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close this bookPromoting Sustainable Human Development in Cities of the South: A Southeast Asian Perspective (UNRISD, 2000, 56 p.)
close this folderIII. The Structural Context
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentUnderstanding cities
View the documentDemocratization, decentralization and liberalization


While sustainable urban development initiatives are attempting to establish their own approach to revising the way in which decisions are made and how cities are planned and managed, they necessarily do so within a wider developmental context. The problems and opportunities that these initiatives face need to be understood in structural terms if they are to be better confronted. Two dimensions of this context are particularly important and are discussed in this section of the paper.

First, we discuss the issue of urbanization. In much of the South, the majority - often the vast majority - of the population lives in rural areas. However, everywhere urban areas are growing rapidly and within the foreseeable future most of the world's population will be urban. This process greatly affects the approaches that need to be taken to planning and managing the sustainable development process. Second, the world is currently in the grip of a particular ideological outlook that is strongly influencing the ways in which economic and political life is organized.

On the one hand, democratization and decentralization are being introduced throughout the South, displacing the authoritarian and centralized regimes that predominated throughout most of the latter half of the twentieth century. At the same time, neo - liberalism is being promoted - and has broad political support - as the correct framework for development at the international level. The following paragraphs analyse in more detail the implications of these dimensions of the changing structural context as they affect the possibilities of sustainable urban development initiatives.

Understanding cities

While in principle LA21 processes can be applied within any community, in practice they have a definite urban orientation (there is a minority of cases involving urban regions - provinces or consortia of local authorities). Under these circumstances, it is important to focus attention on what is meant by an urban place and the ways in which this has been changing in recent years, so as to better understand the local sustainable development planning and management process in context.

It is common knowledge that we live in a rapidly urbanizing world - the population of which was, half a century ago, predominantly living in rural areas, but where today almost half lives in towns and cities. Latin America is already as urbanized as Europe (i.e. almost fully urbanized) and it is only in Asia and Africa that we find countries where the population is still living a predominantly rural life.

The common presumption is that rural people will one day take up their roots and migrate to the city. There are cases of this kind, but urbanization is much more complicated than this. On the one hand, cities grow to a significant degree simply through children being born in them. Where rural - urban migration is a significant factor, it is necessary to understand the complex segmentation of the process - which might include, for example, rural girls taking jobs as maids before returning to get married; young men taking industrial jobs in the agriculturally slack season; or refugee/ethnic groups that have found a particular economic niche. Trying to incorporate these - and many other "poor" groups - into a local planning process can be difficult when they consider themselves to be only temporary residents or are ostracized or otherwise hidden by better established, more powerful groups.

The mode of urbanization and the changes in urban morphology are also important to understanding how to involve people in the planning process. Many towns and cities have been towns and cities for a long time and may be growing fast, slowly or not at all. Other urban areas suddenly appear, sometimes very rapidly, as a consequence of contingencies: changing boundaries, tourist developments or the location of large industries attracting a new workforce are examples. The appearance over a period of less than 20 years of a whole series of new urban places in the Pearl River Delta, following the Chinese government's decision to promote particularly Hong Kong inward investment is an extreme - but by no means unique - example (Lo and Yeung, 1995). And a significant addition to urban development is simply through the growth of villages that become towns and then cities without the local population ever moving.

Furthermore, the cultural impacts of globalization, discussed further below, are leading to changes in outlook and social praxis even in remote rural areas that essentially orient the population to urban living habits, multiply the commercial links with cities, facilitating the transition of rural populations into urban life, increasingly in terms of possessing two homes (even when one is no more than a room in a rooming house); improved transport infrastructure and cheap bus fares are reinforcing this.

In recent years there have been rapid changes in the manner of urbanization of rural migrants and of older residents of informal settlements. Different dynamics prevail in different regions and specific cities need to be looked at from a local perspective. Nevertheless, in the past greater numbers of the poor were generally to be found in central city tenements and informal settlements. Today most of the "urban" poor reside in, or a little way beyond, the urban periphery, sometimes in vastly expanded "villages" (in Latin America, barrios and favelas) that are, in extreme cases, cities in their own right.

