Understanding the Nature of Governance in Cities: Perspectives from Latin America and Africa-Seminar Series

  • Date:
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  • Venue:
    Online seminar(Zoom)
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  • Title:

    Understanding the Nature of Governance in Cities: Perspectives from Latin America and Africa

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  • Host:

    SDGs Collaborative Research Unit

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Although typically associated with the state and formal institutions, scholarship suggests that governance is a broad concept. Instead of associating it only with the state, one could pay attention to the role of social networks and non-governmental actors who carry out the functions of governance. Still, yet, others argue that one could go beyond the state versus non-state arguments to understand governance as composed of interactions among different actors including the state. Within the context of a world where cities are key sites of change, these discussions help in understanding the urban landscape. Deregulated service provision, dynamics of organized crime and violence, and the private sector shape urban spaces in many cities. Actors engaged in governance include market actors, social networks, NGOs, government officials, politicians, armed actors, and many others.

Keeping in view this complexity, and that the world is becoming increasingly urban, this event focuses on the question: what is the nature of governance in cities in Latin America and Africa? Both regions present key sites of analysis. Latin America has long contributed to debates on cities, while Africa is at the forefront of urbanization trends. Insights from both regions are valuable for theoretical debates and policies related to governance and politics in cities.


Dr. Markus Shultze-Kraft (Arnhold Associate Fellow, Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, Brunswick (Germany))

Dr. Jeffrey Paller (Assistant Professor and Program Director, University of San Francisco)

Dr. Nazia Hussain (Project Assistant Professor, IFI, University of Tokyo) moderator

In a conversation hosted by the SDGs unit and moderated by Dr. Nazia Hussain, Dr. Markus Schultze-Kraft and Dr. Jeffrey Paller discussed the nature of governance in Latin America and Africa. This was the last event of the four-part series on aspects related to challenges of governance and precarious living in an increasingly urban world.

In his presentation titled, “Metropolitan governance in contemporary Latin America: the challenge of crimilegality”, Dr. Schultze-Kraft noted that over the course of the past five decades and longer, Latin America has witnessed urbanisation at a monumental scale. Today, more than 80 percent of the region’s population live in cities and vast metropolitan areas, which serve as vibrant hubs for wealth generation, political power, communications, scientific and technological advancement, and cultural life. Six of the world’s megacities – Mexico-City, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Bogotá, Lima, Rio de Janeiro – are in Latin America, other large urban centres are growing due to continuing land flight and high population growth rates. More than 60 percent of Latin America’s GDP is presently produced in cities. Yet, Latin American cities and metropolitan areas are also sprawling spaces of abject poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, insecurity and violent (state) crime. Big city administrative structures are often bloated, ambiguous and horizontally non-cooperative, where it is far from clear who is responsible for what and accountable to whom.

It is broadly recognised that this Janus-faced condition of the Latin American city makes urban governance and the provision of public goods and basic services an incredibly challenging enterprise. The prevailing patterns of urban socio-spatial fragmentation, segregation and exclusion have been analysed through the lenses of the ‘fragile city’ and are seen as reflecting the manifold pressures emanating from advanced neoliberal globalisation. Some observers are even asking whether large urban centres in contemporary Latin America can be still considered as cities or rather as a kind of counter model to the traditional city, where citizenship, urban mobility, meaningful democratic participation in public life and the livelihoods of marginalised populations are all but undermined or in practice rendered inexistent.

Seeking to address the challenges, since roughly the 1980s, when the region began its difficult journey towards (re)democratisation, national and municipal Latin American governments and civil society have been at the forefront of urban governance innovation, including political-administrative and fiscal decentralisation, participatory budgeting, the privatisation of public service provision, infrastructure development, proximity policing and the establishment of gang truces. However, the effectiveness and sustainability of these and other urban governance initiatives in the region are disputed. Overall, the available evidence suggests that effective, efficient, and legitimate urban governance remains a work-in-progress. This can be explained not only by the sheer magnitude of the prevailing challenges and often sub-optimal and incoherent policy-making and implementation, but also by the nature of contemporary Latin American big city governance itself.

