The editors of International Development Planning Review have selected ‘Managing political space: authority, marginalised people’s agency and governance in West Bengal’ by Sailaja Nandigama and Glyn Williams, as the Featured Article for the latest issue.

The article is open access. Read it here

When asked to describe the paper, and highlight its importance, Glyn Williams stated the following:

Decentralisation of government in the Global South has long been called for by international development agencies. The World Bank has promoted it as a mechanism for ‘making government work for poor people’, and as a key part of a broader good governance agenda. Decentralisation of the formal structures of government can be achieved through reforms – such as transferring control of resources to local councils, or insisting that these are subject to direct elections – but our work focuses on the implications of this for everyday practices of rule. It asks what does decentralisation do to the way in which authority is exercised, and what spaces does it open up for poor people to express their political agency? West Bengal, in eastern India, provides a valuable context to ask these questions, as it began its own indigenously-driven experiment with decentralisation in the 1970s, and was for a long time seen as a leading example of pro-poor government reform.

In this paper, we use detailed qualitative work in two rural local councils (panchayats) to understand the interplay between institutional change and the ways in which rule is actually practiced and experienced on the ground. Our findings highlight important differences between conditions within this ‘mature’ example of decentralisation and the outcomes hoped for by those promoting decentralisation as a route to good governance. Local leaders perform their authority by deliberately mixing their formal roles within local government bodies, their existing social capital, and practices of patronage and coercion. Elections to the local councils have intensified party-political rivalries, and brought these to the forefront of the ways in which villagers find themselves identified by others.

Finally, and as a result, poorer people find their political agency limited to tactical attempts to position themselves relative to powerful bosses and political parties.
The wider importance of these findings is not to denigrate well-intentioned drives for reform, but to highlight their potential for unintended consequences, and argue for better understanding of the contexts in which they are operating. Studying how everyday practices of rule are actually experienced ‘from below’ is a vital first step if we are to identify pathways towards more democratic local governance.

This post originally appeared on the Liverpool University Press website.