Since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, efforts to both curb the accelerating rate of environmental change and to promote sustainable development have led to the gradual proliferation of global, regional and local institutions. In 1992, when the first Earth Summit was held to discuss the global environment, there were more than 900 international legal instruments directly or indirectly addressing the issue of environmental protection. The 1996 Summit of the Americas in Santa Cruz Bolivia and its respective Declaration was also about sustainable development. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – or Rio+20 – took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 20-22 June 2012, which among others produced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the outcome document called to integrating social, environmental and economic resilience strategies into policies.   Resilience became a buzz word associated with vulnerability and risks.  Forty-six (46), 26, 22 and 6 years later respectively after these major events, how are sustainable development policies addressing resilience challenges and opportunities, and where does democratic governance fit in the equation?

On Governance and Resilience

First, governance is a broad concept that encompasses not merely government but also, the various norms, rules, and institutions by which authority in a country is managed. As was argued in an earlier article, as more countries began to elect their governments democratically (both at the national and subnational levels), governance became more than the exercise of authority.  The emphasis and expectations shifted to how effective, efficient, accountable and transparent legitimate authority was exercised. This was reinforced by two premises of democratic governance: 1) that democratic elections legitimize the transfer of citizen power to temporary “caretakers of government;” and 2) that democratic elections are competitive by nature and produce winners who convince a majority of voters that they have the better formula to exercise power in an effective, efficient, transparent, accountable and inclusive way.  As such, democratic governance is the way a society organizes itself to make and implement decisions—achieving mutual understanding, agreements and actions. It comprises the mechanisms and processes for citizens and groups to articulate their interests, mediate their differences, and exercise their legal rights and obligations. It is the rules, institutions and practices that set limits and provide incentives for individuals, organizations and firms. Democratic governance, including its social, political and economic dimensions, operates at every level of human enterprise, be it the household, village, municipality, nation, region or globe.

Second, resilience is a concept that has evolved and continues to do so.  According to ODI, resilience thinking emerges from diverse origins and sectors including psychology, engineering, social-ecological and social-political systems.  Resilience refers to the ability and capacity of a system to anticipate, absorb and adapt to a host of different shattering events (both natural and human-made), and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these events.  Systems, like societies and communities, are constantly being challenged to be resilient and to be prepared to respond to one or multiple risks. A key question is to clearly understand the factors which contribute to risks and the means available or lack thereof to respond to a broad group of evolving risks. In fact, this is where democratic governance and resilience intersect.

The Dynamics of Local Democratic Governance and Resilience

While institutions, structures and norms can help enhance resilience, by themselves are not sufficient. Policies, community and active constituency involvement, as well as transparency and accountability can help strengthen resilient capabilities. Responsive and accountable institutions of governance are critical for resilience.  However, not all governance systems are equipped to overcome risk factors. While national and global governance structures continue to make progress in areas related to resilience and sustainability, emerging subnational governments are increasingly now at the center of resilience and sustainability.  According to a new report, 55% of the world’s population now lives in urban cities, a percentage that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. Not only is there a shift of people moving from rural to urban areas, but as we argued in a previous article, the relationship between urban and rural areas is also evolving; the borders between the two are becoming increasingly blurred, and they are ever more interdependent. Moreover, while it is estimated that by 2030 there will be 43 megacities around the world with populations of over 10 million, up from 33 similarly sized urban centers today and just 10 in 1990, the growth of  intermediates cities (500,000-1 million, and 300,00-500,000) by 2030 will average 33% according to UN-DESA latest estimates.

Given the rapid pace of urbanization, and its impact on livelihoods the subnational and local space is key to understanding resilience and democratic governance, and to design and implement localized sustainable social, economic and environmental well-being policy strategies. Subnational governments have an important effect on people’s everyday lives.  By the proximity to constituencies and communities, subnational governments should be more responsive to the needs, requests, and demands of citizens and/or groups than national governments. The subnational level (states, provinces, departments, municipalities, counties, parishes, districts) is the ideal space for civil society not only to mobilize to help improve public policies, but also to increase transparency and accountability.  The level of legitimacy of subnational governments is also a key factor to manage risks and promote resilience.  While most subnational governments around the globe are now electing their executive and legislative leadership, legitimacy for local elected officials is now also a product of performance and capacity.  Thus, the quality of subnational governance is critical to resilience policies.

