Political systems and institutions

A critical factor influencing whether cities are governed in a sustainable, inclusive and pro-poor manner is the operation of local institutions and whose interests they represent. These institutions define the framework for citizen-citizen and citizen-state interactions, and influence collective decision-making over the allocation of public resources and delivery of local public services (Shah & Shah, 2006: 1-2). Formal political institutions play a role in determining the process for electing leaders; the roles and responsibilities of the executive and legislature; the organisation of political representation (through political parties); and the accountability and oversight of the state (Scott & Mcloughlin, 2014). These institutions and systems play a pivotal role in regulating political, social and economic engagement and determining how public authority is secured and used (e.g. constitutions, laws, customs etc.). They also determine how, where and upon whom resources are allocated and spent.

Informal and customary political systems, norms and rules can operate within or alongside these formal structures (Scott & Mcloughlin, 2014:1). The literature has tended to presume a clear dichotomy between formal and informal, traditional and modern, democratic and non-democratic political systems ‒ yet they overlap and interrelate. Three factors are particularly important in understanding these systems and institutions (Devas et al., 2004Fox & Goodfellow, 2016):

  • The political context. At the local level, this refers to the socio-political public space available to urban actors (including the poor) and their ability to exploit that space.  At the regional and national level, this refers to the institutions and rules that govern political behaviour, the political culture and the nature of the national regime.
  • The way formal structures and procedures of the urban political system are designed and how they work in practice.
  • The political actors involved, their goals and demands, resources, strategies and tactics, and the power relationships among them.

According to UN-Habitat (2016) many urban areas suffer from an imbalance of political power and insufficient inclusiveness and participation. Collective decision-making has failed to address the gap between national developmental agendas and local needs. Women, youth, minorities, the urban poor and those with disabilities, for example, are often excluded from decision-making (ibid.). Further, exclusion can be influenced both by who you are (i.e. your ethnicity, class or religion) and where you live (i.e. those in informal settlements or peri-urban areas may fall outside the defined administrative responsibility of city government).

In urban areas more attention needs to be paid to the political, economic and social drivers of bargaining and distributional conflicts between groups over policy, goods and services (Desai, 2010; Muggah, 2012; Jones et al., 2014a). It is therefore important to understand both the political economy that underlies institutions of urban governance and how local power hierarchies influence the distribution and allocation of resources. Carter (2015: 2) identifies the principal political economy constraints that influence decision-making in urban areas:

  • Wider political economy context: failure of governance structures to keep pace with the growth, complexity and density of urban areas; combined pressures such as urbanisation and environmental change; the relationship with the national political settlement; and conflict and fragility.
  • Governance framework: policy incoherence; institutional fragmentation; incomplete decentralisation; the proliferation of service providers; the nature of city politics; and the role of informal political incentives.
  • The urban poor’s political agency: electoral dynamics; clientelism; elite capture of services and decision-making processes.
  • Collective action: social and political polarisation: transient poor populations living in informal settlements and exploitation by community organisations or NGOs.
  • Service delivery dynamics: political market imperfections, policy incoherence, and challenges to collective action.
  • Conflict and violence: rapid urban growth; social and income inequality; legacies of armed conflict; political authoritarianism and repressive policing.
  • Vulnerable groups: exclusion and adverse incorporation of women and girls, youth, rural migrants, foreign immigrants and residents of informal settlements, etc.

With a range of actors (formal and informal) participating at different levels in decision-making, there is a need to foster network-based instead of hierarchical governance (Jordan, 2008). For example, the evolving roles of private and public actors, combined with new forms of political participation, have in some contexts facilitated a transformation of urban governance (if only temporarily). In such contexts, institutions and the values that underpin them have played an instrumental role in aligning and reconciling interests and fostering shared paradigms of urban governance and development. However, failure to agree on a shared vision in many urban areas has hindered cooperation, even when actors share common objectives. Limited capacity and legitimacy of government agencies, weak performance and accountability mechanisms and the immaturity of political institutions can undermine urban governance and result in pervasive clientelist relations and corrupt practices.

In many cities there is recognition that it is at the local or neighbourhood level of government that increased responsiveness and improved service delivery can best be delivered. However, as with higher levels of government, the representativeness and effectiveness of local governance depends on its legislative basis, the powers and resources available, the arrangements for representation, the nature of leadership and the relation between it and higher tiers of city and regional government. Democratic representation at this level may be based on elections but it is also here that opportunities arise for innovative democratic practices, such as direct, deliberative or participatory democracy. According to Andrews and Shah (2005), to create political systems and institutions that work for the poor, a framework of urban governance must facilitate citizen empowerment through a rights-based approach (i.e. direct democracy provisions); facilitate bottom-up accountability involving evaluation of government performance as facilitator of a network of providers by citizens as governors, taxpayers and consumers of public services.