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His Highness the Aga Khan

The dangers of decentralization Add to ...

My interests in the past 50 years as imam of the Ismaili community have been primarily focused on Africa, South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East – and on improving the quality of life for the people who live there. The more I think about this matter, the more I am convinced that one of the critical barriers to progress is the way in which governing processes occur.

The so-called Arab Spring has brought special attention to this challenge, illustrating that it is easier to rally people in opposition to a particular government than to forge agreement about new governing processes. But, while this pattern has recently been more dramatically evident, it has been a reality for a very, very long time.

In my life, the two moments which contributed most dramatically to this condition were the fall of the British and French colonial empires after the Second World War and then the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire two decades ago. The process continues today, as developing nations re-examine the structures under which they are governed.

In some cases – I think here of Kenya’s new constitution – power has been diffused, in response no doubt to pressures from ethnic, economic, religious and other centrifugal forces. One risk of decentralization is that it can place more decision-making power into the hands of communities that have had less access to education and governing experience, and less exposure to national and global issues.

Perhaps this is why, in some cases, the trend has been to consolidate governing authority – such as in Afghanistan, with the aim of overcoming inertia and inefficiency, as well as fragmented and provincial outlooks.

The history of constitutions can be seen as an oscillation between the two poles of centralization and diffusion – with new concentrations of power often amplifying the temptation to abuse, while new dispersions of power are often associated with stagnation, paralysis and even more opportunities for corruption.

Arrangements that effectively balance power – through a federalist approach, for example – are elusive. What is critical is that constitutional arrangements should respect inherited traditions, ensure fairness to minority communities, respond to rural as well as urban concerns and underwrite equitable opportunity for a better life. Reconciling the global and the local, the urban and the rural, the regional and the national, is a formidable challenge – one that calls for the best of our intellectual energies and consistent fine-tuning over time.

There is a second question related to the experience of fledgling democracies. In much of the developed world, we have seen the emergence of two-pronged political structures – where one party forms a government and the other constitutes the opposition. This arrangement can foster greater accountability and even a certain stability. But I have to say, I am increasingly skeptical about the emergence of such constructs in many developing countries. I suspect that a continuing multiplicity of widely differentiated parties will mean that some form of coalition government will become the norm. This will especially be the case in societies that are multicultural, multireligious, or struggling to accommodate secular and religious political forces.

The difficulty is that multiparty coalitions can be intrinsically undisciplined, with their differing agendas, and often unstable. In such situations, the threat of defection can be highly destabilizing, while accountability is often blurred and transparency is discouraged. Yet, coalition governance is now becoming familiar in many countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The broader the array of parties, the greater the risk that they will be based on personalities or narrow parochial identities, rather than a broadly recognized, predictable point of view.

There is certainly no straightforward, universal formula to apply in such situations. We must not naively assume that what has worked in some parts of the Western world, for example, will work the same way in less developed contexts. Different places, different histories require quite different approaches.

The questions raised by coalition governance are not easy ones, either in the developing world or the developed world. What should be the rules under which parties and other governing entities are put together? How can we best find the glue that will hold them together – such as joint commitments to issues of clear national interest – and to a spirit of pluralism that values conciliation among diversified viewpoints?

Let me emphasize that I am not opposed to the concept of coalition government. Indeed, it may be an inevitable response to the intrinsic pluralism of many of the countries in which I work. But the high level of political instability and failure around the world illustrates the need for creative new thinking about this particularly demanding form of democracy. Which constitutional options and best practices will give coalition government the greatest chance of stability and consistent performance?

The alternative is a world widely characterized by significant numbers of unstable states. It is a scenario to be avoided.

This is adapted from a speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the ceremony conferring an honorary doctorate at the University of Ottawa this month.

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