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Climate and disaster resilience: three less talked about challenges of urban governance

Written by Amy Kirbyshire


This week in Cape Town, the resilience of Africa’s cities to climate change is a key topic at the African Centre for Cities International Urban Conference. Over the last few years, cities around the world have responded to climate change and disaster risk with increasing interest and ambition. Cities are rising up the political agenda, gaining power and a stronger voice, particularly in the climate change arena. Just last month the World Bank announced a $4.5 billion partnership with the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy to support cities in the implementation of climate action plans.

The forms of governance that enable cities to manage complex shocks and stresses are well understood. For instance, it is generally agreed that resilience requires decentralised, multi-stakeholder, adaptive and participatory governance. To build resilient futures this governance should be, among other things, autonomous, accountable and flexible. However, realising these ideals is challenging. Some of the challenges are relatively well known, for example, there is often a miss-match between devolved responsibilities and devolved resources and power.

Other political challenges are less recognised. Ahead of the conference, here are three of these less talked about challenges for urban governance, drawing on a recent ODI Working Paper.

Party politics

Central governments have been known to deliberately undermine the power and autonomy of municipalities represented by the opposition, or set them up for failure by giving them responsibility they cannot fulfil with the resources and capacity provided. These opposition municipalities can be seen as a threat, as success here can help to propel parties to national office. In the context of climate and disaster resilience, some opposition-represented cities involved in high profile, ambitious initiatives to advance climate action will need to carefully navigate these party politics to achieve their goals. Similarly, sitting central governments with ambitious mitigation and resilience goals should consider bringing in strong fiscal protections for decentralised governance, such as legislation to earmark funds, to limit the future impact on ambitious cities of a less climate-progressive party entering office in the future.

Transboundary risk across difficult borders

Climate and disaster risks are not neatly confined to national borders: countries share coastlines and water resources, while environmental damage in one country can impact its neighbours. Cities and municipalities across borders can, and do, form governance arrangements to tackle shared problems, for instance at river basin level. However, long-standing political differences, distrust and disagreements between countries can stop this from happening – to the detriment of local-level resilience outcomes. International city-to-city networks could play a greater role in helping to overcome these political challenges, bringing together national and local authorities from neighbouring countries with difficult relationships.

National realities

Hard-to-shift national realities can limit the degree to which cities can enjoy the potential benefits of decentralised governance. For instance, weak policy enforcement and tax bases in many developing countries limit the ability of city governments to raise funds at the local level. This can lead to continued dependence on central government subsidies and the attendant loss of autonomy. This has the potential to restrict progress even when national and city governments share ambitions for a low carbon, resilient future. Global and regional initiatives that support cities on climate and disaster resilience typically focus on providing city-to-city networking, or financial and technical support; analysis of these nationwide constraints, and options to address or work around them, must form a part of this technical support.

These political realities are difficult to shift. Discussions in Cape Town must be grounded in these realities, just as efforts to adapt governance processes to advance resilience must understand and work within, or work to change these realities if they are to be successful.