Collaborative Urban Governance

Some Lessons and Opportunities for Elected Mayors in Preventing Violent Conflict

Several cities worldwide, including Cape Town, Baltimore and Milan, are electing their mayor in 2016. The elections are not only important for residents but together they reflect the role of mayors in global governance. Following the recent election of London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, this commentary assesses some of the implications for the prevention of violence in cities, from civic conflict to terrorist attacks. It argues that elected mayors are less likely, compared to non-elected mayors, to adopt a collaborative governance approach.

This is significant because ongoing research by The Hague Institute finds that collaborative governance – the involvement of non-formal stakeholders and leaders, especially at the community level, in processes of planning and decision-making – is an important component in addressing structural causes of violence and sustaining peace.

The election of Mayor Khan in May 2016 has gathered significant media attention. That he is the first Muslim mayor of London – a globally renowned metropolis – and from a working class background, have so far captured the attention of Londoners and beyond. In particular, there are high expectations surrounding the new administration’s ability to prevent violent conflict. Like other European cities that include Brussels, Paris and Stockholm, London is still dealing with a recent legacy of violence, terrorist attacks, and intercommunal tensions. The threat of violence continues to loom with the marginalization and segregation of groups based on old and new divisions along racial, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic lines.

The overwhelming electoral support expressed for Mayor Khan indicates that enough Londoners want to embrace change. His personal background and political agenda at this early stage suggest that policies to tackle socio-economic inequalities are priorities. Arguably, keeping to promises will be in the interest of the new mayor if he wants to maintain popular support. However, The Hague Institute finds that elected mayors are less likely to invest in the complex longer-term processes that are required to tackle the structural causes of violence compared to appointed mayors. Direct elections, on the one hand, strengthen democracy and the legitimacy of local governance. Once elected though, mayors typically prioritize maintaining political and popular support through quick impact security measures and highly visible policy results.

The governance of Baltimore and Buenos Aires, although two very different cities, illustrate how elected mayors pursue myopic security measures, which unintentionally increase the risk of violence. In both cities, major investments in the use of curfews and surveillance led to relatively sharp decreases in crime. However, there have been limited efforts to tackle the social and economic inequalities that underpin the violence, which ultimately require better access to health care, jobs, housing, justice, and education among other primary services. Moreover, the use of repressive policing and the curtailment of human rights deepened the tensions between neighborhoods and increased hostilities between police and marginalized groups. Quick fixes might at best improve short-term perceptions of security but over time they may undermine popular trust in public institutions, especially among minority groups and youth.

By contrast, cities with appointed mayors such as Katmandu and Santiago de Chile have adopted innovative longer-term approaches to involving communities in conflict prevention efforts by enabling citizens’ participation at the neighborhood level in the design of responses to social and economic divisions. Kathmandu, which is ruled by a chief executive officer since 2002, has addressed persistent insecurities in certain neighborhoods by investing in community policing, with 179 Community Police Services Centers in 72 districts in Nepal. To promote more concerted urban planning efforts, which is one of the city’s priorities, in 2009 the Kathmandu Metropolitan City and Chief Executive Officers with civil society representatives developed an action plan for the development of urban infrastructure, which led to the creation of the Kathmandu Valley Regional Development Authority.

Elected mayors have to balance two seemingly conflicting objectives in building stability and peace. They need to provide security through effective responses to violence that improve citizens’ perception of safety and maintain confidence in local institutions. At the same time, they need to lead and invest in a strategy to resolve the structural causes of violence. Borrowing from the example of appointed mayors, a collaborative governance approach can reconcile both objectives since the constructive involvement of citizens can simultaneously instill confidence and trust in local institutions and, over time, tackle the underlying causes of violence. This approach brings greater political and economic risks compared to short-term security measures, and therefore requires unwavering leadership and conviction, which mayors are best placed to provide.

Cities have a lot to learn from each other. Their growing importance for governance is rooted in our increasingly interdependent world yet the sharing of knowledge and best practice on conflict prevention among cities remains limited. The Hague though, as the international city of peace and justice, is working to address at least two significant gaps. First and in terms of knowledge sharing, The Hague Institute recently published a report on conflict prevention in the city based on a 12-month process of consultations and dialogue among a wide range of stakeholders. Second and in relation to policy and practice, the Global Parliament of Mayors will be launched in The Hague in September 2016 as an innovative space to share experiences and learn lessons. Given the complex challenges to peace and stability in many cities, the new parliament will be a unique opportunity to prioritize prevention and the responsibility of mayors to lead efforts to tackle the structural causes of violence in cities.

Further Reading

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