The collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka in April 2013 caused the death of over 1,100 workers and injured more than 2,500 others. The Plaza was originally designed to hold shops and offices, which contain only light loads (desks, cabinets, some stock, etc.), but at the time the building was being used as a factory with heavier machinery and loads which went beyond the building's capacity. In addition, the upper four floors were reported to have been built without a permit.
This type of disregard for standard planning regulations and compliance inspections is common in cities in low- and middle-income countries, where municipalities often lack the know-how, capacity or will to inspect and regulate development. Many municipalities are simply overwhelmed by the speed and scale at which their cities are growing.
There is increasingly urgent need for international aid agencies and donors to scale up official development assistance (ODA) to cities. In particular, there needs to be much more direct aid made available to municipal governments.
However this is an area where international aid agencies and donors tend to fall a bit short, most of which give much more money and attention to national-level issues. This makes a certain Westphalian sense; the whole global order is founded on the sanctity of the sovereign nation state and the UN and aid and development systems are by extension built on this foundation.
Power balances between cities and their nation states have been changing since the 1980s, and the economic and political power of cities has grown immeasurably. Tokyo has a GDP the size of Mexico and Bangkok generates 45% of the Thai economy. Sustained globalisation and urbanisation are restructuring the way in which cities operate, as well as their relevance on the global stage.
Cities need more support
Direct city aid is the provision of ODA directly to municipal governments. While a national government agency or NGO may participate on such a direct city aid project, it is the municipality who is the fundamental recipient of the aid.
The goal of this aid is to address specific municipal challenges. These might be related to governance and administration of the city, the provision of key urban services, or the design of policies and plans for economic development.
Many cities across low- and middle-income countries are simply unable to keep up with the speed and scale of urban growth. Congestion, pollution, immense poverty and high levels of infrastructural deficit characterise many of these cities. Since 2000, almost a billion people have been added to the global urban population and annually there are approximately 60 million new urban residents, most of whom are knocking on the gates of cities in developing countries.
"We need more people and more resources," says KZ Hossain Taufique, director of town planning at Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha or Rajuk, the Capital Development Authority of the government of Bangladesh. Each of the big cities in Bangladesh has city development authorities, but they are understaffed and struggle to adequately oversee construction and development of urban areas. Insufficient regulation of construction methods is largely thought to have contributed to the collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013, killing over a thousand people. "We need more qualified technical planners and inspectors," Taufique says.
In addition to human resources, many low- and middle-income cities need new tools and methods for urban management. "We need alternative ways of doing things," says Shaheen Ahmed, senior planner at the Urban Development Directorate. "It's not just about manpower. We need to look at different fiscal options, new management tools, and better systems."
Cities in low- and middle-income countries can't do this alone. And with international aid agencies continuing to favour the provision of technical assistance to national governments, many city governments are struggling.
International development agencies have traditionally focused on rural poverty, and much of the contemporary work around poverty reduction and development is still built on a rural perspective. But poverty is increasingly an urban issue and this perspective is therefore increasingly outdated.
Unfortunately national governments are usually reluctant to allow ODA to go directly to municipalities and most countries have legislation in place barring this. National governments fear local-level corruption (an issue just as rampant at national level as it is at local level) and are often distrustful of allowing fiscal or financial autonomy to municipalities. In its place, national government bodies tend to design projects with development agencies for implementation in cities, without seeking adequate input from the municipality in question or its specific needs. Some countries have set up national-level development funds which hold ODA for disbursement to local governments.
Municipalities need and should be permitted to take on a much greater role.
"Many cities in developing countries are looking for increased assistance from international agencies," says Ilija Gubic, sustainable urban development advisor, UN Habitat. "It's about supporting local governments to manage their growing responsibilities due to rapid urbanisation", he says. According to Gubic, many cities do not know how to manage the complexities of rapid urban development, and cannot find qualified people who do.
Slow and positive change, but more needs to be done
A 2013 report by Germany's ministry for international aid and development (BMZ) points out that international commitments such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are largely implemented in cities. Urban areas are driving growth and economic development, providing health, education and employment opportunities. The way in which they develop will shape the long-term success of the poverty reduction agenda laid out by the Millennium Development Goals. Much could be gained by making them a global development partner.
It's worth noting that the MDGs, which have been the driving force behind the global development agenda since 2000, have focused primarily on rural development even as millions of people have moved into cities each year. There is no "urban" MDG. The fourth target of MDG7 on environmental sustainability does address the issue of slums. But that's it.
In many ways this is a natural though unfortunate outcome of the traditional rural bias of development. If the design of the MDGs has an overly rural feel to it, implementation and monitoring of the goals have done little to respond to the increased urbanisation of the globe over the 15 years since the MDGs were formulated.
Progress towards a more urban-aware global development agenda is being made, but slowly. The current MDGs will be replaced in 2015 by the post-2015 development agenda, the details of which are currently being debated, and new sustainable development goals (SDGs) are being set. In July this year, the UN Open Working Group finally agreed to include a specifically urban SDG in the list of draft goals — yet to be approved by the UN general assembly. Following a year of lobbying and activity from urban scholars and local governments, the draft "urban SDGs" pledges to "make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable."
Similarly, some aid and development agencies are beginning to move their programmes from the more traditional rural development focus to an urban focus. Oxfam GB for example which has tended to focus on rural poverty reduction is seeking to work more with cities. The agency has recently begun reorienting its programmes towards urban challenges, ranging from urban poverty reduction to urban resilience.
Of course, some international development players are doing exciting work on urban issues, though this tends to pass via national governments. The World Bank is one such, with a range of urban-focused programmes in operation, ranging from Cities Alliance (which focuses on slum upgrading) to the Global City Indicators Facility (GCIF).
Through the GCIF the World Bank has partnered with the University of Toronto to establish a global standard of data collection for cities, from which important indicators can be derived. Cities themselves input the data and join the initiative directly. Such indicators allow municipalities to understand how their cities are developing and how they compare to one another. A dearth of city-level data has long hampered analysis of city-level issues; another reason why ODA has tended to focus on national issues.
UN Habitat, the African Development Bank and Jica (Japan International Cooperation Agency) all provide growing forms of support to municipalities ranging from research, planning and policy through to infrastructure financing and capacity building. Jica in praticular has prepared a great many land use and masterplans for Asian cities, as well as hazard maps and other technical assessments; UN Habitat tends to focus on capacity building and policy advice and coordination.
These are all favourable steps in the right direction. But much more needs to be done. The development industry should fully recognise the particular needs of cities and greatly increase its ODA in direct partnership with municipal governments to implement much-needed development programmes and projects.