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Urban Geography
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(Re)theorizing Cities from the Global

South: Looking Beyond Neoliberalism
a b
Susan Parnell & Jennifer Robinson
University of Cape Town
University College London
Published online: 16 May 2013.

To cite this article: Susan Parnell & Jennifer Robinson (2012) (Re)theorizing Cities from
the Global South: Looking Beyond Neoliberalism, Urban Geography, 33:4, 593-617, DOI:

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Susan Parnell2
Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences
African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town
Rondebosch, South Africa

Jennifer Robinson
Department of Geography, University College London,
London, United Kingdom
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African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town
Rondebosch, South Africa

Abstract: The demographic transition of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has shifted
the locus of urbanizing populations from the global North to the global South. As the theoreti-
cal epicenter of urban scholars and policymakers adjusts to accommodate this transition, some
realignment in how ideas are weighted and applied is inevitable. This recalibration, while not
necessarily comfortable for those in established positions of intellectual power, is desirable and
maybe even overdue. The overarching argument presented here is that recent work on neoliberal-
ism, despite its quality and relevance for many places, will need to be “provincialized” in order
to create intellectual space for alternative ideas that may be more relevant to cities where the
majority of the world’s urban population now resides. To this end, we explore the limits to the cri-
tique of neoliberalism—a perspective that has assumed hegemonic dimensions in the progressive
geographical literature. In seeking post-neoliberal insights, we highlight two bodies of work that
also address issues of urban injustice. The first is the largely practice-generated literature on pov-
erty and its amalgamation into a resurgent literature focused on the right to the city. The second
theoretical framework we explore as a counterpoint to the neoliberal crtitique is the nascent debate
about the size and shape of the subnational state, arguing that it is time to bring to the fore the
difficult question concerning the most appropriate form of urban government. Finally, we suggest
that if the state is to be an important component in the urban developmental landscape, all sorts of
initiatives in research and capacity-building will be needed, giving substantially greater attention
to documenting urban change on hitherto under-researched cities, and learning from practice how
to transform the theoretical canon to ensure 21st-century relevance. [Key words: right to the city,
urban poverty, post-neoliberalism, state/civil society interface, developmental state, global South,
good city, South African city.]

We would like to thank the editors of this issue, Bill Sites and Simon Parker, as well as the anonymous reviewers
and Mike Geddes for very helpful comments on the paper. Parnell would like to thank the South African National
Research Foundation for ongoing support.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Susan Parnell, Department of Environmental
and Geographical Sciences, University of Cape Town, P Beg 3 Rondebosch 7701, South Africa; email: susan.


Urban Geography, 2012, 33, 4, pp. 593–617.

Copyright © 2012 by Bellwether Publishing, Ltd. All rights reserved.


Many cities across the world have been drawn into circuits of urban policymaking that
have been shaped in one way or another by neoliberal ideas. Urban scholars have fol-
lowed these developments with rigorous theoretical attention and critical political concern
(Jaglin, 2004; McGuirk, 2005; Goldfrank and Schrank, 2009; Guaneros-Meza and Geddes,
2010; Wu, 2010). Theorizations and critiques of urban neoliberalism have consequently
provided significant insights into the contemporary urban condition in different parts of
the world. In some measure, critiques of neoliberalism have come to dominate theoretical
and political reflection in contemporary urban studies, and offer a ready-made interpre-
tive framework for understanding the particular dynamics of urban policy formation in
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particular cities. As we have suggested elsewhere (Robinson and Parnell, 2011; Robinson,
2011a, 2011b), the ambitious geographical reach and analytical scope of critiques of urban
neoliberalization provide an excellent focus for thinking through the pressing issue of
producing urban theories that respond to the changing geographies and dominant forms
of global urbanization. Not only do dominant theorizations of urban neoliberalism (for
example, Brenner and Theodore, 2002; Leitner et al., 2007; Peck et al., 2009a) attend to
the multiple trajectories and directionality of neoliberal policy circuits, moving beyond
assumptions about the Northern origins of neoliberal policy ideas (see especially Peck,
2004 and Peck and Theodore, 2010); they also directly engage with the complex processes
of hybridization, localization, and transformation of neoliberal policies as they apply in
different urban contexts. Furthermore, for our purposes here it is important that these and
most other authors writing critically on urban neoliberalism build analyses from a com-
mitted political concern about growing urban inequalities, and that through their scholarly
work they motivate for the protection of urban livelihoods as well as for a democratic
urban politics.
Critiques of urban neoliberalism have traveled most successfully in their own right,
then, and with their strong critical purchase on the politics of urban policy processes have
proved useful and persuasive in many different contexts. Thus, as we pursue broader proj-
ects to internationalize urban theory in the service of a better understanding of the pro-
cesses shaping poorer cities (Robinson, 2006; Roy, 2008; Parnell et al., 2009; Robinson
and Parnell, 2010), we are excited to engage with what is an already internationalized and
politically committed theorization of urban neoliberalism.
Our concerns in this paper are twofold. First, we want to reflect on the variety of pro-
cesses other than neoliberalization that are shaping cities and argue that these need to be
taken more seriously in their own right—i.e., that the range of urban processes shaping
a diversity of urban contexts needs to be thought of as more than just contributing to the
hybridization of urban neoliberalism (Peck et al., 2009a). Our analysis leads us to insist
on the importance of theorizing the agency of the local state as potentially developmental,
even progressive. And second, following from this as we seek to develop a post-neoliberal
analytical optic on contemporary urbanism, we want to respond to wider calls to build
understandings of urban processes based on the experiences of Southern cities (Watson,
2009; Parnell et al., 2009; Roy, 2011). The possibilities of this approach are demonstrated
with reference to the politics of policymaking in order to address urban poverty in post-
apartheid South Africa. Neoliberal urban policy, we suggest, is not the only relevant form
of circulating urban policy knowledge, and we draw from our experiences with South

