A Review of Recentralisation in Colombia
During the last few decades, decentralization processes—the transference of power, resources and responsibilities from national to subnational governments—advanced vigorously around the world and especially in the Global South. Latin America in particular, presented some of the most robust cases of decentralization, and subnational (intermediate and local) governments have become key actors in policy making and the provision of services in the region. As a result, a substantial body of research has emerged to understand the social, political and economic drivers of these processes, as well as their consequences for governance. Yet, a counteracting process of recentralization has been occurring. While some existing studies attempt to explain this recentralizing trend, this process has been by far less explored, less theorized and less discussed in the public arena, than decentralization.
In Recentralisation in Colombia, the book that emerged from his Ph.D. studies at Oxford University, Julián López-Murcia puts the issue of recentralization in the center of contemporary discussions of governance and state-building in the developing world. López-Murcia not only presents a careful and detailed analysis of the case of recentralization in Colombia during the last 28 years. The author also provides a convincing argument to explain this phenomenon, thus contributing to our general understanding of recentralization in other settings. To do so, López-Murcia leverages document analysis and an impressive set of elite interviews with key politicians and public officials. These allow him to reveal the strategic motivations behind the policy changes and political moves that have shaped the relationship between the Colombian national government and its subnational counterparts.
After introducing the topic and presenting the book plan in the first chapter, the author shows in the second chapter that the theoretical explanations proposed for recentralization in the existing research are incomplete. Neither economic crises, commodities booms, strong leftist presidents, partisan dominance nor lack of local government capacity, among others, can fully explain the recentralization attempts in the Colombian case. Then, López-Murcia lays out its theoretical framework starting with a working definition of recentralization as “the set of formal and informal policies that transfer resources, authority or responsibilities from lower to higher levels of government, after a process of decentralization” (p. 36-37). This mirrors the typical definition of decentralization, and incorporates the fiscal, political, and administrative dimensions that are commonly used in the analysis of this phenomenon.
This conceptual clarity is key to developing the theoretical explanation for recentralization. In a nutshell, López-Murcia presents an intertemporal framework that combines the existing economic context with the predominant path towards either decentralization or recentralization. In other words, the author proposes that the prevalent institutional framework shapes the national government’s response to external economic shocks regarding the distribution of autonomy across levels of government. Thus, favorable economic conditions reinforce the existing path. For instance, an economic boom in a context of recentralization should allow an already solid central government to consolidate its grip over subnational governments. Meanwhile, the same economic context during a phase of decentralization should strengthen the bargaining power of subnational governments thus allowing them to demand further autonomy from the national government.
After laying out the theoretical argument, the author devotes the rest of the book to carefully discussing the initial decentralization boost in Colombia at the beginning of the 1990s, and the subsequent recentralization efforts of the presidential administrations since 1994. Beyond its theoretical advances, here lies the second big contribution of the book. López-Murcia interviewed almost a hundred key actors in the realm of Colombian governance, including former presidents, ministers, governors, members of Congress and high-ranking public officials. Coupling these data with careful analysis of legislative and regulation proposals, the author was able to trace the development and relative success of a series of recentralization initiatives over five presidential administrations (seven presidential terms). Importantly, each of these administrations is categorized as exhibiting either favorable or unfavorable economic context, and either a predominantly decentralizing or recentralizing context, thus allowing for the proper testing of the theoretical expectations.
The in-depth data collection strategy allowed López-Murcia to identify different types of recentralization efforts. On one side, there exists formal legislation that curtails subnational governments’ political power or fiscal capability. For instance, a reform to the intergovernmental transfer framework was successfully approved by Congress in 2001 after a contentious debate with mayors and governors. On the other side, the author suggests national actors eventually learned that more subtle approaches such as administrative controls and regulations could effectively restrict subnational autonomy while incurring lower costs of political bargaining. These subtler and better-crafted recentralization attempts included fiscal audits, transferring responsibilities from municipalities to provinces (departamentos) and establishing monitoring instances for the allocation of funds derived from oil and gas royalties. Interestingly, López-Murcia also identifies informal strategies of political recentralization such as luring mayors and governors with the possibility of extending their mandate and trying to coopt the executive positions of the national associations of local and provincial governments.
López-Murcia shows that national actors often promote these recentralization efforts as the sensible response to economic constraints, lack of effectiveness in service delivery or perceived corruption at the local level. Some of these arguments might be partially true, but the book’s process-tracing approach and its focus on institutional analysis and incentives unveils national actors’ eagerness for control over subnational affairs. Moreover, this is also reflected in their keen interest in learning and developing what we could call non-traditional or alternative tools of recentralization.
By providing a framework to understand recentralization and decentralization efforts as parts of the same governance tension, and by illustrating the use of a broad range of tools to achieve these purposes, López-Murcia has also opened key questions for future exploration. The author mentions some of these in the book, and others arise from the work itself. For instance, broad reforms may include recentralizing initiatives in one area, and decentralizing ones in another. How do politicians and public officials at different levels assess this type of trade-off? What factors determine the balancing outcome? Meanwhile, aiming to improve intergovernmental coordination, other reforms may transfer power and responsibilities from the local to the intermediate level of government. Should we consider these as examples of recentralization (local governments losing autonomy) even if intermediate governments are strengthened as a result? López-Murcia’s work deals with strategy learning and sophistication, and it is likely that future reforms will only add to the complexity of the tools used for institutional shaping.
Overall, López-Murcia’s volume becomes an obligatory reference for those interested in subnational governance and intergovernmental relations in Latin America, as well as for those exploring the evolution of governance processes in the region. Moreover, the book offers readers a clear account of the different tools and bargaining strategies employed by the Colombian elites, beyond the formality of the policy process, to carry forward their agenda. These issues are far from settled, as demonstrated by the constant tensions between levels of government in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic (which the book touches on in chapter nine). Therefore, counting on high-level research work such as López-Murcia’s book results very valuable to help us figure out the governance dynamics we will face in the near future.
Ricardo A. Bello-Gomez is an assistant professor of public administration at Texas Tech University. He studies public management, intergovernmental relations, and comparative public administration, often focusing on government performance and the provision of social services in Latin America. Twitter: @RBello_Gomez
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