Governance is Key in Addressing Urban Poverty

by Brendan Halloran

One of the principal challenges of global urbanization is the improvement of living conditions in slums, or communities with insufficient infrastructure and land tenure. Ciudad Peronia, a large, diverse, predominantly low-income section of the Villa Nueva municipality just south of Guatemala City, is a striking example.

Ciudad Peronia. Source: Google Earth

Established in the early 1980s by people left homeless after a devastating earthquake, Peronia grew through successive waves of informal occupation and sale of formal plots. These development patterns gave rise to a patchwork of neighborhoods with different characteristics and living conditions.

Scholars increasingly agree that local institutions — particularly municipal governments — are essential to the substantial and sustainable reduction of urban poverty.* The relationship between low-income communities and municipal authorities is key to the efficacy of these institutions, as clearly evident in Ciudad Peronia.

The many different leaders I've spoken to in Peronia have been almost unanimous in declaring that the municipal government has done little or nothing to contribute to the community's development. The municipality has, in fact, invested resources in a handful of projects there in recent years, yet residents feel that it has not fulfilled its responsibility for addressing basic needs. There is a widespread sentiment that the city government rejects and ignores communities like Peronia.

The municipality has actually played a significant, if uneven, role in Peronia's development. The approach generally adopted by local authorities has been to contribute resources for projects such as street paving or school improvement while the neighborhood contributes labor. In other cases the municipality has contracted private businesses to carry out development projects, billing residents who benefit for half the cost. In only a few cases has the government carried out projects without any community contribution.

The edge of Ciudad Peronia. Photo: Jacobo Gramajo

Community leaders report that they have made repeated requests to local officials for assistance of various kinds and have been ignored. Municipal authorities have paid especially scant attention to Peronia's informal settlements, despite repeated petitions. However, they did carry out water, sewer and paving projects just prior to the recent elections. Some evidence suggests that projects have been chosen based on political gain rather than community needs.

Legal problems kept the longtime mayor off the ballot in the 2011 election, opening the door for a new administration that took office in Jan. 2012. The new mayor has promised to work in partnership with local communities. When he met with Peronia's representatives, he admonished them for coming to him with only a long list of needs. He claimed that he would break the mold of leadership in Guatemala by refusing to play the role of patriarchal chief who solves all problems, instead empowering communities to meet their needs in cooperation with local government.

The approach and language used by the mayor seemed an invitation to become partners in development. He solicited proposals and promised to facilitate solutions. The new administration supported several initiatives in Peronia, including a dental clinic and an adult education program, to be carried out with community labor and municipal resources.

Yet the mayor's approach has not been without challenges. He has told community organizations to present him with technical proposals to address local problems, yet few individuals or groups in poor areas have the technical know-how to produce such documents. The mayor has also championed community organization, saying that he will promote functional and representative development councils in each neighborhood. However, this organizational work has lagged behind physical projects, and municipal authorities have not demonstrated an understanding of the frayed social fabric that exists in many neighborhoods (a problem that the formation of development councils alone will not remedy).

Streets of Ciudad Peronia. Photo: Brendan Halloran

Nonetheless, the new administration has implemented practices never before seen in Peronia. The mayor assigned one member of the municipal council and one municipal department head to form a direct link with the community. These individuals have brought information about municipal plans and projects to community leaders, and have sought input with an openness never displayed by previous governments. Seven months into his administration, the mayor came to Peronia to carry out an exercise called Sueños Compartidos (Shared Dreams). Through this initiative, community leaders gathered to propose improvements in the community, discussing options and then voting on which ones to pursue.

The mayor clearly envisions a new relationship with local communities. Yet it is unclear whether improved communication and participatory planning constitute a true partnership that can fully address the causes and consequences of poverty in places like Ciudad Peronia.

Individual, community and government approaches to reducing urban poverty tend to overlap, at times operating in conjunction and at others operating independently or at cross purposes. One of the principal challenges faced by community residents is a lack of accountability in government institutions. This has produced a system in which some neighborhoods benefit while others are ignored, regardless of their needs. Resources are often used not as part of a comprehensive strategy to provide services and improve quality of life, but to generate political support prior to elections. It is extremely difficult for citizens to access municipal budget information that could help them hold authorities accountable. Furthermore, the lack of any forum for collectively voicing opinion has led to the isolation of neighborhoods and the groups representing them, despite common challenges.

In the case of Peronia, the most vulnerable communities are those without legal land titles. Government authorities have demonstrated a willingness to ignore their needs (for a decade and counting, in some cases), refusing to invest municipal resources and even rejecting petitions to connect to the private water system. Politicians, particularly the former mayor, have often used the issue of legal titles as a bargaining chip at election time, promising legalization in return for votes Again, the absence of a transparent procedure for handling legalization, or a space to organize communities facing this shared obstacle, has left these neighborhoods at the mercy of the political calculations of municipal authorities.

The complex relationships between local communities and government authorities condition the trajectory of urban development in Peronia and around the world. Transparent and inclusive governance is key to effectively and equitably addressing urban poverty. It should thus be a top priority for local and global development practitioners.

