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Thursday, 22 March 2012

Arguing against federalism properly

By Chola Mukanga

Wynter Kabimba (PF Secretary General) recently commented , "the population is small… the country and its economy are also small and can not be compared to countries like Nigeria and the United states of America which have huge populations… Zambia has not yet reached the level to move from central government to federal system of governance because of limited resources…". 

It should be immediately apparent to many people that Mr Kabimba, though he may have good reasons for his misgivings, has stated the argument rather poorly. There are a number of flaws, which all begin stem from his poor use of terminology. Mr Kabimba treats federalism as a uniform phenomenon, when in practice it is not. At the basic level federal structures are any structures that exist at two distinct levels – the “central” and “local”, each within a well defined scope so that it enjoys autonomy with respect to that scope. When that is understood it immediately becomes obvious that nearly all governments, including Zambia, have an element of federalism. The issue is the degree of federalism that is needed to support social and economic progress.

That brings us to the other flaw. The merits / de-merits of federalism has nothing to do with size, as he posits, rather it is the level of autonomy that we believe is appropriate to support social and economic progress. It is an issue about what society we want rather than how many people we have. Should decisions be locally driven and power vested in the individual or should they be centralised? When we think more about that it becomes immediately clear that not all issues must be fully devolved. Indeed not all of these issues are currently devolved, even though we have elements of federalism. Some issues can only be efficiently or fairly handled at the central government level.

But there also problems with his numbers based logic also appears out of sync. As some have pointed out, surely it is easier to have a federal structure in a small democratic country than a crowded one because people are more likely to get involved and have their voice heard in a smaller country. So some of the things we have argued for like participatory budgeting have greater force (and may be cheaper) in manageable populations than very large one. In a smaller country the sense of belonging is  also stronger, which is vital for effective devolution of power. Of course economies of scale arguments may help Mr Kabimba here, but that needs to be clearly stated.

Then there are obvious empirical flaws. Simply put, his examples appear quite misguided. He says the population is too small and then proceeds to quote the USA as it stands today. The problem is that the USA did not become a federal system today. It has been one for hundreds of years.  Also if he cares to know, he would realise that its population was less than Zambia’s when it become a federal government. Switzerland is smaller than Zambia and it has a workable federal arrangement. To that we can add others such nations,  even little Comoros!

This is not to say there are not to say Mr Kabimba is wrong to oppose federalism. On the contrary, his voice is vital because there are perfectly good reasons for arguing against federalism, which Mr Kabimba should try and use going forward. 

For example, he could simply have said federal structures suffer from potential spillover costs from one provincial state to the next, which may reduce the incentive for one province to provide public goods or indeed permit hurtful activities whose effects are felt mainly by other provinces. So if you have elected Governors of Northern or Southern provinces you may not care too much about repairing strategic road networks because you know the country as a whole needs them – so let them cough up and fund it, thank you very much! The obvious way of course to solve these problems is through grants, or central government retaining strategic responsibility for some aspects of local policy, but that has huge problems of its own.

He could also have point to the real danger of large distributional and inequality problems. Under a federal system provinces will compete with one another. That is a good thing but competition of that kind is optimal where there’s perfect mobility of people and resources in general. If you find yourself in western province under a corrupt governor heavily influenced by regional politics, you will begin to envy other provinces. Deep structural inequalities due to resource endowments may create problems of instability, as we seen in Nigeria with huge inequalities in the north.

Arguing along these lines would help raise the intellectual level of debate that would allow proponents to make their case more clearly. The role of politicians in the public fora is to help Zambians think more clearly around these issues so that decisions are reached in an informed way. People should not be clouded into positions. If federalism is costly simply state it and provide evidence to that effect. 

1 comment:

  1. Which are examples of local Zambian government structures that work?

    I am most familiar with Solwezi and I don't think it works. Most people don't know who the mayor is. My understanding is the mayor is elected by city council not directly. It's not clear to me where they receive their budget.

    If I were mayor I would do a better job giving titles to land. Also I would built a foot path away from the main road so that pedestrians and cyclists can shop in the market without breathing all the smog. Also the town should build a bypass so cars don't have to drive through the center of town. The roads from town to the residential parts need to be improved as well.

    It's not super hard to build a road btw.

    The problem is that there is no transparency and nothing gets done.


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