Urban local governance from the margins:

The struggles of participatory democracy in slum communities

16 de Septiembre de 2022
Gilberto Abreu, UNDP DR

The challenges and benefits of urbanization are well known. One may experience the city from a place of privilege and enjoyment of its amenities, or from a place of deprivation and survival. Yet regardless of social class, local governments' basic responsibilities are a) to ensure all residents can access city amenities and services efficiently and affordably, b) that those services are citizen-centered, and c) that their voices are heard and included in local decision-making processes.

One of the most critical issues faced by cities in the developing world is that, as urban sprawl consolidates, there are persistent local governance issues predominantly in socioeconomically deprived zones. A case in point, in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), there is greater public demand for citizens’ participation in policy decision-making in tandem with a steady decline in public trust in governments throughout the region, due in part to a collective discontent generated by low participation.

Good governance is fundamental for a healthy democracy. Although its meaning and scope are debated and contested, as a working definition, I conceive of governance as the space of shared power and negotiation between institutions of government and the governed, in pursuit of the collective good. More specifically, for UNDP "local governance comprises the set of institutions, mechanisms and processes through which citizens and their groups can articulate their interests and needs, mediate their differences and exercise their rights and obligations at the local level."

Community governance and the politics of local leadership

Social inequality and weak participatory mechanisms is at the heart of dysfunctional local governance. Most often, a society's lowest strata possess the least bargaining power in making their voices heard. Indeed, UNDP has paid considerable attention to urbanization and inequality, arguing in a report that "pro-poor urban governance" is a critical requisite for cities and communities to be livable. For instance, research shows that it is among the most economically deprived urban areas where violence and social dysfunction are most salient.

Good governance can nourish a space for local civic engagement that results in positive change. Yet, social conflict and the struggle for limited resources can jeopardize a community's attempt to find common ground and compromise. In that sense, our ethnographic work in Santo Domingo has been enlightening on the complexities of local governance. While formal governance instruments exist (e.g., neighborhood associations, grassroots organizations, meetings with municipal authorities), community leaders and organizers often complain that their voices go unheard, government commitments unfulfilled, and inner political struggles among local leadership preclude communities from showing a united front on important issues.

In addition, the absence of sound institutional rule enforcement in slum neighborhoods weakens the space of governance. Surely, cohesion and peaceful social interactions might be difficult when poverty, the lack of urban planning, overcrowding, and precariousness are some of the salient traits of community life. When conflict arises, even physical violence, it undermines community integration and disperses the social capital available. Social disorganization weakens the bonds of solidarity and cohesion. As A. Portes contends, the particular social ecosystems of slum neighborhoods are perfectly rational for people who live in marginality.

Our argument here is that sociocultural arrangements and the psychosocial/behavioral repertoire of practices among community leaders and stakeholders influence governance and the ways a community's sociopolitical ecosystem is reproduced. Individuals tend to act according to what the resources and institutional practices permit them. Nonetheless, in our experience, plenty of slum community members and leaders work tirelessly and generously for the greater good. Yet their efforts are often jeopardized by the limited social capital and the weak ties of the governance space in their communities.

Addressing local governance problems as development practitioners

Although, as AccLab, our problem space is solid waste management (SWM), our observations transcend SWM and touch on a wide range of pivotal issues for human development. Local governance is one of those learning experiences worth reporting about. I believe there are steps one can take to ensure that projects remain feasible while articulating a more cohesive local governance space:

  1. Participatory decision-making cannot be an empty, meaningless governance exercise. Many leaders feel used as PR instruments while solutions often remain on paper and rarely implemented. Ensuring they are seen and heard is critical. As a local leader once told me: "I like working with you (UNDP) because you have been the only institution that takes us seriously in what we say."
  2. Establish neutrality and seriousness of purpose from the outset. Marginalized communities are used to seeing development projects as political mechanisms that generate support in local or national elections. Being perceived as working for one or the other side might slow or put implementation at risk. Further, finding leadership that puts political affiliation aside is necessary for true progress.
  3. Articulating local governance is a humbling experience for our often stratification-informed perceptions of knowledge and whose opinion matters. As an international development agency whose name carries a certain weight, textbook expertise does not fully prepare us to understand the social world of people at the margins and the subjectivities of their everyday lives.
  4. Governance is an iterative process. Learning, listening, and understanding diverse (and often contrasting) perspectives among community members means that an idea for a solution is never fixed, even if it was successful. One must learn to negotiate and choose between what is ideal and what is possible.

L. Romeo has aptly cautioned that "local development is not just development that happens locally... but rather development that leverages the comparative and competitive advantages of localities and mobilizes their specific physical, economic, cultural, social and political resources." I will argue that good governance and high stocks of social capital are inseparable for local development to impact people's well-being positively. Together, the two can catalyze action, make interventions more sustainable, furnish a space for learning from one another, and broker solutions that can agglutinate support from diverse local stakeholders.