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March 03, 2016
Jadaliyya interviews Mona Harb and Sami Atallah, editors of Local Governments and Public Goods: Assessing Decentralization in the Arab World

In this interview with Jadaliyya, co-editors Mona Harb, associate professor of Urban Studies and Politics at the American University of Beirut, and Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director, talk about their recent book on decentralization in the Arab world. The book is both critical of assumptions about decentralization and underscores its potential to offer an alternative to authoritarian and centralized structures of government.
The interview was conducted over email, and first published on the Jadaliyya website

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this book?

Mona Harb and Sami Atallah (MH and SA): We wanted to write this book since we first met at a conference on local governments at the current Institut Français du Proche-Orient of Beirut in 2000, which led to a publication that remains a reference on the topic. Mona was presenting her work on local governments’ participatory practices in south Beirut, and Sami was speaking of fiscal decentralization in Lebanon. Fourteen years later, the opportunity to realize this dated, wild project materialized. We had authored a consultancy report on local governments and decentralization in Lebanon together, and published papers and reports separately. Mona had authored a paper in French on the municipalities run by Hizballah in Lebanon, while Sami had produced several reports on the issue, including a comprehensive document for ICMA. In 2014, while Mona was on leave from the American University of Beirut, she took up the offer made by Sami to lead a project on local governance in the Arab World, funded by the Open Society Foundation, at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), which Sami directs.

We were both driven by our urge to produce critical knowledge on decentralization, beyond the normative discourse celebrating it as a panacea, while underscoring its potential opportunities to debunk authoritarian and centralized structures of government that make sure to undermine avenues for alternative power structures to emerge and challenge their actions. We were keen on a comparative approach, placing Lebanon in dialogue with other countries in the Arab world that were relatively well engaged in a decentralization process, or at least where local governments were elected and operational. We thus invited experts and scholars working on decentralization, local governance, and service provision in those countries, and asked them to author a paper according to a framework of analysis we devised, in order to enhance possibilities of comparisons across country cases.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MH and SA: The book investigates the history, processes, and practices of decentralization, local governance, and the provision of public goods. It examines five country cases: Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen—selected because they have relatively older and more elaborate experiences of deconcentration and decentralization than their counterpart Arab countries. We asked authors to structure their chapters along three sets of issues: the making and politics of decentralization, the legislation and practice of service delivery, and the fiscal structures governing decentralization. In all three, we sought to understand the legal framework guiding the studied issue, its evolution over time, and its actual practice. We wanted to identify and qualify the gaps and hurdles that impede the implementation of a more decentralized and democratic system of regional and local governance, but also study how these gaps are being navigated and, perhaps, circumvented.

Five themes emerge from the country cases. First, colonial legacies and regional histories determine decentralization policies, as interactions and hierarchies between groups living in regions of the Arab world prior to colonial rule were very much regulated according to a decentralized architecture of power. Second, although states advocate decentralization, they more often than not are paying lip service to it, and even subverting it, coopting development aid to further consolidate central power. Third, at the level of urban management and service delivery, while many services remain centralized, several infrastructural and technical services are becoming more decentralized, engaging the private sector and civil society actors, generating poorly regulated, fragmented, and opaque multi-scalar configurations of governance, and generating problems of management, provision, efficiency costs, and inequality. Fourth, although municipalities significantly lack revenues, they are reluctant about collecting local taxes, even when they have the authority, in order to secure political loyalties and/or appease the population and prevent social tensions. Fifth, the chapters sketch the conditions under which local governments are able to innovate, and how some mayors and municipal councilors manage to negotiate the multiple legal, administrative, financial, and political constraints and provide public goods to their constituencies. Such conditions include leadership, networks, civil society dynamics, political competition, governance, and territoriality. Therefore, we argue that decentralization policies in the Arab world, while facing major challenges, still provide policy windows that may present opportunities for social, economic, and political changes, if mobilized adequately.

