The shape of India’s non-profits in the 21st century

India’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been in the midst of a brewing crisis for sometime now, which goes well beyond questions over technical competence or efficiency of delivery, to questions over their existence and their legitimacy. It is pertinent to examine the reasons for this crisis, and set out ways in which NGOs can restart swimming against the tide.

NGOs trace their raison d’etre to the twin failures of state and markets. In the latter half of the 20th century — the heyday of NGO action in India — there were vast swathes of population who did not have access to basic services, mostly living in areas that were geographically not served by the state, typically in rural areas. The private sector, particularly prior to 1991, was largely state-controlled, and had an even more limited reach.

Where basic services reached hitherto neglected regions, sections of population were left out owing to usually their social background. NGOs swung into action to fill this gap. Funds flowed in, as did public-spirited people, either helping extend government services, or providing services of their own. NGOs became a sector.

Evolving context

More recently, particularly in post-liberalisation India, with significantly enhanced penetration of the market, and superior tools of governance available to the state, the situation is quite different. India’s urban population went from 11% in 1991 to 31% by 2011. Pockets of severe deprivation remain, but the story of the average rural person is significantly different than before.

As much as 77% of the bottom quintile of the Indian population today owns mobile phones and 87.3% of all households reported having access to electricity. At the same time, nearly 7% of the bottom quintile of the population also face catastrophic health shocks that wipe out over 20% of their annual household income. All said, the poverty line for per capita income remains at Rs 32 per day in rural areas and Rs 47 per day in urban areas.

The changing role of the state has been one of the most notable factors affecting the role of NGOs in India. On the positive side, health, education, and a host of other government services reach a far greater section of the population than before. Governments have enacted key legislations that created a legal framework for local governments, and introduced a wave of rights-based entitlements. Several NGOs had key roles in conceiving and piloting activities that culminated in these laws.

Shifting landscape

Projects that used to rely on NGOs for last mile delivery have gradually moved towards local governments, or networks of self-help groups established by government programmes. The political impetus for this, in no insignificant measure, came from the proliferation of identity-based politics in the post-Mandal era.

In terms of the negatives, governments have tended to pit empowerment and entitlements against each other, and even as entitlement-based legislations are in place, the current political narrative doesn’t appear to be in its favour. The same goes for rights activists, who have suffered from a crackdown on funds and their freedom to dissent.

The basic rights framework built over several decades of struggles (education, food, employment, information, etc.) is increasingly being challenged, and key legislative measures to ensure these rights are being diluted through a combination of executive orders, amendments that erode their core characteristics, or by allowing bureaucratic apathy to rule the roost. Also, while local governments now see more funds passing through their bank accounts, there are several reports that their scope for intervention and discretion has been significantly curtailed.

Problematic response

As the external environment evolved, NGOs responded, but in ways that in the long-term weakened them as institutions, and the sector as a voice of the poor and marginalised. NGOs allowed their mandates to be dictated by the nature of funds available. Several other development sector entrepreneurs adopted the social enterprise model, taking to heart, for instance, management guru C.K. Prahlad’s bottom of the pyramid thesis.

There are numerous examples of NGOs who have grown rapidly to essentially become large-scale contractors of the government, or have adopted a set of targets and management practices that erode the social core of the organisation. In doing so, a common casualty is their ability and willingness to engage with the political economy, which is often at the heart of protecting or furthering the interests of people they work with.

The other direction some NGOs took was to move away from implementation. This was a direct consequence of the state expanding its reach, and arguments being raised in favour of NGOs withdrawing from areas where they had been working since long. Some NGOs took up research and advocacy, and settled into a role where they intended to be watchdogs of government programmes, and a few influential NGOs (as research agencies, think tanks and advocacy units) have been successful.

However, even the larger (and more influential) NGOs failed to come up with a widely accepted accountability framework. The sector demanded self-regulation (in terms of activities, and results, not funding), but was unable to put forward a coherent framework that could be used to measure them. Attempts to arrive at sector-wide standards were defeated by ego clashes, and some of these attempts were viewed as siding with the government.

