This map outlines the proposed division of provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the current administrative breakdown. (Winock Monsengo/USAID-DRC)

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – a country the size of Western Europe with a population of about 70 million – plans are underway to divide its existing 11 provinces into 26. Known in the DRC as découpage, this policy was mandated in the new 2006 constitution, but has yet to be carried out. Incumbent President Joseph Kabila has set a June 30 deadline for finally implementing découpage.

Dividing regional political units, such as provinces or districts, in order to create new ones is common around the world. In a recent article, we document that almost half of all sub-Saharan African countries have substantially increased their number of regional political units since 1990. Fragmenting regional governments has also occurred in the wake of decentralization reforms in numerous countries, from Hungary to Indonesia and Brazil.

Why does the creation of new regional governments happen, and why does it matter? Our research, along with others’ (see this book and this working paper) finds that new regions are often created as a consequence of political bargains between national elites and marginalized local groups – those with relatively limited political representation and access to services, such as health care, schools, and roads.

We find that citizens and leaders in marginalized areas are most likely to lobby national elites for the creation of new regional governments. Voters in areas granted a new regional government give national leaders a significant electoral boost in elections that follow the old region’s split.

Why do people in marginalized areas want a new province? At a basic level, the creation of new, smaller political units can fundamentally change citizens’ day-to-day interactions with their regional government. Especially in rural areas of developing countries like the DRC, where roads are often barely passable and cars are rarely afforded, smaller provinces bring valuable improvements in citizens’ physical proximity to services and high-ranking elected representatives.

Creating new regional governments also often brings new fiscal resources, government jobs, and administrative attention to underserved areas.

A new study by one of us underscores why these new districts are so popular. Significant reductions in child mortality, on average, result from the newly created provincial governments. On average, as countries increase the number of top-tier regional government units (e.g. states in Nigeria, and provinces in Kenya), their overall level of public service delivery tends to improve.

Of course, it’s not just marginalized populations who stand to benefit – but aspiring politicians, too. Creating new provinces creates new provincial leadership positions. As a result, more aspiring local leaders – especially those from previously marginalized areas – can enter politics, widening the talent pool from which local political leaders are drawn.

This pattern, in turn, makes national politics more competitive. The larger the pool of governors, the greater the likelihood that at least some of them will use their offices to mount a credible challenge to the president. This greater competition in national politics often forces the incumbent president to rule more responsibly.

But creating new provinces also comes with costs – especially if countries take division too far. For starters, for the benefits of increased competition in national politics described above to take hold, provinces must be large enough so that the powers of provincial governors matter. That is, a governorship needs to be a useful qualification for national-level office to have any impact on the future talent pool of nationally competitive candidates capable of challenging the president.

Furthermore, fragmenting regional governments too much may introduce administrative bloat. Fewer, larger provinces can more likely benefit from economies of scale in providing services than numerous, smaller ones.

Our research in Uganda suggests that extreme fragmentation also can allow the central government to consolidate power vis-à-vis the local governments. Power struggles are common between central and local governments, and when more units are created, the power of localities as a whole diminishes. The larger the number of local governments, the more onerous it is to coordinate with one another to present a united front against the central government. In Uganda, the creation of more and more districts has coincided with less policy and fiscal autonomy for each individual district.

In short, research suggests good reasons for both optimism and pessimism if DRC goes through with its plans for découpage. On one hand, citizens – at least those in formerly marginalized areas – can expect better access to and quality of local public services, as well as more opportunities to hold office.

On the other hand, this policy may allow the center to consolidate power, which would be an ironic outcome given that creating new units is aimed at decentralizing power. Given recent democratic backsliding in sub-Saharan Africa and especially central and east Africa, such recentralization would be worrisome.

Guy Grossman is assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Janet Lewis is assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Any views expressed are the authors’ and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Naval Academy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.