Delivering services in cities under crisis

October 29, 2020


This World Cities Day, 31st October, finds cities on the frontline of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The unique challenges of the urban environment have manifested through exponential caseloads;  55 percent of the global population live in cities, but they have accounted for 90 percent of cases. The pandemic also means that local government revenue will be 15-25 percent lower in 2021, undermining public service delivery, infrastructure investments, and sustainable urban development, just as the need for health, water and sanitation, and waste disposal is at an all-time high. As sudden challenges now give way to long-term crisis—economic recession, widespread unemployment, drained municipal resources—mayors have sought to raise relief funds and find innovative ways to continue servicing the needs of vulnerable populations and sustaining the local economy.

For some cities, coronavirus exacerbates pre-existing crises spurred by rapid urbanization, concentrated poverty, stressed resources and social instability. As such, COVID-19 merely places further strain on already over-stretched municipal governments and stressed populations. In particular, the pandemic in cities has been driven by inequalities in basic services, exposing weaknesses the structural barriers that impede many communities. By April 2020, 30 percent of designated containment zones (areas with the highest number of cases) in Mumbai were in informal settlements. Across Africa, UN Habitat finds that only 55 percent of urban residents have basic sanitation.

As the pandemic continues, longstanding urban inequality in healthcare or social protection is becoming more acute. The effects have been especially severe in the informal sector, which represents 90 and 67 percent of total employment in low and middle-income countries respectively.

A municipality’s ability to respond to COVID-19 relates to the strength of their institutions. For decades, the international community has tried to address the multiple crises. However, progress has been limited; 1.8 billion people lived in fragile situations in 2018 and that number is predicted to reach 3.3 billion by 2050. The international community has traditionally focused its assistance at the central state level and in very specific rural areas. Yet COVID-19 has firmly established that the focus on fragility must now account specifically for urban areas, and that to address the nexus of multiple crises—and the economic and social tensions coming as a result—we must act at the subnational level. If we look closely, this shift is already underway; for the first time, more than 50 percent of WFP food assistance programmes are now in cities. The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for national and international governments to focus their attention and resources on the role of city government as a primary mechanism to ensure effective and inclusive crisis response and recovery.

How do we address this?

We are witnessing the biggest experiment in comparative governance the world has ever experienced. Governance is a function of social relationships and so to support beleaguered city governance structures, we must look for measures that support and strengthen social cohesion and networks; that strengthen participation; and are consensus- oriented. We cannot address urban areas as distinct, unconnected entities; we need to work on the urban-rural continuum to promote recovery, such as linking city markets to agricultural food producers.  This pandemic is an opportunity for us all to reframe the way we deliver services, support social safety nets, and share information.

Service delivery

Support to the subnational level needs to focus on how services are delivered not just on what is being delivered. This approach integrates emerging findings on service delivery in fragile contexts, including the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium’s 10-year longitudinal study that looked at the link between services and state legitimacy.  At UNDP we believe that accountable and inclusive local governance systems are building blocks that can not only help restore services and infrastructure, but also foster social cohesion in divided communities, facilitate participation in public life, distribute resources and opportunities equitably, and safeguard minority rights. How services are delivered means we need to prioritize grievance management systems so that services can be responsive to community needs. It is for this reason that UNDP supports local level complaint mechanisms in Afghanistan and Ethiopia.  We also need to improve public sector customer service systems so service delivery can be more efficient, an improvement that UNDP supports in Syria. And we need to facilitate relationships between all actors at the local level to strengthen participation. In Yemen, UNDP is establishing and strengthening local recovery platforms to bring together the local government, civil society, private sector, tribal leaderships and independent experts to support integrated public sector service delivery.

Social safety nets

This health crisis. its socio-economic impact and unequal government responses mean that longstanding urban inequalities in access to healthcare or social protection are becoming more acute. Many people in cities rely on casual wage labour and self-employment or on remittances and have become less able to cope with the economic shocks of significant urban lockdown measures. The urgent need for expanded social assistance has been a constant feature of the crisis, but the financing gap for social protection persists. Estimates suggest that 1.6 percent of GDP is needed per year for middle income countries, rising to five percent of average annual GDP for low income countries. Yet this is less on average than either category of country spends on healthcare. Amid discussions on how to plug this financing gap, the territorial impact of current crises demonstrates a need to consider subnational budget transfers and municipal operating costs to roll out social assistance initiatives.


Information also makes it possible for the population to follow responses to the crisis, such as confinement rules, regulations of travel and schooling, virus testing, medical equipment supplies, and economic aid or stimulus packages. The response to any crisis needs to be coordinated not only at the local level but also at the regional and central level. In Nepal, UNDP is supporting municipalities to set up different communication channels such as supporting local radio stations as a means of communication. Information sharing will also be a vital aspect of municipal recovery planning: in a recent survey, the Global Resilient Cities Network has found that 68 percent of municipal government respondents want ideas sharing platforms to aid COVID-19 recovery planning.

UNDP and the international community must explore these and other actions to support the governance challenges facing municipalities under crisis. UNDP has launched internal and external consultations to continue to build our knowledge and prepare to support these emerging governance challenges. We will be examining our local governance work and seek to continually improve our support to city and municipal governments.  Please go to to join us in this important discussion.