Senay Habtezion, International START Secretariat, Washington, DC, USA

Presentation Title: The politics of devolution in Africa: Implications for urban disaster risk reduction & disaster risk management



By 2030, Africa will pass the 50 percent ‘urban’ milestone. By 2050, there will be two billion Africans. with 60 percent living in cities. Denser urban settlements require effective urban disaster risk reduction (DRR) and disaster risk management (DRM) across all scales of governance. However, the upsurge in urban and population growth in the continent is taking place against the backdrop of distressing deficits in infrastructure, public services and governance. Lack of devolvement of power to local governments as well as the resistance of national governments to commit to meaningful decentralization, could hamper DRR & DRM efforts in African cities. This presentation situated urban DRR and DRM within the context of failures of the federal experiment in Africa (colonial legacy), the resultant highly centralized systems of governance and challenges within ongoing efforts at decentralization. Given the historically slow pace of political reforms geared towards decentralization, more effort should be made to empower African cities through transnational climate processes.

Key Lessons Learned

  • Perceived benefits of 'encouraging experimentation and learning from diverse policies adopted at multiple scales', coupled with frustration with the politics of ongoing international climate change processes have contributed to increased advocacy for polycentric approaches to mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk reduction and management (DRR/DRM).
  • Cities are now at the forefront of advocacy for these pluralist approaches and they may well become a key feature of the post–2015 climate regime. In the African context, given the complex nature of the politics of decentralization, it is difficult to see how polycentrism would apply to the climate effort in the region, and specifically to DRR/DRM.
  • While, at least in theory, devolution of more power to developing–country city governments should lend itself to strong DRR/DRM, this is not born out by robust evidence.
  • As the debate over the merits (and demerits) of polycentrism as well as the role of cities in addressing the myriad challenges of GEC, including climate change continues, it is important to have a better understanding of the political angles of the cities-DRR/DRM nexus. In the short run, robust DRR/DRM in cities will likely require strong state presence and, in the long-term, conscious and sustained effort should be made to leverage municipal empowerment via extra-national GEC processes.

Policy/Practice Implications of Research

  • City-central relations are critical constitutional arrangements that determine the devolution of power within a state with all the attendant ramifications of decentralized governance, which are central to effective DRR/ DRM. There is lack of strong decentralized governance in Africa; this is, at least in part, a function of historical and geopolitical actualities in the region.
  • Political experiments in decentralized governance in Africa have led to diverse outcomes depending on colonial legacy and the ensuing nation-building processes. Development assistance-related prerequisites have also left a strong imprint on local–central government relations in the continent. By and large, however, devolved approaches to governance (with the possible exception of South Africa) have not succeeded even in countries that have constitutionally mandated federal political frameworks (e.g., Ethiopia and Nigeria).
  • While there is a great merit in polycentrism and the role of cities in tackling GEC challenges, the constitutional and political context in which cities function could further or thwart their contribution. Understanding the political milieu of city–central relations is key to the design and execution of suitable mitigative and adaptive interventions for Africa’s expanding cities

Knowledge Gaps and Needs

  • While there has been extensive research on governance and economic development, the politics of the DRR/DRM nexus has not been subjected to rigorous inquiry.
  • The complex relationships among the different typologies, agents, scales and/or attributes of national and urban governance and vulnerability to GEC are understudied.
  • Little is known on the links between devolved governance and DRR/DRM. The existing literature does not specifically address the question of if, and how decentralized governance can strengthen DRR/DRM in developing countries, much less in the African regional context. Place–based research on this crucial link with help to better understand the feasibility and desirability of decentralization for robust DRR/DRM as well as the modalities for operationalizing devolved governance for DRR/DRM in Africa.