By L Cravens, Derick W. Brinkerhoff.
Open Access Peer Reviewed
Assessments of the United States–led effort to create a democratically governed Iraq following the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 have generally been negative. However, these criticisms have, for the most part, ignored the progress Iraq made on putting in place basic public administration practices and political processes that better serve its citizens, particularly at the subnational level. This paper reviews the experience of the Local Governance Program in strengthening the capacities of subnational councils and provincial offices to develop legislation and to plan and budget for capital investments. The discussion reveals how contestation over the legal interpretations of decentralization constrained the autonomy of provincial actors, and how mastery of administrative tools and methods enabled them to maneuver more effectively within evolving provincial governance structures. This experience offers several lessons for international stabilization and reconstruction operations: constitution-making in divided societies paves over differences with ambiguities in order to reach agreement, which pushes the unresolved conflicts into political, legislative, and administrative arenas; decentralization debates are ultimately about the distribution of political power and control and cannot be addressed solely as technical and administrative governance questions; and basic public administration capacity is critical to meeting citizens’ expectations for services, security, and economic opportunity. A final observation is that international governance improvement templates can only be effective if they recognize that technical interventions must account for politics and the incentives facing local actors.