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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Decentralization and elite capture

Variable relationship:

Decentralization is a process through which a central government authority transfers authority to lower level government authorities (Centralization), which are typically created by the central authority. This process is posited to lead to improvements under the conditions of natural resource commons, as well as in the ability of those commons to contribute to local livelihoods, by improving accountability and representation, as well as by improving the social-ecological fit. Nevertheless, decentralization often fails to achieve these goals, and sometimes even fails to transfer significant power to local governments

Several reasons have been identified for the failure of power to be transferred effectively. One such explanation is that many governments transfer responsibility to local authorities, who who may have strong loyalties to formal or informal power networks such as political parties or government agencies (Rights Granting Process), which result in "recentralizing" power or clientelistic relations (Agrawal & Ribot 1999; Ribot, Agrawal & Larson 2006). All these aspects can amount to rent seeking and resource conditions (Commons Condition Trend).

Additionally, "recentralization" may occur simultaneously with decentralization when decentralized bodies are transferred insufficient powers and/or when the decentralized bodies are designed so as to be loyal to the power of the central authority.

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)
Local Resource User Group, Group of Local Resource User Groups, Local Government


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
CentralizationProximate independent variableThe process of decentralization to a lower level authority leads to less local empowerment than expected.Highly decentralized
Social-ecological fitModerating independent variableFailure of decentralization may lead to an incomplete fit between local systemsLow
Rights granting processModerating independent variableWhen rights are granted based on political dynamics - particularly when decentralized bodies are created in ways that aim to grant power at the local level to local allies of central leaders - this can lead to decentralization failure - or effective recentralization.Based on political dynamics (power)
Actor traditional knowledgeModerating independent variableThe success of decentralization is moderated by the management knowledge of local user groupsLow
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeDue to lack of enough knowledge, elite capture of the process and/or cross-local group externalities, decentralization may lead to exacerbation of resource use rather than better management.Worsened

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM)contradictory
Decentralization and leakagerelated
Social-ecological fit theorycontains
Political decentralization and fitcontradictory
Centralized conservationrelated
Decentralization and local capacityrelated

Related Studies


Ribot, Jesse C., Arun Agrawal, and Anne M. Larson. 2006. Recentralizing While Decentralizing: How National Governments Reappropriate Forest Resources. World Development 34 (11): 1864-1886.


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.