The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Fixing the global urban agenda: a personal view

Eminent housing and urban development consultant Geoffrey Payne offers a personal view on the international framework governing the global urban agenda, taking aim at the retrograde steps taken by international agencies in recent years, and exhorting professionals to break out of their silos and to reach beyond preaching to the converted.

Cities: Stockholm, London

Topics: Housing, City politics, Informal settlements, The global urban agenda, Development

Philippine Vice President and Chairman of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council Noli de Castro speaks at the 2010 World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro, to a panel including the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, the US Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, and the President of Uganda. Photo: Kerwin Datu
Previous Image Play/Pause Next Image

Looking back on over forty years of experience on land and housing issues sometimes feels like Groundhog Day. In some respects the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate, yet some things appear to be as relevant and difficult to resolve today as when I started.

Writers like Rachel Carson and Barbara Ward on the environment, Charles Abrams and John Turner on informal housing, Hodson and the Meadows on our obsession with economic growth, and Schumacher on the need for alternatives to mega-corporations, exerted a powerful impact on my generation, yet it is sobering that our collective ability to address the issues they raised remains as slight today as it was then. Why? What has led to a situation where a well-argued case, supported by ample evidence, has failed to result in appropriate action?

A large part can be put down to the active and passive resistance of vested interests. Despite the superficial increase in democratic regimes, there has been an increasing concentration of wealth and power in fewer hands. This suggests that real progress will only be possible by one of two approaches: convincing elites that they will benefit more from change than from the status quo, and at minimum risk; or that 'champions of change' must be identified and supported.

Ironically this forces the poor into the very situations that the elites hate--slums and informal settlements--so that the victims of government incapacity become its scapegoats.

The unwillingness of elites to act has left about one billion people living in some form of extra-legal or substandard housing with limited if any access to basic services. Too few governments have addressed the reality with anything like the urgency needed and some elites are openly hostile to the needs of the poor, who they see as threatening the comforts of urban life they have realised for themselves. Ironically this forces the poor into the very situations that the elites hate — slums and informal settlements — so that the victims of government incapacity become its scapegoats.

This is despite numerous innovative and effective examples which have provided access to new or improved housing for even the poorest households. There is no excuse for ignorance; only inertia or opposition have prevented these being adopted more widely. A summary of the roles of key stakeholders follows.

Donors and the international community

The funding provided by international donors is minute compared to that of national governments, though its influence is considerable. To what extent has this influence been productive? Sadly several bilateral donors, including the UK Department for International Development (DfID) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), have reduced their direct funding for urban issues at the very time that the world was becoming more urban than rural and the need for support is increasing.

There has been a tendency for donors to be seduced by theories that offer simple solutions to complex problems, such as providing land titles to very poor households in the hope that they will use their properties as collateral for obtaining formal credit.

A further concern is that definitions of value for money, particularly in DfID, appear to be based on reducing administrative costs on the naive assumption that this will direct more funding to those who need it most. As a result, support for government budgets in developing countries has been widely implemented even though they have reduced oversight and opened opportunities for corruption or creative accounting.

The diversity of small research projects of previous decades, which provided opportunities for a large number of researchers and encouraged enormous innovation and learning experience, has been replaced by smaller numbers of large research programmes which are cheaper to administer — at least for DfID. Experience and common sense suggest that this approach is unlikely to lead to theoretical breakthroughs or new insights.

For many years, DfID was a leading agency in urban lending, but repeated reorganisations have taken their toll and it has lost its reputation on urban issues at the very time it is most needed. In some respects it has even lost the records of earlier achievements, suggesting that it is suffering from institutional Alzheimer's.

UN-HABITAT's more modest budget restricts its activities to commissioning studies, holding workshops, publishing reports and managing campaigns for various issues. Whilst these are vital, the agency has not been able to stem the increase in numbers of people living without adequate or secure shelter. There is a tendency for it to focus excessively on conferences such as the World Urban Forums, which provide platforms to preach to the converted. If these could involve land owners, private developers and other key stakeholders willing to engage in open debate, these events could provide a more positive outcome. It is however working more with the World Bank and this offers considerable scope for increasing its impact.

In some respects DfID has even lost the records of earlier achievements, suggesting that it is suffering from institutional Alzheimer's.