NGOs also were guilty of not putting in place sound systems, especially in human resources, and to a lesser extent, financial management, at times driven by donor pressure to cut administrative expenditure.

What next?

First of all, one needs to acknowledge that a simple narrative of state and market failures will no longer work. Gaps exist, but of a different nature. NGOs have to not only frame the new narrative around how these failures manifest themselves in our world today, but also demonstrate an ability to design, pilot and implement bespoke responses to these failures. This calls for reforms, both to the NGO’s mission, and in its organisation.

NGOs should focus on innovation and learning. NGOs are far more valuable for their ability to experiment with approaches, and promote learning from both success and failure, not just at the organisation level but also at a sectoral level. The accountability framework that is currently missing needs to take shape. By doing this, they can seek to re-occupy the moral high ground without having to hide behind altruism when questioned on impact.

By cultivating space for experimentation, learning, innovation, it will continue to create models that a scale and optics-hungry state and the efficiency-seeking private sector can adopt in future. From the early days of micro-watershed development, biogas, community healthcare, micro-enterprises for rural livelihoods and sanitation, there are examples of this phenomenon. NGOs have also had significant success piloting and advocating initiatives that resulted in pro-poor legislations — whether in the area of women’s rights, or rural safety nets — and that reveals ways in which NGOs should seek to achieve long-lasting impact.

Scaling caveat

An important caveat is in order here. NGOs are regularly questioned on their ability to take programmes to scale. This is a red herring, and one that NGOs must ignore, or at least, rethink. Scaling up is not the responsibility of any one NGO. They will have to not only implement, but also focus on transferring the design and implementation capability to more local, more cost-effective implementation teams on the ground — whether they belong to local governments, or other smaller local community-based organisations. Scaling solutions require robust networks of organisations on the ground.

Refusing to be distracted by political pressure and lucrative funding opportunities, and instead focusing on a well-defined core mission requires strength of character and the stamina to stick to a mandate. It will require a strong coalition of NGOs and donors built on mutual respect and openness. If this implies a deviation from what the priorities of government, mainstream philanthropic foundations and donors are, there will be fewer, or perhaps a different set of financial resources to work with.

Moving along this path will also help the sector redefine its human resource models. While high quality professionals come at a price, knowledge and capabilities will have to be made more open-source if NGOs are to be successful in promoting external networks of learning and implementation agencies. Internally, for professionals working in NGOs, it is important that a clear career path exists right from the beginning, and NGO leaderships should demonstrate that these professionals growing up the ranks could occupy the corner rooms in NGOs.

This is part of the way ahead. NGOs in India, seeking to adapt to the shifting landscape of India, need to work with the state and markets, and at the same time, retain its difference. This is a critical reform or perish phase for NGOs as we know them. It will be interesting to watch how many NGOs today are up to this challenge.


This blog first appeared on VillageSquare

When I stopped being a Dhoni fan

Update 6 January 2017:

By now, the Supreme Court has basically dismantled BCCI and it remains to be seen how things play out. Srinivasan is no longer in the news; no one even seems to have asked him for his views on the latest development. BJP princelings Arun Jaitley and Anurag Thakur wielded extraordinary powers up until the court order.

And then, Dhoni stepped down from captaincy, something I wish he had done two years back. He is yet to retire, which too, I think is at least a year too late. In the last four years, Dhoni was a compromised man – either in an attempt to secure his own future, or in trying to payback to those he owed.

Read on…

Update 21 October 2015:

N. Srinivasan was shown the door, and two IPL teams, Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals were suspended. Dhoni is still around, fighting loss of personal form. It is now clear that he had lied to the Mudgal Committee, but we have seen no consequence, nor any sign of contrition from the man himself. The least he can do is to retire from the IPL. Srinivasan himself continues as ICC Chairman, representing the Indian board on the global stage.

