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Urban Public Policies in the Global South: trajectories and adjustments

Actions publiques urbaines dans les Suds : trajectoires et ajustements

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Published on Wednesday, December 18, 2013 by Luigia Parlati


L’action publique fait un retour remarqué dans le débat scientifique, tant du côté des études urbaines que de celui du développement. Certains l’envisagent sur les décombres des théories du développement, qui ont singularisé le Sud par référence au Nord. D’autres y voient un avatar du terme de gouvernance urbaine dont les « bonnes » pratiques, critiquées sur plusieurs continents,font référentiels d’action et forgent aujourd’hui de véritables objets de recherche autour des notions de droit(s), de biens communs ou de planification stratégique. D’autres recherches enfin, s’inscrivant dans une ligne d’historicisation des capacités et lieux du pouvoir urbain, rappellent l’antériorité de dispositifs institutionnels, de corpus réglementaires et de répertoires politiques qui ont prétendu de longue date « maîtriser » la ressource foncière, « développer » les infrastructures et services de base,« piloter » des opérations urbanistiques, gérer, adapter « mettre à niveau » les territoires, dans différents contextes.



Public policy is making a comeback in scientific discourse, in both urban studies and development studies. Some researchers see it rising on the ruins of theories of development that singled out the South in reference to the North. Others see it as a new spin on the term urban governance whose “good” practices – criticized on several continents – are a frame of reference for policy and now constitute veritable research topics addressing notions such as (human) rights, common goods and strategic planning. Yet other research, focused on the historicization of capacities and spheres of urban power, reminds us of the antecedence of institutional measures, regulatory corpora and political repertoires which for a long time claimed in different contexts to “master” land resources, “develop” infrastructure and basic services, “pilot” urban operations, and manage, adapt or “upgrade” territories.

Our proposal here lies at the intersection of endogenous trends and internationalized references. Even the most authoritarian, fragile or corrupted urban authorities have shown a real tendency to incorporate – by re-interpreting them – the external resources upon which they depend. Moreover, urban conflicts and veritable societal confrontations have shattered all illusions about neutral governance.

There is no doubt: the scale and nature of public policies have changed. Fuelled by comparisons between Europe and North America, theoretical debate over such changes first focused on the restructuring of urban interventions via actors and projects that were more diverse than national authorities and regulatory procedures alone. While such research topics have now branched out to the metropolises of emerging economies aspiring to the status of global cities, an extraordinary array of urban experiences still need to be understood in a broader economic perspective. Such research needs to differentiate itself not only from the centre-periphery paradigm, tied to global logics of investments, but also from the international strategies of cooperation initiatives in urban development.

A lot of research in the past two decades has focused on the double regulation of global capitalism – economic and political – and has highlighted the increased role played by cities amidst the changing role of markets and States. Despite a lot of empirical research into the global South, a broader approach is still needed. When examined through the lens of specific topics, these cities point up actors and projects that are bound up in the structural adjustment and cost recovery logic of urban management. Many municipalities have embraced new entrepreneurial forms, agencies and mixted enterprises and even taken to territorial marketing. Social housing and rapid transport policies, reforms addressing essential services and operations aimed at reducing poverty all show, on the one hand, the extent to which liberal-democratic debate has disseminated from North to South and ricocheted from one South to another, and, on the other hand, the great diversity in how agglomerations have “responded”.

To address these topics, we would like to combine two temporal perspectives: a history of the complex reforms that have marked institutions and practices over three or four decades; and an analysis of more unstable adjustments over a shorter timescale.

In the longer perspective, we would like to review urban public policy from three different angles.

  • The first angle involves the evolution of urban governments into multi-level entities and the relationships – and occasional competition – between the technical departments, ministerial authorities, and local and decentralized services involved in urban planning and management. After quite broad-scale decentralization reforms starting in the 1980s, municipalities are now calling for increased capabilities and political legitimacy, with backing from international organizations and bilateral and decentralized cooperation initiatives.
  • A second angle from which to examine the scope of intervention and public funding is bound up in the logic of public-private partnerships and projects. Here focus is needed on the difficulties and negotiations with private operators and entrepreneurs, depending on whether or not they are promoted locally or by an international cooperation body.
  • The third angle addresses the social mobilization fuelled by imposed forms of participation and unexpected negotiations. Policy compromises and moments of inaction have arisen in lieu and in place of sought consensus due to biases, resistance and protest in the form of opposition from different associative, clientelist and corporatist groups. As urban centres and margins are physically transformed, societal conflicts arise, either gradually or brutally; regardless, they always upset top-down procedures. The public space of cities is sought far beyond preconceived ideas about civil society.

We believe that these issues impact the urban trajectory across more than a generation. Their combined effects create political tensions that underpin urban choices and how they are implemented in any given period. We can ask whether such general trends tend to push the boundaries of public policy or, rather, whether they affect the core of urban institutions, but in any case the goal is indeed to compare cities of the South based on this three-sided approach. In a shorter timescale, we can point up recent rearrangements and disturbances in public policy since the 2000s.

1. Which sectoral or territorial issues, investments or political arenas are public authorities using to try to impose themselves today? What opportunities do the Millennium Development Goals provide more specifically in this respect?

2. How can we assess the role of international expertise and the spread of standards without being forced into the conceptual field of “nomadism”? What are the content and effects of such practices, the coordinating challenges and unsatisfactory results among urban managers or ordinary city dwellers, both identified as the “targets” of intervention?

3. What role does land supply play in determining or influencing public policy? Is the State calling for control over land or is this done in the name of new political entrepreneurs? Does such control serve municipal interests? Or the interests of small landowners who remain landlords? Does securing ownership affect arguments over urban territorial control more broadly?

Submission guidelines

This call for papers is connected to the annual seminar coordinated by Monique Bertrand (IRD-Département Sociétés; June 2013-June 2014), in partnership with the journal Géocarrefour. In collaboration with the coordinator of the issue, the journal will publish the seminar’s proceedings and other articles proposed by the scientific community in accordance with the journal’s editorial guidelines.

Articles must be submitted

by 30 September 2014

and will be selected based on the journal’s regular assessment procedure.

Submissions will be sent to monique.bertrand-at-ird.fr and to the journal through the online manuscripts management interface: http://manuscrits.revues.org/index.php/geocarrefour/ 


  • Lyon, France (69)


  • Tuesday, September 30, 2014


  • action publique, études urbaines, Suds


  • Monique Bertrand
    courriel : monique [dot] bertrand [at] ird [dot] fr

Information source

  • andré buisson
    courriel : andre [dot] buisson [at] univ-lyon3 [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« Urban Public Policies in the Global South: trajectories and adjustments », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, December 18, 2013, https://calenda.org/269464

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