More than in the recent past, prosperity in the subnational space matters in strengthening national cohesion.  In the last two decades, cities have increasingly become global economic actors.  Nonetheless, subnational governance systems show a diverse universe of performance.  In many respects shortcomings of subnational governance architectures adversely affect resilience, and the symmetries or asymmetries of power, voice and influence shape the capacity to cope with shocks and can enable and/or constrain resilience. The persistent institutional inertia, tendencies to top-down and centralized approaches, and the degree of decentralization can also influence the ability to respond to resilience challenges and opportunities and to effectively plan adaptation.

Strategies and Approaches

Strategies and approaches to improve local governance for resilience have been part of the actions and efforts of the past decades.  The thinking about the governance of resilience beyond only the environmental dimension is a new but growing academic and practice area.  Resilience thinking, as applied to local governance also highlights new areas, and complex interactions of socioeconomic and political systems, requiring a different approach to conventional thinking. Last month, I had the honor of attending and participating in the 9th Global Forum on Urban Resilience and Adaptation in Bonn-Germany, and these were some of the topics of discussion among the more than 400 participants and in the 37 sessions.  Participants in the conference were from over 50 countries and included government officials, non-governmental organizations’ representatives, academics and practitioners.  Debates and discussions centered around the forms of governance that can best support risk prevention and resilience building. It became clear that resilience involves the engagement of multiple actors who can collaborate and contribute to the multi-sectoral and multi-jurisdictional nature of resilience challenges. The conference also challenged participants to re-think how governance and resilience can respond to the emerging complexities and challenges in the local space. I emerged from the conference with five broad takeaways:

1.Resilience is no longer seen with a narrow “environmental” lens. Governance, more specifically multi-level governance can provide the bridging to articulate the often disconnected and narrow climate change mitigation and adaptation conceptions and other efforts around resilience.  Understanding how political and governance systems work, and how local and national governments could take a more integrated approach to achieve synergistic outcomes in terms of resilience was a cross cutting theme in the conference, although not always as explicit.

2. Local governments capacity matters for resilience. There were some innovative tools presented.  I felt there was interest not only on diagnostic tools or vulnerability or risk assessments tools, but also given the complexity and long-term nature of resilience, interest on metrics to monitor and evaluate resilience, capacity and local governance.

3. The fact that so many mayors attended the conference, also points to the new and important emerging role of local governments in the topic, with their own diversity, opportunities and challenges. Listening to a number of experiences in many different contexts with local governments was an added value to understand the dynamic and challenges of local governance and resilience, and provided inputs for approaches and strategies.

4. Integrated and cross-cutting approaches are key to enhance local democratic governance and promote resilience. Decisions and investments need to be done in a way that take into account specific needs of cities (in public services, transportation, infrastructures, housing), and with the understanding that the demands will continue to evolve over time as their population grows and demographics change.  There must be a long-term vision and strategies that are a product of citizen engagement and participation.

5. Although it was more implicit than explicit, the dimension of resilience and people proposed in UNDP’s 2014 Human Development Report was a key theme. As such, infrastructure alone does not automatically prevent risks or contribute to resilience. Rather investing in people and their communities, favoring human development policies, and focusing on systemic and persistent sources of vulnerability could help address structural causes. The focus on the people dimension also brings to light key issues such as engaging citizens, social accountability and partnerships as important added-value elements to resilient approaches.

Looking Ahead and Moving Forward

The 9th Global Forum on Urban Resilience and Adaptation offered a plethora of ideas and new thinking to work on local democratic governance and resilience, both from the theoretical/academic perspective and the more practical dimension. While there are many examples of cities promoting resilience strategies and are sharing, incorporating, and adapting best practices, we are still in front of a complex and multi-dimensional policy issue.