After Jagmohan Dalmiya’s short tenure, Shashank Manohar has taken over as the BCCI President. He has put out a three-page document with proposals on how to get rid of conflict of interest in Indian cricket, which contains:

The proposed rules state that coaches and national selectors will “not be associated with a player management company or a player agent, either honorary or paid,” and “cricketers on the managing committee of an affiliated unit of BCCI shall not be considered for appointment as a national selector.” It also stated that cricketers appointed as national coaches or selectors cannot run “private academies during their tenure”.

This should force Dhoni to exit Rhiti; and interrogate Shastri and Kohli on the nature of their relationship outside cricket, for a start. Sharda Ugra lists a few other cases that should come under the scanner immediately.

Meanwhile, Pepsi exited the IPL and Vivo stepped in as the title sponsor.


Update: 27 March 2014: The Supreme Court has suggested that N Srinivasan step down. Dhoni’s name was dragged in court and damning things said about him. Comes back to what I have said before – these top cricketers dont have to fight corruption in construction of stadiums or BCCI elections. But it is their responsibility to ensure that on the field, the game is played with integrity. Also, we should be able to expect them not to be part of a cover-up.


Update: 11 February 2014: Three action points:

  1. N. Srinivasan needs to be sacked from the BCCI without any delay.
  2. Dhoni should be sacked as the captain of the Indian cricket team
  3. India Cements and its associates should be banned from the IPL
  4. Chennai Super Kings should be banned from the IPL; fresh auctions should be ordered for a Chennai-based franchise

This is the least we can do for a start


May 26, 2013: I admire sportstars, I admire those who play hardball, but reserve respect for those who I think rise above merely winning and losing, and show admirable character in life off the field.

It is therefore that I am disappointed that none of our top cricketers have spoken or reacted to the recent spate of allegations that have shrouded Indian cricket. Yes, the IPL is not an official ICC tournament – but no one can deny that the IPL is India’s show-piece cricketing event on the global stage. It is the one stage where we invite skilled cricketers and ancillary professionals from all over the cricketing world (except Pakistan of course…and oh, also Sri Lankans who are not allowed in Chennai) to participate in a two-month extravaganza.

I expect(ed) no better from N Srinivasan and his cronies in the BCCI. But we expect slightly better from former cricketers irrespective of whether they are on the BCCI payroll in one way or not. And I expect much better from our current superstars – figures like Dhoni and Sachin, who are playing in the IPL 6 final, that is going on as I type this. Yes, these cricketers are contracted by the BCCI. Yes, they may have nothing to do with bookies and may have no idea that anyone in their teams are indulging in any betting or fixing. But having seen their sport tarnished thus, having seen from close quarters, their team management and fellow players bring their sport to disrepute – I expected a reaction. Is this futile idealism? Time will possibly show that it was just that.

But allow me to persist. Sachin and Dhoni represent Indian cricket. Irrespective of whether it is the IPL, ICC competitions or domestic cricket, we expect them to be our conscience-keepers in matters concerning the game, both on and off the field. The moment a CSK official was indicted in this mess, Dhoni should have taken the honourable choice – that of withdrawing his team (or at least himself) from further participation in the IPL, pending enquiry. If Dhoni had taken a public stand to this effect, who is to say that he wouldn’t have the support of the public at large and of powerful stakeholders such as politicians and media?

The moment CSK was found indicted in this mess and was seen to be unwilling to yield to what was their moral responsibility, Sachin should have communicated to his team bosses and to the nation at large, that he would not be willing to participate in a final clash with CSK. Once again, imagine the kind of support he would have drawn and the pressure that would be put on BCCI to put its house in order?

