Does the devolution of responsibility for service provision to elected local authorities improve the delivery of services to the poor? This is the major challenge of democratic decentralisation and a key benchmark for assessment.
Many governments devolve power and resources to local bodies which assume responsibility for health, education and other essential services. Decentralised service delivery is now a key determinant for less developed countries (LDCs) to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
While decentralisation potentially increases accountability and participation at the local level, for poor people the real test lies in whether it improves services and material well-being. Improvements in democratic accountability and service delivery are not mutually exclusive but can complement and reinforce each other.
However, decentralisation policy initiatives often strengthen local democracy without considering benefits to service delivery. The challenge is that evidence to support decentralised service delivery is fragmentary and inconsistent, and conditions for successful devolution of services are poorly understood.
The articles in this IDS Bulletin discuss these issues, with evidence on service delivery outcomes from a range of developing countries, and implications for designing reforms that maximise prospects for improvements in the quality and access of services for the poor.
Democratic decentralisation is still a relatively new phenomenon in most LDCs and positive results will take time to mature. Short-term and time-bound interventions will not work; steady, incremental and well-resourced initiatives that build capacity and increase accountability are instead the surest route to realising the promise of democratic decentralisation.