Local Agenda 21 And The Asian Context

1.  Preamble

This is not a research paper. It draws upon my experience of dealing with urban communities, NGOs, local government and academia in a number of cities in South and South East Asia over the last 25 years. In this paper I have not made an assessment of selective LA-21 experiences in Asia as I was supposed to. This is because I do not think that such an assessment is relevant or will teach us very much. What is required is to understand why so few LA-21 projects1 exist in Asian cities and the constraints that local governments and communities face in relating and promoting to the LA-21 concept.

2. LA 21: Major Constraints

2.1  LA 21 Is Not Known

In my work in and association with over 25 Asian cities2 I have not come across any discussion or even mention on LA-21. In connection with this paper I contacted five very well-known development activists and NGO persons in the capital cities of five different Asian countries3. Three of them did not know of a single LA-21 project. One had heard of a project but was not sure of what exactly it was. The fifth told me that I should not bother about projects but give a critique of why the concept does not work. I also contacted five important ex-administrators of municipal governments in Pakistan (ex because with the local government reforms of October 2001, administrators have changed). They too had not heard of LA-21 and one of them confused it with Urbs-Asia and added that there were so many UN and donor programmes that it was impossible to remember their names and details and that these programmes created more problems than solutions

2.2 Too Many Internationally Supported Agendas/Programmes

If one lists some of the ongoing UN and donor agencies supported programmes and agendas, one can understand why local government representatives and functionaries are confused regarding them or do not take them seriously, especially when they do not have the financial, technical or manpower resources to promote them except through short term donor funds. These programmes include: i) City Development Strategy (CDS); ii) Cities Alliance; iii) Healthy Cities Programme; iv) Habitat Agenda; (v) LA-21; vi) Sustainable Livelihood Programme; vii) UNESCO’s Urban Development and Governance Programme; viii) UNDP Private-Public Partnership for the Urban Environment; ix) a number of UNESCAP’s initiatives and oversees aid “special projects”. If we list them all they come to a total of 16 in the case of Karachi.

2.3 Best Practices

For the Habitat Agenda best practices have been promoted and a lot of information also exists regarding LA-21. However, this information is impossible for communities, small NGOs and local governments to access or comprehend not only because of language difficulties (the case studies and information are not in Asian languages) but also because of contextual differences. The issue is not only of the “replication” of good practices but also of the integration of their principles into the planning process. Academics, however, do access them and many consider them as propaganda by their promoters and implementers. In any case for academics promoting them, would mean a major departure from their established curriculum.

2.4 Local Government Priorities

LA-21 is not a priority with local governments. It is over-shadowed, like other similar initiatives, by immense problems related to the crisis management and operation of the water, sewage, solid waste, traffic and other related civic issues and constant demands and pressures from communities.

2.5 Unequal Relationships

The Agenda aims at bringing local government, communities and interest groups together. However, in almost all Asian cities there is an unequal relationship between an engineer-bureaucrat dominated local government controlled or pressurized by powerful vested interests and weak communities and interest groups who are not backed by sufficient knowledge and by access to the corridors of power. As such, the weaker partners cannot push for the promotion of the Agenda or even participate effectively in its development and implementation. Perhaps one of the reasons why the Agenda has been more successfully promoted in the industrialized world is that a more equal relationship exists between the groups the Agenda seeks to bring together and because a space for interaction exists. The strengthening of the weaker groups therefore is a pre-requisite for the success of the Agenda objectives and for an effective space for interaction. Loan conditionalities more often than not include foreign consultants, international tenders for infrastructure and social sector programmes (in which the private sector of poor countries stands no chance of success) and purchase conditionalities that are heavily loaded in favour of First World products. All this makes the emergence of technical and entrepreneurial expertise difficult and in many countries they have declined over a period of time.

3.  Agendas And Poverty Alleviation

All agendas and programmes aim at poverty alleviation for Asian cities. Poverty really revolves round four issues (apart from employment) which are discussed below. The important question is how can these issues be addressed given the overwhelming power of large and politically powerful interest groups, both national and international?

i) Global Issues

These are larger structural issues which are creating an increase both in the rich and the poor in Asian cities and increasing the rich-poor divide. These issues are impossible to resolve at the local level. However, they can be politicized at the local level which in turn will effect national and hence international politics. Politicization of these issues has been initiated by some professionals and human rights organizations but has not yet filtered down to local communities in any organized manner.

  1. According to an ICLEI LA-21 Survey (ICLEI website), there are 6,416 LA-21 projects in 113 countries. Of these, 5,292 are in Europe and 674 in Asia in 17 countries. Of these, 495 are in the industrialized and/or richer Asian countries of Japan, Australia, Korea and New Zealand. This is also echoed in the article by Raf Tuts and Jean Cristophe Adrian in Habitat Debate Volume 8, No. 2, June 2002. They state, “Since 1992, more than 2,000 local authorities in more than 70 countries have started LA21 campaigns. The majority of these are in the industrialized world, with concentrations in a dozen countries.”
  2. Lucknow, Khatmandu, Bangkok, Chang Mai, Manila, Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minch City and the Pakistan cities of Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Lodhran, Uch, Multan, Sukkur, Hyderabad, Thatta, Mithi.
  3. Persons contacted were from Bangkok, Manila, Colombo, Bombay and Khatmandu.
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