• Logged in as Unregistered User
  • Sign in

Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Political decentralization and fit

Variable relationship:

There are two classes of arguments in favor of political decentralization (Centralization). First, increased political autonomy is normatively desirable (Ribot 2008). Second, transfering authority to local authorities is meant to alleviate some of the problems of the failue of central control: increased local knowledge and fit to local ecosystems (Governance Use of Knowledge) should lead to better natural resource conditions (Commons Condition Trend), while increased democratic accountability should not only contribute to improved natural resource conditions, but also improve the benefits that resources give to local people (Agrawal & Ribot 1999).

Decentralization is a process through which a central government authority transfers authority to lower level government authorities, which are typically created by the central authority. Several varieties of decentralization have been identified in the literature (Rondinelli & Cheema 1983):

  • Fiscal decentralization, the transfer of fiscal authority to lower level government authority.
  • Administrative decentralization, sometimes called deconcentration, in which authority is transfered down a chain of bureaucratic command - for example, from the capital city office of an agency to its regional or local offices.
  • Political or Democratic Decentralization, in which power is transferred to a lower level political entity that is elected.

Political or democratic decentralization has received particularly large amounts of attention in the natural resource management literature, and has been applied widely in the natural resource sector of the developing world (Ribot & Larson 2005).

Decentralization should be distinguished from two related subjects. In Comanagement, local and central governmental authorities work together to manage a resource. This may be an outcome of decentralization, but it is conceptually useful to keep the two processes (i.e. the transfer of authority and the cooperation between existing authorities) separate. Community-based natural resource management refers to situations in which relatively autonomous local communities manage a resource with relatively little control from a central authority. Again, community based natural resource management may be the final result of a strong decentralization process, but it is conceptually distinct from the process of authority transfer. Many decentralization programs do not lead to either comanagement or community-based management: for example, decentralization could move authority from a central government to a state or district government in which case local government or community may still have limited authority.

(Authors note: we don't capture in the database the extent to which commons users benefit from a resource).

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
CentralizationUnderlying independent variableThe Degree of centralization decreases, as authority is transferred from a higher to a lower level of governmentValue of variable moves from more to less centralized
Governance knowledge useModerating independent variableDecentralization is moderated by the capacity of local users to collective use their knowledge of dynamics of resource use and availability at local levels, which in turn is expected to lead to better resource managementLocal/Traditional Knowledge
Social-ecological fitIntermediate outcomeImproved social-ecological fit results from decentralization, and this in turn leads to better commons conditionsHigh
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeDecentralization is postulated to lead to improved commons conditionsRemained the same or Improved

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Parametric managementrelated
Critique of fortress conservationrelated
Decentralization and elite capturecontradictory
Centralization and corruptionrelated
Failure of centralized controlrelated
Polycentric comanagementnested
Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM)related
Decentralization and leakagecontradictory
Technical solutions and shifting the burdenrelated
Social-ecological fit theorycontains
Decentralization and local capacitycontradictory

Related Studies


Ribot, Jesse C., and Anne M. Larson, eds. 2005. Democratic Decentralisation Through a Natural Resource Lens. New York: Routledge.


Ribot, Jesse C. 2008. Building Local Democracy through Natural Resource Interventions: An Environmentalist's Responsibility. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute Policy Brief.


Agrawal, Arun, and Jesse C. Ribot. 1999. "Accountability in Decentralization: A Framework with South Asian and West African Cases."  The journal of developing areas 33 (4):473-502.