So, I say the fact that our top stars refuse to take a stand on such an issue is a matter of deep shame. Sure, they could be working behind the scenes, in their dressing rooms, ensuring that this rot doesn’t affect their teammates. Sure, they have contracts that gag them. But there is a time and place for honouring contracts – and this is not it. Imagine we had no whistle-blowers anywhere – how would any significant corruption case be uncovered? I do not expect them to have any views on poverty or rape – but cricket is their arena. They own cricket as much as cricket owns them; they own their fans as much as their fans own them.

It doesn’t matter as much if in future, we dismiss all cricket matches as scripted; neither does it matter as much if cricket administrators continue to be corrupt – but if our sporting heroes are shown to be subservient followers unable to take a stand on an issue that affects the game and its passion that they all swear by, it is deeply disappointing. In Indian cricket today, no two players matter more than Sachin and Dhoni. It is sad that they don’t seem to realise their own power and  choose not to use their influence to contribute towards cleansing this game. This is the question of ‘moral responsibility’ – of them shirking the responsibility they have towards the millions that have placed them on a pedestal – that should leave them ashamed of themselves.

Germans rallied behind their cash; we must take note

Personally, I try to go cashless as far as possible. From paying for coffee using my card to net banking to recharge my prepaid phones, and using m-pesa as much as I can, I must be a model ‘digital’ citizen. It’s a different matter that my data (digital footprint) is strewn all over the internet, freely available for anyone to use/misuse/abuse if they wanted (oops!).

Yet, I get the resistance to being ‘forced’ to go cashless. My parents for example, ardently prefer cash. They are highly educated and have no black money hoarded away (to my knowledge, at least!). But they are not tech savvy, and in India at least, that is not contradictory in the least.

So when Modi and co try to sell us this ‘cashless utopia’, we need to stop and ask: “but why?”, just like the Germans do. In Germany, 79% of payments are made in cash, and they have a good reason for they prefer their payments in cash:

In addition to the nation’s economic trauma between the two world wars, Germans who lived under the communist surveillance state in East Germany until reunification in 1989 tended to use only cash so they would leave as few traces of their financial dealings as possible. Recent revelations of controversies over snooping by the National Security Agency and domestic spy scandals have fueled distrust of keeping electronic financial records.

Those concerns explain why Germany’s privacy laws are among the strictest in the world.

“The main reason people give for preferring cash is anonymity compared to card payments. People are just more cautious in Germany,” said Helmut Hammes, head of the German Central Bank’s cash department.

Savelsberg said he doesn’t trust credit card companies or other middlemen to keep his transactions private. “Germans are much more private and cautious of technology,” he said.

In addition to the above, there is also apparently an aversion to debt.

But yes, some of these reasons are peculiar to Germans, and more and more people are beginning to opt for cashless modes of payment. But for regular (and mostly small transactions) this matters in India. And we certainly should not be going cashless to satisfy someone’s whim. Foremost, is the question of choice. We cannot claim to be a modern society if we are literally coercing people to adopt cashless methods. Then there is the issue of privacy. On one hand, you have Germans demanding to reserve their right to use cash in order to protect their privacy, but on the other, countries like say, Sweden are genuinely a cashless utopia. But I don’t have to tell you the differences between Sweden and a poor country like India in terms of physical, financial and digital infrastructure, as well as the legal framework, that enable cashless transactions, and protect consumers.

It should be obvious that we cannot have one without the other. In India, security of online transactions remains weak. Our debit cards get hacked. Mobile wallets misbehave with little (or long-drawn) grievance redressal processes. And all this, only in places that have internet coverage in the first place. So technological advances are great, and they matter. But they are no substitute for either basic human capability, or intent. Digital payment apps for instance, require a fair degree of financial and tech literacy. Not just to operate those apps, but to be able to decide when to use the app and when not to. For instance, when I make payments and have to choose between using my credit card, debit card, and a mobile wallet, I need to know the costs associated with each to identify the appropriate one to use. I believe I am not being patronising when I say that a large section of our population lack the skills, at the moment, to make those decisions. Also, the information isn’t all there in a clear and digestible format either.

