Executive Summary

  • Arab states are among the most centralized in the world. A centralized political and economic model concentrates power in central government and capitals, driving massive rural-to-urban migration, widening inequalities between regions and undermining social cohesion and stability. A centralized development model relying on the central state for job creation is unable to keep up with the demands of a new generation of young people who are left without economic opportunities.
  • Local and regional authorities in the Arab world are often deprived of the power and starved of the resources and skilled personnel needed to meet the needs of local populations, creating more pressure on national institutions.
  • As a result, the Arab world is suffering from a crisis in state-society relations that has built up over decades. Grievances have built up against the concentration of all power in a small number of hands at the center, fueling poverty, exclusion, anger and extremism. The refusal to devolve power has led to de-facto devolution and fragmentation in many countries as competing groups and militias increasingly challenge the monopoly of the central state.
  • To achieve greater and more inclusive development that meets the needs of diverse groups in society, Arab states need to decentralize powers and resources to subnational levels and allow local authorities to take a greater role in local planning and management.
  • Decentralization is often dismissed in the region as a threat to the nation-state and to already fragile systems of government. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that decentralization strengthens the state by making it more “supple” and able to respond to and withstand shocks. States that impose unity through coercion and fear are more likely to fall apart as soon as the central state shows signs of weakening than states that accommodate demands for regional diversity and autonomy.
  • Decentralization can help spur development by mobilizing local resources and investment and designing development policies geared towards the needs and priorities of each region or locality.
  • Decentralizing powers to local authorities can help address the gap between the citizen and the state by fulfilling some of the demands for greater self-government and allowing local communities to take decisions on some of the issues that affect their lives.
  • Even in authoritarian contexts where there are no free local elections, decentralization is a potential conduit to greater public participation, for example through participatory local development planning processes. Pushing for more powers for local authorities can open up limited space for citizens to mobilize and achieve “small wins” where politics at central government level is completely closed to public participation.