The implications of these changes in the processes of urbanization and social interaction - and of the fluidity and sheer indeterminacy of life decisions among the poor in particular - need to be taken into consideration in designing planning systems for sustainable development. What emerges is the inadequacy of the approaches taken so far to encompass the processes framing people's lives. Instead there has generally been an assumption that things are as in the past with residents (stakeholders) standing firm to be counted and incorporated into a planning process.

Nevertheless, in many towns and cities, established neighbourhoods - informal, middle income and affluent - contain settled populations that are potential participants in a more participatory approach to local planning and management. A major problem is the degree of segregation and isolation, particularly of the middle and upper classes. In such areas where there appear to be few immediate environmental problems (clean and green streets, clean water supply, etc.), but where the problem of less sustainable lifestyles (high consumption of resources) is all too evident, it is generally difficult to capture the interest of citizens to participate in planning exercises. Nor are the more affluent citizens very interested in assuming any kind of equality with the poor in a decision - making process.

Thus in practice the process needs to use considerable ingenuity in order to draw people from all walks of life into a common planning process. It is also necessary to ensure that the territory within which the planning process is being conducted is one in which sustainable development can be considered with some hope of eventually making it a reality; this points to city and hinterland as needing to be planned within the same framework.

Democratization, decentralization and liberalization

There are other factors that are more ideologically and politically driven that are having a major impact on the organization of life in the countries and cities of the South - those encompassed by the terms "decentralization" and "democratization", on the one hand, and "liberalization", on the other.

Although there has never been a time when, in development circles, decentralization and democracy were not seen as a "good thing", in practice, over the period of the Cold War neither of the two major powers considered it in their interest to promote them. Indeed, the majority of countries in the South possessed highly centralized regimes - with little by way of democracy - that were more or less directly installed and in most cases continuously supported by one or other of the two "superpowers". Some attempts were made by development agencies to support decentralization programmes but, by the early 1980s, these were deemed a general failure (Rondinelli et al., 1984).

Changes started in the early 1980s, first in Latin America, with the collapse of authoritarian regimes, then in the countries of Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s and most recently in East Asia (which is the subject of later discussion). The African experience has been more mixed, but with some notable cases over the period - the most conspicuous being the collapse of apartheid in South Africa. Decentralization is a complex process that concerns redistribution of powers from central to regional, municipal and community levels, but that must also involve redistribution of financial resources if it is to be at all effective.2 In most countries of the South where decentralization processes have been initiated - and there are now very many examples - the difficulties of implementing them have become rather evident in a situation where local government is ill - prepared to take more responsibility for local action and central government agencies are typically resistant.

2 Indicative of current interest in supporting decentralization processes on the part of international development assistance agencies is the extensive discussion of the theme in the World Bank's (1999) World Development Report 1999/2000.

Democratization - by which is generally meant the introduction of representative democracy at national and local levels - has also proved to be a difficult process to get right. Patronage systems, local mafiosi, vote buying, vote rigging and a whole range of tactics for hijacking the political process become evident; and it is clear that it will take many years for "clean" and truly representative governments to become the norm throughout the South, and for there to be systems of genuinely "good governance" where government and civil society play their role fully and conscientiously. It should be noted, however, that there is evidence in many countries of the growth of more participatory forms of democracy that are, indeed, a central focus of the sustainable development planning and management systems with which this paper is concerned.

Of course, the early 1980s also saw the resurgence of neo - liberal ideology, underpinned by a new determination of big business in the industrialized countries (and particularly the United States) to assert its interests in the political arena (Korten, 1996). The basic principle of neo - liberalism is to promote free enterprise and free trade (the "free market"), meaning that private businesses should not be restricted by governments in their pursuit of commerce, trade and profit making because, it is argued, this is the true generator of wealth in society and thus, ultimately, the alleviation of poverty.

In practice, the interpretation put upon the principle has not been either consistent or even - handed (Shutt, 1998) and it is a major contention of Southern NGOs concerned with trade issues that, while Southern countries are being compelled to open themselves to free trade, Northern countries maintain systems of protection. In any case, liberalization has created a very definite context within which development has been shaped in the countries and cities of the South and this needs some discussion in order to better understand the most serious difficulties faced by local initiatives in sustainable development planning and management.