Then there is the question of state capability and intent. That’s where the legal framework comes in. States can electronically transmit welfare payments to people’s bank accounts, and in the absence of robust legal protection, can as easily deny them their rights. But we did all switch to Electronic Voting Machines, didn’t we? Yes, we did, and for that reason, I am not beginning this with a blanket distrust of the state (as compelling an argument that might be, with state power currently in the hands of the the insidious RSS and their cronies). But that does not mean we walk into this without a watertight regulatory framework.

Then there is convenience – which links back to the issue of ‘choice’. Those who find it convenient, should be free to go cashless. And those who don’t, should be free to remain as they are. The same holds for privacy. Sounds simple enough to me!

Your ‘field’ is different from mine

When I was working in Orissa, India, I was based in Mohuda, a village 10 km from a small town, Berhampur. The head office of the NGO I was working with was located in Mohuda. For any one visiting from even the state capital, Bhubaneswar, let alone New Delhi or from outside India, Mohuda was ‘field’ enough. But for those of us living in Mohuda, our field was a few hundred meters outside the campus – in the village where we had worked with the community to build toilets and houses; women who were part of the village savings groups, and the little biomass-based power plant we had installed. There was of course more of the ‘field’ further away – spread all over the state where we worked, requiring uncomfortable overnight bus journeys…

Naturally, I secretly smirked at everyone who arrived in Mohuda and proclaimed to have stepped foot on the ‘field’. I am also sure my colleagues in project offices in various parts of the state smirked every time I arrived at their offices and announced my presence in the ‘field’. So in sum, I think this game does even out from time to time. Your ‘field’ is different from mine.

In development, the ‘field’ is where the action is. Everything done from far is to support the implementation machine(s) in the ‘field’. The ‘field’ need not refer to a place that is scrappy and tough, although it could, if appropriate. How many of us really do ‘field work’? Does living in a developing country qualify as ‘field work’? Is working out of a satellite office of one’s own organisation that’s outside of the headquarters ‘field work’? Does working/visiting a partner’s office in a developing country constitute ‘field work’? Within a developing country, is visiting a project office outside of the headquarter ‘field work’? Or is it only ‘field work’ when you go meet the ultimate beneficiaries of your work – the community? How about when you go down to a different country to work with government officials?

What I find strange is the tendency to either complain or romanticise the food/culture/ transport/clothes/homes in a manner that establishes one’s outsider-ness. Many of these narratives (tweets, photographs, blogs…umm…instagram?) are evidently for the ‘non-field’ audience who can then either sympathise or appreciate our experience in the ‘field’. These stories that seek to shout out – “look at me, I am in the ‘field'” seem a bit flawed, at some level – not just because they smack of ‘developmentourism’, but also because of the not-so-subtle attempt to claim the moral high ground. Even if you are learning a lot, and all you want to do is to tell people that you are…could we find better ways to do so? I make no claims to having never done this myself.

450+ words later, I also think to ask: does this matter? Let me know!

The logframe in an ‘iterative & adaptive’ world

Often, the stark reality facing the seekers-of-the-brave-new-PDIA-world is this:

But the Donor needs a Logframe! 

This would bee case, even in programmes that are committed to adopting the problem-driven-iterative-adaptation (PDIA) approach. Let’s assume that high-level commitments from the donor is in place. Even so, where the rubber meets the road, a logframe is an item in the checklist of requirements for those funds to flow.

Well, fear no more, and watch this Matt Andrews video

Broadly, this video explains how you can adapt your logframe to the PDIA-frame. Matt fittingly calls it a search-frame, reflecting a spirit of iterative learning as we move closer to our goal.