It is often assumed that democracy is the best means of ensuring freedom and prosperity. However as Humphrey Hawksley, author of Democracy Kills, has noted, it has also been used by international powers to protect strategic interests and has sometimes led to bloodshed, poverty and disease. Even in more benign examples, democratic politics make long term planning difficult, reducing continuity as new governments cancel policies initiatied by their predecessors. Pressure to decentralise urban development has often resulted in the devolution of responsibilities, but not resources or powers to achieve agreed goals.

There are frequently conflicts between national and local governments. In countries in transition from largely rural to urban societies, urban areas are invariably more politically progressive than the larger rural population, creating tensions between the two levels of government if these are from different parties. This can be exacerbated where large cities provide a platform for a mayor to become a threat to the national government, leading the latter to starve the former of resources.

A final constraint is that staff in government agencies may be comfortable with working practices they have been employing for decades and which are enshrined in civil service codes. Innovation and risk taking may be seen as a threat, especially if the new approaches fail to deliver the expected outcomes, exposing staff to potential criticism. Even assurances from senior staff may be insufficient if tehse may be moved to another department at any time, which is common.

Non-government organisations

The role of NGOs has increased dramatically in recent decades. Many have moved from their initial roles to complementing and even replacing public sector agencies in delivering credit, services and shelter. They attract highly committed young professionals unwilling to submit to the low salaries and less creative working environments of the public sector.

Many good NGOs exist and do a great job under difficult conditions. However their rapid expansion raises genuine questions regarding accountability and transparency. International NGOs raise their funding outside the countries in which they operate and therefore have to impress this constituency to maintain their income flows. They become expert at marketing and promotion, but run serious risks if they make any failures public. This can easily discourage the openness which is essential if an NGO is to learn from experience.

Some NGOs are now strong enough to deliver services which were previously the remit of public sector agencies. Whilst an NGO may be less bureaucratic than a local government agency, the NGO cannot claim to be operating with a democratic mandate and, if very effective, may ironically result in a situation where it becomes a non-elected competitor to local government. Such a situation could result in further weakening the effectiveness of democratically elected governments, producing the worst of both worlds. Even in cases where an NGO agrees to work in partnership with government, this runs the risk of inhibiting it from criticising government later or on other issues.

The professional community

We professionals like to see ourselves as part of the solution, not the problem, though we cannot escape a share of responsibility for the limited progress made so far. After all it is professionals who collectively created the regulations, standards and procedures which have effectively excluded the poor from accessing formal land, housing and services. High standards which impose unaffordable costs; restrictive regulations which prevent the operation of home-based economic enterprises; and administrative practices which require people to submit to complex, time-consuming and uncertain outcomes; are recipes for discouraging people from conforming to official norms. Even the language in which such norms are written are often not fully understood by those responsible for enforcing them.

A major cause is that the regulatory framework was designed either by a colonial elite to reflect their needs and was then inherited after independence understandably reluctant to reduce norms for their own people, or by the national elite to reflect their own aspirations rather than those of the new urban population they are required to serve. Reviewing and revising such frameworks are key to ensuring that they facilitate conformity rather than frustrate it.

Finally the professions engaged in the urban and shelter sectors — architects, engineers, planners, sociologists, surveyors and urban designers — work far too much in silos. This can be seen particularly in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the Asian tsunami or Haitian earthquake. Greater collaboration in the field, and academic interaction during professional education courses, would be helpful in putting scarce professional resources to the most effective use.

So, what needs to change?

The first requirement is for donors, NGOs and professionals to adopt a political economy approach which identifies those likely to support progressive policies and those likely to offer active or passive opposition. Only by addressing these groups and assessing the room for manoeuvre can progressive policies be implemented.

Donors such as DfID and SIDA should reconsider their approach to urban development and revive the levels of commitment they achieved until the early 2000s. There is a large pool of idealistic and competent young professionals in the UK desperate to put their skills to good use and presently unable to find opportunities. Given that DfID has retained almost all of its budget despite massive cuts in other UK departments, this gives it a great opportunity to maintain the UK's development capabilities as well as reduce UK employment!

Improving the links between policy and operations in the World Bank can also offer scope for progress. Large organisations such as the Bank are a little like super-tankers — it takes a long time for those on the bridge formulating policy to influence the operations divisions in the engine room. By encouraging mid-term reviews to include setting project objectives as well as the progress in realising them, this time lag can be reduced. Other agencies would do well to follow the Bank in establishing independent panels to ensure compliance with ethical policies and procedures.

It will take at least another decade before we can hope that significant progress can be made in reducing the number of people living in substandard housing in urban areas. However the sooner we start, the better.


blog comments powered by Disqus