Neopatrimonial Politics, Decentralisation and Local Government: Uganda and Malawi in 2006

Published on 3 December 2007

This study is part of a larger, two-year programme of research on Governance, Aid Modalities and Poverty Reduction, which is expected to improve the design and implementation of Irish Aid’s development and governance programmes in poorly performing hybrid states. The study examines the impact of domestic politics on public sector reform in African states that are classed as neopatrimonial or ‘hybrid’, exploring three propositions.

First, elite behaviour is governed by a particular political logic in hybrid states, leading them to use both formal and informal institutions to gain and retain power in (what tends to be) winner-takes-all competition for control of the state. Secondly, national and local elites instrumentalise reform processes according to this political logic. Thirdly, this explains why formal structures function in unexpected ways and reforms have unexpected outcomes – often to the detriment of development objectives.

The research focuses on the process of decentralisation and local government reform. Other public sector reforms might have been selected, given the hypothesis that neopatrimonial political logic affects all such reform processes in similar, though particular, ways. Donors and local reformers have promoted decentralisation as a means to improve public service delivery and promote participatory democracy and decision-making.

The results have generally been disappointing. Using field research in Malawi and Uganda in late 2006, this study examines whether this can be explained by the influence of national and local politics on the implementation of decentralised structures and processes. Growing organically from events on the ground, interviews and data collection in Malawi concentrated on (i) why local council elections have been delayed since 2005 and (ii) what institutions are emerging in the absence of local assemblies and why. Local-level power systems are explained, as they affect the way in which district governments function without formally constituted assemblies. During the fieldwork, it was discovered that a new MP’s constituency development fund had recently been introduced, and we sought (iii) to determine why it was brought in and the impact it was likely to have on local government and development.


Tammie O’Neil

DPhil Student

Publication details

published by
Overseas Development Institute
Cammack, D., Golooba-Mutebi, F., Kanyongolo, F. and O'Neil, T.
ABIA Working Paper, issue 2


About this publication

Malawi Uganda

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