Local Governments and Rural Development: Comparing Lessons from Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru

Andersson, Kristen
de Anda, Gustavo Gordillo
van Laerhoven, Frank van
Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-8165-2701-4, 232 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Valdivia, Eduardo Cáceres

Based on more than two years of field work across four Latin American countries (Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Peru), covering 320 municipalities and interviewing 1210 people, this book examines the relation between local governments and rural development. The selection of case studies was not a random process: these countries are as different as could be in terms of decentralisation and as similar as could be when it comes to non-decentralisation factors (p. 23) The book presents a lot of evidence concerning the first criterion, but its treatment of the second one is more contentious: Andean peasants and Chilean or Southern Brazilian farmers are sufficiently different from each other to merit a more explicit consideration of their particularities.

If the title gives the idea that the analysis of local governance will be instrumental to rural development, the research itself is more limited. The outcomes that it looks for are basically improved rural development services (technical support and others). From this perspective, decentralisation is closely scrutinised: '[decentralisation] may alter the governance dynamics at the local level, but if and when this will lead to improved public policy outcomes remains an open question. It is precisely this question that we explore in this book' (p. 3).

Municipalities are evaluated as devices of a public-service system with 'provision' and 'production' units. The first ones make decisions about what goods and services must be produced; the second ones decide the ways of producing them. Provision units are developed in a given territorial cluster of individual preferences regarding public services. Production units are developed by officials in charge of public-services implementation. With this background, '(t)he core hypothesis is that the performance of public services… is associated with the institutional arrangements for coprovision and coproduction at the municipal level' (p. 18).

Institutional arrangements are subject to constraints defined around three fields: motivational dilemmas (reasons to co-operate or not); information problems; and power asymmetries. The last one is particularly important for the critical evaluation of decentralisation. Where asymmetries are deeply rooted, decentralisation usually reinforces the power of traditional elites. But the case studies and general conclusions prioritise the analysis of motivational dilemmas and of 'incentive structures' to motivate virtuous interactions between key players. One interesting finding of the research is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not technical skills, administrative capacity, or financial resources that make the biggest difference. It is the 'association' between actors.

After the presentation of the theoretical foundation and methodological design of the research, Chapter 3 offers us an analysis of the role of local governments in rural development in each country (a useful comparative table can be found on p. 32). A general assessment is outlined around a fundamental interaction: where the farmer must go to seek a solution, and the degree to which local authorities are motivated to assume responsibilities on rural development issues. The most favourable scenario for a virtuous relation is located in Brazil, and the least favourable in Peru.

The following chapters (4-7) present the findings of field work in each country. It is not appropriate to try to summarise them here. Those readers interested in the issues at stake will gain a lot from reviewing and comparing them. The use of variables and models to process the data produces interesting correlations and provokes questions and more qualitative interpretations.

One of the more evident of these concerns is the role of organised civil society. Despite their institutional differences on decentralisation reforms at the moment of the field work (circa 2002), the case studies of Brazil and Peru share a similar conclusion: For Brazil, '(t)he political pressure exerted by local-producer organizations contributes consistently and significantly to the success of decentralization reforms' (p. 66); for Peru, 'collective action at the district level plays an important role in both the provision of agricultural public services and their quality' (p. 134).

On the other hand, the contrast between Chile ('the demands of the constituency and specific stakeholder groups were also a nonsignificant factor', p. 84) and the previously mentioned countries points to a factor neglected in the analysis: the level of institutionalisation of politics and the role of political parties (they are included as a variable only in Chapter 9). If mayors are analysed in terms of their level of education and involvement with the territory, a consideration of their political affiliation could aid our understanding of some differences detected between similar local governments (as in, for example, the case of Antuco and Licanten municipalities in Chile).

Does decentralisation promote participatory governance? Despite referring to authorities such as de Tocqueville and Habermas (Chapter 9) for a positive answer, the authors of the research are more cautious in their response. Accepting that 'decentralization may exacerbate existing inequalities' (p. 163), they propose a new theoretical framework, the 'new institutionalism'. This review does not allow space for a detailed discussion of it, but the complexity and richness of cases analysed leaves the reader with a feeling that something important is lacking.

For example, the Mexico case study includes a reference that could be useful for a better understanding of other cases. In this the researchers found 'a culture of municipal performance that views the provision of (…) resources for agricultural development as a concern of the state and federal levels' (p. 109). Probably a similar perspective underlies the finding that in Peru municipalities, rather than providers, are viewed as intermediaries with specialised agencies of the central government (p. 136). Should this be considered a failure of decentralisation? Or evidence of the concrete result of the interactions between reforms and traditions that give its final shape to institutionality?

These questions point not only to a field of analysis that is crucial for social research: culture and representations, but also to a very common political assumption: political processes (good governance, reforms, 'revolutions') operate in a vacuum. And when previous history and traditions appear, they assume the role of demons to be exorcised: patromonialism, clientelism, 'caudillismo'. These categories have lost any explicative function and must be replaced by concrete and multidisciplinary analysis of power relations in different contexts. Just as this book challenges conventional wisdom in many ways, it is highly desirable that its findings should encourage the community of researchers to widen our paradigms and tools to understand Latin American processes.