Social scientists have identified governing capacity as a key component of explanations about violence, democracy, and wealth. What accounts for variations in governing capacity, however? Although scholars have developed explanations for why capacity varies across countries, scholars have neglected the fact that, in an era of decentralized governance, developing countries often display substantial variation in the capacity to govern not across countries but within countries. In particular, conventional wisdom holds that governments are effective in the center but less so in the periphery. This project illustrates the fallacy of that assumption. In the developing world, governments are not strong in the capital and weak elsewhere, for pockets of effective government can exist throughout the country, at sub-national levels. Why?

This project investigates that question by examining sub-national variation in governing capacity within Ghana. Ghana offers an excellent case study because it is one of the most effective states in Africa and yet exhibits uneven sub-national capacity. This makes the question of the politics of governing capacity all the more puzzling.

This project develops a theory that grounds the effectiveness of political institutions in the legitimacy of those institutions. It specifically isolates the role that boundaries play in structuring the legitimacy of a given district, which produces variation in the way that actors perceive and react to their local governments. The project tests its theory through a mixed methods approach that combines cross-district statistical analysis, four case studies, qualitative interviewing, and quantitative survey methods.

This project advances the understanding of governing capacity in developing countries, shifting the focus from comparisons across countries to comparisons within them. This refocus is most appropriate, for decentralization has shifted many realms of governance downward to local authorities, further accentuating variation in the quality of local institutions. Understanding how and why local authorities vary in their effectiveness is of interest to political scientists, sociologists, and economists. This project contributes to development studies and political science by constructing the first database on the match between a country's internal political boundaries and the boundaries of its traditional authorities. It also innovates by offering the first study of systematic variation in governing capacity within an African country.

The project has broader implications as well. It sheds light on uneven outcomes in government performance and the delivery of public goods within developing countries at the same time that it examines the operation of local political institutions in their local social context.

Project Report

Now more than ever in the history of the post-colonial state, developing countries are pushing the responsibility for basic functions of government, such as tax collection and public service provision, down to local governments. But many local governments in developing countries lack the finances and skill to successfull govern their areas. This research examined the ability of local governments in Ghana to carry out basic functions of government, and sought to explain why some local governments perform better than others in the country. The research had two parts: case studies and a nation-wide survey. The case studies involved interviews with civil servants, politicians and opinion leaders in several closely matched local governments in one region in Ghana. Relationships were built over time with these local governments in order to build trust between them and the researcher. Interviewees ultimately provided information on the relationship between political competition (which varies between 'high' in places where the two main parties are closely matched, to 'low' in places where one party dominates) and the ability of the local government to carry out its work. Specifically, initial findings suggest that incubments face considerable punishment by their own party activists for any apparent cooperation with the opposition. This means that public goods in a local government area are provided along party lines, which in Ghana can mean ethnic lines, for fear that any goods given out on a non-discriminatory way might land in the hands of the opposition, forcing incumbent supporters to mobilize to remove the incumbent. This occurs in a context of low capital, in which young men in particular have their futures invested in the support they give to one politician or party, knowing that if they lose office, they may lose their jobs as well. The second part of the research is a survey conducted on the opinions and facilities of local governments throughout the country. Specifically, data was sought on the opinions of local government politicians and bureaucrats about their own performance, the nature of local politics, relationship with the central government, and so on. Data from the nationwide survey is not ready at the time of reporting, but it is expected to help test hypotheses emerging from the case studies, specifically that different types of political competitition have different effects on government performance. We expect that the emerging findings will add to our knowledge of the nature of governance in post-colonial states that negotiate state-building strategies amidst global trends of decentralizing, electoralizing, and deregulating.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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University of Wisconsin Madison
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