Three-tier federalism: examples and lessons


Identify countries with a three-tier federal structure where exclusive legislative powers are granted to local government. What lessons emerge from literature analysing these national governance structures?


In most federal systems, municipalities are integrated into the state governments. Yet Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and Switzerland have adopted a three-tier federal structure in which exclusive legislative powers are granted to local government, below state and provincial government.

While decentralisation has the potential to improve accountability and give greater voice to the users of services, the complex relationships among three levels of government may hinder effectiveness and efficiency. Moreover, devolving powers to the lowest possible level is only likely to improve outcomes if the lowest level has sufficient capacity to exercise those powers.

  • In Argentina, municipalities’ low levels of constitutional autonomy and decision-making authority have hindered efforts to implement social policy through national-local policy collaboration.
  • By contrast, the successful experience of social protection programmes in Brazil indicates that municipalities can facilitate the social policy goals established by central government if national policies are implemented directly at the municipal level, without being captured by state governors.
  • In South Africa, many municipalities have had to take on complex responsibilities despite lacking the technical and administrative competence to discharge them successfully. As a result, the country has experienced a failure of policy and an erosion of good governance at local government level.
  • Switzerland has initiated various reforms designed to improve co-operation between the provincial and municipal governments, whose complex relations have been considered opaque and inefficient.


Suggested citation

Laws, E. (2017). Examples and lessons from three-tier federalism. K4D Helpdesk Report. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.