The local development state in Latin America

Posted on May 11, 2011


usme colombia

Usme is a poor neighbourhood at the southern edge of Bogota, Colombia’s sprawling, 8 million-strong capital. The Avenida Caracas, running north to south, acts as the area’s main artery and commercial hub. It is vibrant and busy. Restaurants serve up sturdy local delicacies, while shopfronts overflow with knock-off fashion accessories and household appliances. Look west from la Caracas and a father and son are lumbering car parts up a steep, rock-covered path. Awaiting them at the top is an agitated crowd of domestic fowl and a small colony of self-constructed homes. Look east from the high street and you might see the strange sight of a few unnaturally linear rows of social housing projects (mostly unoccupied), offering faint evidence of growing state presence in the area. Turn northward and the autopista eagerly snakes towards the inner city, where it will eventually find the company of other structures of reinforced steel and concrete. Look to the south, where closely-knit streets suddenly give way to a vast green expanse, and the same road disappears into the peaceful hills of the central Colombian cordillera. Usme is on the edge, literally and figuratively. Its relationship to the city is unequal and precarious, but it feels as though it might be getting closer.

I describe Usme in this way because it is reminiscent of a journey I made twice a week for a year on Bogota’s Transmilenio bus network. The Transmilenio is a celebrated example of the bus rapid transit (BRT) system, an approach to urban transport first pioneered in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba. The branded, articulated buses travel on segregated lanes, stopping frequently at raised and enclosed platforms each with staffed ticket booths. The system offers the efficiency of a metro or overground train system, with the greater affordability and flexibility of bus transit.

In reality overcrowding and frequent delays still blight the Transmilenio and there is periodic clamour in Bogota for the holy grail of a citywide metro system. Nonetheless, further expansion and improved co-ordination of the network should gradually reduce these problems, which in all likelihood would equally disrupt an underground system, though at much greater cost. Momentum has stalled under discredited current Mayor Samuel Moreno, but could be recaptured with a return to the vision shared by his predecessors Enrique Penalosa, Antanus Mockus and Lucho Garzon when his term ends later this year.

All in all I was greatly impressed by my year of travel on the Transmilenio, in which I did not find frustration any more frequent or severe than in a lifetime’s experience of using the Tube. What struck me most was the ease with which I could reach areas like Usme. My journey from Chapinero in central Bogota would have taken over two hours on two or three buses that a non-local never would have known how to identify. On the Transmilenio it took less than an hour, costing not much more than the price of a single bus journey, and all in safety and relative comfort (at least when not travelling at peak hours.) The Transmilenio has literally linked Usme, a peripheral neighbourhood in every sense, with the rest of the city. (Some of the transformations in Usme can be seen in this video of a recent visit to Usme by former Mayor Enrique Penalosa.)

Social urbanism and poverty reduction

This type of infrastructure project, which aims to strengthen urban integration, enhance the mobility of all social groups and develop shared public and civic spaces, has been described as ’social urbanism’. The term was coined by Sergio Fajardo, Mayor of Colombia’s second city Medellin from 2003 to 2007. A comparable initiative in Medellin, the Metrocable, saw the installation of cable car lifts linking the inner city’s metro system to two marginalised hillside barrios (see photo above), one of which was also furnished with an impressive new public library. In theory the Transmilenio and Metrocable should allow outsiders to enter (or as a first step – simply acknowledge the existence of) areas previously considered remote, irrelevant and dangerous. It challenges a symbolic relationship with the city that has been entrenched by years of marginalisation. And the advantages should cut both ways. Residents of these areas should develop a sense of inclusion and enjoy greater opportunities for employment, enterprise, consumption and leisure beyond the local area.

A recent seminar at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) explored the potential of social urbanism, and the wider, related concept of the ‘local development state’, to create positive cycles of economic and social development within poor areas. The local development state is the name given to an active local or city government that uses infrastructure projects, social service development and enterprise support to facilitate pro-poor economic growth at a city or sub-city level. Although traditionally associated with European and East Asian examples, elements of the approach have become prevalent in Latin America over the past decade. Medellin, currently offering a wide range of projects of this kind, offers a useful example of the local development state in action, and is the subject of a current ODI research project (see the background note.)

