(Urban) Decentralization

Dernière mise à jour le 6 September 2019


Decentralization of governance: Over the past 25 years, many countries have embarked on a process of decentralization. This process consists of a transfer of skills to lower levels of governance.

This notion comes to us from the United States, then spread to other continents. Historically, this notion has been situated in the will of the United States to take with strength its independence from the United Kingdom. However, each country is a unique case: theories do not allow for a single model of decentralization of public action, a single model that could be applied to achieve more efficient public services.

The notion of decentralization is, according to the continents and countries, considered differently. According to Dennis A Rondinelli of the University of Wisconsin and Professor Echraf Ouedrago of the Université de Laval (Wikipedia), there are 4 major types of decentralization:

  • Administrative decentralization (change in the organization of administrations)
  • Functional decentralization (operation by delegation – establishment of supervisory bodies)
  • Political decentralization (change in decision-making bodies)
  • Structural decentralization (transfer of ownership from one actor to another)

Positive or negative effects?

Depending on the sensitivities and realities on the ground, social actors consider this phenomenon as POSITIVE (strengthening local democracy) or NEGATIVE (strengthening geographical inequalities).


Roland Bénabou, in his article (economic model), explains how this phenomenon leads to urban-banlieue polarization and the emergence of ghettos. It is based on the idea that decentralization reinforces the importance of the “social capital” existing in each territorial entity. These initial inequalities, no longer “levelled” by a higher level of decision-making (redistribution), are increased in a context of decentralization. Some authors believe that this “fragmentation” of public power therefore leaves more room for civil society, which can take the form of simple groups of citizens but also of organized groups of civil society that take on new decision-making spaces. In any case, this weakening of public authority opens up gaps in which pressure groups, including private ones, can infiltrate. Anne Bisang, Director of the Comédie in Geneva, sums up the perverse effects of urban decentralization as follows: A theatre is a centre. Since time immemorial, it has been a place of gathering and exchange. Several theatres can coexist in the same centre. However, multiplying the centres outside the centre divides the centre and cancels it.


Many countries around the world have embarked on a process of decentralization. It is a question of setting up local management or local governance enabling city managers and local authorities to be more active in the future of their city, to be able to set up processes of citizen participation. This is only possible if certain conditions are met: transparency of decisions, accuracy of information, right to be consulted, balanced mechanism for monitoring local authorities, etc.

Information on the situation in the world

IN AFRICA: At the Africity summit in December 2012, many local elected officials recalled how much decentralization of powers goes hand in hand with decentralization of resources (human and financial) to ensure that the process is successful. It began in the 1990s, following the context of widespread disorganization, in the hope that decentralization would allow us to do better than the previous system. However, the very notion of decentralization is implemented differently according to the countries and realities on the ground. While in Senegal and South Africa urban and rural municipalities are placed on the same level, Swaziland has given financial and management autonomy to its urban entities but not to rural authorities: decentralisation scales vary according to the areas. Some countries only allow decentralization to be carried out by entities that can mobilize a certain amount of the municipal budget. Thus, depending on the country, there are a more or less important number of different statutes for local authorities.

IN ASIA: During the AIMF conference in Phnom Penh in March 2013, some Asian local elected officials expressed their views on the road to decentralization. In Cambodia, a decentralized country since 2002, a distinction is made between decentralization (delegation of political, fiscal and administrative power) and deconcentration (autonomy of provinces and cities). Here too, the decentralization of “financial resources” seems difficult. In some Asian mega-cities, the term decentralization also means a form of population relocation and activities to relieve congestion in urban centres (e. g. Tokyo), which can also be called “urban sprawl“. Decentralization in China has been one of the pillars of Chinese economic reform since 1978. It means both a delegation of powers from central government to local authorities, but also from planning authorities to public companies. For the latter, it is a question of putting them in a system of “budgetary responsibility”. Current findings of this policy include an increased public deficit and increased disparities between provinces.

IN EUROPE: Some countries with a history of highly centralized management (such as France) also wish to enter into a decentralization process, from the perspective that they administer well “only closely”. The question of housing and habitat is nowadays very often referred to decentralized entities that are supposed to know better the specific local needs and therefore be able to put in place the most appropriate local responses. Some countries believe that this decentralization can only be effectively achieved as part of a comprehensive overall plan. This means that “regulatory” authorities must be set up to give these general guidelines and to settle any disputes in the name of the higher good. Some believe that the phenomenon of decentralization has been or is going hand in hand with the privatization of public services.

IN LATIN AMERICA: the notion of urban governance is quite recent (late 1990s), introduced by Brazil. This governance is understood as “the relationship between civil society and the state, between leaders and the governed, local government and the governed” (Stren, 2000:4). It is therefore the interdependence between the State and civil society that is at the heart of the debate. This decentralization must be accompanied by a delegation of powers. It is undoubtedly in this perspective that the “participatory budget” born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, must be understood as a concrete example of decentralization.

Sources :

  • French Development Agency (AFD)
  • Bénabou Roland, “Some effects of decentralization on urban structures and the education system”. In Economic Review. Volume 46, No. 3, 1995. pp. 595-604.
  • African Association for Public Administration and Management, sub-theme: Impact of decentralization on governance in Cameroon, Tanzania, 2006.
  • Bernard Jouve, “Gouvernance et décentralisation : les masques tomber enfin”,, Travaux, 17.01.2004.
  • François Paul Yatta, La décentralisation fiscale en Afrique, Karthala, 2009.
  • Jean-François Jolly, Régir le territoire et gouverner les territoires: décentralisation et territorialisation des politiques publiques en Colombie, L’Harmattan, France, 2008.
  • Kiichiro Fukasaku, Luiz R. de Mello, Fiscal Decentralization in Emerging Economies, OECD, 1999.