Over the last two decades, decentralisation has been a very popular policy choice among developing country governments, and donor agencies have demonstrated a strong willingness to support such decentralisation reforms. This trend has been accompanied by the emergence of a dominant discourse on the potential benefits of decentralisation. This article analyses the impact of this dominant discourse on one particular case, namely the on-going decentralisation reforms in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It deconstructs the international discourse into three models –the service delivery model, the conflict management model and the local participation model- and explores the theoretical foundations of each. Subsequently, the article shows that while a combination of these models is used to conceptualise the Congolese decentralisation, a number of basic conditions for their applicability are not met in this particular case. The article concludes that the emphasis on context-specificity found in general donor strategies does not always translate into realistic models for conceptualising the costs and results of concrete instances of decentralisation. It argues that such a misfit of models is not inconsequential, as the underlying model crucially influences the strategy and expectations of all actors involved in a decentralisation process.