African urban policymaking (Parnell, 2007; Parnell and Pieterse, 2010) to think through
the circulation of policy ideas more strongly linked to developmental urban interventions,
such as Multi-Dimensional Definitions of Poverty and concepts like the Good City and the
Right to the City. We consider the contribution of these ideas to framing anti-poverty poli-
cies in South Africa to demonstrate the potential of these and other practice-based ideas as
starting points for building relevant (post-neoliberal) urban theories. It is our proposition
that in a world of globalizing cities, we need a greater range of theoretical initiatives to
interpret processes of urbanization—and we certainly need to diversify the starting points
for developing our understandings of contemporary cities. Here the focus is on the impor-
tance of building theory from the extensive practice and policy engagements that inform
interpretations of many poorer urban contexts.
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This study thus takes off from a number of recent contributions by geographers and
planners who, having reflected on the dissonance between dominant voices in urban
­theory and the real-world imperatives facing urban residents, investors, and managers in
the global South, have called for a different way of doing urban studies (Watson, 2009;
see also Roy and AlSayyaad, 2004; Simone, 2004; Robinson, 2006). Chatterjee (2006),
for instance, imagines an urban studies whose reference points more effectively incorpo-
rate the experiences and challenges of urbanization and urban life in “most of the world,”
where living conditions frequently militate against building positive livelihoods and may
even undermine life itself.
There has been significant acknowledgement of the need to integrate diverse urban
experiences into wider theoretical reflections, and high-profile scholars increasingly draw
insights from the specific experiences of poorer cities (Smith, 2002; Gandy, 2005; Davis,
2007; Harvey, 2009). It is therefore assumed that the case for such a strong international
theorization of cities has been well received; the next step is to consider how the task
might be achieved. Urban studies journals specifically encourage a greater contribution
from scholars working in and on poorer cities and beyond the academic networks of
the U.S. and EU (Seekings and Keil, 2009), and researchers whose theoretical work is
inspired by these contexts are increasingly seen as central to new developments in the
field (Simone, 2004; De Boeck and Plissart, 2005; Roy and AlSayyad, 2004; Benjamin,
2008, Li and Wu, 2008). New “Southern” urban issues, such as urban informality (Roy,
2005), ­security ­(Graham, 2004), and especially the politics of urban poverty (Benjamin,
2008), have become more prominent in the newest literature. Building on this work, let us
now consider what we believe are some fruitful areas of emerging conceptualization and
debate that could inform these theoretical shifts, and which might better accommodate the
recalibration in urban studies that is so eagerly anticipated.


For starters, a back-of-the-envelope assessment would do: we have a problem in urban

theory. It does not require a careful empirical review to know that the cities and issues
highly profiled in the canon of urban studies do not reflect the current dynamic centers of
urbanization or the most critical contemporary urban problems. At the heart of this tension
is the fact that a relatively small group of highly visible theorists tend, perfectly reason-
ably, to write about their own backyards. This “parochialism,” however, does not serve
the general theoretical good. For urban theory, the consequence of this distortion is the

prioritizing of ideas that speak to cities forged by the industrial revolution, the realities of
the Anglophone parts of the world, and a related tendency to overlook the rapidly grow-
ing cities of the global South where traditional authority, religion, and informality are as
central to legitimate urban narratives as the vacillations in modern urban capitalist public
policy. Hence the importance of the opportunity afforded by this special issue to assess
what a geographical corrective in representation, process, and voice might mean for urban
Our overall argument is that because of the traditional focus and structure of knowledge
production, characterized by an unequal distribution of scholars and research resources
across the world of cities, some areas of theoretical work receive disproportionate vis-
ibility, some theoretical ideas are misappropriated, and many questions that are potentially
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more relevant to illuminating the 21st-century city are left relatively underdeveloped—
largely because of a lack of critical engagement. We therefore have an inappropriate
process of theory-building and application. Theories that might work well for the global
North—like analyses of urban regimes, detailed accounts of gentrification, formal urban
renewal processes, or, in the example chosen here, critiques of urban neoliberalism—are
mobilized inappropriately to interpret contexts in which the associated processes are less
important, where they can be understood only alongside other drivers of change, or where
they do not apply at all.
The corrective we seek is much more than merely recognizing that urban neoliberalism,
for example, is produced in different places and contexts in different ways—although this
is an important maneuver. Here we follow Connell (2007), who writes about distortions in
the sociological literatures on globalization that have resulted from treating places outside
the Anglo-American heartland as sources of data rather than as sites of theorization in
their own right. Regarding urban studies, we are implying that whereas the geographical
repositioning of urban theory must certainly include attention to a wider array of empirical
evidence, and in such a way as to potentially transform dominant theorizations, it must
also engage with the distinctive intellectual formulations drawn from the diverse and not
always well understood physical, social, and economic realities of cities in the South. We
suggest that when such scholarly space is created, alternative, perhaps more useful ideas
and concepts will emerge.
This article highlights some nascent debates that we think could benefit from greater
attention. Specifically, we profile a substantial body of work that has currency among
(many) urbanists concerned with Southern cities: the understanding of urban poverty as
a multidimensional phenomenon (Wratten, 1995; Moser, 1998). A detailed assessment is
provided concerning the ways in which these ideas gained purchase within South African
urban policy debates in the post-apartheid era. Also highlighted are the links between these
policy-driven analytical innovations and broader concepts of the “good city” and the “right
to the city,” which have achieved prominence in wider urban studies debates as well as in
developmental policy and advocacy circles. Our sense is that these areas of urban thinking
could find a more influential voice, compared to the more fashionable “global” theories
of urban neoliberalism that have come to dominate the theoretical framings of researchers
trained in and familiar with Northern urban contexts.
We explicitly choose to ground our explorations of alternative post-neoliberal analyt-
ics in policy debates about urban poverty. This is done because much Southern-generated
urban research is policy-related: if cities that currently receive little attention in urban

publications and citations are to be placed more centrally within urban theory, consider-
ably more intellectual attention will need to be paid to policy debates and particularly to
conceptual reflections on urban development practice. In this spirit, and in a departure
from some academic analyses of poorer cities where informality is a more conventional
optic (Roy and AlSayyad, 2004; Simone, 2004), the importance of the state in urban devel-
opment is underscored (see Parnell and Pieterse, 2010). This also emerges from our post-
neoliberal analytical commitment, which in our view requires us to take the autonomous
logics of state formation and intervention as an adequate starting point for analysis, rather
than seeing state actions as necessarily tied to the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. A
Southern (re)framing can contribute to a post-neoliberal theorization of urban processes by
illuminating the multiple drivers of urban change, from the developmental or activist state
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to the role of traditional elites and the persistence of extra-capitalist power bases as well as
the political and accumulation strategies of capital, states, and other institutions.
It is certainly the case that a fairly fundamental rebalancing of urban theory is required
to make way for such nuanced understanding of the complex forces that structure contem-
porary cities. However, it would be easy to overstate the gap between the lived experiences
of the cities of the global North and South. We are mindful of the cautions that not all
­Northern theory is irrelevant for probing conditions in cities of the South, that poverty is
not the preserve of the South, and that there are important issues around wealth and con-
sumption everywhere (Sassen, 2001; Gugler, 2006; Borel-Saladin and Crankshaw, 2009)
that we live in a global system of urban processes, and that it is essential to theorize urban
change in ways that resonate with universal challenges of natural resource threats, the
uneven distribution of wealth, sustainable infrastructure management, and erosion in the
quality of life (cf. Huq and Reid, 2004; Sánchez-Rodríguez et al., 2005; Gleeson, 2008).
Moreover, we do not wish to discount the impact of neoliberal policy interventions in
cities of the South, especially in the face of the devastations wrought both by the struc-
tural adjustment policies of the 1980s, and by the associated accumulation and governance
­crises that set the terrain for such extraordinary destruction of productive and reproductive
capacity across many cities in Africa (see, for example, Potts, 2010). Although there have
been important policy shifts since this time, there is no doubt that, especially in relation to
the global South, there is a great need to better track the impact of global trade agreements,
global labor market restructuring, the influence of international and national fiscal policy,
and the impact ideologies eager to constrain the role of the state, maximize profit, and pro-
mote individual consumption (cf. Geddes’ [2010]discussion of how these complex politics
play out in Bolivia). But urban theory must also explain political and policy dynamics at
the city level, and in our view this entails building locally legible accounts that give due
weight to the diversity of drivers of urban change relevant to specific urban contexts. This
is especially relevant to considerations of building analyses of cities in the global South
because it is in these places, many of which are growing rapidly with little or no state sup-
port, that there is a particular mismatch between current urban theory and the drivers of
change that local scholars identify. And certainly some of this disjuncture between theory
and urban realities also arises from the limits of characterizing neoliberal ideologies and
instruments as leading drivers of urban change.
Although some, but by no means all, existing urban theory has purchase in the burgeon-
ing but weakly regulated towns, cities, and megacities of Africa, Asia, and Latin America,
an urgent call for an expansion of urban theory, if not an alternative set of ideas, is being

