Volume 9, Issue 4
Developmental Local Government: A Case Study of South Africa. Jaap De Visser. Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2005. 313 pp.
The book seeks to find an answer to the critical question of what institutional choices a transitional state needs to make in order to facilitate the emergence of a developmental local government. The author examines the claim that decentralization is good for development. The strength of this book lies in the author's tenure as a local governmental researcher in South Africa. He had also advised and trained many municipalities thus knowing what was happening on the local level.
The book interrogates the role of the state in achieving development. The author looks at the conventional wisdom in the developing world which concluded that development is best achieved through a centralized development strategy. The author argues that the failure of this centralized development strategy has brought about the emergencies of decentralization to local government as one of the means to turn the tide of underdevelopment. Sustainable development is at the very heart of South Africa 's Reconstruction and Development Programme, as it places many of these concerns, and in particular meeting basic needs, at the centre of the agenda of the growth process itself. Sustainable development is not something that can happen easily. It requires, amongst other things, a massive educational effort so that citizens are made aware of the need to manage resources wisely to achieve the maximum benefits at the minimum cost, not only to fulfill their own needs today, but those of their children tomorrow and of future generations.
The author further argues that decentralization is an indispensable tool towards development. It enhances government's capacity to gauge people's needs and strengthens the link between state and society. He further argues that decentralization has important positive consequences for the ability of people to exercise choice by holding their government accountable. This is important as it allows voters to exercise their votes more intelligently in local elections than in national elections. Furthermore decentralization meets the increasing need for local articulation of identity in a fast globalizing world environment. The author defines development as a quest for the improvement of material well being, enhancement of choice, and equitable redistribution. The aggregate of these three is best achieved through a decentralised effort.
The author argues that participation empowers local people. Community empowerment means far more than having an access to social grants by donors and government. Capacity indeed needs to be strengthened and build up, but not as a prerequisite for supporting a community. Rather the approach should be learning by doing and building capacity through experience, including allowing space for trial and error. Expertise is best found in local knowledge and know-how. The book also covers detailed functions of a municipality that includes the role of elected councillors and ward committees. The book also provides a comprehensive overview of the South African design for local government.
Three institutional principles were proposed by the author that should inform the decisions made by transitional states in creating an environment that is conducive to development at local government level. The South African legal framework for local government was used as a case-study and assessed against the backdrop of these principles. These principles are proposed to assist in making institutional choices that seek to unlock local government's development potential. The principle of autonomy is critical to ensure that local governments can fully exploit their potential to respond to people's needs. Autonomy is comprised of local democracy, power and financial autonomy.
The principle of supervision seeks to ensure that national government maintains oversight over the decentralized development effort. Supervision comprises regulation, evaluation/intervention and redistribution. The third principle of cooperation emphasizes a spirit of cooperation as a prerequisite for success. The balancing act between autonomy and maintaining supervision should not take place in an institutional vacuum: certain elements should be entrenched in the institutional framework along the lines of a principle of cooperation. The principle requires four elements to be addressed in the institutional design: a normative framework for intergovernmental relations, the institutionalisation of vertical as well as horizontal integration, and the inclusion of mechanisms for inter-governmental relations.
The author for the first time produces an institutional model for developmental local government that is not only based on development and decentralization theories but is also tested in practice. With this book, Jaap De Visser has provided a detailed analysis of a developmental local government in South Africa and proposed an institutional model for developmental local government. The author makes a strong recommendation for a decentralized system as an indispensable tool towards development. The important conclusion from the South African case study is that decentralization at local government level is good for development. The case study was comprehensive and it addresses the aim of the book.
Didibhuku Wellington Thwala