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Urban service delivery: the technical is political

Time (GMT +00) 15:00 17:00


Hamish Nixon, Research Fellow, Politics and Governance Programme, ODI

Clare Cummings, Research Officer, Politics and Governance Programme, ODI

Harry Jones, Governance specialist, GRM

Professor David Satterthwaite, Senior Fellow, IIED

Professor Adriana Allan, Professor of Development Planning and Urban Sustainability at the The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, UCL

Professor Diana Mitlin, Professor of Global Urbanism, Director of Global Urban Research Centre, University of Manchester

​This roundtable event brought together academics, researchers, and practitioners for a full and varied discussion of the political challenges of delivering services in developing urban areas. A panel of renowned urban experts; David Satterthwaite (IIED), Diana Mitlin (University of Manchester), and Adriana Allen (UCL), alongside ODI researchers Hamish Nixon and Clare Cummings, and former ODI researcher Harry Jones (GRM) presented their recent work on this topic. The event began with an overview by Clare Cummings of a recent ODI publication ‘Services in the city: Governance and political economy in urban service delivery’.

This paper set the scene for the afternoon’s discussion on the political constraints to equitable service delivery in cities. It was argued that the urban environment intensifies challenges to service delivery due to characteristics of cities such as high population density, land scarcity, multiple and diverse service providers, and polarised social groups. However, it also highlighted how there are political challenges and opportunities for urban service delivery which are specific to the characteristics of different services. Consequently, it was argued that understanding how specific service characteristics interact with political economy features of urban governance to shape service delivery is critical for any intervention intending to improve service delivery in this environment.

The roundtable continued with a presentation by Harry Jones (GRM) who argued that donor interventions typically focus on technical challenges of improving urban services but that service infrastructure may fall into disrepair or disuse unless the political incentives necessary for its maintenance are considered. David Satterthwaite echoed the importance of engaging with governance issues for better services, arguing that donors typically focus on reforming national governments, and engage far less with municipal governments despite their importance for public service delivery. David also drew attention to the power of civil society movements in providing the impetus for mayors to implement developmental policies, such as those seen in certain Latin American cities.

A short discussion of the first presentations brought up a number of questions from the audience, including what the qualities of an effective municipal government may be, how development organisations can work within the political constraints of a particular city’s governance.

In the second half of the event, Adriana Allen gave a thought provoking presentation of her work on service delivery in peri-urban areas. Adriana discussed the challenges of providing adequate and equitable services in a rapidly changing environment and raised the importance of ecology to sustainable service delivery. She argued that the presence of infrastructure does not mean access to services and access to services does not mean entitled citizenship. Diana Mitlin expanded the discussion further by presenting her research into the co-production of urban services in informal settlements. Arguing that the technical is also political, Diana described how a service, such as sanitation can be a point of mobilisation for marginalised communities, who can work collectively to negotiate better access to this service and develop service solutions which fit their needs.

The final discussion emphasised the importance of land ownership in urban development, especially as a source of conflict given its high value to all residents. The discussion also turned to the potential role for donors in supporting effective service delivery solutions which are led by local communities. Locally-led and funded initiatives have been taken to scale but large donors rarely have a role in this. The question left, as yet unanswered, asked how large development organisations can support locally-led urban development without dominating and distorting endogenous processes of change. This question continues to be debated in ODI’s wider work on how to do development differently.


One billion people live in informal settlements without access to basic services. With the urbanisation of poverty, delivering services to poor people who live in towns and cities in developing countries is ever more important. In Services in the city: Governance and political economy in urban service delivery, ODI and others emphasise that a range of political and governance factors affect the delivery of public goods and services in urban areas, and that successful approaches to facilitating public service reform rely on working with these issues, in addition to providing funding and technical assistance.

This roundtable brought together researchers, policy makers and practitioners working on issues of urban service delivery and governance to consider how different approaches can complement and inform our collective work on urbanisation.