Why are countries dividing themselves into smaller and smaller units?

Joshua Keating


A recent paper by political scientists Guy Grossman of the University of Pennsylvania and Janet Lewis of the Naval Academy (via Chris Blattman) looks at a fascinating but little-noticed phenomenon. Countries all over the world seem to be dividing themselves into smaller and smaller political units:

This trend has been particularly pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa, where almost half of countries increased their number of administrative units by over 20% since the mid-1990s. however it is not unique to Africa; for example, as part of their post-communist decentralization reforms, Czechoslovakia and Hungary increased their number of municipalities by about 50% between 1989 and 1993 (Ilner, 1999). Brazil also increased its municipalities by over 50% following its return to civilian rule (Dickovick, 2011). Similarly, after relocating essential government functions to the district level, Indonesia increased its number of provinces from 26 to 33 and districts from 290 to 497 in less than a decade after Suharto’s fall (Kimura, 2013), and following liberalization reforms Vietnam increased its number of provinces from 40 to 64.

The authors argue, based on research into decentralization in Uganda, that while the increase in municipalities often accompanies liberal political reforms, it’s actually a way of recentralizing power to the central government. The breakup of countries into smaller and smaller local political units weakens the bargaining power of potential rivals to the national government.

It’s also interesting that this trend of units within countries being reorganized has come during an era—since the breakup of the Soviet Union—when international boundaries have stayed relatively unchanged. Central governments are probably much happier to have local politicians discussing administrative divisions rather than their own national aspirations.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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