Table 1. Propositions for a Paradigmatic Shift in Urban Theory

Proposition 1: The available stock of urban and planning theory is largely unsuited to help us understand
and navigate the complex lived realities of citizens in the global South.
Proposition 2: Building an alternative planning praxis rooted in the South demands a progressive
value base that is both socially and ecologically informed. The concept of universal socioeconomic and
environmental rights offers a profound moral base for planning, but its application in cities of the global
South needs interrogation.
Proposition 3: Relevant theory must be built on empirical and analytical work about real-life experiments
in city-building, whether in the form of official government programs or the mundane, ordinary practices
associated with reproducing livelihoods and “lifeworlds” in the city.
Proposition 4: Effective urban policies can only emerge out of the deliberate articulation of appropriate
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theory and real-life data about trends, practices, and conflicts in the city. This implies an explicit and
formalized system of storing information and bringing theoretical and applied knowledges into academic
Proposition 5: None of the previous propositions can be addressed in a traditional disciplinary fashion;
engaged theory and theoretically informed reflexive policy requires an interdisciplinary platform for
knowledge generation and innovation.

Source: After Parnell et al., 2009.

made by those working in and on these cities (Benjamin, 2008; Watson, 2009, Wu, 2010).
In pushing for such a substantive reassessment of urban theory, though, we are particularly
influenced by the notion that the processes of scholarship producing such a paradigm
shift, and the values and practices that frame any new paradigm, are as important as the
ideas themselves. In their call for a new urban paradigm, Parnell et al. (2009) give as
much weight to process and values as they do to the reformulation of knowledge systems
or theories per se. For them, this involves emphasizing the importance of, for example,
training and supporting new researchers and writers in a wider range of urban contexts;
reintroducing an explicit (anti-poverty, pro-democracy) value base to research processes;
and building sustained engagements with both urban dwellers and the users of knowledge
in the production of new understandings of cities (see Table 1).
We begin here with what we think is a necessary groundbreaking exercise in service of
this project, to decenter one of the currently dominant themes in urban theory—critiques
of urban neoliberalism. Even though this is certainly an essential component of contem-
porary urban analysis, and there is much excellent work on the topic, in our view it has
the potential to overshadow the emergence of the kind of alternative theorizations we are
interested in—theories that apply to the dynamic and contested realities of many poorly
resourced cities.
Critics of urban neoliberalism offer an interpretation of the circulating practices of neo-
liberalization at the urban scale as shaping forms of restructuring in the realms of urban
policy and development that typically involve the imposition or extension of commodified
forms of social life; the dominance of capitalist-led, pro-growth urban development; and
the often experimental development of new forms of social policy to resolve the related
­crises of capitalist accumulation and the regulation of social life at the urban scale (Peck and
Tickell, 2002; Harvey, 2005). Certain early trajectories of innovation can be traced, such
as New York’s responses to fiscal crisis, or the alignment of Chilean national ­policy with
rigorous neoliberal principles (both in the 1970s), or the widespread structural ­adjustment

policies which decimated social provisioning in poor countries throughout the 1980s (see
Peck, 2004; Harvey, 2006). But more recently, Brenner et al. (2010a, 2010b) have outlined
a systematic analysis of what they portray as the complex circulatory geography of regula-
tory experiments in neoliberalization taking place in a wide range of cities, which are in
turn circulated across other localities as best-practice examples or good ideas that can then
be implemented. Sometimes this takes the form of “fast” policies, readily transplanted
to often quite different urban contexts (see especially Peck [2004] on the ­creative city
hypothesis, and Peck and Theodore [2010] on welfare programs spreading from Mexico
to New York). The importance of broader “transnational rule-regimes” enforced by global-
governance entities are also seen as important to facilitating this circulation of policy ideas
and experiments.
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The complex geographies of these circulations are drawn together in a nuanced

way by these writers to foreground such attributes as unevenness and variegation, and
to acknowledge that processes of neoliberalization collide with other (extra-neoliberal)
social processes as well as with inherited patterns of development, making the distinctive
developments in different contexts strongly path-dependent. The result, they argue, is that
neoliberalism may not look the same everywhere, and that processes of neoliberalization
mutate in response to varying local conditions. In the rest of this study, we build on these
observations that diverse processes and local conditions are important in explaining urban
policy outcomes. Where we disagree with Brenner, Peck, and Theodore is their conclu-
sion that despite this diversity what we are seeing is a convergence of wide-ranging policy
innovations into a “syndrome” or wider tendency of neoliberalization at the urban scale,
and that these experimentations are associated with the more generalized search for a
regulatory fix to the crises of contemporary capitalist urban development. They explicitly
conclude that “empirical evidence underscoring the stalled, incomplete, discontinuous or
differentiated character of projects to impose market rule, or their coexistence alongside
potentally antagonistic projects (for instance, social democracy) does not provide a suf-
ficient basis for questioning their neoliberalized, neoliberalizing dimensions” (Brenner et
al., 2010a, p. 315). We wish to open this up for further interrogation, especially in light of
alternative developmental agendas that are shaping urban processes in poorer and middle-
income contexts, and which we think do not necessarily contribute to the syndrome of
neoliberalization that Brenner et al. are concerned with tracing.
As we bring forward the observation that diverse urban processes are shaping regulatory
outcomes and innovations in cities, we also wish to question some of the assumptions at
work in the regulationist-inspired analysis that these critiques of neoliberalism offer. First,
we are eager to displace the geographical and temporal horizons framing these analyses.
The post-fordist crisis of advanced capitalist countries, for instance, even though relevant
to the economies of most places in a globalized world (Borel Saladin and Crankshaw, 2009)
does not define the nature of the challenges facing the governance of cities or describe the
terrain or the timeliness of policy responses. Thus the example we develop below of the
politics of anti-poverty policies in post-apartheid South African cities offers a distinctive,
but not exceptional, case where the relevant time frame is not a post-1970s crisis, but a
post-1994 experience of state restructuring with significant challenges of social exclusion
and basic service delivery; and where the relevant economic dynamics do not particularly
relate to a declining industrial base (although this is also an issue), but rather to a long-
term national growth path that permanently and structurally excludes more than 30% of