One way of approaching the issue has been to focus on the deficits in (local) state authority, capacity, and legitimacy of urban governance in Latin America. This approach has been informed by the debate about ‘fragility’, influential among policy analysts and scholars in Latin America and other developing regions of the global South since the mid-2000s. With respect to big city or metropolitan governance in Latin America, much attention has been paid to the region’s unenviable position as ‘world leader’ in violent urban crime, socioeconomic and ethnic fragmentation, segregation and both horizontal and vertical inequality, as well as police brutality and egregious human rights violations. Massive official corruption – remember the Odebrecht scandal that surfaced in the mid-2010s sending shockwaves across the region – too has been identified as a cause, driver, and enabler of ‘bad’ governance in Latin America’s large urban centres.

While these approaches are useful to examine Latin America’s governance problems, they fail to grasp fully the magnitude of the problems at hand. Governance in a middle-income developing region such as Latin America – with more than 200 years of formal independence of its Spanish-speaking majority of countries from Europe – still carries the heavy baggage of the old colonial regime: obedezco, pero no cumplo (I obey, but I do not comply). In other words, across Latin America, the prevailing official law is recognised but not acted upon. Instead, Latin America has witnessed the emergence of a phenomenon not uncommon to the wider developing world, but particularly palpable in the lands south of the Rio Grande: crimilegality.

In short, especially local and urban political orders in contemporary Latin America can be characterised as hybrid crimilegal orders. In such orders, the formal boundaries between legality and illegality/criminality are blurred. An array of both state and non-state actors interact and exercise political authority by creating collectively binding institutions geared towards the achievement of particularistic goals that regulate the provision of public goods and basic services. In these crimilegal processes, resources are (mis)appropriated, and order is (re)produced through fluid combinations of legal and illegal and/or criminal means. These crimilegal orders and their attaining patters of crimilegal governance are not easily captured by more conventional approaches of ‘bad’, ‘corrupt’, and ‘criminal governance’. What Latin American big city governance is up to is of a different calibre: the goal must be decrimilegalisation embodied in deep social, normative, and moral change.

Dr. Schultze-Kraft’s insightful presentation was followed by an equally rich account of urbanization in Africa by Dr. Jeffrey Paller. In his presentation titled, “The contentious politics of African urbanization“, Dr. Paller noted that Africa’s pace of urbanization is the fastest regional rate in the world. In the past 70 years, the number of urban residents on the continent has grown from 27 million to nearly 600 million and is projected to reach 950 million by 2050. The majority of these residents are young and live in slum-like conditions. Africa’s rapid urbanization presents new challenges. Unlike other contexts across the world, Africa’s urban growth is occurring without large-scale industrialization, contributing to an urban life dominated by economic informality. Colonialism left lasting legacies of racialized urban planning and primacy of capital cities, contributing to severe inequalities and ambiguous property rights regimes. But the increasing number of people living in cities also creates new political and economic opportunities for governments, leaders, political parties, and residents themselves.

Africa’s urbanization, therefore, is a contentious political process involving multiple claims to urban space, as well as competition between social institutions that establish order. A focus on processes, episodes, and mobilization exemplifies the dynamic political struggle that urban growth entails, as well as the particular trajectory of urban political development that emerges. Contentious politics unfolds through mechanisms including new attributions of threat and opportunity, the social appropriation of existing organizations, framing and reframing of identities, innovative forms of collective action, and brokerage. For example, urbanization can create speculative investment opportunities for the business and political elite but also spur the reemergence of nativist claims to urban space by traditional authorities and indigenous groups. Residents find innovative strategies to claim rights to the city by forming new alliances with NGOs and engaging in relationships with political patrons.

Political claim-making and the respective development outcomes occur at the neighborhood level, where residents participate in collective decision-making, or leaders capture the process for their own interests. But the scope and type of governance varies across city neighborhoods, as the cases of Accra and Ashaiman in Ghana represent. Ashaiman provides an example of what can happen when leaders from diverse ethnic groups come together to govern themselves. While Ashaiman started as a squatter settlement in the 1960s, indigenous landowners and migrant leaders agreed on land distribution at the early stages of urban development. Residents and leaders constantly negotiate and renegotiate these agreements and work together to demand improvements to the city. This is not the case in Old Fadama, Accra’s largest squatter settlement, where everyday politics undermines collective decision-making and cross-ethnic interactions. Short-term solutions and personalistic politics compromise the development of long-term, pro-poor, decision-making pathways. To overcome these governance deficits, sustainable urban development policy should focus on strengthening mechanisms of accountability, providing legal recognition of informal settlements, and investing in on-site infrastructure upgrades.

We have a video recording of this seminar on UTokyo TV website. If you are interested, please click the button as well.