A first important observation is that social urbanism projects like the Metrocable are beneficial, but unlikely to be sufficient on their own to promote self-sustaining growth within poor areas. It might help to see physical development as the ‘hardware’ that also requires the ‘software’ of social investment and pro-active enterprise support (see my review of Janice Perlman’s Favela below) to stimulate social and economic transformation. Here Medellin has also made important strides. The ODI background note (linked above) lists some of the key initiatives, including social protection programmes, business support centres and a microcredit bank, and highlights current successes and gaps.

The central question underlying all of these measures is how to overcome the main barrier to economic growth in deprived areas, which Milford Bateman, Research Fellow at ODI, identifies as a lack of absolute demand. Interventions aimed at stimulating microenterprise start ups, are likely to lead to market saturation and displacement within an area with no net impact on overall growth. Supply-side changes only lead to transformation when they can either facilitate more efficient ways of working and/or free up disposable income on a scale that allows significantly increased private discretionary spending. These transformations are rare, usually technological (for example the rise of mobile telephony,) and generally beyond the control of local residents. To summarise, it is by helping micro and small enterprises to reach new and larger markets, rather than by simply encouraging efficiency and improving microfinance offers, that will allow them to expand as a sector. The challenge for the local development state in Latin America is to successfully combine the hardware of social urbanism projects and the software of social interventions to bring this about.

A ‘post-Washington Consensus’?

An interesting side debate surrounds the question of whether the emergence of the local development state can be seen as part of a ‘post-Washington Consensus’, embodied by the ‘pink tide’ of left-wing governments coming to power across Latin America since 2000. To describe the local development state as part of a lurch to the left is to oversimplify. For a start, the Washington Consensus was not as all-powerful as is sometimes suggested, particularly in the larger countries of South America, where economic policy remained relatively independent (in contrast to Central America and the Caribbean, where the term carries more weight). It is also difficult to describe Medellin, with its well known entrepreneurial culture, or indeed Sergio Fajardo, its leading proponent of the local development state, as left-wing. In the Medellin context the local state is seen as an enabler of private sector growth, rather than an agent of redistribution.

Despite these qualifications, I think the idea captures an important sea change, which is as much social and political as economic. Cold War politics created an atmosphere in which elite and middle-class interests were deemed to be mutually exclusive to satisfying the needs of the poor, particularly as economies stagnated during the 1970s and 1980s. The authoritarian regimes that arose in many countries during this period enforced economic orthodoxy (to the extent that was politically and economically feasible) by soaking the poor. They did not seek to create public goods or to find cross-class convergences of interest that would have benefits beyond the immediate class interests they represented.

I would argue that the post-Washington Consensus represents the (re)discovery of the ‘public’ in Latin American politics. This does not mean it is left-wing, or even pro-poor, but that the margins defining who is a legitimate beneficiary of government attention have expanded to include places like Usme. Within this new paradigm there is still left and right, and there are still debates to be had about how to achieve growth and how far to push redistribution. But the collective benefits of investment in previously neglected areas are now better understood. This can only be a good thing.

One issue that did not arise, but which seems crucial is the relationship between the post-Washington Consensus at national and local level. The case of Colombia here might be instructive. Perhaps more than any other country in the region (with the possible exceptions of Venezuela and Bolivia) Colombian politics remains trapped in a Cold War paradigm. Political alignments tend to follow a perceived trade-off between security and prosperity (primarily for the middle and upper classes) and social justice (for the poor), with convergences between these objectives overlooked. This relates to the ongoing civil war and wider security threats, that have undoubtedly stunted the growth of social democratic and left-wing parties in Colombia compared to its neighbours.

This is the background to innovative local development state approaches in Bogota and Medellin. In a polarised state individual cities can still achieve inclusive growth. Indeed they can become a conduit for post-Washington Consensus thinking and achieve convergences that elude national Cold War-style politics. An important question for Colombia is whether national politics can move towards a post-Washington Consensus while security remains such a heated issue. The success of Antanus Mockus, one of the architects of Bogota’s civic transformation, in last year’s presidential elections suggests a desire among many voters to do so. The collapse of his vote in the second round of voting suggests there is still a long way to go.