Urban Wire How Can We Minimize the Disruption of Political Transition in Developing Countries?
Reehana Raza, Karuti Kanyinga, Akanksha Ray
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On August 8, 2017, Kenya held its first elections since creating 47 new county governments in 2013 under a constitution promulgated in 2010. The elections were intensely contested both at the national and local level. Disputes over presidential results, amid allegations of fraud, saw Kenya’s new apex court, the Supreme Court, annul the August 8 presidential election. The court ordered a fresh presidential poll, which was held on October 26, 2017. Meanwhile, more than 20 local governorship results were legally contested, with multiple cases being taken all the way to the Supreme Court.

These elections and the violence that followed the disputed presidential election created long periods of uncertainty across Kenya’s national and local government. In Wajir county, the election result for governor was contested for almost 20 months, until the Supreme Court ruled last February that the election was valid.

Political transition generally creates uncertainty for bureaucrats, but prolonged transition periods exacerbate uncertainty and paralyze government functions. An annual survey and a technical report by partners implementing a project funded by the US Agency for International Development and the UK Department for International Development, Agile Harmonized Assistance for Devolved Institutions (AHADI), assesses how 22 Kenyan counties are improving their capacity to efficiently provide services to citizens. The most recent 2018 assessment shows how the 2017 elections undermined counties’ ability to sustain and maintain capacity-building initiatives.

The partners implementing the project are the State University of New York, with the Urban Institute and Local Development International. The assessment is done by the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi with support from the Urban Institute.

This evidence shows the importance of empowering and building capacity at all levels of local government, not just at the top. It also underlines that taking measures to protect capacity-building initiatives in periods of political uncertainty and transition is essential.

More power for local government brings new challenges

Kenya has gone far in decentralizing power to local-level governments. The AHADI project supported this effort by investing in government capacity building in 22 Kenyan counties.

The County Capacity Assessment (CCA) is an annual assessment undertaken since 2016 for AHADI and captures progress made in capacity building by measuring how far local governments have come in establishing institutional structures in seven different areas:

  • public participation
  • inter-county relations
  • procurement
  • financial expenditure
  • monitoring, evaluation, and reporting
  • planning and budgeting
  • human resource and administrative structures


figure 1

The CCA shows the average performance across 22 counties between the 2016 and 2018 assessment (figure 1). Compared with improvements by 2017, these rates of improvement decreased marginally from 2017 to 2018.

Certain areas improved through 2018 despite the disruptive political transition, including public participation; monitoring, evaluation and reporting; and planning and budgeting which improved year over year. These are all areas where the AHADI project made significant investments.

Breaking down performance by counties’ different leadership experiences after the 2017 election better reveals the disruption caused by political transition. Counties with a change in leadership (12 counties among 22 supported by the project) had lower scores across all performance areas (except inter-county relations), whether or not the political party changed, compared with the 10 counties where the leadership remained, that is, where the governors were reelected (figure 2).

figure 2

The differences in scores between these two groups of counties suggest that the 2017 elections had a disruptive impact on county government operations. In counties where leadership changed, most new governors began reorganizing county departments and appointing new officers.

For governors, this process involved negotiating with local elites while balancing political interests, all while trying to deliver on campaign promises. In some cases, this meant disrupting existing bureaucratic structures, processes, and activities.

Overall, these changes led to significant delays in implementing capacity-building activities across all counties, likely demonstrated by the decrease in the aggregate score in 2018 and in particular performance areas.

How can we empower local governments to withstand disruption?

Elections imply transitions in leadership and inevitable disruptions in local bureaucracies. But how can this critical political process happen without disrupting institutions established for running local government and delivering services?

This recent evidence from Kenya indicates that protecting investments in institution building is important for making local government resilient to political change. Information banks on services and processes can help build “institutional memory” for new government workers as they enter office. Investing in lower-level bureaucrats who do not transition could also boost this institutional memory.

Kenya’s experience may also offer lessons for other sub-Saharan countries, like Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Senegal. These countries are also decentralizing government power, investing in local government capacity building, and facing local elections in 2020.

Although democratic elections bring the benefits of increased accountability, they may also have short-term costs in terms of deinstitutionalization. Developing countries facing elections or leadership transitions should internalize the lessons from Kenya to protect their institutions’ ability to effectively serve their citizens.

Research Areas International development
Tags International civil society and democratic institutions