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Chapter Summary

Stohr, Walter (2001). Introduction in New Regional Development Paradigms: Decentralization, Governance and the New Planning for Local-Level Development. Eds. Stohr, Walter and Josefas Edralin and Devyani Mani. Published in cooperation with the United Nations and the United Nations Centre for Regional Development: Contributions in Economic History Series, Number 225. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Globalization has two sides. On one hand, it has brought significant advances in economic, technological and democratic terms to many countries; on the other hand, in spite of these advances, poverty, hunger, health hazards, technological gaps and disparities in human welfare have also increased. Essentially, there has and continues to be a widening rift between the haves and the have-nots. To address this increasing inequality, development efforts need to focus on and empower those who are being left behind. This requires a greater focus on and empowerment of local communities, which in turn requires the decentralization of administrative and political decision-making processes.In this introductory chapter, Stohr lays out the main themes of the book: 1) decentralization, 2) governance and the need to consider subsidiarity, equity and sustainability, and 3) the importance of civil society. Stohr also proffers a warning, namely that globalization and decentralization in tandem may harbinger the further fragmentation of civil society and undermine local power. However, the author concludes with recommendation to stave of this disintegration of social cohesion.


Inherent in the idea of decentralization is that different problems (and hence different communities) require different solutions. Traditional centralized governments are not able to address the myriad different situations that occur at the local level and new systems are needed. To solve local problems, new systems of government must be more decentralized and make increasing use of civil society and the private sector.

There are four major forms of decentralization through which responsibility may be transferred from a centralized body to lower levels of government:

  1. Devolution, which transfers governing responsibilities, such as planning and budgetary decisions to the local and regional levels and largely removes from the purview of the central government.
  2. Deconcentration, which connotes a spatial decentralization of the central government through the creation of local or regional line ministry offices.
  3. Delegation
  4. Divestment

Decentralization, the author writes, has the societal function to allow society to achieve at the subnational and local levels the goals of poverty reduction, sustainable livelihood, environmental regeneration and gender equity (2).The book, as Stohr notes, deals primarily with deconcentration and devolution and compares and contrasts their strengths and weaknesses through various case studies. The preliminary findings, which he outlines in the introduction, suggest that deconcentration, while maintaining a higher degree of centralized control over decision-making through line ministries, results in better resource allocation than devolution; devolution, however, seems to encourage innovation in the creation of public/private partnerships and alternative financing strategies. At the same time, coordination between the various government departments and ministries may break down in the case of devolution.

Stohr notes, that despite the global discourse of decentralization and local empowerment, decentralization, particularly in the form of devolution, is not yet a widespread phenomenon. What passes for decentralization in the name of local control, looks more like deconcentration and can be viewed as a strategy to increase the presence of the central government in order to further its policy goals.

In addition, the authors of the book caution that decentralization is not a panacea to solve the problems of development, such as lack of participation, poverty and inequality. On the contrary, the institutionalization of decentralized decision-making whether fiscal, administrative and/or political should be adapted to the specific needs of each context.Decentralization, Stohr notes, in some national contexts with multiethnic populations engaged in power struggles may result in the fragmentation and breakdown of the national polity and civil society. In the worse case scenario this may lead to violence and chaos.

Governance, Subsidiarity, Equity and Sustainability

Governance is a governing structure in which the public sector, private sector and civil society cooperate to solve problems of a public socio-economic nature and to construct a more equitable society. Stohr introduces the concept of subsidiarity in order to reassert the importance of multilevel public decision-making power that begins at the local level and delegates power upward to higher levels of government. Because one of the main tenets of globalization is competition, Stohr notes, besides economic growth in some arenas, it has also fostered individualization, atomization and a loss of solidarity consequently contributing to the erosion of civil society (7).

While the expressed goal of decentralized governance is equity or at least improved equity, the key may be to strike the right balance of decentralized and centralized authority ensure redistribution both of resources and power in order to prevent that decentralization does not reinforce skewed local power relations and therefore preexisting inequalities.

Re-energizing and empowering civil society, Stohr argues, represents an important strategy in order to arrest the process of inequalization and reconstruct more equitable societies. Changing public attitudes...from one of dependency to one of broad participation, initiatives and self-empowerment represents an important first step toward development of an active civil society. Four types of barriers, however, impede the development of an engaged civil society: psychological barriers, economic barriers, social barriers and technical barriers. These barriers are rooted in a sense of helplessness and a psychological abrogation of local power to government authority. Overcoming this sense of disempowerment requires more than institutional decentralization. It also takes time (at least 10-15 years) and the cooperation not only of local agencies, NGOs and volunteer groups, but also the genuine involvement of national and supranational agencies in order to build an empowered sense of solidarity and common purpose. This may lead to long-term sustainability.

Stohr offers another definition of sustainability, which seems to contradict the direction of the arguments being made in this introduction, particularly when viewed in relation to subsidiarity. On the one hand, he seems define sustainability in local terms as the ability to regenerate in a self-supporting way not only for environmental but also in human and social systems (6); on the other, the concept of subsidiarity recognizes the necessity for redistribution and intervention from national and supranational institutions (6).