Neo - liberalism has been promoted in countries of the South via two routes: first through the widespread adoption of the ideology by elites within the countries - which has meant that governments have been inclined to "buy into" it - and second through the influence and pressure of the international development banks, ending in most Southern countries at some stage in "structural adjustment" that has forced changes in administration that conform to neo - liberal rules - which, it is widely admitted, have in the first instance marked negative social and environmental consequences (UNRISD, 1995).

In the past, governments in the South have not, been particularly successful in planning and directing the distribution and growth of cities. It is also true that attempts to organize the development process have not been without their problems. But, during certain periods, governments in most countries of the South have succeeded in stimulating and directing developments that have improved the economic and social conditions of their populations. Indeed, once viewed as "Southern" countries, government - directed development programmes in Japan and more recently in Singapore, the Republic of Korea and Taiwan Province of China have been spectacularly successful in economic terms.

Ignoring these examples and the possibilities that might exist for other societies to take whatever path suits them, neo - liberal rules, promoted as a universal route to effective development, remove, through "privatization", the responsibility of governments for key areas in the planning and direction of development. The results for most Southern countries are rather clear in terms of the social consequences, where all indications show the consistent rise in the incidence of poverty with, at the same time, the emaciation of what small welfare programmes were available in the past.

On the surface, there has been concern that the environment (and sustainable development) should not suffer as a consequence of "deregulation" of the economy. Environmental ministries and/or agencies now exist in most countries and in some even local environmental agencies have been established. These are mandated to control the impact of the development process on the environment and it is usually these agencies that have been responsible for the follow - up to UNCED. The contradiction between neo - liberalism and effective environmental protection cannot, however, be avoided and the effectiveness with which environmental issues and any meaningful interpretation of sustainable development have been sidelined in the international systems promoting free trade (the GATT Agreement and the operations of the World Trade Organization) is rather clear.

At the level of theory, Rees (1998) has analysed the clarity with which mainstream economists reject the very existence of the problematic of sustainability, asserting that whatever resources are exhausted or despoiled will always be replaced by substitutes (the important issue is at what price; the social and environmental impacts are not seen as relevant to economics). At the level of practice, as already noted, sustainable development is promoted as a voluntary activity of all actors with little attempt to provide structures within which the various actors can work towards the same ends. Environmental ministries and agencies are universally on the margins of the development process and their capacity and remit even to regulate environmental impacts adequately - and certainly to be proactive in indicating directions for development - are restricted by the neo - liberal ideological and political context that puts the interests of economic actors first.

There are, however, many contending theoretical tools that might be applied to counter the depredations of the free - market approach to development. In the environmental sphere, attention is being focused on "common property regimes" for the sustainable management of resources (Berkes, 1989). Some acknowledgement is given by the World Bank (Jodha, 1992) to the potential effectiveness of such forms of protection for the sustainable management of particular resources over free - market pressures to exploit resources in whatever way the market actors see fit.

On the social side, concern is being expressed at the way in which social support networks, particularly in rural areas, are falling apart in the face of modernization, commercialization and the spread of ("liberal") individualistic attitudes and practices. Looked at as a dimension of capital - alongside financial, economic, environmental and others - "social capital", which embodies these traditional forms of life support, is seen as becoming depleted. Some individuals may be becoming better off (gain in economic capital), but communities (and with them other individuals that are usually less conspicuous) are becoming less well off (loss of social capital).

While it may be useful to understand the processes of change that are taking place - particularly in the countries of the South - these concepts and others are not as yet recognized as anything but marginal to the development discourse. Economic growth in general remains the central purpose of development, with liberalism as the mechanism according to which it should be pursued. Unfortunately the critique emanating from rather obvious failures remains marginalized.

So what light do these considerations shed on the potential for success of participatory local sustainable development planning and management initiatives? It should be clear that in principle these efforts directly contradict the neo - liberal ideology, with its presumptions about competition, rather than co-operation, and its disinterest in any genuine moves to reorient the development process along lines of sustainability. It would thus seem that, if these initiatives are to become more effective, there will have to be a progressive abandonment of neo - liberalism: the two approaches to development have entirely different ideological bases, orientations and institutional requirements.