Balancing decentralisation, primary for national growth

ROBBIE musakuzi.

THE economic rise and success of China over the past three decades elaborated by facts and figures has captivated many development experts and think tanks across the world and as the country moves to celebrate its four decades of reforms launched in December 1978 many social and economic experts all over the world have been wondering as to what exactly has China done which everyone can point at as the main reason for its social and economic successes so that other countries in the world and especially those in Sub –Sahara Africa including Zambia can emulate and move their people from the abyss of abject poverty and squalor.

The experts at the World Bank and IMF in their recent report on world fiscal economic outlook have attributed the underlying reason for China’s social and economic success to its success in finding a balance in its social, economic and political decentralisation of the country. The experts point out that although China is basically a centralised country with one dominant political party, it has since the beginning of its social and economic reforms in 1978 consistently decentralised the state functions with provincial governors and mayors having considerably more autonomy and managerial authority. Experts at the World Bank point out that in their August 1999 report, ‘Entering the 21st Century, World Development Report 1999/2000’ published by Oxford University Press under the copyright of The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/ World Bank, they had tried to inform all developing countries in the world to take note of the success of the social and economic decentralisation in China as a panacea for their national growth and development.
When China started its decentralisation in 1978 under the Ministry of Decentralisation, many countries in Africa including Zambia copied from China and created ministerial departments for decentralisation and centralisation. Unfortunately, for many African countries, for unknown reasons they abandoned the emphasis on finding a balance between national decentralisation to social and economic development and growth instead of the other way round. For instance, at the outset of the reforms in 1978, China’s per capita GDP was about the same as that of Zambia, which was lower than half of the Asian average or lower than two third of the African average; and its size was about one half of the Soviet Union (Maddison, 2003).
Zambia like many other African countries and China have a long historical relationship dating back as far as when both countries were third world countries and over the decades African politicians and development experts have been making study visits to China. It is now clear that African countries have been carrying the smoke and not the fire of economic success from China. The solution or remedy to African countries social and economic ills lies in finding a balance in the social and economic decentralisation and centralisation of the country. The balance that Zambia needs to find is what state functions should remain with the central government and what should be totally relinquished to the local government or authority. From the Chinese social and economic success and experience, only national security and policy formulation issues should remain in the hands of the central government.
Zambia and other African countries at the moment have not found a balance between decentralisation and centralisation even after many years of talking about decentralisation and no wonder the whole continent faces similar social, economic and political problems. Throughout all the African countries, it is the same issues of accusations of corruption by government officials, poverty, regionalism, tribalism, after every national election, its issues of rigged elections, stolen votes and the story goes on in Africa. It is only in Africa where surely after so many years of independence, the central government has to make appointments, employ and postings for local and grassroots positions in government departments such as watchmen, office orderlies, registry clerks, sanitary officers and other general workers, primary and secondary school teachers, health centre workers when both local and international labour experts have emphatically over the years made recommendations that such officers work well and are better supervised when employed by local authorities but can still be registered to national pension schemes.
It is not a secret that flip flopping and moving forward and backwards over issues of decentralisation threatens macroeconomic stability and results in failure to implement very important national development plans because central government is forced to maintain stability and intervene into issues at both central and local government levels. In this situation even when local government officers’ fail to perform, blame and failure is attributed to the central government and the Republican President. It is clear from the Chinese decentralisation experience that the relationship and balancing of political power and authority between central and local government everywhere in the world lies in the hands of the central government. It is the central government that has the authority, power, resources and national interest to design institutional structures that make it possible for it to share power and authority with the local government for the sake of national development. Zambia and other African countries must learn this lesson from China that finding a balance in decentralisation of the country is primary for national development.
The author is an International Associate, African Centre for Disaster Studies.

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