Decentralizing to Municipalities in Arab Spring Countries
18 July 2014
By Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir
Decentralization - as a way of structuring public
administration, in order to give local people and
communities more control over their own affairs and to
promote human development - is being closely
considered for adoption by some Arab Spring countries.
Historically, there is no left- or right-wing
political outlook that is more inclined toward
decentralizing power to sub-national levels.
Right-leaning political proponents seek
decentralization because of its efficiency and ability
to promote self-management. Left-leaning protagonists
appreciate its propensity to create conditions which
can increase shared benefits and dismantle systemic
causes of poverty locality by locality, in time
leading towards overall societal reform. Both
political outlooks share a skepticism of centralized
planning and in fact view it as a primary cause of
The Kingdom of Morocco was perhaps the earliest
champion of decentralization in the Middle East and
North Africa, starting from 2008. The primary
inspiration to adopt this structure for the nation is
derived from its desire to promote human development
hand in hand with greater autonomy for its regions.
This early commitment to decentralization for
development is a key factor in explaining Morocco's
relative political and social stability during the
However, the level of effectiveness of its
implementation may very well decide the nation's
future in a region of transformative and unpredictable
change. Morocco now must further codify and implement
more effectively laws and policies it has already
established in order to achieve the participatory
democratic and development future it seeks.
Morocco's decentralization model rallies central level
support and sub-national public and private
partnerships toward achieving community-driven human
development. The nation's municipal charter, which
requires locally-elected council members to create
development plans based on the participation of the
people, with budgetary project support from the
provincial and national levels, is an excellent
decentralized pathway to human development.
However, its implementation is painfully lacking.
Municipal development plans have been submitted
without variation from across a whole province.
Council members filled with the best of intentions
lack the know-how and skills required for facilitating
participatory planning and creating development action
plans with the people.
Decentralizing to the municipal level, which is the
closest administrative tier to the communities
themselves, is efficacious but must be accompanied by
community-based training in facilitating participatory
The Lebanese draft law for decentralization released
on April 2nd 2014 contains very positive features
including the diffusion of power to elected local
officials and the budgetary allowance for sub-national
management of human services. However, the
sustainability of the decentralized system
necessitates that funding is directed toward
development projects that the intended beneficiaries
themselves identify and manage.
In Iraq, considering the sectarian war that now
ensues, it appears that the optimal time to have
adopted a federalist system may well have passed.
Federalism is a decentralized management system that
empowers provinces to determine major parts of their
A tragic misfortune - in addition to the US invasion
of Iraq itself - is the loss of the historic
opportunity that reconstruction presented and that
could have in itself created a sustainable
decentralized system, with the result that every
single Iraqi would now be enjoying wide-ranging
socio-economic and environmental benefits that would
profoundly enhance their lives. Participatory
development approaches could incorporate processes of
community-based reconciliation towards the creation of
local development action plans defined by the
participants. Had such approaches been adopted, with
the budget of 60 billion dollars that was available, a
bottom-up development movement would have been created
across the entire nation.
As unachievable as it seems at the present time,
decentralization of power to sub-provincial levels, as
close to the people as possible, appears the only
viable way for Iraqis to feel more in control of their
lives and to have even a modest chance of experiencing
the person-to-person, Sunni-to-Shia interaction that
can, in actual fact, build localized processes of
acknowledgement of each other, peace and shared
In Egypt, an amended Local Administration Law has been
drafted that would institutionalize decentralization.
However, incorporating still the participatory method,
as in Morocco's model, where the private-public
sectors and local communities are engaged in the
management of human services, will help address the
destructive municipal corruption (the more eyes on the
same budget and project, the less corruption). The
Jordanian government believes that decentralization is
a vital part of its future and the Bahraini
leadership, too, suggested its necessity at one point.
With the threat of instability, governments are now
reluctant to disperse power; however it is that same
dispersion which, counter-intuitively, will enable
their own survival. Can political leaders trust in the
fact that an empowered people that are supported to
meet their own self-determined needs will not turn and
undermine the nation that has brought them this vital
opportunity? Just as we learned - too late - in Iraq
that communities do not destroy reconstruction
projects that they themselves create, so too we
understand that they will not attempt to sweep away
leadership of a nation that both codifies into law a
strategy and provides the necessary support for
decentralized development driven by participatory
democracy to take place. Arab Spring nations ought to
feel far more concerned about the delay rather than
the implementation of such measures.
Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir is president of the High Atlas
Foundation and a sociologist.