the population from the formal economy (Seekings and Nattrass, 2006). As we turn to
consider this example, we also find that we cannot align the actions of the state, or broader
civil society actors, with the drive to find regulatory fixes for capitalist accumulation—and
our analysis suggests that far from being a theoretically predictable outcome, such broad
claims require more substantial empirical investigation. We are therefore drawn to alterna-
tive theoretical rubrics that stress the autonomy of the state and the potential for political
contestation to define alternative regulatory pathways.
If our analysis of the condition of urban studies today is correct, urban theory now has
little choice but to address a much wider range of modes of urbanism than it has to date,
including conditions in which poverty, informality, and traditionalism are the norm. Our
suggestion is that, despite its widespread use and excellent contribution to understanding
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contemporary urban processes, existing theories and critiques of urban neoliberalism are
ill-equipped for the task of illuminating the conditions of poorer cities, especially those
that have weak (local) states or those where the link between urban political elites and
capitalist elites are not formalized in the conventional (democratic) electoral and quasi-
­corporatist politics of the local state. The role of the Communist Party in China (Wu, 2010),
the power of monarchies in any number of contexts and, in Africa especially, the position
of the traditional or “indigenous” authorities or nationalist political projects (Hibou, 2004;
Hart, 2007) would all be examples of this kind of urban political economy that are not
­easily understood vis-à-vis neoliberalism.
Making the argument that there are other things going on in the structuring of power in
cities does not imply that we contest the documented negative impacts of neoliberal policy
innovations in many cities, or the legitimacy of opposition of both scholars and the urban
poor to state policies inspired by neoliberal values. But we find ourselves drawn to decen-
ter neoliberalism in our analysis of urban politics, in the spirit of creating the intellectual
space for practitioners and scholars alike to generate new ideas and theorizations from the
experiences of urban development practice in poorer cities. To do this, it is imperative to
question the relevance of framing interpretations of cities in the global South through the
overarching idea of neoliberal forms of urban governance. As a result of its clear moral
position in favor of the poor, neoliberalism has become a popular (populist) theoretical
and political discourse for understanding the changing conditions of urban inequality, and
Southern cities are among some of the most influential case studies provided in substanti-
ating the global impact of neoliberalism (cf. McDonald and Pape, 2002; Miraftab, 2004b;
Benit-Gbaffbou et al. 2012). It might seem churlish, then, to question its validity. But there
is a growing concern that there may have been a misapplication, or at least an overexten-
sion, of critiques of urban neoliberalism (Clarke, 2008; Barnett, 2009; Ferguson, 2010).
More bluntly put, the empirical evidence has yet to support the hegemony of this theoreti-
cal approach across the wide range of contexts necessary for assuming its global relevance.
We want to draw attention, then, to some other writing that calls for a more radical ques-
tioning of the overall importance of neoliberalism to urban politics, including the possibil-
ity that it might not always be a relevant force shaping urban politics and policy.
There have certainly been a growing number of suggestions that neoliberalization
needs to be understood alongside other forces that shape urban development (Collier,
2005; Hoffman, 2006; Hart, 2007), and that at the limit it may not be a useful analytical
optic for understanding urban processes in some contexts (Ferguson, 2007; Robinson and
­Parnell, 2011). Aihwa Ong (2006), for example, postulates the idea of neoliberalism as an

e­ xception to dominant systems of economic and political regulation, suggesting that we

also pay attention to those (typically very poor) people and places that are excluded from
the scope of neoliberal forms of rule. By these she means to draw attention to the dynamics
of neoliberalization in places where “neoliberalism itself is not the general characteristic
of technologies of governing” (Ong, 2006, p. 3). This Asian-inspired assessment implies
that there are places where neoliberalism has little impact, or at least a set of places with
high levels of urban poverty, informality, or traditionalism where the impact of neoliberal-
ism may be muted, if it is present at all.
Building from Ong’s analysis, we could suggest that this exclusion from the processes
of neoliberalization is widely relevant to contemporary forms of capitalist production
and social regulation, a view reinforced by the Africanist James Ferguson. Considering
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the experiences of various capitalist enterprises across Africa, he proposes the idea of an
“extractive neoliberalism” with socially “thin” forms of regulation in sequestered securi-
tized zones that he contrasts to the socially “thick” models of national development that
framed the post-independence era in many African countries. Suggestively, he writes that
“where capital has been coming to Africa at all, it has largely been concentrated in spatially
segregated, socially ‘thin’ mineral-extraction enclaves—i.e., Capital is globe-hopping, not
globe-covering,” and by implication there are a lot of poor people in the gaps (Ferguson,
2006, p. 38). Furthermore, Ferguson proposes that these systems of production built on
exceptions to neoliberalism may well be more central to contemporary capitalism than
is often acknowledged, as the securitized enclaves for the production of oil in militarized
zones of the Middle East, most notably in Iraq, share many features with their counterparts
in Africa (pp. 206–207). By this logic the creation of a whole new gated city outside of
Luanda, Angola, which concentrates services for the wealthy few and excludes the poor
majority, is not analogous to the gated communities that emerge from the neoliberal retreat
of the state as in the U.S. or Dubai (Davis and Monk, 2008), but may reflect the new urban
form of an absent and utterly incapacitated state that arises out of different circumstances,
ideologies, and processes than those that gave rise to urban neoliberalism.
These critiques suggest that rather than the neoliberalization of state policies helping to
explain the rise of poverty and inequality, that poverty especially manifests itself in places
where (democratic) social and governmental processes are not well connected to the cir-
cuits of neoliberalization. This could be in substantially post-neoliberalized contexts (i.e.,
post-structural adjustment across Africa), where (urban) state capacity has been decimated
and disconnected from viable policy circuits, or where local states have not been effec-
tively established and so cannot be rolled back, privatized, or decentralized. Or even where
alternative power blocs have been forged (intentionally) beyond the reach of the state in
order to build, access, and maintain their power. Gangs are an obvious example, but so
too are the practices of informality that are sometimes lauded as an alternative urbanism
(Chabal and Daloz, 1999; see also Table 2 below). In our view, theories of urban neolib-
eralization need to encompass the idea that neoliberalism may be a partial, absent or even
irrelevant driver of urban poverty, rather than a ubiquitous frame (Leitner et al., 2007; Peck
et al., 2009a). As Leitner et al. (2007, p. 10) concede, and as we would insist, we need to
“develop an understanding of when neoliberalism, or its contestants, has been transformed
to the point where it is no longer recognizable as such.” Attending more fully to the diverse
processes shaping urban outcomes would create the space to probe the political economy
of Southern cities in ways that reveal more accurately who runs the ­cities of the South, how