In an earlier post, writing about the ‘results agenda’, I had this to say about logframes:

Have logframes become the blunt hammer in our pursuit of results? Probably. I personally don’t mind logframes as a concept, but detest the way they are usually used. Ideally, a logframe development exercise should reveal the level of complexity of a project design. Those working on it realise during the process that the outcomes that really matter are often misfits in a logframe, because there aren’t clear baselines, nor are there objective and accurate measurement techniques. If a project logframe is then drawn up primarily to satisfy a contractual obligation, it usually sacrifices this complexity and settles for outputs and outcomes that can be easily counted. Donors must resist the temptation to do this.

That may have been all gloom and despair, but I have of course not given up on the logframe. Instead, working with different agencies – donors upstream, as well as implementers downstream – have suggested ways in which we might work a way out of this problem. Some of these are quite simple, and appear obvious. Yet, they require a relationship of trust between different actors in the implementation chain. Here are a few initial ideas:

  1. Start from the beginning: Ensure that you have a sight of your results framework as you go about designing your intervention. Remember, there is no escaping measurement – every successive iteration of the programme is based on lessons learnt from the previous one. So we are no longer in a world where a programme is fully designed, and then we draw up a results framework/logframe that is ‘fit for purpose’.
  2. Rethink indicators: Outputs in a PDIA programme are ‘resolved problems’ – for each of the deconstructed small problems. While in a standard logframe, each output has multiple indicators that get scored on the basis of whether the targets have been achieved or not, and the output then gets scored on the basis of the number of indicators that are met. I am suggesting we change the way this works – and have indicators represent the multiple pathways, establishing from the very beginning that not all of these pathways would work. Meaning that as project implementation proceeds, targets for some of the indicators would be met, while some others would not. But we now score outputs on the basis of how far we have moved in terms of tackling our ‘problem’, and not based on the score that each indicator receives.
  3. Capture progress on processes:  Most logframes ignore processes – they concern themselves with only outputs and above. But at the risk of increasing the amount of work involved, there is a case for bringing process indicators into the logframe. Some of these would look like a check-box on activities to be carried out; yet others might focus on key steps that are of importance to the process of change the intervention is attempting – say, a joint meeting of parties involved, the production of a joint manifesto, and so on…
  4. Logical revision: Matt’s video basically focuses on this: have a clear window and a mechanism for logframe revision at periodic intervals. This is often already the practice, but it is probably fair to say that the overall formulation of the problem (and thereby, the outcomes and outputs designated) remain broadly untouched in this process. (At this point, watch Matt’s video again) It would be great progress if we start tinkering with that, even at a small scale, and accept at the beginning that a programme’s logframe at the end will look nothing like how it did at the beginning. It is important that the rationale for these revisions are honest, and captured accurately. With iterations to your approach as a result of evidence gathered on each ‘bet’, change is inevitable. If the logframe has to keep up with the reality on the ground, this change needs to be captured and represented systematically.
  5. Empower your team: Make it clear to everyone from the very beginning that data collection and analysis is not the sole responsibility of an M&E officer. Monitoring progress, and results is essentially project management. Therefore, each workstream should have its own decentralised data management system that not only gathers data, but participates in generating lessons from the programme, as well as in iterating subsequent versions of the logframe.

Finally, to borrow a line from the PDIA-crew: All of this might sound like common sense. If so, it might be great to see this all happening in practice too!

The ‘decentralisation agenda’ must succeed

Duncan Green’s blog hosted a post by LSE’s Jean-Paul Faguet titled: Is Decentralisation good for Development. Faguet has edited a book by the same name that you can find here. This is a subject very close to my heart, and I believe in decentralisation as a value, just as I believe in democracy. It is often a work in progress, but it is a project worth persisting with, an ideal worth pursuing. Faguet’s research (at least, my interpretation of his work) therefore, really speaks to me. In this post, he makes several interesting and compelling points. For instance:

On the advantage of competitive politics generated by decentralised systems:

Imagine you live in a centralized country, a hurricane is coming, and the government is inept. To whom can you turn? No one – you’re sunk. In a decentralized country, ineptitude in regional government implies nothing about the ability of local government. And even if both regional and local governments are inept, central government is independently constituted, probably run by a different party, and may be able to help. Indeed, the very fact of multiple government levels in a democracy generates a competitive dynamic in which candidates and parties use the far greater number of platforms to outdo each other by showing competence, and project themselves hierarchically upwards.  In a centralized system, by contrast, there is only really one – very big – prize, and not much of a training ground on which to prepare.

