Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Decentering the State for Local Accountability through Representation: Social Divides as a Barrier in South Asia

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Decentering the State for Local Accountability through Representation: Social Divides as a Barrier in South Asia

Article excerpt


In recent decades, in line with the ethos of democratization and market-driven reforms, there has emerged a growing trend towards decentering the state and transferring its power to various non-state actors, including local government institutions. In the developing world, although the principles and processes of decentralization have been introduced in order to enhance local-level accountability, the realization of such accountability has been greatly constrained or compromised due to various forms of social divides based on class, caste, and gender. This article explores these issues and concerns with special reference to selected South Asian countries.


In line with the contemporary forces of democratization, expansion of promarket ethos, and attacks on interventionist governments, there has emerged a worldwide trend in favor of decentering the state's role and transferring its activities to non-state actors. One major facet of this trend is the decentralization of authority and responsibility to various local governments. It is observed that in the developing world, "practically every country has experimented with some form of decentralization or local government reform with varying aims and outcomes ..." (Parker, 1995:18). In order to create a democratic polity, the decentralized system of local government is now considered essential, because it is likely to involve citizens in the policy process, produce decisions based on local needs, educate people in democracy, develop political leadership, facilitate service delivery, and so on (Haque, 1997). One major challenge to such decentralization, however, remains to be the realization of an accountable local governance system, especially in developing countries where there are serious institutional as well as contextual obstacles to maintain public accountability at both the central and local levels.

Interestingly, although the decentralization initiatives are meant to enhance local level accountability, such initiatives also create a greater need for such accountability as authority and responsibility are devolved and resources and services are transferred to various levels of local governance. More specifically, this accountability becomes central concern when decentralization leads to greater local level autonomy to earn revenues from local taxes, commercial ventures, and grants and donations; to spend money for roads, schools, and infrastructure; to deliver and distribute basic goods and services like education, housing, and transport; and to elect and appoint local government representatives or officials (Haque, 1997).

Similar to the measures of central government accountability, there are certain means available for ensuring local government accountability, including regular election to elect local councils and chairmen or mayors, use of committees and sub-committees, role of local media, codes of conduct and rules of business, and certain controls exercised by central government. However, one most democratic means of such accountability is the provision of local election that may guarantee the representation of various groups or sections of society irrespective of their class, caste, gender, and religious backgrounds. The degree of such direct electoral representation of these diverse groups in local government institutions often determine the extent to which they are accountable to these groups and responsive to their needs and demands. Without fair representation of major groups and classes in the organizational composition of local institutions, it remains uncertain whether other means of accountability can ensure their accountability and responsiveness to landless farmers, lower-caste citizens, ethnic minorities, and less privileged women (Haque, 1997). Thus, one major concern is regarding the impacts of various forms of "social divides" (based on income, caste, race, religion, and gender) on the efficacy of local government accountability. …

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