that power is gained and used, and how it might be transformed to produce more progres-
sive results. Doing all this presupposes that we think creatively and undogmatically about
the politics of cities.
In summary, then, whereas the plight of many poor cities has been profoundly exac-
erbated by macroeconomic neoliberalism in the form of structural adjustment policies,
ironically it is in these poorer cities that theories of urban neoliberalism may be least help-
ful in illuminating the contemporary urban condition, and where theoretical counterpoints
are most urgently needed. Downplaying the role of neoliberalism and exploring its radical
(re)contextualization in a very wide range of different political projects might well result
in the disappearance of neoliberalism as a relevant analytical lens for understanding con-
temporary cities. In some—most?—urban places we might be observing poverty as far
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more than the path-dependent outcome of neoliberalization. Taking seriously the sugges-
tion that neoliberalization is just one of many processes shaping cities, we might indicate
that diverse and divergent pathways of urban development are not necessarily adding to
the emergent “syndrome” of neoliberalization (Brenner et al., 2010b), but potentially to a
range of different trajectories of accumulation and political regulation in cities.
Thus it may not be helpful for either theorization of, or political resistance to, inequal-
ity, poverty, peremptory and violent power, exclusions, and exploitation in urban processes
to be effected under the sign of anti-neoliberalism. And, conversely, it may well be impera-
tive to creatively contribute to institutional elaborations of policy interventions that incor-
porate neoliberal technologies in order to achieve urgent developmental and/or progressive
redistributive ends (Collier, 2005; Ferguson, 2007). In other words, while we would not
contest the very real and widely documented effects of neoliberalization on poverty and
power relations in many cities, we think it is important to open up the possibility of dis-
placing this theoretical lens if we are to understand, learn from, and build theories of some
of the other processes that shape urban poverty and inequality in many poorer cities.
In the interest of shifting the theoretical axis of urban studies from the North to the South,
a post-neoliberal theoretical and political agenda—decentering the dominant ­critique of
urban neoliberalism—is essential to activate the potential to creatively engage with urban
development practice and policy as a generative site for urban theorization in its own right
as well as a resource for wider scholarly reflection on the dynamics and experiences of
cities across the global South. We now turn to explore this potential along two lines: ideas
of the good city and the right to the city, which have emerged from within urban develop-
ment practice framed by the policy analyses of multidimensional approaches to poverty
relief. This highlights the need for new theories of the local state in the wake of a growing
post-neoliberal commitment to service delivery for the poor.


If poorer cities are to figure more strongly in wider theorizations, it is imperative to

draw attention to the intellectual contribution and not simply the utility of policy research,
and to consider more fully the scholarly merit of policy-related research (Yiftachel, 2006;
Bell, 2007). Certainly, in relation to urban studies, planning theorists have made ­substantial
efforts to learn from practice, both in the North (Healey, 1997) and the South (Pieterse,
2008). Generally though, the anxiety that politicians will dictate academic agendas has
bolstered the separation of multilateral agency agendas, national urban-related policy, the

work of city halls, and that of the academy. Similarly, academic-institution demands for
high-impact scholarly publications in “international” journals are biased against work that
is not embedded in dominant theoretical frameworks, thereby undermining learning from
practice-based scholarship. In the global North this is a problem because it dilutes the criti-
cal role of the public intellectual (Harvey, 2006); in the global South, where policy work
dominates intellectual output, it is creating an academic lacuna on the dynamics shaping
emergent forms of urbanization that is disastrous for the training of the next generation of
practitioners as well as for conceptual innovation (Watson, 2009).
With this in mind, this section highlights how policy-generated or applied knowledge
can feed a revival in theoretical reflections on the city. The example developed here traces
ideas that informed overtly practical concerns in post-apartheid South Africa as to how
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to support the urban poor, and documents the gradual metamorphosis of this contradic-
tory, action-based urban engagement into theoretical reflections on the utopian ideals of a
“good” or “rights-based” city. These insights are drawn largely from the authors’ extensive
policy experience in South Africa, but parallel trends are noted that debate the expanded
role of the state in cities in Brazil (Fernandes, 2007) and Mexico (Guarneros-Mesa and
Geddes, 2010).
The post-apartheid, anti-poverty journey is much like that of other middle-income
nations. In defiance of the trend to reduce state expenditures, the post-1994 democratic
state systematically expanded the publicly funded social safety net for the urban poor
(Taylor Committee, 2002; see also Seekings, 2002 and Van der Berg, 2006). Alongside
this massive scaling-up of state protection, civil society made overt demands of govern-
ment to ‘back off’—for example, allowing community-built housing not state construc-
tion ­(Harrison et al., 2008) and community policing instead of state patrols (Brogden and
Shearing, 1993). The “abdication” of government was seen to be important in allowing
the poor and their representatives in organized civil society (as opposed to elected gov-
ernment) to draw on their own insights and capacities to do more for themselves to end
poverty. The demand for expanded community involvement was also, in a situation that
reflects in part that seen in Latin America (Geddes, 2010), a product of community distrust
in state capacities to actually deliver appropriate services.
Neither the widening of state social safety nets nor the call from communities for less
state involvement, however, are standard neoliberal policy narratives, and they have there-
fore largely been ignored by scholars whose point of departure is a neoliberal critique. What
the South African experience suggests is that there is no single account or trend in how
social policy unfolds in a city, making it difficult to define the South African experience as
a neoliberal transition. What the politics of anti-poverty policy development there reveals
is a messy, contradictory set of demands, achievements, and failures, wherein ideological
lines were far from clearly delineated (Oldfield, 2000). After the 1994 democratic elec-
tions, there were competing voices within government, with a significant number speak-
ing against greater state involvement in the development of poor communities. Ironically,
this position was not associated with the “neoliberals” in the National Treasury, but came
largely from provincial and city officials drawn from the ranks of populist ex-­activists with
roots in civilian organizations. These were people who wanted to use their new position in
power to consciously promote the role of individual poor people and NGOs in urban pov-
erty reduction programs through state-sponsored, community-based social development
agendas (Parnell, 2004; Pieterse, 2004). This community, or social development position

as it was called, implied a reduced role for the state as a partner rather than the driver of
development. This could possibly be construed as neoliberal in the way that it left the poor
to define their own destiny outside of any formal state commitments, but its protagonists
would have been horrified by this rendition of their political position since most associated
themselves with the early post-apartheid progressive Reconstruction and ­Development
Agenda rather than with the unquestionably neoliberal macroeconomic policy known as
GEAR (Growth, Employment, and Redistribution) (Marais, 2001). What is significant
here is not how the two political camps positioned themselves in relation to the challenges
of urban reconstruction, but rather what emerged from the combination of their (dissonant)
practical efforts to change cities for the better.
The overarching impression of the post-apartheid urban policy landscape is one of ideo-
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logical confusion (Pillay et al., 2006). At the same time as calls for livelihood enhancement
and greater community-driven development were being put before parliament, there were
also demands from the newly elected politicians for significant increases in taxation and
redistribution to allow for the payment by government of grants or social transfers to the
entire population. Significantly, these demands were achieved, defying neoliberal commit-
ments to reduced state spending. Indeed, in South Africa the deracialization of the welfare
system has been the major mechanism lifting people out of poverty over the past 15 years
(Seekings and Nattrass, 2006; Bhorat and van der Westhuizen, 2009), suggesting that an
enhanced state welfare approach has been the dominant anti-poverty instrument—hardly
the outcome of neoliberal reforms. However, the community-based social development
agenda has also had a lasting impact on how the poor are perceived in national urban
policy agendas (Pieterse, 2008). Intellectually, and for our purposes, it is the fusion of the
two positions that is really interesting.
In unraveling the new imaginaries of the post-apartheid city, it is useful to understand
how these contrasting positions on social assistance were conceived and then accommo-
dated. In the case of the welfarist caucus, it was a simple argument about universalism and
non-racialism—what the state had provided to people once classified as “white,” it should
now give every South African (Nattrass and Seekings, 2008). Nobody, least of all anyone
who had fought for a non-racial South Africa, contested the principle of equity. But signifi-
cantly, nobody argued for removing the privileges of the “white” population and cutting
back welfare altogether, which might have been a classical neoliberal approach. There was,
however, no clearly articulated understanding of what an urban welfare program might
entail in a non-racial South Africa. As a result, almost all of the welfare resources, includ-
ing those spent exclusively at the city level (such as transport or housing subsidies), are run
from national or provincial departments (van Rynerveld, 2006). In other words, there was
little or no devolution of welfare programs in post-apartheid South Africa; the principle of
universal access to subsidies remained firmly entrenched, as did the notion that the state
should tax the rich in order to redistribute wealth to the poor. There are certainly examples
of neoliberalism evident in South Africa—but a backtracking of the state from a commit-
ment to redistribution is not one of them. South African cities, notoriously unequal places,
are fairer now than 20 years ago because of this policy position, a fact ignored or distorted
by the authors of most neoliberal critiques (cf. McDonald and Pape, 2002).
In the case of the social development caucus, tracing the intellectual base for their posi-
tion is more complex. The social or community-development policy grouping (as opposed
to the state welfare position) drove a significant debate across government agencies as to

