By Dr. Stephen Commins

A fundamental challenge for the future is that in many low and lower middle income countries, urban population growth will continue to outpace the capacity of both national and municipal governments to effectively maintain infrastructure, manage environmental resources, provide security and other basic public services. At all levels of government, central, municipal and local, governance challenges will be immense and the potential for these destabilizing trends to protract or contribute to conflict and intra and inter-state tensions will increase.

The governance challenges associated with administering increasingly complex urban systems is enormous, especially as many megacities’ populations far surpass those of numerous countries, and will likely grow exponentially faster than their sovereign counterparts.  New forms of conflict and prejudice emerge in over populated and underserved urban centers. Xenophobic hostility towards other ethnic groups, “foreigners”, extra-legal vigilante activities of “crime-fighting” and socio-economic struggles around issues of land and services emerge. Despite these trends that have been emerging for decades there is a lack of targeted research or policy guidance on the connections between urbanization and conflict or state fragility.

This trend is not confined to megacities, but is becoming frequent throughout much of Africa and Asia as urban demographic shifts along with state-directed decentralization have outpaced capacities for local government institutions to manage these shifts in responsibilities and the inherent tensions that result from underserved citizens and dynamic population movements.  Additionally, definitions of national identity and political legitimacy will increasingly be shaped by urban power relations and social, economic and environmental trends.

Urban centers, especially capitals and large cities, tend to be centers of competition for political power and resources, as well battlegrounds for both official and unofficial definitions of national identity and state legitimacy power. Grievances around the lack of essential and basic services, coupled with increased insecurity, crime and lawlessness can contribute to instability and challenge systems of governance and national power leading to fragility. Urban areas that are largely underserved and underrepresented can become virtual ungoverned spaces close to centers of political power making more vulnerable a central or national government.

With a growing frequency, unmet expectations in quantity and quality of governance outputs across security, political, economic, and social sectors result in violence, which (especially when related to gang and militia activity) further destabilizes urban environments. Significant progress has been made toward understanding and attempting to stabilize fragile states over the past decade; however,  comparative attention to fragile and unstable cities has not kept pace with emerging challenges.

Urban fragility is a useful analytic concept, as it builds on the current fragile states literature.  Understanding dynamics of urban fragility will likely grow in importance due to the increase in urban economic migrants, conflict related IDPs, and the growing number of ‘climate refugees’.  There is little evidence that local governments will develop the ability to address the growing level of poverty in urban slums, as there is a shift of the poorest 20% from rural to urban settings.

International (bilateral and multilateral) donors have invested relatively little in urban development, urban livelihoods and urban governance.  The lack of investment in urban areas increases the risk of insecurity due to poverty, political alienation, criminal networks, and increased demands on weak and under-resourced government security and justice services.

Urban fragility does not mean chaos or disorder, which may be the perspective when viewed from the outside, as it describes an internal dynamic that is distinctive in its political ramifications.  Urban violence and insecurity does not occur in cities because they are inherently less viable living and social locations.  They occur because urban areas are the home to a large concentration of poor people and, in most cases, the center of political power which affects their lives. In other words, urban fragility is related to the economic and political relations within a city.

For example, basic services when delivered effectively can improve perceptions of local government, but there are inherent tensions between delivering services to meet immediate needs and the strengthening of public institutions in the longer term.  A primary goal must be to improve local government, in both capacity and accountability. Good urban governance is probably the most important factor of all. Broad and sustainable urban development depends on political leadership that is committed to a democratic and equitable vision of urban society. Local authorities need strengthening and empowerment.

Governments and international agencies face several major challenges:

  • How is it possible to restore the local government capacities and to organize or support organizational mechanisms that effectively and accountably provide social services, after years of economic malaise, political breakdown or general neglect?
  • What should be the balance between rebuilding local bureaucracies and other forms of social provision and service delivery given the impact of fragility and other political factors?
  • Insofar as other modes of service delivery, centered around non-state bodies, have emerged during recent years, should the local government eventually work towards replacing, regulating and/or strengthening them?
  • What potential forms of synergy exist between rebuilding local government capacity and enhancing mechanisms of cooperation (i.e. ‘social capital’) in civil society?
  • Donors have generally failed to give adequate attention to urbanization issues in general or in Africa in particular.  This can be seen when reviewing the program emphases of USAID as well as European agencies and the World Bank.  UN Habitat has a marginal role in terms of shaping donor practice, as opposed to providing information.  A review of the current fragile states literature shows that urbanization does not have prominence other than in some of the research on violence, especially in Latin America.

In order to address urban fragility it will be necessary to significantly change donor programs in terms of the level of resources to address the scale required, the type of resources, the channel (state and non-state) of resources and the rural/urban balance.  Governments and international agencies need to recognize urban fragility as a development problemThe reduction ofurban fragility should be included in development planning, not just because of the increasing levels of violence, crime, fear and insecurity in local communities, but the broader affects of weak infrastructure and lack of livelihoods on the daily routine of urban slum dwellers.

 

Dr. Stephen Commins is a Lecturer in the Department of Urban Planning, Luskin School of Public Affairs, UCLA.