International Guidelines on Decentralisation and Basic Services for All



The Guidelines on Decentralisation and Basic Services for All outline the main principles underlying the democratic, constitutional/legal and administrative aspects of local governance and decentralisation. At the same time, they must be applied to specific conditions of State form (federal, regionalised or unitary), with different State traditions (for example, Napoleonic, Germanic or Anglo-Saxon, as well as traditions found in Asia, or in the Arab world). By approving these guidelines, member states of the United Nations committed themselves to the promotion of decentralisation and strengthening of local authorities, as well as access to basic services for all.


These guidelines have been designed to assist policy reforms and legislative action at the country level in two complementary areas of UN‐Habitat’s mandate. They have been prepared through an intensive consultative and participatory process involving many partners, including UN agencies as well as national and local governments over the past decade.


The approval of the guidelines by the Governing Council of UN‐HABITAT in April 2007 has been a major breakthrough, as they represent the ultimate outcome of over a decade of normative and advocacy work, which has involved extensive consultations between member states and the United Nations, through UN‐Habitat, working with local authorities and a large number of experts. The guidelines are, therefore, the product of a general consensus among all Habitat Agenda partners, who have been involved in their development. They provide the international community with the means to engage member states in one of the key aspects of the Habitat Agenda and the Millennium/Sustainable Development Goals – to support efforts in strengthening local authorities worldwide.


The Guidelines on Decentralisation and Basic Services for All were complemented with a draft Handbook to assist member-states to adopt the guidelines[1].  Not publishing the manual was a hard lesson learnt that guidance is really needed to assist the implementation and keep the momentum going. A telling illustration is the ongoing confusion of the so called ‘subsidiarity principle’ as a key concept of the decentralisation and governance section. ‘Subsidiarity’ is often explained or interpreted as ‘decision making at the lowest possible level’ – often the municipal or local authority level. However, as the draft Manual intended to clarify, the genuine concept of subsidiarity is rather ‘decision making at the most appropriate level’ – including international, national, regional or local level – and local authorities should have full responsibility in spheres involving interests of citizens, except in those areas explicitly specified by national legislation.


While the International Guidelines on Urban and Territorial Planning embraces and advocates the latter interpretation of the subsidiarity principle, it is at the same time a good example of ‘evolutionary governance and decentralisation’, with the emphasis shifting from ‘exclusive’ roles and responsibilities of each level towards shared and multilevel governance, resulting in a more ‘collaborative subsidiarity’.





[1] Implementation of the International Guidelines on Decentralization and Access to basic services for All – Handbook (draft), unpublished, 2014