how best to view poverty in new ways. Recognizing both the paucity of South African data
and also the limits of income definitions of poverty, the social development activists argued
that there was a clear need to break with the income-based measurements that formed the
basis for most state poverty reduction programs and the bulk of poverty spending. During
the 1980s, income was broadly rejected as a crude and misleading poverty indicator, not-
withstanding increasingly sophisticated analytical work on poverty that identified chronic
rather than transient poverty and now began to disaggregate poverty by race, class, gender,
and other variables (Townsend, 2002; Murray, 2006). Internationally, income was seen as
a decidedly unreliable measure of urban poverty, especially in cities with high levels of
informal economic activity (Wratten, 1995). South African cities, despite their relatively
good income data, were only too happy to look for alternative indicators that gave greater
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weight to issues such as race, access to urban services, and housing delivery in assessing
who was poor because these meshed well with the broader political challenges and expec-
tations of transforming the apartheid city.
Led by the South African Cities Network, a more nuanced understanding of urban
poverty was developed (Boraine et al., 2006). Although there were already strident cri-
tiques of the measures used to define poverty, the concept of a multidimensional definition
(MDD) of poverty quickly gained traction in South African cities (Boulle and Parnell,
2005; ­Parnell, 2005). Interestingly, at the same time as the MDD approach to poverty was
embraced, the income-based targeting of significant state support, such as pensions and
housing subsidies, continued unchallenged. In practice, a dual-track discourse was already
emerging whereby extended state redistribution stood alongside the state’s political sup-
port for an expanded role for community development and livelihood enhancement. The
long tradition of community leadership now joined with the hard-fought right to elected
leadership, and this worked because the scope of the MDD of poverty captured the huge
range of activities encompassed by the roles of both kinds of leaders. Politically, expanding
the welfarist approach to include community participation and other social development
activities and values created opportunities for both councillors and community leaders in
the post-apartheid fight against poverty.
An MDD of poverty (where income, historical disadvantage, housing conditions, and
categories of race and gender define who is poor) has been used in South Africa since
the mid-1990s in ways that were broadly premised on the United Nations Development
­Programme’s human development approach (UNDP, 1997; Parnell and Pieterse, 2002).
But the South African case is fascinating because it was not just the definition of urban
poverty that was expanded but also the process through which the state took action to
reduce poverty. The post-apartheid government did not abandon direct and indirect target-
ing of subsidies, yet it did try to draw together other ways of operating to create a holistic
understanding of poverty wherein the purpose of anti-poverty action was seen to be enlarg-
ing peoples’ life choices and empowering them to act. Specifically it referred to enhancing
political and economic capabilites to enable individuals to lead longer and healthier lives.
For city government, this conceptual thinking implied (though did not always ensure) a
much-expanded urban delivery agenda. The developmental agenda of local government
included: (1) a universal urban franchise, opening up access to basic needs to all ­residents
through an expanded state program of indigent support; (2) a formal commitment to par-
ticipation and inclusion in state deliberations on how and where resources would be spent;
and (3) public endorsement of the legitimacy of community structure to speak (and at

times act) on behalf of local residents. Included in the post-apartheid notion of urban pov-
erty alleviation was the idea of ensuring that human rights were upheld and that political
and social freedoms were secure in a sustainable living environment (Pieterse, 2008). In
this regard, the terminology had already taken on a normative base not associated with
conventional income-based standard of living or quality-of-life measures popular in North
American cities or welfare policy in Europe. The de facto usage of the MDD by govern-
ment in defining a development-oriented local government agenda, including recognizing
the range of urban-based services necessary for addressing poverty (Parnell and Pieterse,
2002; Pillay et al., 2006), carried all the language that would later find an easy intellectual
home in the broader notions of a good city and a rights-based city.
It is not just the range of new state activities and partnerships, but also the centrality of
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the agency ascribed to the state that distinguished the South African usage of the MDD of
poverty from earlier approaches to development. Although related, the way the MDD of
poverty was invoked after 1994 within the framework of developmental local government
should not be conflated with contemporaneous approaches to assets used by development
economists or the livelihood studies that dominated rural poverty and natural resource
research (Chambers, 1997). The MDD approach used in post-apartheid cities placed a
primary emphasis on what (national and local) states could do to define beneficiary groups
and allocate resources to the poor (Parnell and Pieterse, 2002). In other words, it intro-
duced the logic of welfare and urban developmental planning into the imaginary of urban
poverty relief without rejecting the notion of multiple livelihood strategies. In contrast,
the traditional livelihoods approach to urban development, although acknowledging the
value of different assets, was largely an endorsement of the way networks of relationships
became configured to enhance poor peoples’ access to opportunities and resources beyond
or in the absence of the state (Moser, 1998; Rakodi and Lloyd Jones, 2002; Rakodi, 2005);
thus, a narrow livelihoods position, which focused on relationships within a household or
within the community, was not well suited to analysis or intervention at the city or city-
region scale. By contrast, the merging of the state-supported, neo-welfare and community-
based poverty positions framed direct developmental action (including redistribution and
subsidy allocation) by government at the urban scale while giving greater scope for devel-
opmental interventions beyond the workplace—which had traditionally been the focus for
welfare support in the South African context—and outside of direct welfare transfers such
as pensions and disability grants. For a state with some but not unlimited resources that
aimed to be seen to be reaching the poor, this was an ideal point of departure for its urban
This fusion of community-driven poverty alleviation and a basic but universal state
social safety net, resonated with the lived experience of poverty in many South African cit-
ies and spoke to a desire on the part of residents and urban managers to build sustainable
and viable communities on the limited resources available. In the aftermath of apartheid,
the search for new policy positions such those outlined here was to be expected. But it is
our sense that the South African delineation of locally responsive poverty policies is also
part of a much wider global phenomenon. Across the world, and especially in the global
South, cities have approved poverty strategies, either as stand-alone strategies or under the
rubric of wider City Development Strategies (CDS) using either livelihood approaches or
this kind of expanded MDD thinking as the basis for renewed state action and/or recon-
figured state civil society partnerships (Robinson and Parnell, 2006; Parnell and Pieterse,

