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Decentralization, Linkages, Patronage and Clientelism

Due to its creation of closer ties between private enterprise and the government, patronage politics has been broadly recognized as a potential impediment to decentralization1. Fundamentally, it consists of people receiving financial benefits from their association with a particular political movement, which could be expressed in the forms of preferential contract awards, employment, subsidies, and other incentives2. If it becomes widespread, which is typically challenging to avoid once the precedent has been set, access to resources becomes dependent on personal connections rather than policy or economic laws3. The practise is particularly widespread in Africa, which some researchers use to explain the slow progress of decentralization and policy improvements on the continent along with local capture4. Patronage politics has parasitized decentralization by enabling central elites to establish this type of relationship with local leaders and officials. The concern was known before the efforts’ beginning5, but a practical response and solution are challenging to develop.

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The issue stems from the self-interest of both central and regional government officials, which may drive them to exploit decentralization without embracing it fully6. National leaders still have home constituencies, which they can seek to help by establishing patronage relationships. Alternately, they may use decentralization to break down resistance from local groups and disrupt existing patronage networks to replace them with their own7. Regardless of the specific reason, this variety of support only continues as long as it is beneficial for the central government to maintain it, and once their interests change, they may abandon the initiative or actively work to undermine it.

Uganda can be used as a prominent example of the pitfalls and failure of decentralization in the African context. As Riedl and Dickovick8 argue, the nation’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), uses decentralization-enabled patronage to transfer economic opportunity to its supporters at the expense of everyone else. The nation’s president, Museveni, extensively engages in the practice personally, using state resources to solve individual voters’ issues for publicity and employing district creation as a political tool at rallies9. There are limitations to this practice, and it will not necessarily be able to continue indefinitely because district creation is an expensive endeavor10. However, this lack of long-term viability is typical of patronage as a whole, as it tends to pursue short-term goals.

While some political elites may see decentralization as a patronage opportunity, as discussed above, it is ultimately not conducive to the practice in the long term due to requirements such as transparency, which would expose any such relationships. Hence, the expectation of resistance to the initiative from political leaders has also been discussed extensively in the literature. Resistance due to the potential disruption of patronage networks has already emerged across Africa, slowing down the transition process and leaving it ultimately incomplete, with the inconvenient aspects’ development stifled11. The anti-decentralization impulse does not come solely from the central government, either; patrons who benefit from their relationship with the government will often refuse to demand decentralization from their leaders, provided they are deriving a benefit from their presence in the office12. Boone13 argues that central governments will be unlikely to devolve significant amounts of power or resources to areas within a country that contain local elites that are relatively powerful, and over whom the center may not be able to exert control. In such locations, the central regime may attempt to undermine or usurp the power of local elites, rather than undertaking power-sharing with them, through such mechanisms of decentralization. Because the power of local elites can vary even within one country, different locations within a single country might receive different decentralization outcomes from the central government, meaning that the outcomes of decentralization can vary even within a single country.

Finally, a number of authors point to the harm that can be caused to good-quality service delivery and governance by a tendency towards clientelism and patronage in politics. For example, clientelism is directly opposed to democratization because it emphasizes the will of a connected minority14, can reduce the success of elections in accurately expressing the political will of voters, and can worsen the chance of tyranny developing if voters are afraid to vote against their patron. Crook15 argues that clientelism undermines local taxation systems, as voters expect specific resource transfers in exchange for the payment of taxes. Furthermore, Stokes et al.16 argue that when there is a tendency amongst voters to vote for politicians who provide them with individual gifts (such as cash or employment opportunities), politicians are in turn incentivised to offer these individual gifts – rather than investing in the delivery of public services or programs. As a result, people with elite connections receive, rather than the members of the broader community. Grindle17 argues that where clientelist and patronage-based relationships exist, these can be time- and resource-consuming to maintain, and can divert resources away from their best use. Furthermore, drawing a connection to decentralization, Barkan and Chege18 suggest that decentralization is more likely to occur in societies that show elements of clientelistic relationships, but are resource-poor. This is because decentralization allows political leaders to ‘give’ something to the voter base to meet their clientelistic expectations, but without draining significant state resources.

This section has reviewed literature relating to the underground partnerships between private individuals and the state, motivated by either illicit gain or the threat of government-induced sanctions and losses. Decentralization alters the scale of these relationships by altering the geographic space between patrons and clients (and potentially intermediaries or brokers). In this way, decentralization creates a context for determining actors’ expectations of these exchange-based relationships, and so determines the context in which elite political leaders and voters pursue their objectives. The implications of this literature for the implementation of decentralization in the Ugandan context, and in particular for the emergence of district proliferation, are explored in later chapters of this thesis.


  1. For example, Branch and Cheeseman, ‘Democratisation, Sequencing, and State Failure in Africa: Lessons from Kenya’.
  2. Stokes et al., Brokers, Voters, and Clientelism. 180 Muno, ‘Conceptualizing and Measuring Clientelism’.
  3. Muno, ‘Conceptualizing and Measuring Clientelism’.
  4. Crawford and Hartmann, Decentralisation in Africa: A Pathway Out of Poverty and Conflict?
  5. Diamond, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation.
  6. Eaton, ‘Political Obstacles to Decentralisation: Evidence from Argentina and the Philippines’.
  7. Grossman and Lewis, ‘Administrative Unit Proliferation’.
  8. Riedl and Dickovick, ‘Party Systems and Decentralization in Africa’.
  9. Golooba-Mutebi and Hickey, ‘Investigating the Links between Political Settlements and Inclusive Development in Uganda’.
  10. Barkan, Joel, quoted in Golooba-Mutebi and Hickey.
  11. Ribot, Waiting for Democracy.
  12. Golooba-Mutebi, in Saito, ‘Politics and Local Government in Uganda’.
  13. Boone, ‘Decentralization As Political Strategy In West Africa’.
  14. Stokes, Political Clientelism.
  15. Crook, ‘Democratic Decentralisation, Clientelism and Local Taxation in Ghana’.
  16. Stokes et al., Brokers, Voters, and Clientelism.
  17. Grindle, Going Local.
  18. Barkan and Chege, ‘Decentralising the State: District Focus and the Politics of Reallocation in Kenya’.

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