Jeff, I loved this — both the content and the approach of how you assemble a quilt of multiple perspectives tackling the same issue from different contexts and disciplines. I sense an implicit argument in that quilt that you don’t make explicit that goes something like:

1. Politicians and activists justify their own self-interest to accumulate local control by using malleable, abstract narratives like “neoliberalism” and “gentrification.”

2. When in fact it all comes down to a competitive game of influence for who gets to make decisions: what gets permitted, how budget is allocated, who gets credit.

3. Cemeteries can tell us how local control, migration, and belonging evolve over time.

4. When “development practitioners” criticize and circumvent “traditional leadership,” they sometimes exclude constituencies that don’t have access to newer, invited spaces of democratic participation.

5. And yet, the hereditary structure of chiefs and many religious institutions is not democratic or easily held to account.

In my reading, your implicit argument stops there. It’s a compelling diagnosis that I think will resonate for most readers. But for progressives advocating for inclusion and rights through democratic decision-making and a culture of accountability, we’re still left with now what? (I’m mindful that you suggest political decentralization as one structural reform to buffer outsider overreach of local control and to mitigate the influence of dictatorships … but it strikes me that Uganda, China, Vietnam, and Rwanda offer cautionary tales about the illusion of local control that, in fact, consolidate the power of federal autocrats/authoritarians.)

I’m curious if 1) my suggested outline of your argument above reflects your views, 2) the implication, then, for advocates of inclusion and accountability like me, my colleagues, and the organizations we fund.

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Great points, and wonderful job of summarizing some of my takeaway points. A few bits of clarification: 1) I do not see local control = decentralization. Decentralization might work in some cases, but only with the right political conditions. It might work in Ukraine and fail in Afghanistan. There is emerging research about what these conditions might be (legitimacy matters here). The process through which decentralization is implemented is important, and relies on those on the ground competing for power. 2) What does matter is bringing the government closer to the people, in some form. This might be face-to face (which is crucial in the contexts where I work), or it could involve innovative use of technology. But people want to feel closer to government, and a government that is too far from its people will likely lack accountability. 3) The challenge for practitioners is to understand the context so they can implement their intervention effectively. Scaling up without understanding context is a huge problem. My point in this post is that it is not just cultural, economic, or demographic context--but rather local political context. 4) So when it comes to organizations that you fund, how do they address these concerns? How do their interventions seek to bring governments closer to the people? Are interventions relevant to the local political context? Where do organizations fit into the local political context, and is this an asset or a problem? I think they should be able to answer these questions directly.

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I agree with your points. And would love to see a follow-up piece that highlights the work of groups/organizations/technologies that bring government closer to the people ... and bring people closer to government. I know that you've written about some of that work in academic papers and it would be fun to see a hyperlinked, tweet-embedded version.

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