A cautionary note for Habitat III: Decentralization can lead to centralization

The New Urban Agenda must take into account the threats of implementation in authoritarian and corrupt states.

Protesters take part in a demonstration organized by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy in Krakow, Poland. (Wjarek/Shutterstock)

“Effective decentralization” is listed as one the “main drivers of change to realize the transformative commitments” advocated by the first draft of the New Urban Agenda, the global urbanization vision that will be finalized at next month’s Habitat III conference. Multiple key references to decentralization also are included in the agenda’s final draft, released this month.

By definition, decentralization assumes that transferring decision-making powers from central to regional and local governments leads to at least two positive impacts on cities: better service provision and improved democratic practice.

According to the first draft of the New Urban Agenda, effective implementation will come down to “a renewed local-national partnership, in which stakeholders and local and sub-national governments are strategic partners of national governments, building strong national system of cities and well-balanced territorial development, in support of national development”. The final draft likewise pledges governments to promote strategies  “rooted in new forms of direct partnership between governments at all levels”.

While such assumptions generally hold true for many advanced democracies, they fall short when applied to post-colonial countries led by authoritarian regimes or by contested political systems. In such contexts, “clientelism” and corruption are key features of policymaking and implementation.

Furthermore, rather than being directly elected by urban dwellers, regional and local governments in these countries are appointed by the central state. Such a dynamic raises concerns about the legitimacy of these governments in terms of their political representation as well as their accountability. Even in contexts where regional and local governments are directly elected, the voting process often is hindered by fraud and the design of election laws, which tend to strengthen the regime in power.

In many countries, including the Arab world, central authorities openly support decentralization and celebrate it as a necessity for administrative and fiscal reform; often, they even use it to demonstrate their commitment to good governance. But in practice, many of these governments are only paying lip service to decentralization.

Indeed, central governments often resort to a variety of legal, administrative and fiscal mechanisms to curb or even stall the autonomy of regional and local governments, especially if these are led by opposition groups. These mechanisms also are used to co-opt any good work being led by decentralized institutions, as if their success is made possible thanks only to the benevolence of central rulers — many of whom stage themselves, ironically, as heroes of decentralization.

[See: Decentralization would boost development, leaders told in Addis]

Thus, many international aid programmes that advocate for and support decentralization reforms end up, in effect, being usurped by authoritarian or corrupt regimes. For example, Sylvia Bergh of Erasmus University Rotterdam showed how Morocco’s National Initiative for Human Development, funded by donors including the World Bank and the European Union, initially aimed at improving socio-economic conditions for the poor through local participatory mechanisms. In fact, Bergh found, the initiative ended up strengthening the power of appointed representatives of the Ministry of Interior and reinforcing clientelism.

A similar story can be seen in Jordan, a major recipient of aid. There, Myriam Ababsa of the French Institute for the Near East has written about how programmes associated with decentralization agendas effectively led to the weakening of local governments at the expense of tribal leaders close to the monarchy.

Thus we can see how decentralization aid can consolidate centralization while yielding weaker and less-legitimate sub-national governments. Habitat III would do well to ensure that this does not happen during implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Constraining intervention

How can the New Urban Agenda address these significant challenges? How will it avoid buttressing existing authoritarian and corrupt regimes? How will it find ways to ensure that international development assistance is disbursed in ways that can effectively and durably strengthen the decentralization process?

“In many countries, central authorities openly support decentralization and celebrate it as a necessity for administrative and fiscal reform; often, they even use it to demonstrate their commitment to good governance. But in practice, many of these governments are only paying lip service to decentralization.”

The process of implementing the new strategy will need to devote careful attention to designing policy agendas in ways that constrain the intervention abilities of hegemonic powers. It also will need to require the participation of a wide platform of stakeholders. In both of these, lessons can be learned from past international aid programmes that have resulted in effective outcomes around decentralizing urban development.

[See: Corruption: The New Urban Agenda’s elephant in the room]

In Lebanon, two European Union-funded programmes are worth exploring further. First, during 2002-06, the Assistance for the Rehabilitation of the Lebanese Administration initiative (ARLA) provided administrative and technical support to local governments via a set of mechanisms involving local and international experts, consultative platforms and participatory processes leading to the elaboration of local development plans. Second, the Economic and Social Fund for Development (ESFD) established in 2002 continues to work closely with municipalities and civil society groups on community-based development and poverty-alleviation projects.

Both programmes use tools that engage communities and identify and train local leaders and experts on participatory planning methods. Both also aim to empower local governments as planning and development institutions.

Of course, hegemonic political players have intervened in both, trying to co-opt these processes to their advantage. However, the programmes are designed to ensure opportunities for individuals and groups to organize and effectively take part in local development process, regardless of such interventions. These opportunities are crucial, as they permit independent stakeholders to meet up, exchange, get informed, collectively organize, voice claims, and advocate and lobby for the implementation of projects.

Among the successful such tools are participatory committees or platforms, coordinated by hired local experts who are neither affiliated with existing political parties nor dependent on local patrons. The selection process for these local experts is particularly important. Participation worked best in regions where these figures had strong leadership skills, operated in transparent and accountable ways, and were independent of local power dynamics.