2010). The South African state, therefore, was not alone during the 1990s in expanding
rather than contracting its footprint in the urban development sphere.
Surprisingly few of the anti-poverty campaigns of Southern cities have been discussed
in academic journals (but see the special issues of the International Journal of Urban and
Regional Research in 2010 and also Benit-Gbaffbou and Dider, 2012), so it was left to the
(then non–peer reviewed) journal, Environment and Urbanisation, to publish material on
individual cities—cases that were only otherwise noted in books edited by activist intel-
lectuals based largely in the UK (cf. Devas et al., 2004; Mitlin and Satterthwaite, 2004).
Lack of in-depth engagement with particular cases (so far) reduces the opportunities for
comparative assessment of these urban poverty strategies that emerged across Southern
cities around the turn of this century, and it is premature to speak boldly about what these
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city poverty policies represent more generally. If the South African cases are illustrative,
however, it would seem unlikely that their conception, production, application, and conse-
quences were simply a response to or an outcome of a neoliberal agenda.
In terms of the wider intellectual impact of these policy developments, few if any post-
apartheid city policy positions on poverty reduction have been subject to rigorous intel-
lectual interrogation. The Cape Metropolitan Council poverty strategy (CMC, 1998), for
example, shows how the fusion of ideas sketched above reflected a set of internal contra-
dictions and created conceptual confusion that academics could have drawn attention to.
Not only were inconsistencies between the different approaches being brought together in
poverty strategies overlooked, but obvious shortcomings of the MDD of poverty (such as
the lack of transparency as to who the beneficiaries were or the dilution of impact resulting
from spending across interventions) were largely ignored by policy innovators (academics
as well as practitioners) in South Africa. One explanation for the implicit endorsement by
scholars of the local use of the MDD of poverty is that it was widely seen as legitimate by
both policymakers and the poor. It certainly captured effectively the very hard choices that
had to be made by embryonic urban governments in fighting poverty with limited fiscal
and human resources. Another explanation is that, as in many developing countries’ cities,
there was a high-level political commitment to the sustainable human settlements agenda
of UN Habitat and other international agencies, which enabled and supported the anti-
poverty policy outcomes achieved in the immediate post-apartheid era (Pillay et al., 2006).
Thus even when administrators actually used much narrower definitions of poverty to
target resources (such as a basic needs approach that focuses on deliverable infrastructure),
they framed their policy interventions in the more palatable and hegemonic multidimen-
sional poverty discourse (Pieterse, 2008). For better or worse, then, the perhaps clumsy
and ill-conceived marriage of ideas about top-down, state-driven welfare and bottom-up,
enhanced community development was forged, defining the urban agenda of the 21st cen-
tury in South Africa.
Whereas the emergent policy space we have described here resulted from contrasting
political positions and a spirit of experimentation rather than specific, intellectually rigor-
ous positions, more academic reflections on the way the practice of urban poverty manage-
ment developed in South African cities have gradually coalesced (Pillay et al., 2006). Over
the past five years or so, this practice-based understanding has been grafted onto notions
of the good city (Friedman, 2000; Amin, 2006) and the right to the city (Lefebvre, 1996),
suggesting that as we review this period of policy innovation and implementation it is
important to consider the relationship between policy statements, development practice,

and wider academic writing at the same time we pursue more routine assessments of the
implementation (and failures) of the policies themselves. If urban scholars are to develop
interpretations of cities at the interface between applied and theoretical work, then it will
be crucial to interrogate more closely the impacts and appropriations of international pol-
icy approaches, such as taking a multidimensional view of poverty. In their prolific circula-
tions, ideas like the MDD of poverty—and neoliberalism—intersect with and reconfigure
the priorities of government spending, and change popular expectations of urban policy
and practice in much the same way as, for example, generic ideas about the virtues of the
“garden city’ or the “city beautiful” did in the last century (Hall, 1988). Seen within this
lineage, then, these are the new urban utopias. And although utopian ideas might function
through the regulatory power of hegemonic discourse they can, as we have seen in the
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case of anti-poverty policies in South African cities, also motivate institutional change and
provide useful markers of progress (Hasan et al., 2005).
It is the notion of a rights-based city that is being consciously articulated as an alterna-
tive urban ideal for Southern cities (UN Habitat, 2006). Initially restricted to what Jones
and Stokke (2005) refer to as first-generation rights of voting, gender equality, and per-
sonal safety, there has been an explosion of literature on the wider issues of urban-based
rights (largely from the global South) (cf. Fernandes, 2007; Parnell, 2007; Duminy and
Watson, 2011). Unlike the literatures that seek to identify the impact of neoliberalism
on cities everywhere, many of these accounts are focused on the need for a fundamental
rethinking of urban management systems and practices from a rights-based perspective
(Parnell and Pieterse, 2010). What the emerging rights-based literature does is to create
an activist space, not so much in opposition to government policy (as in the case of much
of the documented protests against neoliberal actions in cities), but rather in defining state
practices. This makes the state itself a site of struggle for urbanists, and directs scholars to
the need for crafting more focused analyses of the role of the state in urban development.


In establishing widely accepted (utopian) norms and ambitions for addressing urban
poverty, the MDD poverty movement spawned the rights-based city demands that were
highlighted at the 2010 World Urban Forum in Brazil as the primary basis for address-
ing the global urban crisis. The idealism of the good city in the South is one that now
embraces universal service access, allowing basic human rights to be realized (Jaglin,
2004). Thus, alongside circulating knowledges that are understood to be contributing to
the neoliberalization of urban governance (Peck et al., 2009a), viewed from the cities of
the South circulating (utopian) assumptions about the good city and the right to the city
have also generated extensive international commitment to realizing the entitlements of
the urban poor through the delivery of universal access to urban services. The need for a
post-neoliberal analytic of contemporary urban development is reinforced when we con-
sider the significance of the growing focus on the local state as the presumed agent of this
delivery (see left column of Table 2).
In line with international endorsements of the rights-based agenda, debate on the reform
of the role of the state in poverty reduction in cities of the global South has already begun
(cf. Batley and Larbi, 2004). But insofar as there is a coherent academic debate about the
realization of rights through the redistributive role of the state at the urban level beyond the

Table 2. Is “Government” Good or Bad for the Urban Poor? An Incipient Debate
More government is necessary Less government is required

