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Decentralization and Internal Conflict

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We live in a golden era of decentralization. Enthusiasm for shifting power to local tiers of government has never been higher. Moreover, decentralization is regularly put forward as a solution to nearly every governance challenge encountered. This perspective is grounded in the belief that decentralization will enhance government responsiveness and accountability to citizens, flexibility to address the diverse needs of often highly heterogeneous populations, transparency through enhanced oversight, and the dispersal of power from what have often been highly monopolized political structures, among other attributes. In the process, it is argued, decentralization will augment political legitimacy while strengthening a sense of citizen ownership of their government.

Greater popular participation at the local level is also commonly felt to foster political stability. If citizens believe government is concerned about and responsive to their needs, then there is little impetus for armed struggle. Similarly, if decentralization fosters more space to exercise local customs and religious beliefs without fear of persecution, the risk of intergroup strife in ethnically diverse societies can be minimized.

Skeptics contend, on the other hand, that decentralization increases the risks of ethnic and civil strife. Loosening central control triggers a sequence of ever greater demands for autonomy, ratcheting up the centrifugal pressures on the state. Rather than building a stronger sense of ownership and affinity with the nation as a whole, decentralized authority accentuates differences between regions, fosters citizen identification with ethnic or geographic groups rather than the state, and emboldens demands for particularized services by minority groups. By weakening incentives to consider national interests, decentralization encourages local politicians to stake out hard-line positions in defense of local priorities, deepening political polarization.

The heightened attention on decentralization is an outgrowth of the ongoing global democratization movement. Over the past two decades, more than 100 countries have taken discernible steps toward democracy— 80 percent of which are in the developing world. This has resulted in a sea change of global governance norms. This, in turn, has dramatically expanded opportunities to pursue decentralization. It is also a reminder that most decentralization experiences take place in countries undergoing macrolevel political and economic transitions.

The policy implications stemming from understanding the relationship between decentralization and intrastate conflict are considerable. If decentralization raises the risk of conflict, the current enthusiasm for this governance reform could have destabilizing effects. If, on the other hand, decentralization has a mitigating effect on conflict, it represents an underappreciated peacemaking tool to be deployed more vigorously.

Empirically grounded answers to these questions remain elusive. This chapter attempts to sift through what is known about this relationship to help guide policymakers and practitioners contemplating decentralization initiatives.

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