On July 9, 2011, the national flag was raised for the first time in the new country of South Sudan.  Even as official ceremonies were underway in the capital Juba, the country began to confront fundamental dilemmas about how to establish the basic patterns of governance.  What should the system of government look like?  Should it be federal, with powerful regional states?  Should responsibilities be transferred to local governments, or even to community organizations?  Do questions such as local capacity and national stability speak for or against decentralizing government?

Countries across Africa have wrestled with such questions, many of which are about which levels of government have (or should have) authority, power, resources, and responsibilities in order to best respond to public needs.  Decentralization is a growing governance trend in Africa, and as USAID policymakers and programming officers develop their strategies for work in countries like South Sudan, they will increasingly be taking it into account.

Since 2010, USAID has developed a set of reports that study and glean lessons from African experiences with decentralization.  The reports covered 10 African countries documenting their experiences and examining in each case how decentralization affects key governance characteristics.  Among the characteristics of interest are the legal authority of subnational units, their degree of autonomy from the central government, along with patterns of accountability between actors, and the overall capacity of actors in African governance.  The overall success of decentralization experiences in Africa depends upon a mix of these characteristics that gives local actors greater opportunities for decision-making while also ensuring that the central government retains the power to oversee and monitor local actors.

USAID’s individual country reports are capstoned by a comparative final report that draws out lessons from across the various cases.  This project, known as the Comparative Assessment of Decentralization in Africa, builds upon USAID’s expanding knowledge base on decentralization, which includes the 2009 Democratic Decentralization Programming Handbook. The Africa Bureau is now developing policy and programming recommendations in the area of decentralization to make the lessons of these studies practicable for missions overseas.  These guides will be designed to ensure that USAID efforts in countries from Angola to Zimbabwe can consider decentralization as a tool to improve governance at the national level and the local level alike.  USAID’s studies of decentralization will improve USAID’s ability to advocate for policies and craft programs that promote the agency’s goals of stability, democracy, and development in places like South Sudan.