Review: The Political Economy of Urban Poverty in Developing Countries

So I thought I would get the ball rolling with some brief observations and thoughts on a study that I came across a while back, but one which I continue to refer back to in both my academic writing and in my professional work.  The report, by Raj Desai, is entitled The Political Economy of Urban Poverty in Developing Countries: Theories, Issues, and an Agenda for Research (and can be found here) and was published by the Brookings Institute Wolfensohn Center for Development in 2010.  The reason I find myself referring so often to this report is that the author highlights the need to focus on relationship between the urban poor and governing institutions and elites.  This isn’t a groundbreaking insight in itself, but Desai very cogently frames the problem as one of political agency.  In short, the urban poor generally lack political agency and are thus unable to exert influence on policies, resulting in political-economy obstacles to urban poverty reduction.   Desai defines political agency as “the capacity of the poor to select, reward and sanction the leaders, institutions, policies, formal rules and informal norms that directly affect their lives (p. 2)”.

According to the author, “the urban poor in developing countries – with few exceptions – vote in order to secure public goods and services that they otherwise lack, rather than to express policy preferences (p. 9)”.  Further, the urban poor are unlikely to engage in political action beyond voting, within a clientelist framework, due to obstacles to collective action stemming from “social and political fractionalization in poor communities”.  This does not mean that the urban poor are completely passive.  In some cases the urban poor, and the organizations that (claim to) represent them, engage in multiple, often simultaneous, strategies of collaboration, contestation and patronage seeking, in order to try to meet their needs.  Yet this is not the norm, for in general, this population is reluctant to join groups or engage in political action.  Additionally, due to the informality of the labor market in which the majority of the urban poor are entrenched, they lack unions and the threat of a strike to advance their policy preferences (in stark contrast to the history of the US and Western Europe).  The informality, and illegality, of the land tenure situation of much of the urban poor adds an additional layer of vulnerability.

On the institutional side, weak, personalistic, clientelistic and fragmented parties/political machines prevalent in cities of global south and undermine formal democracy and the improved services to the poor that democracy generally entails.

Desai points to decentralization, membership organizations of the urban poor, and urban microfinance as areas of potential, but ones requiring further research to demonstrate their impacts across a range of contexts.  Finally, he emphasizes the fact that proposing new urban anti-poverty projects without addressing power relations may simply reinforce status quo inequalities and structures.


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