The Evolution of Devolution: Considerations for Scaling Local Participatory Planning in Kenya

A person witting on a fence conversing with two other people.
People sell cattle at Ngaremara Livestock Sale Yard in Isiolo County, which was refurbished by the local Ward Planning Committee through the Livestock Market Systems activity.
March 17, 2023

Read the short overview of findings and recommendations ▸ 
Read the report ▸ 
Read the brief on participatory planning, localization, and conflict prevention ▸ 
Read brief on participation and climate security ▸

Beginning in 2013, Kenya’s devolution of fiscal and administrative power to county governments has begun to address some of the historical marginalization of regions and ethnic groups not politically aligned with the central government. However, while decentralizing power away from the national center has been a welcomed change, many of the same weaknesses extant at the national level have been reproduced at the county-level, with a highly centralized and powerful county-level executive and high risk of marginalization for non-aligned communities within the county.

A common response to the limits of devolution in Kenya has been to introduce participatory planning institutions, which enable the direct and formal involvement of citizens in a public process to identify public policy problems and then propose projects to address these issues. While participatory planning models have become increasingly popular globally in the past two decades, rigorous evaluations of these interventions paint a mixed picture about whether and when these programs can achieve their stated aims of increased efficiency and democratic empowerment.

To contribute to this body of evidence on participatory planning, we use an in-depth,qualitative study of a local-level participatory planning and development intervention called Ward Development Planning (WDP), based on field research conducted in Turkana, Isiolo, and Garissa counties, each of which represent historically marginalized counties in Northern Kenya and are experiencing ongoing, severe drought.

We find that:

  • Ward-level participatory planning in Northern Kenya fills a unique governance gap by increasing the flow of ‘ground level’ information available to county governments, empowering communities, establishing participatory representation, and limiting marginalization through democratic processes. 
  • However, the success of WDP and other participatory planning interventions depends on strategically adapting design and implementation to: 
    • Avoiding redundancy with existing institutions 
    • Emphasizing “best fit” program designs that are adapted to local context 
    • Maintaining a focus on the core principles at the heart of the participatory model: quality, inclusion, and legitimacy of participation and representative selection 
    • Selecting staff members with high capacity and intrinsic motivation by investing in fair and competitive hiring 
    • Devolving responsibility to local implementers who are best positioned to judge whether true participation and empowerment are occurring

Our findings suggest that participatory planning models are flexible and dynamic interventions, which can and should accommodate a wide range of variation in matching the technical ‘blueprint’ design to contexts and also allowing field-level implementers to adapt the program during implementation. As such, seeking to scale-up static, ‘best practice’ models of participatory planning may be pursuing a mirage. Instead, funders, researchers, and implementers working to scale participatory planning approaches in Kenya and beyond should design complex, participatory programs that respond to local contexts and allow for truly adaptive management by local actors during implementation.