Examples and lessons from three-tier federalism


Please identify countries (lower, middle or upper income) with a three-tier federal structure (federal, state, local), where exclusive legislative powers are granted to local government. What lessons emerge from literature analysing these national governance structures?


This rapid review synthesises findings from academic, practitioner, and policy literature. Whilst there is a large body of literature that analyses various aspects of federalism, authors seldom focus on the experience of countries which have implemented this particular three-tier structure. Those studies that do address this area tend to be found either in peer-reviewed academic journals or as part of edited collections published by large international development organisations. The literature surveyed for this report did not incorporate gender concerns.

Key Findings

  • The central government in Argentina has encountered difficulties in implementing social policy through national-local policy collaboration due to low levels of constitutional autonomy and decision-making authority at the municipal level.
  • By contrast, the successful experience of social protection programmes in Brazil indicates that municipalities can facilitate the social policy goals established by central government provided national policies are implemented directly at the municipal level, without being captured by state governors.
  • In South Africa, many municipalities have been compelled 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.
  • In Switzerland, the complexity of the relations between the provincial and municipal levels of government have been considered non-transparent and inefficient, and have led to various reform initiatives designed to promote greater co-operation.


Suggested citation

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