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Decentralization and Popular Democracy named Best Political Science Book of 2012

Decentralization and Popular DemocracyDecentralization and Popular Democracy: Governance from Below in Bolivia (University of Michigan Press) by Dr Jean-Paul Faguet of the Department of International Development has been awarded the Political Studies Association’s W.J.M. Mackenzie Book Prize.  It was the unanimous choice of a distinguished jury, who said:

“This book is an outstanding and exemplary piece of research that teaches us how properly devolving power and money leads local government to be more responsive to local interests. The book makes both a major theoretical contribution regarding the impacts of federalism and decentralisation, and conducts a thorough evaluation of a major programme of decentralisation in Bolivia. The theories driven by a clear and sensible intuition that decentralisation should lead to diversity between local authorities because of different local political pressures. This is fully developed in a formal rational choice model. The empirical analysis is a rare combination of both excellent quantitative and qualitative analysis, involving a mixture of econometric analysis of local government spending over time and thorough ethnographic fieldwork on the workings of local government in various districts. The fieldwork is particularly striking for the effort involved in studying difficult to reach places and in revisiting locations ten years apart, before and after the decentralisation. The research is all the more effective for such a breath of method and thorough analysis.”


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Decentralization and Popular Democracy: Governance from Below in Bolivia

Decentralization is everywhere around us and yet we cannot say what, if anything, it achieves.  Proponents argue that it will deepen democracy, improve public services, and make government more accountable.  These intuitions have prompted a massive policy response across the globe, with an estimated 80-100% of the world’s countries experimenting with reform.  But careful research has not found that it achieves any of these goals.  Is it all empty fashion?  A giant mistake?

Decentralization and Popular Democracy uses the remarkable case of Bolivia, a radical reformer over two decades, to investigate what happens when a country decentralizes.  The answer is remarkable success leading to transformation.  Public investment shifted dramatically towards primary services and human capital formation, while the distribution of resources across the nation became much more equitable.  These changes were disproportionately driven by Bolivia’s smaller, poorer, more rural municipalities investing newly devolved funds according to greatest need.  The accumulation of such micro-level changes led the Bolivian state as a whole to become more responsive to citizens nationwide.

But these successes are only the beginning.  Some municipalities responded to decentralization with transparent, accountable government, while others suffered ineptitude, corruption, and worse.  Why?  In order to discover the causes of good and bad government, Faguet drive the investigation deep into the political and social underpinnings of governance.  He deploys statistical evidence covering all of Bolivia’s municipalities, territory, and citizens over twenty-one years, alongside deep qualitative evidence based on fieldwork that ranges from the altiplano to the broad Eastern plains, and from the smallest hamlets to the richest industrial cities.

Faguet’s results show that governments are responsive and accountable when civil society is rich in active, organized groups, and these groups compete with economic interests for influence over policy decisions.  The interaction of civic and economic actors is especially important, resolving differences between them and often modifying the priorities of each.  Where more interactions occur, government outcomes are systematically better.  These insights are used to construct a theory of government that explains why some democracies succeed and others fail.

It also explains how governance can be transformed over time.  Decentralization is not a policy lever, but rather a process that operates at deep levels of politics and society.  The long-term changes that it kicked into motion in Bolivia proved even more important – and dramatic – than the initial positive results.  Decentralization and Popular Democracy tells the story of the transformation of a country’s government, the collapse and re-birth of its politics, and the rise to power of its people through a trapdoor unlocked by decentralization.


A paperback version was just released by the University of Michigan Press (August 2013).


Further information on this and related books, articles and research projects, including datasets, research tools, teaching aids, and other resources available at the Governance from Below website|.

Early reviews in Comparative Political Studies| and Publius|.


Buy the book on Amazon|, the University of Michigan Press| website (60% discount voucher here| for buying direct from the publisher), or the LSE Economist’s Bookshop