The trend toward decentralized governance in twenty-first century urbanizing Asia has ushered in a critical role for local leadership. With around 1.5 billion people currently living in its urban areas, Asia is home to more than half of the global urban population, this despite remaining one of the world’s least urbanized regions. Decentralization—the devolution of central state powers and resources to the local level—has been increasingly viewed by national governments as the most viable means of managing the competing needs and expectations of densely concentrated and ethnically diverse urban populations.
Effective and responsive local leadership has been essential to the success of Asia’s nascent decentralizing institutions, irrespective of national context. Across urbanizing Asia, city mayors are emerging as powerful actors in shaping the new geographies of cooperation, conflict and compromise within decentralized political and economic landscapes. The capacity of mayors to plan, manage and implement adaptive policies in response to urban challenges has enabled and created the potential for some cities to emerge as centers of innovation and best practice in urban governance (or to be perceived as such) within and beyond Asia. On the other hand, in decentralizing regimes where critical aspects of democratic procedure are lacking, local power elites have perpetuated patronage networks and misappropriated state resources for personal gain.
Local leaders empowered by decentralization have been at the forefront of initiatives to foster formal and informal networks of governance and intercity cooperation. In part, these networks have been driven by fierce competition over scarce resources as decentralized city governments have struggled to become well-connected and entrepreneurial ‘world-class cities.’ In part, mayors have nurtured myriad networks through city governance to ‘jump scale’ in pursuing their political ambitions at the national level. Most encouragingly, decentralization has given rise to some local leaders who are committed to civil society participation and accommodating the expectations of multiple stakeholders. Through them there is hope that decentralization in Asia may lead to the production of more inclusive and livable urban forms.
Michelle Ann Miller is a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute and Tim Bunnell an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and in the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. Both authors organized and contributed to the recent special issue of Pacific Affairs, “Decentralised Governance and Urban Change in Asia.”
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- “Decentralized Governance and Urban Change in Asia,” special issue of Pacific Affairs, December 2013
- “Decentralization and Democracy in Indonesia: A Critique of Neo-Institutionalist Perspectives,” Development and Change, Volume 35, No. 4, September 2004″