to represent, able to harness the informal institution and loyalties of their citizens. Helping underdeveloped countries should not be about propping up the state, but rather about connecting it and making it accountable where possible to its societies.