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Ditching the masterplan. How can urban development become ‘politically smart, locally led’?

The international development community has come some way in grappling with complex problems, but urban development has lagged behind.

If we do all the analysis before local engagement, we can end up with something that looks ideal on paper, but which is impossible in practice. [image credit: Flickr ow.ly/t1aA30cTg3T]

This article was authored by Palladium's governance experts Harry Jones and Bishnu Adhikari, and originally published on June 23rd as a guest post on Oxfam's From Poverty to Power blog by Duncan Green, Strategic Adviser for Oxfam GB.

Urban programmes systematically underperform according to their own results frameworks and internal evaluations. The failures are probably already familiar to those of us who spend time in cities around the world. Masterplans are not implemented and haphazard development continues. Metropolitan authorities and municipalities fail to deliver the functions they have on paper, and services remain dysfunctional. Infrastructure is built and money spent, but in a few years it degrades badly.

Over the last 5 years, we have tried to talk about this with ‘urban people’ in Nepal, Tanzania, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, but most of the time we get nowhere. Urban planners happily set about their next assignment and multilaterals eagerly mobilise further loans and grants. Bilaterals are now ramping up their investments in cities – for example DFID spent about £500m on urban-specific programmes in the past 10 years, and seems set to spend close to that amount again in the next 5.

If we wait for the next batch of programmes to fail in the same way as the last, we will see hundreds of millions of taxpayer’s money wasted. This is tough work, and there aren’t any easy answers, but it a richer and more open debate would at least be a start. In that spirit, this blog highlights the common lessons from past programmes, and shares the ideas on how to Do Urban Development Differently that we are currently piloting in a programme in Nepal.

What are the lessons from urban development failures?

Urban development in developing countries typically involves: establishing or engaging with an institution with responsibility across constituencies and services; developing master plans based on extensive analysis and consultation; securing resources, and then overseeing implementation. Donor programmes typically support this through technical assistance (TA) for planning and institutional design, capital investments, and capacity building for municipalities. Where and why does this fall down?

Firstly, this approach is not adaptive enough. While uncertainty and unpredictability means we should be taking a number of ‘small bets’ and learning by doing, the traditional approach does the exact opposite. Ambitious and comprehensive plans are produced, fixing the details of an intervention in advance in order to secure large loans. Intervening in some of the most complex and dynamic human ecosystems on the planet without sufficient flexibility means that unforeseen constraints cannot be overcome, and unexpected opportunities are missed.

Secondly, the approach is overly technocratic. Academic research and programming experience from around the world show beyond doubt that political economy factors are just as important for urban service delivery as technical design and levels of resourcing. But while project evaluations are happy to blame failures after the fact on context or politics, these factors are not taken seriously in programme design. Thus traditional approaches typically fail because local level institutions are fragmented, or because the capacity to implement and enforce is constrained by informal practices. Planning processes have low credibility, and consultation is tokenistic, bypassing elected representatives, and benefits are narrowly captured. Donor support can exacerbate this, creating perverse incentives with large amounts of ‘free money’ delivered top-down.

What could a different approach look like?

So far, so depressing. But there is the potential for different and better programming. For example, a small project in Pokhara, Nepal explored models that could catalyse collaboration between the public and private sectors for urban development. Of three initiatives launched, one failed miserably, one spectacularly, but one of them succeeded – developing a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model for installing solar street lights. Those lights, locally funded, were the first of their kind in the country, and had a strong demonstration effect. The model was picked up by government, which now provides a large annual subsidy; 2 years on there are 50,000 under installation in 150 municipalities, using the same guidelines. The project thus leveraged around 100 times its own value in Nepali investment in urban infrastructure.

Now, under a UK government-funded programme implemented by Palladium, we are drawing on that experience to try and do things differently at scale. On the Economic Policy Incubator, we are working in an economic corridor in the West of Nepal, piloting a new approach to strengthening economic development.

Brokering agreement and action between key stakeholders. Lack of money is rarely the problem in cities. In our corridor there is a stable and growing tourism sector centred around Pokhara and Lumbini, and the Southern end includes key locations for the country’s manufacturing, industry, and trade with India. Many of the cities also have a history of political and social activism. Bringing different actors together to solve coordination and collective action problems can unlock the resources that are already there:

  • We have city coordinators who liaise with local stakeholders, including business associations and municipalities. They are recruited from and based in the local area, selected for their existing local networks and perceived neutrality
  • We are preparing to support local mayors – there is great anticipation, these guys will be Nepal’s first elected local representatives for 20yrs
  • We have been informally engaging with MPs and other influential figures in each location, and we do ‘live’ political economy analyses of key towns and cities
  • We are stealing SAVI’s idea to support local dialogue through radio call-in shows – to understand local problems and perspectives, and support constructive discussion

Learning by Doing: If we do all the analysis before the local engagement, we could end up with something that looks ideal on paper, but which is impossible in practice. So instead, analysis of economic priorities for the cities and corridor goes on alongside launching local actions. We have been looking for common problems that hurt business growth as well as affecting the lives of local residents, and are working on a number of ‘quick wins’ with local stakeholders (see the table below for examples).

These will deliver important benefits, but they’re also a means to an end. Some of our initiatives will succeed and some will fail, and along the way we learn important lessons about how to promote action in different locations. This iterative process allows us to make many small bets, so that we can later place larger bets on the basis of demonstrated feasibility. In a culture where direct disagreement is rare, it’s often only when the rubber hits the road that you learn where the real interest and ownership are. And successful local initiatives may also unearth new models that can be taken up elsewhere (as with the street lights).

Supporting the emergence of local leadership and coordination capacity. The identification, planning, and management of initiatives is driven by local stakeholders, with their own budgets. They must be prepared to invest their own resources or able to persuade others to do so – supporting the emergence of collaboration and coalitions that can drive local development. Doing this iteratively helps us find leaders with sufficient will and coordinating power, and identify issues that can mobilise sufficient traction across different constituencies.

‘Quick wins’ also build effective local leadership. Small victories build momentum behind local leaders and issues, strengthens working relationships (countering fragmentation), and builds credibility. In Pokhara we are already building on the street lights success, with local stakeholders more willing to invest in collaboration, and if local efforts can bring improved electricity supply for manufacturing in Bhairahawa, this may spur further interest.

Combined, this approach can be seen as an alternative to the ‘traditional’ playbook, an incremental approach to urban development (diagram below), building ambition and scope as political/institutional foundations are strengthened.

Who else, and where next?

Others are also trying things differently – for example TAF has been working with politically smart approaches in cities in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Mongolia. Developed nations also face similar challenges, for example the institution building lessons passed on by the Centre for Cities for the new metro mayors in the UK.

We’re not claiming to have ‘the answer’ here. Mirroring the current status of the DDD debate, there isn’t yet robust evidence about the impact of new models, because they have yet to be consistently tried. What we do have is strong evidence that taking a traditional approach will have serious failings, and we have some clear principles for alternative approaches. We’re keen to talk to others who can share their ideas and experiences, so please get in touch.