Brendan Halloran is a doctoral candidate in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech, and author of The Urban Citizen's View. He is also a Democracy and Governance Advisor for USAID in Guatemala. All views expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent the views of USAID.

* Examples include:

Desai, R. (2010) The Political Economy of Urban Poverty in Developing Countries: Theories, Issues, and an Agenda for Research. Brookings Institution Wolfenson Center for Development.

Hasan, A., Patel, S., and Satterthwaite, D. (2005) "How to Meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Urban Areas," Environment and Urbanization 17(1), 3-19.

Mitlin, D., and Satterthwaite, D. (eds.) (2004) Empowering Squatter Citizen: Local Government, Civil Society and Urban Poverty Reduction. Earthscan.

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  1. it's unfair that people in 'slum' communities are denied the same infrastructure and services as the rest of the city. transparency and partnership in governance are certainly important, but it's perhaps even more important for the municipal government to make sure that everyone who lives in the city has access to the basic necessities for a healthy life- water, sanitation, safe housing, health care, education. is there not enough resources for this or is there just a lack of political will?

  2. and great insights on a very important topic. thank you.

  3. I would argue that it is both a question of resources (and good and efficient planning practices) and political will. However, resource levels are also a reflection of political will, to some extent. How much resources are being spent in poor areas vs. middle class and wealthy areas? How broad and progressive is the resource base? And ultimately, political will of decision makers is directly related to the political agency of different groups in society. The urban poor, as noted in my post above, tend to lack political agency. Organizations that hope to have an impact on urban poverty and "good" urban governance should thus focus on the organizational capacity and political capabilities (not to mention internal accountability and representativeness) of organizations of the urban poor, so that they will be taken into account by local authorities and can access the services that they have a right too.

    1. excellent point. while very difficult and unfair, it's up to residents to effectively demand transparent and attentive municipal governance. noblesse oblige will only go so far. it sounds like the new mayor is right to expect collaboration with residents instead of playing the role of benefactor.

    2. The mayor's posture is welcome, but has been mostly rhetorical thus far. He has offered few resources or facilitation to improve community organization and capacity, a necessary precondition for collaboration between community and government. Too often, policymakers assume the community organizing in poor communities is "natural", and overlook that fact that community organizations may well be weak, unrepresentative, authoritarian and/or corrupt.

    3. To what extent is Peronia's political agency, and that of other poor communities, limited by time? In first-world community governance, I often see homemakers as community glue- members of civic organizations, PTAs etc. They have the leisure time with which to participate. I just read Katherine Boo's chronicle of a Mumbai slum, very different but with similar need for infrastructure, political organizing. What would the scene look like with a full time, dedicated community rep?

  4. Amazing how slums look so similar in countries as far away from each other as Guatemala and India.

  5. I'm also interested in the word 'slum' as a label. You define it well here, not as a stigma on those living in poverty but as an area with minimal government support or regulation. (I would add that this is the logical biproduct of neoliberal urbanization.) So the negative connotations fall more on those with the power to improve conditions than on residents who are trying to improve their living conditions from below.

    1. Indeed, many international organizations define slums by the services that their residents lack (and also by the legal status of their land titles, which are often informal). This is a reflection of neoliberal urbanization, as you mention, which I would argue is necessarily bound up in the relative political agency of different social groups in the city. Unfortunately, one byproduct of neoliberal urbanization has been to weaken the political agency of the urban poor vis-a-vis groups such as the business and financial elites.

  6. I agree with the author of this article when he mentions that a main challenge of global urbanization is the improvement of the living conditions of the people who live in slums. The government has the power to develop a policy to address the issues related to urban poverty, which has surged in recent years with the arrival of the people in urban areas. I find interesting that it is mentioned that the mayor is employing communication and participatory planning. I do think that somehow by doing this, Ciudad Peronia’s problems are being addressed. It’s better to start by doing something than not doing anything at all.

    Additionally, I do see the word slum as a label as well. Many times, slums are just characterized as people who are poor; when in reality these are people with poor structural quality and durability of housing, people with poor access to water and sanitation facilities, as well as insufficient living areas.

    “This has produced a system in which some neighborhoods benefit while others are ignored, regardless of their needs...” This part of the blog reminded me of one of my readings in my sociology class. After reading: “Why do we want mixed-income housing and neighborhoods?" by Defilippis and Fraser. I thought it was very interesting that they mention that poor people are generally labeled as “the problem” for concentrated poverty and because of this is that they are “invisible”, therefore ignored. The people with more money do not see them as human beings that could benefit them. They say that a “benevolent gentry needs to colonize their home space in order to create the conditions necessary to help the poor ”, meaning that people with a good social position should basically take “control” of where the less fortunate live to help them out. However, I think that if a neighborhood does experience some type of improvement this does not necessarily mean that “poor people” will benefit from it.

    To conclude, this post was an interesting eye opener for me and has made me more conscious that there are issues in other cities (not just NYC) and the kind of living conditions people have.


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