I'm working on a paper where I consider a decentralized*/federalized* political system in Afghanistan. While there are many journal articles (a quick google search would show this) arguing in favor of a decentralized system, very few actually consider the potential drawbacks - and dangers - of decentralization in fragile contexts. This can be especially true in multi-ethnic warlord-dominated societies, such as Afghanistan, where a decentralized system could pave the way for a disastrous "takeover" scenario by violent non-state actors. Similarly, the potential disadvantages of having a complicated decentralized system in a region where the neighboring countries are hostile, and might take advantage of a premature decentralized system, are rarely discussed as well.

So my questions are for those who might have some experience about this topic.

  • What are the potential drawbacks and dangers of decentralization in fragile countries?

  • How much literature do we have that focuses on this?

  • Conversely, is there any literature that argues for a centralized
    system in a fragile context?

Some relevant sample articles:



*I'm not using any specific definition or form of decentralization yet, so that is why I'm using it interchangeably with federalization


4 Answers 4


I will attempt to answer in general terms as the question touches on pretty fundemental ideas of government.

Firstly, every government contains elements of centralziation and decentralization. Without centralizing power, the government cannot do anything, so it may as well not exist. Without decentralizing power, the government becomes too inflexible and irresponsive, which would quickly lead to paralysis and collapse.

One of the most tentalizing question for people who want to design good government is how do you balance the two necessary elements such that a government can - and this is important - regulate itself to the end of maintaining a balance between centralization and decentralization.

What are the potential drawbacks and dangers of decentralization in fragile countries?

The case against decentralization is pretty well made since the beginning of civilization. The short story is that states which exercises centralized power are better organized so they conquer and absorb neighbouring states with brute force. Decentralization makes you vulnerable and centralization allows you to not be conquered, that's the gist of it.

It's not a surprise that most civilizations began as autocracy (usually in the form of monarchy) because it is a simpler organizational structure.

The idea that you can have a strong government with centralized power while maintaining a decentralization mechanism for people to choose who sits in the government regularly (i.e. voting in democracy) is a relatively novel concept. And it was arguably only made possible because the idea of "rule of law" coincided with the invention of printing press, which enabled mass replication and distribution of ideas, and most notably codified constitutions. Suddenly the monarch's words do not automatically become reality, they are held accountable by a higher source of authority, namely a document agreed upon by society that everyone should follow at least in theory.

It should not be taken for granted that we live in a world where decentralization feels like water to fish. If authorities violated a law or the constituion, anyone can point to an unified source of law and say they are breaking the rules. It is highly unusual for centralization and decentralization to co-exist in such a way in historical terms.

TLDR: Centralization was the norm for the longest time. Decentralization is a relatively modern development enabled by technological and societal development.

Conversely, is there any literature that argues for a centralized system in a fragile context?

Centralization is necessary for efficiency. That's kind of true across the board. The question is how much of it is necessary according to your value.

Authoritarian states often make the case that they need maximum centralization not just because efficiency is good. But also that without extreme centralized control, society would fall into chaos. Coincidentally autocrats tend to generate the very same chaos that justify their rule. Food for thought.

On the other hand, democracies can make an argument for centralization as well. For example, it could be argued that the pre-Taliban Afghan government lacked centralized power which led to its collpase, even if it was democratically elected, it lacked the capacity to defend itself so it got conquered and absorbed by a better organized neighbouring power, so to speak. Another example could be the Untied States, where decades of paralysis in its national legislature has produced an extremely powerful judiciary, leading to a situation in which the Supreme Court could remove federal protection for abortion right without democratic recourse through federal legislation.


I can give you some potential drawbacks, but I don't recall reading specific studies on this.

  • An obvious one would be disputed new borders, leading to violence.
  • Deportation or violence towards people living “on the wrong side of the border”
  • Disruption of established economic relations by border check bureaucracy/tax/bribes.
  • Cost of running 2 parallel sets of institutions, leaving fewer resources for society (benefit of mergers is the opposite of this).
  • Arbitrary location of lucrative resources, especially when discovered after border negotiations, will encourage attempts to revise those borders.
  • Weaker vs outside powers (divide and conquer is the most successful strategy ever devised).
  • The self-image of populations changes to emphasize the perceived differences that were likely the basis for separation. The result is lower tolerance of the other people.

Just a few off hand.


I think there is a lot to be said for a good federalized government. It can deal with local issues better, leading to a more efficient economy and a better representation for local concerns. If the people of a region feel themselves somehow ethnically distinct a regional government can give them a measure of self-determination while still remaining a part of the nation. As I understand, Afghan society is very decentralized, a federated government can reflect this reality better. Having said that, here are a few problems with federalisation I can think of:

  • A big difference in laws between the regions can be difficult to deal with for foreign investors, tourists, any foreigners basically. Not that tourism is a major concern in modern Afghanistan
  • A big difference in economic policies and style of governance between regional governments can lead to imbalances developing in the national economy
  • Rivalry between regional governments can lead to a paralysis in lawmaking at the national level. This has been a problem in Belgian politics especially see this for example.
  • Regional governments can start to promote regional interests at the expense of national ones.
  • In a country with a fragile sense of national identity people can feel themselves to be the citizens of a region first and the nation second, further undermining the sense of national identity.
  • With a very weak and unpopular national government regional governors may feel tempted to secede from the nation, possibly violently. Or, while still remaining a part of the nation they may simply ignore the national government and rule their regions as feudal holdings.

I won't tackle every conceivable downside, but I'll focus on one of them.

Fragile countries typically have a shortage of people with the knowledge and training and skills necessary to be good legislators, senior civil servants, judges and so on.

While regional governments serve as a "farm team" to build up expertise for higher levels of government in less fragile countries, in a fragile country, you really need everyone who has any talent for governing in a single national government to make it function.

When there are also regional post to fill, your limited supply of senior government officials and people with the knowledge needed to be good legislators gets spread too thin. And, a regional government takes almost as many senior people in these posts as the national government does, but you need them for every single region in addition to the national government.

Afghanistan has 34 provinces, and that means you need lots and lots and lots of provincial legislators, senior civil servants, top regional court judges, and so on to run the show, rather than just one national government legislating and a far smaller number of subordinate civil servant middle managers at the provincial level.

When you keep in mind that incompetence on the part of senior governmental officials and legislators is one of the top or two triggering factors for a military coup, you can see how this factor easily has the potential for causing a fragile civilian regime to collapse.

Likewise, all of those regional and local governments mean far more elected officials, and in a fragile country with little history of civic participation and democratic elections, the more elected officials you have, the harder it is for ordinary, ill-informed citizens to participate meaningfully in that process even as voters, and that makes the electoral system prone to manipulation and corruption, not unlike the political party machine system seen in immigrant neighborhoods in the U.S. in the late 19th century and early 20th century. And corruption goes hand in hand with incompetence as a major triggering factor for military coups.

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