National governments and international institutions need to do more to prioritise the financing of basic services such as energy, water, waste collection and transport provision. That is the central recommendation of the third GOLD report (the Third Global Report on Local Democracy and Decentralization) from the United Cities and Local Governments.


Progress in the provision of access to basic services for citizens is a direct result of greater involvement of local government in that process, the report finds from its extensive surveys and interviews with players on all continents of the world. It finds that progress also stands a greater chance when there is a multilevel, collaborative approach.

Writing in his introduction, the mayor of Istanbul and president of UCLG, Dr Kabir Topbas, highlights especially the problems in low- and lower-to-middle income countries. There, the gaps between required investment and resources available are at their widest.

Because infrastructure investments are long term, they require concessional loans. These can only be provided with the direct financial involvement of national governments and multilateral organisations – so they present especial problems.

The report calls for these multilateral organisations to support local governments themselves in directly accessing financing resources. This will enable them to leapfrog national governments, which sometimes have different priorities and can be a hindrance.

Topbas’s city, Istanbul, is at the forefront of driving change in the way cities are governed and the contribution they can make to the sustainability agenda. But it is also a focal point for many of the contradictions and compounding forces that this agenda faces.

Dr Kabir Topbas
Dr Kabir Topbas

So it is unsurprising that he “wholeheartedly supports GOLD III’s call for a more holistic vision of urban development”.

“Basic service infrastructure should accompany and guide the spatial planning of cities and regions and urban planning must engage all stakeholders, including those living in informal settlements, to monitor and improve access,” he says.

Basic services

Basic services are unglamorous and often ignored in the face of more spectacular developments – but they are essential and underpin the success of all development. They include access to energy, water, sanitation, decent transport provision and solid waste disposal.

The report highlights that in most middle-income countries the proportion of the population with access to basic services increased significantly between 1990 and 2010.

However, in low and some middle-income nations, half or more of the population still lacks provision.

It makes a strong case for the decentralisation of authority over many basic services to  the local level, and for better provision of information.

For example, global data on access to water services conflates everything into one statistic, from having a borehole with a standpipe nearby to having water piped into your home. Data available to central governments is rarely specific enough for them to see which homes have full access and where greater provision is required.

The report has seven regional chapters that describe the conditions necessary in each global region for local governments to be able to fulfil their responsibilities.


In 2010, only 16 per cent of sub-Saharan Africans had water piped into their homes, a one per cent increase from 1990. But in southern Asia, the figure was 25 per cent in 2010, up from 20 per cent in 1990.

It is generally agreed that a major reason why African countries struggled to reach the Millennium Development Goals is the lack of basic service provision and the lack of empowerment and involvement of local governments in basic service delivery, particularly water, sanitation, electricity and solid waste.

Too many African cities still dispose of solid waste by letting their citizens bury or burn it. In many of them less than 60 per cent of households have access to electricity. And the uncontrolled sprawl of most African cities has created a fragmented public transport system with people having to walk a long way on unsafe roads, and stiff competition between informal minibus operators and buses often erupting into open conflict.

South Africa and parts of North Africa are leading the way by developing tramways and railway transportation. The report calls for more Bus Rapid Transport systems, to be developed with public-private partnerships.

Finance is a huge challenge. In rapidly urbanising Africa, service provision is in a constant state of playing catch-up. The report estimates that an annual investment of close to five per cent of the continent’s GDP is required over the next 20 years. That is over twice the current level.

The public sector is the main contributor to these investments, using taxes and loans, but often tax collection leaves a lot to be desired. While this is improving, to meet the financing gap, investment from the private sector is required. The report identifies a major barrier in the low level of fiscal decentralisation.

Meeting the cost of universal household collections to water and sanitation networks is estimated at one per cent of GDP. The report contrasts this with the cost of them not having access in terms of environmental and health damage: 6.5 per cent of GDP.

But there is a lack of regional planning and of “spatial and temporal coherence between various national and sectoral strategies”. In other words, planning is not joined up. Therefore the report calls for strategic basic network service planning to go hand in hand with land use planning at all levels of governance.

“Given the impact of basic infrastructure in the increase in land value of the area it serves, planning should be a tool for resource mobilisation through the capture of added land value deriving from city development,” the report concludes.

But it acknowledges that for the time being, most African cities will continue to have a dual system of service delivery that is both formal and informal, and this needs to be recognised.

“All service delivery should be people-centred,” it says, with basic services “at the heart of democracy”.



Most Asia-Pacific countries have slum improvement policies and programs but face similar, if less drastic, challenges to African cities, and similar recommendations are made. For this area of the world, the report recommends the setting up of one-stop service centres to gather information from service users.


In Eurasian countries, in the 1990s following the end of the USSR, citizens were victims of a general decline in access to public services. In the past decade this situation has stabilised and shown some signs of improvement.

Yet a survey of local government leaders revealed that everywhere there remain serious financial problems. Thirty-one per cent reported a lack of funds for even basic operational activity while over half (53 per cent) said that the funds available could hardly cover their operational activities.

Part of the problem, especially in Central Asia, is that tariff and payment collection rates are too low. People feel that if the infrastructure is worn out, and fails to meet their requirements, why should they pay? The result is a Catch-22 that requires stringent action to break the paradox. Realistically, this can really only come from investment by the private sector.

The report recommends decentralisation in these nations, many of which are former Communist bloc countries, and improved multilevel governance.


In Europe, where 70 per cent of the population lives in urban areas, almost everyone has access to improved drinking water, and about a quarter of water and sanitation services are provided by private operators.

But again, the report recommends further decentralisation of provision and the exchange of good practice and benchmarking. Furthermore because of the age of much of the infrastructure, there are plenty of challenges in adapting to climate change.

Latin America

This area of the world, where 80 per cent live in urban areas but 30 per cent in slums, has already deregulated and privatised markets for basic services and brought in the private sector. As a result 94 per cent of urban dwellers have access to drinking water piped into the home.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is the issue of violence and insecurity, but there is also a deficiency in planning, because many local governments still do not implement strategic planning for all basic service sectors and coordinate them with territorial development plans.

Middle East and West Asia

Here, 50 per cent of the population is below the age of 25, which presents its own challenges. Decentralisation is in many cases only slowly happening and infrastructure has been neglected.

With the exception of Iran and Turkey, governments have been depleting their territories’ water reserves – treating them unsustainably. Low payment collection rates and low pricing mean that central government subsidises water and sanitation provision, which is also not sustainable. Together these trends imply a looming double whammy.

On the other hand, solid waste management is decentralised everywhere – providing more local control, but not necessarily greater environmental benefit.

Urban sprawl and increasing car ownership are exacerbating traffic congestion. The leading metropolitan areas are developing major integrated transportation plans that, the report notes, should be copied everywhere. At the very least, it points out, to do so would increase their economic competitiveness.

North America

In North America, the provision of basic local services is devolved to varying degrees in different sectors. Local authorities are deeply entwined with federal systems.

Canada and the US possess the advantage that policymakers and others share a broad consensus about the need to improve and replace inadequate infrastructure and that future investments require better strategic planning and integration between levels of government and across all sectors.

All in all, this comprehensive report presents a global picture that shows the huge potential of local government to meet the needs of their people sustainably, if it is able to seize the chance to do so.

There is no universal formula for success, but greater integration and cooperation must focus on helping organisations to play to their strengths.

David Thorpe is the author of:

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