Given the centrality of poverty and inequality reduction in the urban agenda—and the need for strong democratic governance institutions and sound policies that address issues of equity, environment, energy and the needs of the poor—governance, institutional development, and increasing accountability and transparency are likely to figure prominently in any strategy that aims at advancing environment and sustainable development in cities. However, there continuous to be a shortage of work that systematically analyses how different local approaches navigate the political and policy dimensions of governance and resilience, and how to address broader political conditions that influence the possibilities for building resilience at the local level. Many countries have undergone political decentralization processes, allowing for elections and empowering local stakeholders to make decisions related to what affects them.  While decentralization processes and decentralized governance are technical processes, foremost they are political, requiring a gradual but systemic set of reforms aimed at transferring responsibilities, resources, and authority from the top to the bottom.

The key question is how can local democratic governance ensure sustainable development in the context of limited resources, poverty and inequality, environmental degradation and climate change?  Attention needs to be given to building institutional capacity and strengthening local democratic governance. The discussion has to move beyond the simple examination of the role of the state in facilitating sustainable development, to strategically explore policy option to improve service delivery, reduce risks and manage and promote resilience.  This localized strategy would need to target not simply state or public institutions but also civil society organizations, the private sector and academic institutions. It has to have an approach that combines the promotion of knowledge management, cross-practice collaboration and strategic resource allocation. At the same time, priority should be given to understanding local interventions with the explicit aim of determining their importance and contributions to global, regional and transboundary levels.

Local governments have already begun to invest in resilience. A number of cities have designed and are implementing resilience plans. In order to further promote and understand the strategic link between local democratic governance and resilience five (5) broad policy streams can serve as entry points for future research and operational strategies.  These are:

  1. Constitutional and normative frameworks (implementation and measuring impact, including decentralization processes);
  2. Institutional design (presence and absence of the state, territorial organization, capacity of different levels of governments, coordination, innovations, moving away from highly centralized systems);
  3. Transparency and accountability (regulation, control, risk management, access to information);
  4. Service delivery (design, implementation and measurement); and
  5. Intermediation and participation (policy dialogue, political parties, civil society, social audit).

These policy streams, however, are not the outcome of a linear policy processes, but rather emerge as new ecologies of local actors and stakeholders create leadership coalitions to enhance capacity for risk prevention and resilience promotion.  The ultimate form and dynamic this takes will depend on largely on the context.  Nonetheless, given the complexity and scale of the challenges it calls for an integrated, multi-sector, and multi-scale governance strategy involving local, regional and national governments. To this end, new forms of local democratic governance and experimentation will be needed, in a way that allows broader coalitions of local agents of change to emerge and lead. As illustrated in Figure 1, resilience thinking should be translated into operational pillars for local governments, including awareness, diversity, self-regulation, integration and adaptiveness.

Figure 1

As mentioned in a previous article, like any ecosystem, democratic governance is an organic aggregate of subsystems and other elements.  In principle, democratic governance encourages cooperation involving State and non-State actors, and aims at shaping an inclusive policy agenda towards sustainable solutions.  Democratic governance is a means to counter narrower interests, so opportunities can be expanded, and policy and politics translated into broad-based social change.  In practice, however, democratic governance is harder to achieve, articulate, and sustain over time. Civic engagement is necessary for democratic governance to grow and take root, and to provide energy to keep the democratic governance atmosphere alive, including the growth and expansion of active citizens’ participation.  Civic engagement promotes accountability and transparency of politics and policy.  As such, the basic institutional platform has to be rooted on individuals who are not only willing to actively participate alone or as group and invest resources (money, time, knowledge) to sustain the ecosystem, but also on individuals who believe that benefits they obtain by participating in the ecosystem exceeds the costs of the resources they invested in the task.

Written by Gerardo Berthin

This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Gerardo Berthin, a political scientist, who specializes in applied governance policy issues. This personal reflection is not intended to reflect the positions of organizations he is and/or has been affiliated with. All pictures unless otherwise noted are attributed to the author.

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