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Maldives: With Over 200 Islands, Decentralization Really Matters

On April 6, voters from across the Maldives will head to the polls for the second nation-wide election in less than eight months. Nearly 90 percent of eligible Maldivians turned out to vote in the country’s election last September, choosing to elect opposition candidate Ibrahim Solih by a margin of fourteen points.

Solih promised a range of reforms following his predecessor’s attacks on free speech and democracy. His ruling coalition has sought comprehensive reform through the administration’s ambitious 100 Day Plan, which encompassed 161 separate pledges on issues ranging from asset disclosure for government officials to mandatory maternity and paternity leave for civil servants.

As Maldivian voters return to the polls in early April to elect their representatives for parliament, the results will be a referendum on the Solih administration’s first months in office and its major policy priorities, such as decentralization.

The Maldives is an island nation with nearly 1,200 islands, yet close to 50 percent of the population resides in the capital, Malé, which controls budgets and allocation of services for the rest of the country.

President Solih recently lambasted the lack of decentralization under the previous administration, expressing his frustration with the decade-long struggle for more responsive government.

“What power do the [island] councils have? What choice do the councils have? When the council’s powers are stripped away by a centralized government, isn’t the role of the councils meaningless? This is not how the decentralization policies I know work.” – President Ibrahim Solih

In October 2008, the Republic of Maldives experienced the first democratic transition in its history following the historic election of President Mohamed Nasheed. After a period of limited political reform starting in 1999, the ratification of a new constitution and the election of the first new president in 30 years dramatically changed national politics. Soon, the fledgling democracy began to take steps to increase citizens’ engagement in the political process.

Decentralization was a natural approach. The Maldives’ has a dispersed geography, with significant local populations on nearly 200 islands.  This meant that empowering local officials was a critical step toward improving transparent government after decades of authoritarian rule. Yet 11 years later, Maldivians are still waiting to see the full reality of the promise of decentralization.

In the wake of the 2008 election, Nasheed attempted to kickstart the decentralization process by forming seven Provincial Authorities through executive action. The new bodies were intended to manage the basic services previously administered by national ministries, marking the first significant transfer of power away from the capital after more than three decades of highly centralized rule.

In 2010, the People’s Majlis (the Maldives’ national parliament) passed the Decentralization Act, significantly expanding local governance structures. The Act established a system of democratically-elected councils to provide basic services such as road maintenance, preschool and vocational education, social services and pest control. At the most local level, island councils were created on every inhabited island. Overseeing island councils, 19 atoll councils were created for administration and coordination. For islands with more than 25,000 inhabitants – Malé and Addu - city councils managed basic services and operated outside the supervision of atoll councils. The Decentralization Act also formed the Local Government Authority (LGA) to oversee the new framework, coordinate between the local bodies, determine council jurisdiction and monitor the councils’ income, spending and debt.

Unfortunately, the decentralized, responsive and effective local governance envisioned by the 2008 Constitution and 2010 Decentralization Act never fully came to pass. Despite receiving specific governance and budgetary powers in theory, local councils have struggled to establish themselves as financially independent, self-sufficient entities due to numerous political and institutional hurdles.

Once Abdulla Yameen became president in 2013 following an alleged coup, the independence and governing ability of the councils were stripped away as powers enumerated in legislation were subsumed by national ministries. The Yameen administration reduced the services local councils provided, the budgets they operated with and even their number of members through a combination of executive action and amendments to the Decentralization Act.

Party politics also played a major role. Since opposition parties held numerous seats on city councils, these councils became targets of the Yameen government. A 2015 amendment passed by the Majlis allowed Yameen to unilaterally change the powers and responsibilities held by the city councils. The following year, Yameen used executive action to lower the population threshold for city versus island councils, remaking the opposition Fuvahmulah island council into a city council he could control. Ultimately, local councils were reduced until their only function was to provide registration services and issue birth and death certificates. By slashing the power and independence of local councils, centralized corruption became rampant and faced few mechanisms of accountability. While certain islands have succeeded in managing some essential services, such as water and sanitation in Maalhos, Baa Atoll, the hyper-centralization of resources and services under the Yameen administration gutted most local development.

The September 23, 2018 election of a coalition government led by Ibrahim “Ibu” Solih, has created an opportunity to reverse this course. Solih ran on a platform of democratic reform and promised to not only return the powers Yameen stripped from local councils but also to increase their independence and responsibilities. In pursuit of that goal, the Finance Ministry announced that it had created a unit for fiscal decentralization and would make “empowering local government councils” a focus throughout 2019. The Minister of Economic Development also announced that each of the three city councils would receive a five percent stake in the newly established SME Bank, providing a regular revenue stream for the chronically under-resourced councils. 

Although substantive steps have been taken, many details about the budgets, powers and roles of councils remain unclear. The current ruling coalition needs to further clarify and formalize these provisions in order to facilitate full implementation of decentralized governance. Legislation is still needed to guarantee administrative, institutional and financial independence for local councils, necessary for providing everything from education to drinkable water. To ensure local councils can provide such services sustainably, access to necessary resources and expertise, as well as capacity building training, will be required.

At the most fundamental level, decentralization gives all Maldivians a say in their government, the opposite of the endemic inequality during the Yameen administration. If decentralization is to succeed in the Maldives, a cross-sector, unified vision from the country’s highest office combined with clear legislation is required. Only then can the Maldives realize its full potential.