The politics of local government performance: Elite cohesion and cross-village constraints in decentralized Senegal

“Though local elites dominate positions of authority everywhere, the article argues that local government performance varies subnationally as a function of elites’ relations among each other across villages.”

The adoption of democratic decentralization across the developing world has been critiqued by scholars and practitioners for both macro-level institutional shortcomings and, on a more micro scale, for falling prey to elite capture. This article draws on interviews with over 350 local authorities in decentralized Senegal to call attention to a third level of analysis: the meso-level of the local state itself.

Where denser cross-village social ties generate higher cohesion among elites, individual opportunism is constrained and local government performance improves. Where such cross-village relations are weaker, elites see local institutions as a zero-sum game among villages. The composition of local social relations, in other words, drives better or worse governance at the local level.

Because West African cross-village relations are largely determined by historical settlement patterns, notably the presence or absence of a precolonial state, the article suggests that local political strategies are historically constrained. The link between history and local government performance documented here holds important implications for the nature of political representation and local development outcomes following the recent wave of democratic decentralization in sub-Saharan Africa.

Published in World Development | Martha Wilfahrt | 2018,,