Researching the politics of development



Politics, informality and clientelism – exploring a pro-poor urban politics

Working paper 34

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Diana Mitlin
This paper explores what we have learnt about how to instigate, negotiate or otherwise secure pro-poor government in towns and cities of the global South. With competition for scarce resources, the processes of urban development, and specifically the acquisition of land and basic services, are intensely political. While the nature of urban poverty differs, there is a consistent set of needs related to residency in informal settlements; tenure is insecure and there is a lack of access to basic services, infrastructure, and sometimes other entitlements. Households and communities have to negotiate these collective consumption goods in a context in which political relations are primarily informal, with negotiations that take place away from the transparent and accountable systems of ‘modern’ government. Clientelist bargaining prevails. Much of the existing literature is polarised, either critiquing clientelism for its consequences, or arguing that it has been dismissed without any grounded assessment of what might take its place and any considered analysis of what it has managed to deliver.
In this paper I explore how networks and federations of the urban poor seeking to access secure tenure and basic services have sought to advance their cause and the interests of their members. These organised collectives recognise that they have to challenge clientelist practice; however leaders also recognise that, given existing power relations, they have to work from within to change the realities of clientelism. Their own relative powerlessness means that confrontation is not an effective strategy. To strengthen their influence, they have to make common cause with those in need across the city building a unified and aware movement, and they have to establish their own legitimacy as agencies operating in the public interest and towards the common good. As and when they gain an increased influence, they seek greater flexibility from the city bureaucracy and to reduce the hierarchical highly vertical relations between the urban poor and the political elite. To maintain and extend their advances towards a pro-poor politics, they act to strengthen public accountabilities.