A question often asked in Tanzania is whether multi-party democratic government can be effective while opposition parties remain weak. There's no doubt that opposition parties are stronger now than a few years previously, but will this lead to improvements in government performance? And if so, where does this leave local councils, many of which don't have even one elected councillor representing opposition parties and where many seats are not even contested by more than one party?
I recently came across some fascinating research by Jamie Boex and Matitu Muga, What Determines the Quality of Local Financial Management? The Case of Tanzania. These authors have written alot about local governance in Tanzania, particularly looking at financial management systems, but in this case their research includes some analysis of how political factors affect financial management. It's not the main focus of their study, but they note that
"the empirical results suggest that a more diverse political composition of a local council in Tanzania may have a beneficial influence on local financial management performance. [This] raises the importance of effective decentralized political systems as a precondition for sound decentralized financing of public services. This point is further corroborated by anecdotal evidence which suggests that district administrators feel greater scrutiny from a more politically diverse council, when compared to a council that is solidly controlled by the ruling party."Translating this academic language into some more simple, what this means is that councils with more opposition councillors are less likely to have financial management problems than those with no opposition councillors. The results are not 100% conclusive, but they are still pretty strong.
They can be supported further by some analysis done by bloggers in the UK - notably Mark Reckons - who has compared the size of MPs majorities (how much was the margin of victory when they were elected) with the amount of allowances they claimed, which has been the subject of a major recent scandal. The findings are pretty clear that MPs with smaller majorities (and therefore at more risk of losing their seat) claimed less allowances, while MPs with bigger majorities (and therefore confident of being re-elected) claimed more.
What these cases have in common is that both find that stronger opposition leads to improved performance. In other words, political accountability has an effect. Taking the point further, this supports the claim that strengthening accountability pressures on local government from the community should improve the quality of local government performance - much as we're trying to do here at Daraja.