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Elections, coercion and the delivery of public goods: the failure of local democracy in Uganda?

May 16, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

In his blog The Last Word Andrew Mwenda discusses the failure of local councils as effective channels to convey the needs of the local populations and to keep local authorities accountable to the their electorate. Local councils were introduced in Uganda to counterbalance the despotic power of local “customary” chiefs, put in place during colonial times with the purpose of ensuring public order. The chief was entrusted by the colonial authorities with coercive power so that population could be forced into the implementation and respect of any orders. According to Mwenda, such absolute power was not so despotic in reality, as cultural informal constraints obliged the chief to show generosity in order to be respected. Secondly, the chiefs, so the argument goes, utilized their coercive power  to ensure the delivery of public goods (people were for example forced to donate one day of free labor to repair roads). So from this perspective unchecked power and coercion were used for the common good. As Local Councils restrained such power to coerce, the chiefs were less able to force people in working for the public goods, whose quality in turn ended up deteriorating. In his words:

The findings (of the study) show that people have been able to effectively use their voting power to avoid the specific form of personal inconvenience that actually delivered the community’s good. Yet they have been unable to use this same power to force institutions of government to deliver public goods and services. Democracy had undermined the effectiveness of public administration without fostering accountability.

Such failure would be testified by some indicators:

The country has 2.3 million malnourished children largely because the enforcement mechanisms for public hygiene collapsed at the local level. Corruption in both central and local government is perverse because electoral competition is not driving accountability. Rural roads that were once well maintained are now impassable.

I don’t know the Ugandan reality but I have some reservations about two points of the argument. Mwenda assumes that this unchecked power to coerce the population was used most of the time in the pursuit of a public good. Yet, nothing was in place to ensure that such power could be used for the private good. In other words, the argument assumes the benevolence of the despot and I consider such an assumption as being problematic. If cultural norms demanded the chiefs to be generous, why then do they not apply to the local councils today?

The second problem I have is with the indicators used to show the failure of democracy. No doubt there are malnourished children today but I suspect that the number was quite high during colonial times when chiefs were in place. Undoubtedly, corruption is a problem today, yet why do we assume that chief would be less corrupt? Why should a non-accountable power be more responsive to public request? In sum, I find the assumption that some kind of unchecked coercive power is needed to force people in the delivery of public goods, to be problematic. What are your thoughts?

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