International agencies and urban development: what sort of governance is really taking place?

Paul Jenkins, Harry Smith, Maria Soledad Garcia Ferrari

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


    What determines international agencies’ involvement in urban development – in as much as these agencies do get involved in this sector – is arguably either their own international political agenda or their contemporary domestic urban development agenda. This is the realpolitik of aid. In this context recipients of international aid inevitably negotiate whatever they can of interest, put up a show of compliance, and get on with their own realpolitik in practice. This has been so since urban activities by international agencies began in the 1950s with the precursor to USAID in Latin America, which arguably built on an existing tradition of colonial engagement and managed dis-engagement to neo-colonialism. While ideology was a strong feature of the 1960s – 1990s in urban development projects funded by such agencies – ranging from Urban Renewal through to Urban Management – latterly the ideological focus has moved to wider conceptual areas of development such as the Rights Approach and Good Governance, and such urban interventions which international agencies become involved in have less explicit and less focused sectoral agendas.

    As global power politics shifts rapidly from a dualistic world system to a range of different expressions of state managed capitalism increasingly mediated by large supra-national economic and political blocs, the geo-politics of aid are changing again. The new ideology in the context of reducing energy and water supply seems to be ‘less is more’ – and pragmatism in intra-national relations is becoming more important. In this context the negotiations around Poverty Alleviation and Good Governance are becoming subordinated to alliances which ensure access to resources in the not so distant periods of potential scarcity of these natural resources – all the more so as the major new power exerting itself internationally (China) has no compunction in ignoring the now rather fragile Washington consensus. In all of this, urban development – seen by many as probably a necessary evil but to be put of as much as possible – potentially can see a resurgence of investment as international agencies vie for negotiating space with national governments – China itself being a case in point. What does this mean for urban development in future in the South?

    This paper examines Angola as a fairly extreme case of ideological battering: an early site of mercantile capitalism, this degenerated under weak Portuguese colonialism, and burst apart at Independence as the site of a proxy Cold War. With the demise of the Socialist bloc, ‘wild west capitalism’ continued to fuel the oil v diamond civil war until (reputedly) the paymasters of UNITA sold out Savimbi and the country entered a rapid peace process. The fact that Angola is the world’s largest non-OPEC oil producer with strong US petroleum country involvement is not irrelevant here and this action had more impact than decades of UN-based peace manoeuvring – backed up by IMF and World Bank stand off on the lack of state transparency. In the most recent period any attempt to negotiate a development programme which fits in with the more recent Western ideologies of good governance, poverty reduction and rights-based development in Angola however are quickly dissipating with China’s massive aid programme, needless to say, with an eye to the substantial natural resources.

    What form of urban development can be possible in this context with continuing accelerated urbanization, extremely little redistribution of wealth, massive urban poverty, and state politicians, administrators and technical personnel all trained in top-down state-led development? Recent action research and negotiation on urban land rights for the poor majority have had a limited impact on new legislation, and the implicit urban policy is to ‘clean up’ the city of parasitic in-migrants. This is allied to new large scale state and private sector investment in infrastructure to benefit the political and economic elite and keep the enclave economy intact. Can alternative approaches to urban land rights and management be inserted within this realpolitik by insurgent development activists? Perhaps, if they had adequate international backing. However, in practice international aid agencies continue to each push for their own agenda and interests, and local activist organizations have to negotiate what they can to survive.

    The paper asks what form of governance does this represent? Would this self-seeking approach be acceptable within any of the individual countries political contexts without major negotiation with stakeholders? Probably not, but then that is the conundrum of international aid – the political context which matters is in the metropole not the country of activity. After all international aid represents a fraction of international economic flows, even for the poorest countries. Perhaps China’s approach is more acceptable in this respect and what will matter more in future – for urban development as much as wider social and economic activity – is South-South negotiation on political and economic agendas. That, however, does not mean that urban policies are going to be any more proactive for the poor majority and this will probably require more strategic ‘wars of position’ to have an impact, rather than the reliance on current international agency ‘wars of manoeuvre’, to use Gramscian terms.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2006
    Event7th Network-Association of European Researchers on Urbanisation in the South - Darmstadt, Germany
    Duration: 7 Sept 20069 Sept 2006


    Conference7th Network-Association of European Researchers on Urbanisation in the South
    Abbreviated titleN-AERUS 2006
    OtherInternational Aid Ideologies and Policies in the Urban Sector


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