a1 School of International Service, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20011, United States of America
Political realities in the capital cities of impoverished countries emerging from violent conflict illustrate how local actors can be hindered in conducting political affairs independently from the interests and influence of national governments as well as international agencies. This experience problematises the argument that the main cause of political impasse in African cities governed by opposition parties is incomplete decentralisation, whereby a devolution of responsibilities is not matched by a downward reallocation of resources. Although resulting competition constrains local governments' opportunities to deliver basic services, we need to look beyond the national scale to uncover the drivers of institutional change and gauge the promise of donor-driven local political empowerment. Urban politics in Africa continues to be shaped by global aid discourses, which are translated into local policy frameworks through interest convergence between international and national actors. The case of Freetown, Sierra Leone provides an illustration of such macro-level alignment and resulting local frictions. At the same time, it also demonstrates how local politics have challenged the technocratic, apolitical reinvention of urban governance in the global South perpetuated by the international aid industry.
* Parts of the fieldwork in Sierra Leone referred to in this article were supported by a grant from the Inter-University Committee on International Migration hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The author also gratefully acknowledges detailed feedback from two anonymous reviewers, as well as very helpful comments by Danielle Resnick and Susan Shepler. Emily Edgecombe, Rachel Proefke and Patricia Ward provided much appreciated editorial assistance.