Dynamic Cities? The role of urban local governments in improving urban service delivery performance in Africa and Asia

While much of the decentralization literature (often implicitly) assumes that urban local governments are the key decision-makers and key service delivery providers in their jurisdictions and are largely autonomous when it comes to urban service provision, this assumption seems to be contradicted by emerging evidence in the decentralization literature.

The study Dynamic Cities? The role of urban local governments in improving urban service delivery performance in Africa and Asia (PDF; 286 KB)--by Jamie Boex, Ammar Malik, Devanne Brookins and Ben Edwards-- seeks to better understand the roles, discretion and accountability mechanisms faced by urban local governments in developing countries as they seek to facilitate the provision of three key urban services (solid waste management, water supply and sanitation services).

In order to engage in an empirical analysis of this issue, the study team collected comparative indicators for the institutional arrangements around urban service delivery for 42 cities across 14 different countries across Africa and Asia. This research was supported by the International Growth Centre and the Urban Institute.

The Urban Service Delivery Assessment Framework used for the analysis focuses on five institutional dimensions of urban governance systems including (i) the effectiveness with which functional assignments are made for urban services; (ii) the availability of local political 'space' and the dynamism of the local political leadership; (iii) the degree of local control over administrative mechanisms (such as local human resource management and procurement); (iv) the degree of local fiscal autonomy and the quality of local financial management; and (v) the strength of local participation and accountability mechanisms. The assessment framework defines a set of assessment indicators (based on a five-point scale) for each of these five institutional dimensions, allowing the research team to quantify the degree to which urban local governments have--and efficiently deploy--the necessary decision-making space and institutional safeguards to deliver key urban services in an effective, inclusive and accountable manner.

Overall, the analysis finds that urban local governments in Africa and Asia are quite constrained with respect to their authority and discretion to deliver urban services. Out of a total possible score of 25 points on the urban service delivery institutional assessment, the average score obtained by urban areas (over all 42 cities and three services) is 12.88, only slightly more than half the possible points.

Despite the general perception that the presence of a dynamic mayor or dynamic local government leadership is a key ingredient in effective urban services (and in the wider success of an urban area), these results suggests that cities often are inadequately empowered to have a major impact the quality of urban services within their jurisdiction. As a result, in pursuing more effective urban policies, much greater attention should be paid to the intergovernmental (political, administrative and fiscal) institutional context within which urban local governments are expected to operate.

Waste collection in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu India. Photo credit: Lakeview Images