New Partnerships between civil society actors and government institutions

By Peter Herrle

There is a growing recognition that the ambitious goal of transforming fast-growing cities into major globally attractive hubs of the world economy cannot be reached without including the urban poor as cooperation partners in housing and urban development processes. This situation, combined with pressure from civil society groups, has opened new space for the encounter between civil society and state organisations.1

New forms of partnerships have primarily emerged in Asian, African and South American countries, especially in cities where living conditions of slum dwellers are precarious and the conventional urban governance systems can barely cope with situations of economic and social polarisation. It has been recognised that the ambitious goal of transforming fast-growing cities into globally attractive hubs of the world economy cannot be reached without including the urban poor as cooperation partners in housing and urban development processes. This situation, combined with pressure from civil society groups, has created new spaces for interaction between civil society and state organisations.

These new partnerships differ substantially from conventional participation models prescribed by legislation that, in most countries, do not sufficiently include disadvantaged groups in urban development.

A number of new practices – such as participatory budgeting, citizen-based monitoring, self-enumeration and co-planning – have emerged that are rooted in a new form of direct partnership between state organisations and civil society. Here we use the term ‘new partners’ as a synonym for civil society organisations engaging in a temporary or permanent collaborative arrangement that is characterised by a special type of collaboration on an equal footing, often referred to as ‘co-production’.

The term ‘co-production’ is meant to indicate that the setting of goals and priorities, the allocation of resources, and implementation procedures occur in a negotiation-based regime characterised by mutual recognition of all partners on an equal footing. Typically, these new partnerships transcend conventional, legally-prescribed participation models by accepting civil society organisations as active partners for development, and by sharing responsibilities with those partners rather than involving them as a target group only. The most advanced civil society partners are well organised and supported by professionalised NGOs; they operate on a high professional level and are transnationally networked. Successful cases show that co-production processes are not limited to individual settlements, but rather extend to city-wide and, in some cases, national processes of policy formulation and resource allocation. As such, they form a civil society complement to multi-level strategies frequently adopted in development cooperation.

The core of the new partners is formed by civil society organisations (often CBOs or federations) and a range of ‘allies’ (supporting NGOs, professionals, etc.) forged together as alliances. Such civil society alliances bring in the legitimacy, professionalism and coherence needed for successfully negotiating with government institutions and the private sector. In contrast to other, more rights-based organisations, they follow a pragmatic path of collaboration with governments and other partners wherever there is a likelihood of improving their clientele’s situation.

Local governments have to assume a key role in co-production projects. Without their recognition and willingness to engage in a dialogue or activity beyond tolerance, it is impossible to unleash the dynamism and productive potential of partnerships. Furthermore, when it comes to issues such as land tenure, statutory planning, and infrastructure, the intense involvement of government institutions is essential.

Evidence from the case studies shows that:

1) New partnerships in co-production environments can directly and indirectly contribute towards improving living conditions of the urban poor.
2) Co-production is both a cause and effect of empowerment.
3) The examples presented in this paper show that forging new partnerships yields returns in terms of more inclusive policies, provided that the partners have the adequate knowledge, capacity and power to articulate their needs and make their voices heard.
4) In addition, there is also an ‘empowerment’ of government institutions in that they learn to realise, accept, and deal with a much wider range of stakeholders than before.

Although some scholars have raised doubts regarding legitimacy, representation and other aspects, new partnerships between state and civil society organisations at various levels have great potential that should be used for future urban development. Recent experience with new partnerships shows that the transformational power of these approaches is remarkable, because of – rather than despite – their pragmatic approach and ability to mobilise large numbers of people. The capacities of civil society together with their NGO allies and government institutions at different levels have shown an amazing technical ability to police informal settlements, manage funds, and plan and implement resettlement, sanitation and other projects, in addition to advocacy and networking on national and international levels.

Although it may seem premature to interpret the on-going experience as a consistent trend towards new forms of urban governance that provide for more inclusion and ‘deeper’ democracy, there is substantial evidence that new partnerships can contribute to a new agenda. Co-production practices such as those described in this paper can help make cities more inclusive and create the space needed to involve the urban poor. They introduce new ways of negotiation that allow for the development of more realistic, sustainable development goals and projects.

The following recommendations for the New Urban Agenda are derived from the study:

1) A strong component of direct formal and informal collaboration between civil society organisations and governments at various levels should be introduced in the New Urban Agenda and the work of cooperation agencies.
2) Efforts to build and strengthen the capacities of both local government as well as civil society organisations need to be intensified in order to realise the potential of collaborative interfaces between civil society organisations and government institutions at various levels.
3) Local governments should be encouraged to cooperate in using the successful tools developed by civil society organisations for generating knowledge and joint learning across ethnic, social, gender and religious differences. This will substantially contribute to the development of inclusive urban policies. New interfaces should be developed for enhanced dialogue and collaboration in the early stages of strategising and planning.
4) Successful partnerships and co-production models need inter-sectoral and multi-level approaches. While civil society organisations tend to be broad and focus on more than one aspect of exclusion, local governments and international development cooperation need to overcome fragmentation caused by sectoral institutional boundaries.


1 In preparation for the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in 2016, Cities Alliance members established a Joint Work Programme in 2013. A key message of the Joint Work Programme is that building partnerships between national governments, local authorities and civil society will be crucial for implementing the New Urban Agenda. Within this context, the authors were commissioned to develop a technical background paper on the implications of, and the value added by, partnerships with civil society organisations for implementing the New Urban Agenda at various levels. This paper is based on the authors’ previous research and consultancy, a literature review, and a set of cases provided by members of the Cities Alliance Joint Work Programme. It focuses on issues raised in current discourse on the situation and inclusion of the urban poor in the global South.

Peter Herrle

Peter Herrle

Professor Emeritus for International Urbanism at Habitat Unit
Dr. Peter Herrle is Professor Emeritus for International Urbanism. Until 2012 he was director of the Habitat Unit at Technische Universität Berlin. His research focus is on urban informality, urban governance, housing and mega-urban regions. He is Advisory Professor at the Tongji University Shanghai and a consultant to bilateral and international development agencies. He is founding editor of the ‘Habitat International Series’ at LIT-Publishers and co-editor of ‘Megacities and Global Change’ series at Steiner Publishers.
Peter Herrle