[See: Habitat III loses proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel — for now]

In such cases, local experts devoted sustained efforts to engage women, youths and marginalized individuals in community meetings and debates. They invested time to build trust and organize locals into a cohesive group. Their concern was on protecting and advancing the common good, and they were aware of the development and planning tools that can be used to such ends.

Such participatory platforms led to the empowerment of individuals that, in turn, continued advocacy work with the municipality, beyond the project itself. Thus, while the design and implementation of the ARLA and ESFD projects has varied in quality and effectiveness, they have led to interactions that positively impact on local decision-making processes, conducive to more people-centred and needs-based planning.

New political players

Today, multiple success stories can be seen in the towns and cities where these two projects have been implemented. Participatory local development plans are led by regional governments, civil society groups are incorporated into municipal committees, municipally owned public spaces have been invigorated via cultural activities conceived in partnership with the private sector, the regional government has lobbied for a waste-management plant, and more.

“Habitat III will need to learn from international aid programmes that succeeded at effectively promoting decentralization, and devise mechanisms that provide opportunities for local communities to engage and for sub-national governments to be empowered.”

The ARLA and ESFD programmes offer several lessons. Programmes that take the needs of people seriously, that are designed in ways to accommodate lengthy inclusionary planning processes, and that seek to institutionalize participation lead to more empowered and aware community groups who will champion more relevant and informed planning decisions.

[See: Habitat III must institutionalize participatory urban development]

These engaged individuals — enabled to voice their needs, knowledgeable about tools of advocacy and planning interventions that can improve their everyday lives — effectively act as urban activists. They comprise new political players on a scene dominated by corrupt political patrons.

Under certain conditions, these urban activists may seek to collectively organize and contribute to political change, as we have seen in many cities around the Mediterranean. They often will choose the local scale as an entry point to attempt to undertake this arduous journey of change.

Thus, some decentralization aid programmes may be helpful in inducing opportunities that alter dominant power configurations. Perhaps they can even help to produce some cracks in the hegemonic order of political elites.

Urban movement

Another tool by which to safeguard the goals of the New Urban Agenda from hegemonic and corrupt rulers’ petty interests is to judiciously identify and select allies who already adopt these goals in their work, at least partially.

In the context of authoritarian and corrupt states, planning institutions are either weak or serve the interests of rulers and their networks. In the absence of capable and independent planning institutions, the effective implementation of the New Urban Agenda will be endangered.

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

However, the previous urban agendas that have come out of the Habitat process — the first in 1976, the second in 1996 — have circulated rather well between urban activists across the world. And in academia, critical urban studies have made substantive progress in advocating strategies for fighting inequality by strengthening social and spatial justice, environmental sustainability, rights for dignified work and living conditions, especially among marginalized groups.

Meanwhile, urban activists across the globe are actively engaged in lobbying for those goals. They are identifying tools through which they can advance their claims, conducting evidence-based research to better inform their actions, and organizing and partnering to strengthen their collective mobilization.

In the Arab world, there is an increasing number of such activists who, against all political and security odds, are trying to organize to improve the liveability of their cities. They also are seeking to protect the rights of marginalized groups to housing, basic services and public spaces, and to advocate for the sustainable management of natural resources.

Those groups are key partners for implementing the New Urban Agenda. Critically, their approach is vested in principles of inclusive and participatory local democracy — and perhaps more importantly, in the principle of the common good, which often is no longer being protected by public agents and planning institutions.

Indeed, in neoliberal market economies, the deregulated state is no longer the guarantor of the public interest or the common good. Rather, it is urban activists who often are the ones lobbying to shield the common good from private business interests, which often are aligned with those of the political elite.

[See: How a generation of young leaders is emerging from India’s slums]

Given these considerations, those fashioning the New Urban Agenda will need to carefully weigh assumptions about decentralization against the context of authoritarian and corrupt regimes. In turn, they will need to devise shrewd mechanisms of implementation that do not repeat the mistakes of previous international development assistance programmes, which end up consolidating centralization, inequality and injustice at the expense of the autonomy and legitimacy of local governments.

How can we lessen such threats? First, Habitat III will need to learn from international aid programmes that succeeded at effectively promoting decentralization, and devise mechanisms that provide opportunities for local communities to engage and for sub-national governments to be empowered. Second, Habitat III should identify and partner with urban activists who already are advocating for many of Habitat’s identified urban goals, and who are yearning for support to consolidate their collective organization.

Parts of this essay were presented at the “Urban Breakfast Western Asia: Urban Challenges and Sustainable Development,” organized by the Habitat III Secretariat and the Ford Foundation, held at the Ford Foundation in New York on 16 June 2016.

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Mona Harb

Mona Harb is a professor of urban studies and politics at the American University of Beirut. Her previous research examined Hezbollah’s social and urban service provision as well as the socio-spatial practices of urban leisure in south Beirut. She is now working on two projects: one on local and regional governments, planning policies and public goods provision, and the other on youth mobilization and urban activism in Lebanon.