•  Better planning and land management is essential to •  Best thing government can do is nothing
protect the poor (UN Habitat, 2009) (Amis, 1995)
•  Government is best placed to uphold universal minimum •  An absent state is better than an interfering
standards implied in Millennium Development Goals and state (Roy, 2005)
the right to the city (see extended discussion in text)
•  Sub- national government can extend its redistributive •  Informality works, the poor organize
role in a developmental local state (van Donk et al., 2008) themselves better than government (Chabal
and Daloz, 1999)
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•  Building urban resilience to climate change means a basic •  Less government is good for the poor
level, often more, government (Sánchez-Rodríguez et al., (Escobar, 1995)
•  Shifting participatory democracy away from the micro •  Government misunderstands, interferes, and
implies mature intergovernmental structures (Glaser, creates problems (Oldfield, 2005; Ferguson,
2009) 2006)
•  Inclusive neo-modern urban management needs “big •  Reject “invited” spaces made by
enough” government to do the basics, e.g. street numbers government and use only “invented” spaces
(Farvacque-Vitovic et al., 2005) created by the opposition for engaging the
state (Miraftab, 2004a)
•  Informality fosters innovation and urban
vitality (Koolhaas et al., 2000)

global North, it has been directed primarily at services like water, waste removal, and elec-
tricity, and has focused on a critique of privatization as a mechanism for equitable delivery.
However, and in stark contrast to this academic debate, it is the challenge of providing
basic services for everyone in the city, including those who cannot pay full cost recovery,
that has seen a resurgent (post-neoliberal) interest in the role of the state, even from the
World Bank (2006). What is truly significant about this new form of the policy debate
about services for the urban poor is the changing set of underlying assumptions. Ten years
ago, notwithstanding the 1986 signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
there was no consensus that basic services were a right of all urban residents regardless
of who provided them or where in the world they lived. Now the rights of slum dwellers
across the world are being affirmed, if only on paper (Hasan et al., 2005). Political dynam-
ics today center around how best to plan cities and run their administrations, to ensure that
basic services reach those who are unconnected as well as also those who cannot pay for
longer-term service charges.
However, the wider body of academic work on state–civil society relations is somewhat
at odds with the utopian tone of the practice derived from the MDD poverty focus, and the
associated flourishing of the idea of “a good city” in which the rights of all residents can/
should be realized through appropriate state intervention (see Robbins, 2009). Thus much
of this research, grounded in many cities of the global South, could best be described as
dystopic for its stark reminder of how poorly equipped urban government is to respond
to and engage the demands of the poor. The focus of this work is on the highly contested
question of how poor people organize to access the resources of the state, to protest state

oppression, and to facilitate their daily lives in the absence of effective, fair urban govern-
ment. Overall, the academic consensus seems to be that government does little to enhance
the lives of the urban poor (see right column of Table 2), although we do acknowledge
that there is also significant academic scholarship showing that monolithic interpretations
of state–civil society interactions fail to reflect complexities on the ground. An example
would be state allocations that benefit some of the urban poor more than others, whereby
organized cohesive communities do better than equally poor but divided communities in
accessing urban opportunities (Oldfield, 2005; Benjamin, 2008).
The contrasting positions presented in Table 2 suggest two pressing issues for theoreti-
cal reflection. First, we would suggest there is a need to revisit our interpretations of the
politics of the state in cities, especially in its relationship to civil society. This is not so
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much about how government and residents find each other or engage around urban issues
in practice, although continuing work on that is needed. It rather has to do with the more
abstract issue of trying to determine what might be more important in overcoming the per-
vasive urban poverty of cities in the global South—having a strong state or a strong civil
society. This may seem to be an unfortunate binary, but it is at the heart of policy debates
on urban service delivery and, as the summary of views in Table 2 reveals, the academic
literature, at the very least, has become somewhat polarized. Critiques of neoliberalism as
the dominant approach to the changing role of the state in urban politics tend to see the
state as a site for the invention and proliferation of neoliberal initiatives that undermine the
position of the urban poor and reinforce a hegemonic global agenda of competitive priva-
tization and minimal welfare provision. Together with the associated tendency to privilege
the role of social movements in generating alternative visions for the city (as represented
in the right column in Table 2), scholarly attention has focused too little on the state as a
site for innovation and delivery of a progressive agenda in the interests of the poor. Cer-
tainly, insofar as there is a need for significantly more and better urban government and
administration in the global South to deliver on the now popular rights-based agenda, the
field of urban studies will need to expand its more nuanced analyses of state power and
institutional politics.
The second issue builds from the observation that, if the state is to be an important par-
ticipant in the urban developmental process, all sorts of initiatives in research and capacity
building will be needed. A number of urgent practice-related research questions also arise.
Among them are: What kinds of research might be imagined to enhance state capacity to
deliver on this rights-based agenda in a creative and poor-supportive fashion? How much
and what type of government is helpful for promoting urban development? And how might
the officials and professionals that such an expansion of the state necessitates be trained
quickly and supported internationally when, in the wake of decimating macroeconomic
neoliberalism in many poor countries, the universities and research institutions that feed
creative endeavor in many Southern cities are so significantly under-resourced? The chal-
lenges for urban studies as a domain of intellectual endeavor, then, are about far more
than regenerating the field of knowledge about cities to equip it for the changing demo-
graphics and dynamism of the global urban system—although, as we have argued here,
that is important. Finally, there is the need to creatively imagine how to advance collec-
tive responsibility for building research capacity and theoretical resilience in the research
institutions of poorer cities, so that in the long term city theory-building is more widely
dispersed geographically.


In looking to a post-neoliberal theoretical terrain that speaks more sensitively and

directly to cities of the global South, we have indicated that productive avenues for intel-
lectual engagement already exist, especially regarding the substantial (largely applied)
literature on the problem of urban poverty. These have arisen in response to the powerful
circulating ideas informing an international rights-based agenda committed to delivering
universal access to urban services. Re-engaging with the idea of the state as a complex set
of institutions, open to diverse political and policy agendas (including progressive ones),
is a crucial component of such a project.
What is unclear, though, is how an alternative legitimate body of knowledge about
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cities that includes the global urban South will be constructed. Will scholars from around
the world eventually theorize global urbanization as one of the most significant transfor-
mations of 21st-century life in the conventional high-impact journals, shifting the urban
debate from New York to Mumbai? We certainly have not seen an outpouring of case stud-
ies and critical reflections that one might anticipate given the major urban transformations
underway in the global South. Many structural difficulties surround this project of inter­
nationalizing urban studies, including language barriers, differential institutional resourc-
ing, and international journal publishing practices. Here we have focused on potentially
more tractable areas of theoretical innovation in an effort to open a space for immediate
efforts in this direction, and particularly stressed the importance of moving beyond the
dominant critiques of neoliberalism if practice-based knowledge is to contribute to the
wider theorization of international urban processes. Policy outcomes are the result of mul-
tiple circuits of knowledge, and attending to those which are not contributing to broader
processes of neoliberalization is critical if the concerns and practices of urban development
in poorer cities are to be comprehended. And here, making a conscious effort to place these
experiences on the global urban theoretical agenda means that scholarship should better
reflect practice-driven knowledge that too often falls off the radar screen of critical urban
theory (Yiftachel, 2006). Our hope is that engaging in such new forms of knowledge pro-
duction will also encourage conscious political commitments toward shifting the balance
of theoretical power and academic resourcing to match the emerging global configurations
of urbanization and urban poverty.


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