The book is organized in five chapters. Chapter one, on Tunisia, is authored in French by Sami Yassin Turki and Eric Verdeil, and discusses how the constitution drafted after the Tunisian “Spring” addresses matters of decentralization. Chapter two, on Morocco, is written by Ali Bouabid and Aziz Iraki, and investigates centralization tensions in the kingdom. Chapter three, on Yemen, by Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj, examines decentralization between “tides of unity and tribal approval.” The fourth chapter by Myriam Ababsa, on Jordan, in French, shows how decentralization and democracy are processes controlled by royal will. The fifth chapter, by Mona Harb and Sami Atallah, investigates the fragmented and incomplete journey of decentralization in Lebanon. We also wrote the introductory and concluding chapters of the volume.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research, and how does it connect to your new research projects?

MH: I started researching municipalities when I was doing my PhD research, and was fascinated by those institutions where so many decisions impacting the livelihoods of people were taking place. In Lebanon, where planning and urban management are centralized, and where public agencies are dysfunctional and corrupt, I thought municipalities may operate as relatively more efficient planning institutions. I am not romanticizing local governance here, as I am quite aware that municipal councilors also have private interests they prioritize over the common good. However, I still see local governments as institutions where checks and balances are somewhat operational, especially via the local electoral process and the municipal law, which provides good mechanisms of public action.

I am also very interested in the role of development aid and policy mobilities in enhancing capacities of local governments, and providing opportunities to strengthen alternative power arrangements, outside hegemonic configurations of power. Lebanon is a very interesting laboratory in this respect, as numerous international organizations have been intervening to empower regional and local governments, and encourage them to develop their own city strategies and development plans—especially in the context of reconstruction, and now of the acute Syrian refugee crisis. I am currently investigating these issues through a grant I received from the LSE Middle East Center, co-managed with Romola Sanyal and Mona Fawaz. Some of our findings will be featured in the forthcoming City Debates 2016 conference.

SA: This book was a great opportunity to put together many of my earlier work into a coherent framework, and use it to also learn more about other decentralization cases in the Arab world. I first started studying municipal competences and revenues as ways to stimulate development back in 1997—one year before the post-war municipal elections of 1998 (the last municipal elections ones had been held in 1963!) Through my fieldwork, I was stunned to realize the extent to which localities were left neglected and politically stagnant.

My current research on decentralization falls into two strands. The first examines the factors that drive the performance of municipalities. This work is largely based on quantifiable data that I have been collecting on measures of performance, municipal revenues, sectarian composition, and other relevant variables for two hundred and fifty municipalities. Building on this work, Mona and I have written a paper assessing the factors that drive the performance of municipal federations using a mixed method approach of qualitative interviews and quantitative assessment of the federations’ heads and key officials, in addition to looking at the role of leadership and networking in influencing development. The second strand assesses the policy challenges facing municipalities, especially after the influx of more than one million Syrian refugees. I am interested in examining the capabilities and willingness of municipalities to provide public services, as well as the different modalities they have adopted to deal with the Syrian refugees.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MH and SA: We conceived this book for a large public to read: students, scholars, policy-makers, as well as anyone interested in issues of local governance and decentralization. The chapters are illustrated with several tables, diagrams, graphs, maps, and photos, in an effort to visualize and enrich the arguments made. We made sure to invite authors who privilege a grounded and critical approach to researching decentralization and local governance, away from normative frameworks of analysis praising decentralization as a panacea, or demonizing it as a tool for political and territorial division. We wanted to debunk these stereotypes, and privilege a rigorous understanding of decentralization as a set of legal, institutional, financial, and political arrangements that improve the effectiveness of processes of governance and promote inclusion and equity.

We hope the book will encourage future research on decentralization, regional and local governments, service provision, and urban management. We lack basic knowledge on municipal institutions, on the sociological profiles of municipal councilors, on local stakeholders’ networks, on policy tracings, etc. With this book, we want to open up the debate on decentralization, and call for more substantive and informed research on these questions, so that we can critically understand the roles of elected local and regional governments in the ongoing socio-economic, urban, and political dynamics of towns, cities, and regions in the Arab world.

