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Decentralizing infrastructure : for good or ill?


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  • Bird, Richard


The author examines the many faces of infrastructure decentralization: the costs and benefits, the government structure (constraint or variable?), the"polycentric"approach, and how to make decentralization work (for whom?). He proposes basic principles and guidelines for policy design, for both small projects and large. Broadly, these guidelines are summed up in a few propositions. In all countries, some critical infrastructure is provided through a decentralized political structure. Current trends make that likely to be more true in the future. Decentralization, however defined, in and of itself had no necessary implications for good or evil so far as infrastructure is concerned: its effects depend on the incentives various decisionmakers face. The key to ensuring that these incentives are conducive to"good"decisions (about design, siting, timing, finance, pricing, operation, maintenance, and use of infrastructure) is to ensure that those who made the decisions bear the financial (and political) consequences, as much as possible. Politically, this means that political leaders at all levels should be responsive and responsible to their constituents, and that those constituents are fully informed about the consequences of all decisions. Making politicians bear the consequences of their own mistakes is as close as one can get to a"hard"political budget constraint. Economically, it must be difficult for local residents to shift cost to nonresidents who do not receive benefits and to make local decisionmakers fully responsible to their citizens for the use they make of revenues collected from them (through local taxes), to users of infrastructure (local or otherwise) for the use made of the revenues they contribute (through user charges of various sorts), and to taxpayers in general for the use made of any transfers (or subsidized loans) they receive. Administratively, what such a system requires is a clear set of"framework"laws (on local budgeting, financial reporting, taxation, contracting, dispute settlement, rules to be followed in designing user charges and so on), as well as adequate institutional support for localities to operate in this environment. To the extent that these conditions are not met, the perverse incentives that too often exist because of the structure and finance of the public sector in many countries will probably be exacerbated by the current tendency to decentralize more and more decisions in the public sector.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by The World Bank in its series Policy Research Working Paper Series with number 1258.

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Date of creation: 28 Feb 1994
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Handle: RePEc:wbk:wbrwps:1258

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Keywords: National Governance; Banks&Banking Reform; Municipal Financial Management; Public Sector Economics&Finance; Economic Theory&Research;


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  1. Bird, Richard & Wallich, Christine, 1993. "Fiscal decentralization and intergovernmental relations in transition economics : toward a systematic framework of analysis," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1122, The World Bank.
  2. Kitchen, H., 1993. "Efficient Delivery of Local Government Services," Papers, Queen's at Kingston - School of Policy Studies 93-15, Queen's at Kingston - School of Policy Studies.
  3. Aschauer, David Alan, 1989. "Is public expenditure productive?," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, Elsevier, vol. 23(2), pages 177-200, March.
  4. Bird, Richard & Wallich, Christine, 1992. "Financing local government in Hungary," Policy Research Working Paper Series 869, The World Bank.
  5. Albert Breton, 1989. "The Growth of Competitive Governments," Canadian Journal of Economics, Canadian Economics Association, Canadian Economics Association, vol. 22(4), pages 717-50, November.
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Cited by:
  1. Ping Zhang & E. Tandberg & Ehtisham Ahmad, 2002. "On National or Supranational Objectives," IMF Working Papers 02/209, International Monetary Fund.
  2. Estache, Antonio & Sinha, Sarbajit, 1995. "Does decentralization increase spending on public infrastructure?," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1457, The World Bank.
  3. Humplick, Frannie & Moini-Araghi, Azadeh, 1996. "Is there an optimal structure for decentralized provision of roads?," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1657, The World Bank.
  4. Bird, Richard M. & Smart, Michael, 2002. "Intergovernmental Fiscal Transfers: International Lessons for Developing Countries," World Development, Elsevier, Elsevier, vol. 30(6), pages 899-912, June.
  5. Herrera, Veronica, 2014. "Does Commercialization Undermine the Benefits of Decentralization for Local Services Provision? Evidence from Mexico’s Urban Water and Sanitation Sector," World Development, Elsevier, Elsevier, vol. 56(C), pages 16-31.
  6. Richard M. Bird & Thomas A. Wilson, 2003. "A Tax Strategy for Ontario," International Tax Program Papers, International Tax Program, Institute for International Business, Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto 0407, International Tax Program, Institute for International Business, Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, revised Apr 2004.
  7. Guccio, Calogero & Pignataro, Giacomo & Rizzo, Ilde, 2009. "The performance of local government in the execution of public works," MPRA Paper 16094, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  8. Pranab Bardhan, 2002. "Decentralization of Governance and Development," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, American Economic Association, vol. 16(4), pages 185-205, Fall.
  9. Humplick, Frannie & Moini-Araghi, Azadeh, 1996. "Decentralized structures for providing roads : a cross-country comparison," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1658, The World Bank.


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