Inside the Black Box

The political economy of local governments and their role in rural development
Feb 3, 2010 - 12:00 am UTC to Feb 4, 2010 - 12:00 pm UTC

Organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, DC and the University of Kiel (EU-E-VAL Project), Kiel, Germany

Background and objectives

The last decades have seen a worldwide trend towards decentralization, both in developing and transition countries. By “bringing government closer to the people”, decentralization has a particular promise for reducing poverty and increasing the quality of life in rural areas, which have long been neglected by central governments. Yet, the empirical evidence has been rather mixed in view of problems such as capacity constraints and local elite capture. Even though there is an increasing body of theoretical and empirical literature that deals with decentralization and rural development, important knowledge gaps remain. In particular, many studies treat local governments as a “black box” and do not capture the multi-faceted ways in which rural citizens—men and women—interact with local governments and influence local government performance. The proposed seminar will contribute to filling this knowledge gap by looking inside the “black box”.

The seminar will provide a forum to present and discuss new empirical research that addresses questions such as: Which factors influence the ability of rural citizens to hold local governments accountable, and which channels do they actually use? How do policy networks of local actors look like, and how do they influence local government performance? Which factors influence the voting behavior of rural citizens for local governments? How does the design of local government institutions influence the scope for elite capture? How do societal factors, such as ethnic fragmentation, influence service provision by rural governments? The seminar will also deal with research methods that can be used to better understand what happens “inside the black box” of local governments: How to identify and explain variation in local government performance? How to model the political economy of local governments and simulate reform scenarios?

A better understanding of the way in which local governments actually work—depending on their institutional design and the structure of the societies in which they are operate—is essential for the design of successful development interventions as well as governance reform strategies. Hence, the seminar will also provide a forum to discuss the implications for policies and projects that can be derived from this field of research.


The seminar will feature a set of papers derived from research projects carried out by IFPRI in developing countries (Ghana, India, China) and by the University of Kiel in transition countries (Poland, Slovakia). The projects in transition countries have been part of the E-Val Project, which was financed by the European Union ( The organizers will invite selected papers from selected researchers who have been working on decentralization and rural development. Researchers who are interested in the topic are welcome to participate at their own expense and to engage in the debate. The organizers will sponsor the participation of key counterparts from the countries in which research has been conducted.


It is planned to produce an edited volume based on the contributions from the seminar. A special journal issue may also be considered.