Excerpts from Local Governments and Public Goods: Assessing Decentralization in the Arab World

From “Introduction: A New Framework for Assessing Decentralization in the Arab World” (Mona Harb and Sami Atallah)

In the context of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, decentralization was partially put in place by colonial authorities to control the power of strong local leaderships. After the establishment of independent nation-states, governments favored social welfare policies to gain support and legitimacy, often privileging authoritarian rule. During the 1980s and 1990s, socio-economic challenges made these policy choices more difficult to sustain. Progressively, structural adjustment policies and neoliberal reforms drastically altered the socio-political system in place in favor of the governing authorities and their associated elites, and at the expenses of the low and middle-income categories. Poverty levels increased drastically. Governments in the MENA region continued advocating decentralization, often under the auspices of foreign donors, but very little effective decentralization of authority was being implemented (Bergh 2012). “Deconcentration” was the actual dominant practice, which namely served to strengthen the central government’s domination (Jari 2010). This led to a major crisis of accountability between different levels of governments as well as vis-à-vis citizens. Simultaneously, on the ground, local governments were gaining more and more strength and demanding more loudly their rights to manage their own affairs. The Arab uprisings loudly demonstrate to this growing significance of the local and territorial scale of politics.

Many MENA countries depend on international aid, which widely advocates decentralization policies. Foreign donors operate in the context of multi-level governance and globalization, which are often very disconnected from the specifics of the local context (Jari 2010). This gap leads to major inequalities in the elaboration and implementation of decentralization policies that benefit the already powerful groups (and local governments) at the expense of the more marginalized communities who do not master the jargon of international development. Thus, these decentralized policies often change the responsibilities and capabilities of political actors in ways that are frequently in opposition to their aims of better governance, as they are not associated with administrative accountability and protective legal mechanisms (Batterbury and Fernando 2006). Additionally, local opposition groups can get more radicalized in reaction to decentralization policies that threaten their power, and strongly contest and prevent decentralization reform (Poteete and Ribot 2011). In summary, decentralization produces a new complex landscape of powers that blocks its development aims. Central actors impede the transfers of power to the local level, or they partially transfer authority to the parties they have control over, resorting to selective implementation of laws, threats of violence and claims that local actors are unable to meet their responsibilities. NGOs and entrepreneurs strategically position themselves as intermediaries between the central government and the local administration, but they are accountable to neither.


The book is organized in five chapters. In chapter one, Sami Yassine Turki and Eric Verdeil discuss how Tunisia has embarked, since the uprisings, on a substantive discussion of decentralization involving experts and community groups who are drafting a constitution regulating service delivery and urban management on various territorial scales. In chapter two, Ali Bouabid and Aziz Iraki investigate the story of decentralization in Morocco, highlighting the sustained efforts of the monarchy to control ongoing decentralization reforms. Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj, in chapter three, presents an alternate story: Yemen is the only studied country where decentralization has a historical, social and political legacy that was consolidated constitutionally, and where centralization initiatives are actually needed. Chapter four presents the Jordanian case, within which, Myriam Ababsa tells us, the King pushes for both centralization and decentralization, depending on donors' policies and tensions with tribal and Islamist opposition groups. In chapter five, we examine the Lebanese case and show how decentralization is only partially achieved, yielding mixed outcomes and a fragmented landscape of more or less efficient service delivery.


From Chapter One: “Tunisie: La constitution (du printemps) ouvre le débat sur la decentralization” (Sami Yassine Turki and Eric Verdeil)

…un des grands enjeux de la décentralisation concerne la transformation des modes d’action des entreprises de services urbains en réseau. Dotées d’une légitimité historique en tant que bras armés de l’Etat pour développer et moderniser le pays, elles fonctionnent de manière très sectorielle et uniforme à travers le pays (ce qui ne veut pas dire qu’elles rendent un service de qualité identique partout, loin s’en faut), ne rendant compte qu’à leur tutelle, et en peinant à prendre en considération les intérêts locaux et municipaux.

