How Institutions Matter for Local Development: Evidence from the Implementation of Decentralization Reform in Albania

Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2013

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Social Work

Additional Affiliations

Brown School of Social Work

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



The fundamental role of institutions in development is well established in the literature. However, trajectories of institutional change are poorly understood. Why do changes in formal institutions result in positive consequences for social and economic development in some contexts but fail in others? To address this question, this study examines institutional change processes and outcomes in three Albanian communities - Kuçova, Kala e Dodës, and Saranda - that are characterized by different trajectories of institutional change. Kuçova is characterized by an effective enforcement of formal rules introduced with decentralization; Kala e Dodës is characterized by an effective enforcement of informal rules; and Saranda is characterized by neither effective formal rules, nor longstanding and robust informal rules. Drawing on field observation, semi-structured interviews, and archival research, this study shows that trajectories of institutional change are shaped by institutional legacy, privatization processes, and local leadership.

Another concern of this study is to understand the outcomes of participatory decision-making. It examines the outcomes of promoting citizen participation in decision making in a context where participation did not emerge from the community but rather was promoted by municipal leaders. Drawing on field observation and semi-structured interviews with local officials and community members, this study shows that a top-down approach to participation has led to more informed and trustful citizens, but not empowered citizens capable of holding local leaders accountable. Several conclusions can be drawn from this study to promote greater participation in decision making in contexts characterized by distrustful relationships between local officials and community members. First, local officials should take a leading role in mobilizing community members to participate in decision making. Second, local officials should be well-prepared when participating in meetings and keep community members informed on local government affairs. Third, local development projects promoting citizen participation in decision making should be long term.

The expectation is that decentralization will promote greater participation of community members in formal organizations, such as public hearing and commissions. What happens in a context that lacks a tradition of democratic participation? Do community members take advantage of the opportunities introduced with decentralization? This study did not find any evidence to support the theoretical expectation that decentralization promotes greater participation of citizens in decision making. Findings shed light on several barriers to participation, such as the lack of confidence in the local government and the expectation that local officials should organize community-based initiatives.

This study also focuses on the everyday practices of community members in accessing municipal services and interacting with local officials. How do community members hold their representatives accountable? What are their experiences in accessing municipal services? Based on field observation conducted in the municipality of Kuçova and Saranda, this study sheds light on the problems that community members face in accessing municipal services in a context characterized by clientelistic accountability. Findings indicate that social and economic status, access to information, and legal knowledge shape perceptions and experiences accessing municipal services.

This study contributes to institutional theory by explaining institutional change processes and outcomes in three communities that are characterized by different trajectories of institutional change. Besides its contribution to institutional theory, this study has policy and practical implications. A better understanding of institutional change processes could help policymakers supporting the development of communities transitioning from centralized to decentralized governance. Findings also inform the work of social work practitioners and more generally development practitioners seeking to improve the access of community members to municipal services and design evidence-based interventions that are tailored to community needs.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Carolyn Lesorogol

Committee Members

Sebastian Galiani, David Gillespie, Edward Lawlor, Itai Sened, Jean-Francois Trani


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K72V2D23

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