Decentralization in Latin America After 40 Years: Work in Progress

In 1995, Andrew Nickson, a leading scholar on decentralization (Honorary Reader in Public Management and Latin American Development at the International Development Department, University of Birmingham) wrote the first English-language book on local government in Latin America.

At that time there were also very few works on the subject in Spanish or Portuguese. The tardy appearance of works on such a topic reflected the long history of centralization and the long-standing neglect of academic investigation of sub-national governance in the region. The information available was so limited that in the case of some countries (notably Argentina) it was even difficult to obtain an accurate figure on something as basic as the number of municipalities. The book covered the history of local government since the late colonial period, its legal status, its structure, local service provision, local finance, electoral system, administrative organization, citizen participation, and inter-municipal relations. It also provided descriptive profiles of municipal government in 18 countries in the region.

Since then, there has been an explosion of publications on local governance in the region, highlighting the transformation that has taken place in the wake of a major decentralization process than had begun a decade earlier. Several studies agree that a significant leap has been made in the level of decentralization in Latin America. This period of time is sufficient to assess the impact of this transformation.

The 1980s: A decade of democratization

The decentralization process in the region started in the early 1980s, a decade known in Latin America as the decade of democratization. The clearest expression of this was a demilitarization process: the rapid decline in the role of the armed forces in political decision-making throughout the sub-continent. From the southern nations of the Southern Cone to the Central American republics, authoritarian military regimes gradually ceded power to new freely elected civilian governments. However, as observed in many countries, the formal transfer of political power from military to civilian rule did not, in itself, ensure any “democratic change” in terms of income distribution in favor of the largely low-income population. Since the municipality is the tier of government closest to citizens, it was increasingly considered as a most appropriate mechanism to channel the demands for greater equity and inclusion. In short, demilitarization and municipalization were two parallel and interrelated trends that together represented a major political shift toward democratization in Latin America.

The decentralization process in Latin America in the subsequent decades—including the gradual expansion of the role of local government in the political system in its entirety –-took place in the region characterized by the highest level of income inequality in the world and in a region that had previously had a deep-rooted tradition of centralism. It assumed such historical importance that it has been called “a silent revolution”. Driven by a variety of influences that varied according to the national context, there is no doubt that it can be identified as a truly regional trend. With the implementation of the process in recent years in ‘latecomer’ countries such as Costa Rica, Panama, Paraguay, Dominican Republic and Uruguay, today every Latin American country has been touched by the process.

Decentralization in Latin America After 40 Years: Work in Progress

A recent (2023) open source article by Andrew Nickson– Decentralization in Latin America After 40 Years: Work in Progress—presents an overview of the decentralization process in Latin America over the last 40 years. First, the history of centralism in the region is briefly traced, highlighting the weakening of local government and its descent into a state of virtual neglect by the end of the 1960s. Subsequently, the complexity of ‘political economy’ factors that detonated the process in the 1980s is examined with an outline of the changes in the profile of local government in the region. Some positive features of the process are discussed followed by a range of outstanding challenges. Finally, the contribution of political economy analysis to an assessment of the process is presented with some positive conclusions about decentralization in the region.


The overview article concludes that there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the balance of the decentralization process under way for more than 40 years in Latin America is positive. Despite set-backs and obstacles, progress has outweighed setbacks. These achievements have helped to counteract the deep structural inequalities in the direction of greater territorial and social inclusion. Political democratization at the municipal level has been the axis of the process. This is helping to introduce programmatic politics in parties that were hitherto mainly clientelist in nature. The newly transferred powers have led to a progressive, albeit uneven, institutional development in which some municipalities stand out for their capacity for innovation, while others still cling to their traditional practices.

It is interesting to note that, despite the criticism of the process, there is currently–neither in intellectual circles nor in the political sphere–a strong current of opinion that advocates a systematic regional strategy of recentralization in Latin America. It is not surprising that recentralization has occurred in two countries–Nicaragua and Venezuela–with leaderships rooted in the centralist tradition of the 1960s. Even so, after the euphoria of the 1990s when it became a kind of development “fashion” in the region, it is important to recognize the warning from several authors about the stalling of the decentralization process in the 2010s.

However, the current slowdown should not give reason for pessimism. The granting of greater autonomy with new functions, attributions and finances has represented a huge change in relations between central and sub-national government. As pointed out above, this has countless consequences and reactions when it collides with the enormous variation in the “political economy” of each municipality. On the contrary, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future direction of the process. The crucial underlying force driving the parallel processes of democratization and decentralization continues to be pressure from civil society. These social forces are deeply embedded, slow in gestation but powerful in the long run.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that decentralization – this profound process of reconfiguration and restructuring of relations between central government and subnational governments – is not an end in itself. It is a means to contribute to achieving a higher objective desired by all – societies characterized by inclusive and sustainable development that provide a decent well-being to their citizens. Even though there has been evident progress in its contribution, there is still much more that can be achieved and we have identified some of the outstanding challenges. For this reason, there is a need for constant evaluation of the impact of the decentralization process in Latin America in contributing to achieve that goal.

Read the full article (open access):

Andrew Nickson. 2023. Decentralization in Latin America After 40 Years: Work in Progress; A Commentary Essay. Public Organization Review (2023) 23:1017–1034.