Dans ce cadre, trois enjeux émergent. Le premier est une réflexion sur une plus grande régionalisation des critères et des modes d’opération dans les différents services urbains en réseau, afin de mieux prendre en compte les spécificités locales en termes de mobilisation des ressources, et des besoins et pratiques des consommateurs résidentiels ou industriels. Face à ces disparités régionales, l’Etat doit-il mettre en oeuvre une péréquation qui est parfois aveugle et contre-productive, ou au contraire, faire varier les contributions respectives et encourager des pratiques distinctes? Ces questions commencent à être pointées, notamment par des associations écologistes, mais aussi par les revendications d’habitants qui se sentent dépossédés de leurs ressources en eau.


Un deuxième élément de réflexion a trait à l’échelle pertinente d’une telle gestion différenciée sur le plan géographique. Ici, l’eau et l’assainissement doivent fonctionnellement être alignés sur les mêmes découpages, qui ne sont pas nécessairement les mêmes pour l’électricité et le gaz. Dans tous les cas, l’échelon municipal est à coup sûr inadéquat par rapport à des logiques pluricommunales, comme pour les déchets. Mais le modèle régional, qui permet des économies d’échelle et une concentration de l’expertise, dispose aussi d’une forte légitimité. Un troisième élément d’évolution, qui s’imposera rapidement à la discussion au fur et à mesure de la décentralisation des compétences d’aménagement vers les municipalités, a trait aux formes de concertation entre ces dernières et les opérateurs de services, de façon à mieux associer les municipalités et les habitants aux opérations d’amélioration du cadre de vie, et aussi de façon à éviter que des opérations sectorielles n’aillent à l’encontre des choix de planification municipales. Cela implique de penser des arènes de discussion adéquates, ainsi que l’émergence au sein des municipalités, de départements techniques capables d’identifier et de défendre leurs intérêts de maîtres d’ouvrage.


From Chapter Four: “Jordanie: La décentralisation par décision centralisée et la démocratie par volonté royale” (Myriam Ababsa)

…Tout l’enjeu des politiques de décentralisation conduites en Jordanie est d’arriver à une formule qui favorise les Jordaniens, tout en créant de l’emploi et en sauvegardant la paix sociale, et ceci en limitant l’émergence des groupes islamistes à la tête des municipalités les plus urbanisées. Mais en parallèle, le gouvernement annonce la volonté de faire participer la société civile à l’échelle locale aux décisions prises. Le processus de décentralisation relancé à partir de 2005 s’est heurté à des conflits institutionnels entre les trois ministères en charge et à des pesanteurs juridiques pour établir les modes de scrutin des représentants des conseils de régions. Les municipalités jordaniennes souffrent d’un manque d’autonomie financière etdécisionnelle. N’offrant plus que des services de collecte d’ordures, d’entretien de la voirie et d’éclairage, elles ont de plus en plus de mal à lever les taxes foncières et professionnelles, qui sont sous évaluées pour ne pas “léser” les intérêts des élites économiques qui tiennent les conseils municipaux. Les liens se sont progressivement coupés entre les citadins et les édiles, du fait d’une absence d’information sur les politiques urbaines. Les annonces de consultation en vue d’une meilleure participation attirent peu l’intérêt des citoyens, le faible taux de participation aux élections municipales en témoigne. La loi municipale doit être révisée pour que les municipalités puissent formuler leurs besoins et élaborer des politiques de développement local adaptées. A part Amman et Aqaba, aucune n’a une politique de marketing urbain capable d’attirer des investisseurs.

The book can be downloaded in English/French here, and in Arabic, here.

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