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The need to bolster primary health care (PHC) to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets for health is well recognized. In Eastern and Southern Africa, where governments have progressively decentralized health decision-making, health management is critical to PHC performance. While investments in health management capacity are important, so is improving the environment in which managers operate. Governance arrangements, management systems and power dynamics of actors can have a significant influence on health managers' ability to improve PHC access and quality. We conducted a problem-driven political economy analysis (PEA) in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda to explore local decision-making environments and how they affect management and governance practices for health. This PEA used document review and key informant interviews (N = 112) with government actors, development partners and civil societies in three districts or counties in each country (N = 9). We found that while decentralization should improve PHC by supporting better decisions in line with local priorities from community input, it has been accompanied by thick bureaucracy, path-dependent and underfunded budgets that result in trade-offs and unfulfilled plans, management support systems that are less aligned to local priorities, weak accountability between local government and development partners, uneven community engagement and insufficient public administration capacity to negotiate these challenges. Emergent findings suggest that coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) not only resulted in greater pressures on health teams and budgets but also improved relations with central government related to better communication and flexible funding, offering some lessons. Without addressing the disconnection between the vision for decentralization and the reality of health managers mired in unhelpful processes and politics, delivering on PHC and universal health coverage goals and the SDG agenda will remain out of reach.

Original publication




Journal article


Health Policy Plan

Publication Date





631 - 647


Kenya, Malawi, Political economy, Uganda, decentralization, governance, health systems, management, Humans, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, COVID-19, Local Government