Highlighting the importance of careful design:

The genius of a properly designed decentralization system is that it combines technical expertise from above with local time-and-place information from below, in a way that is superior to what either level of government could achieve on its own.

And finally, challenging the decentralisation-sceptic’s belief in democracy:

I have heard colleagues declare their allegiance to both democracy and the centralized state, and I just don’t get it. Citizens must be allowed to vote… but only for national government?  They must not be allowed local governments? Local services with few externalities – like local policing or primary education – whose effects are overwhelmingly concentrated on the residents of a locality… must be provided by a distant central government?

Decentralisation is an ideal, but it needs to be carefully designed. For instance, a local government without funds, functions and functionaries (the three in equal measure), is of no use to citizens. I have been fortunate that in India (and my home state Kerala in particular), decentralised governance is not an abstract idea. It is the reality. In recent years – in spite of all of my own critiques, and that of experts in the field – the central government in India has taken concrete measures that have the potential to deepen democracy, by yielding more power to federal states. Federal states on the other hand, have a mixed record in strengthening local governments, but even then, there is a promising momentum towards a truly decentralised governance system. (Yes, I am generalising, and there are several specific critiques; also important to acknowledge that the pace of reforms is uneven and several cases suggest even a reversal). But what is way forward?

In recent years, many doubts have been raised on the merits of decentralisation itself – on its ability to deliver better quality of public services, on its willingness to raise resources and on its ability to improve local accountability in general. In an old post, I had countered four popular reasons that are often quoted for the impending collapse of the local governance system in India at the lowest levels – the village councils. This is a short recap:

  1. Local governments are corrupt: You hear this all the time, and everywhere. As fund flows to local governments increased, these allegations gained in strength. There is, of course, some truth to this, but this is akin to claiming that the government should not implement any programmes because politicians and bureaucrats are corrupt. Through mechanisms such as social audits local-level corruption is easy to uncover and transparency has proven to be a powerful tool in the hands of communities.
  2. Elite capture of local governments mean that they are therefore not accountable to citizens: Local governments are often headed by elites, much in the same way as our legislators are usually the rich and powerful. The competing pressures of politics and the prospect of re-elections is a strong accountability measure that can reduce the chances of elite capture. Local government elections usually see very high turn-outs.
  3. Local governments lack the skills to draft development plans: This is an accusation thrown in a context where little is done to train elected representatives at the local levels regarding their roles and responsibilities. In many government programmes, local governments are are burdened with not only responsibilities of needs assessment and resource planning, but also monitoring implementation. In the absence of systematic training in the mechanisms of local resource appraisal, it is likely that plans will look more like wish-lists.
  4. Not all development projects can be planned at the village level: This is a classic misconception. The typical error here is that when one thinks of local governments, they only think of village-level, without considering the tiers above them that form the entire complement of local governance structures. Also, the federal states and central governments are supposed to, at their levels, take up projects that require specialised technical expertise, and cover large geographies, and multiple constituencies.

The problem with some of the critics of decentralisation is that they try to look at the work of sub-national/local governments in isolation. Either they express frustrations that these local governments have been unable to transform service delivery, or they reinforce their scepticism of local leaders by pointing to instances of corruption or inaction.

Ultimately, local governments need an enabling environment, where they work collaboratively with bureaucrats in the line departments and service utilities. Without this, and in an environment where local governments have to continually struggle for powers and legitimacy, expectations that they would get work done are highly misplaced. In many developing countries, the ‘decentralisation agenda’ is struggling. But it must succeed.