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Accepted Paper:

“‘We are the ones that are seen”: the paradoxes of local elected office in decentralised Kenya.’  
Hannah Waddilove (University of Warwick)

Paper short abstract:

The paper focuses on how Members of County Assembly (MCA) in Kenya used their offices in response to citizens’ expectations of their roles. It reveals how the complex demands of political accountability shape the wider political system, connecting the centre and the grassroots.

Paper long abstract:

Members of County Assembly (MCA), the lowest elected rung of Kenya’s political system, receive scant attention in scholarship focused on the country’s ambitious devolution reform (Cheeseman, Lynch and Willis, 2016). To many Kenyans, however, they are the most visible elected politicians, and on the frontline of popular expectations that devolution would ‘bring the government closer to the people’. Much scholarship on decentralisation tends to focus on the extent to which such reforms meet their intended goals – of ‘development’ or ‘democracy’. Shifting away from normative questions, this paper explores how MCAs used their offices in response to citizens’ expectations of their roles. It shows that a critical part of this was to negotiate relationships with higher-up politicians, making MCAs the lowest-rung cog in Kenya’s wider political system. By looking at how popular expectations shaped MCAs’ practices and relationships, the paper reveals a powerful form of politics that challenges a fundamental rationale behind devolution reforms in Kenya and elsewhere: that politics will work in ‘different’, ‘better’ and more liberally accountable ways if government is closer to ‘the people’. By contrast, forms of ethnic and patronage politics seen as pathologies of an unaccountable ‘centre’ – and which devolution could stamp out – find resonance at the grassroots, and help to explain why devolution as a system became so quickly embedded in Kenya. The paper shows how local politicians like MCAs seek to navigate the complex demands of political accountability amidst limited state capacity, in a job that may provide social mobility.

Panel Poli15
Lawmakers' constituency service in Africa: fostering accountability, development, and democracy?
  Session 2 Thursday 1 June, 2023, -