Urban Governance, Gender and Markets

Urban Governance refers to the general manner in which a city is governed. It includes both the formal structures of urban government and administration and the practises of exercising management and power, including the role of groups in civil society in the governing relationship.

Gender refers to the cultural interpretation of differences between men and women. Gender and gender identity are socially constructed. Gender entails both menís and womenís active roles in society and their ideas about maleness and femaleness.

Markets refer here to actual sites of transaction; specific places where buyers and sellers meet. It encompasses both spaces designated by city authorities as markets, and more informal and temporary sites of transaction appropriated by vendors.

The informalisation of the economies of Africaís rapidly growing cities raise critical questions about urban governance, patterns of provisioning and gender dynamics. Local and national authorities may have ambitious policies for the control of urban space, but lack financial resources and staff for their implementation, and also for providing services to city enterprises and households. The creation of decentralized, elected municipal councils is a fairly recent phenomenon in most countries, and their role in city governance and their relations to established structures of urban management and power constellations need to be studied. Another line of inquiry may be how decentralised, democratically elected city councils are perceived and used by urban women and men, who are more used to seeing authorities as repressive and something to be avoided rather than institutions of public service.

The major sources of provisioning for urban households are still markets and street vendors. Market fees, licences and taxes are important sources of finance for local governments. Yet, relations between the agents of city governments and traders are often antagonistic; public places becoming contested sites of interaction. What from the perspective of city agents are matters of law and order, hygiene and health, are by the street vendors and market traders experienced as coercion and harassment. In a number of cities, new markets have been constructed with funds from aid agencies. Some of these new markets are managed by private companies. The ramifications for urban governance and relations between markets and traders need to be explored. In several cases, the new markets are shunned by traders, indicating a breakdown of relations between local authorities and traders and their associations. Yet in the fight for control over public space, the unregulated, untaxed and unprotected traders often respond to repeated crackdowns with an astonishing resilience, indicating resources far beyond what is apparent.

Both urban governance and urban markets, and the relation between the two have important gender dimensions. In most African cities, the retail distribution system of markets and street vending is female dominated, while government and business bureaucracies are overwhelmingly male. Does this gendering of urban economic relations have an impact on patterns of cooperation and conflict between city authorities and traders?

Because of job retrenchment and transformations of formal economies along neo-liberal lines, urban households and their members are experiencing increasing pressures to make a living. Much scholarship on the urban informal sector from the 1970s and 1980s noted that there were more low-income urban women than men in urban retail trade. Has the way market niches are gendered changed, when both adult men and women and youth are looking for work? Have the divisions public/male and private/female in market trading become blurred, and what kind of new constellations or relations between men and women traders are emerging?

The last two decades have witnessed a continuous economic decline that is fuelling a widespread increase of poverty in many of Africaís large cities. Yet at the same time, the gap between poverty and wealth is widening. The fact that the pauperisation and marginalisation of large segments of the urban population is accompanied by accumulation of wealth among other, smaller segments is often overlooked in discussions of urban change processes. The informal economy is usually regarded as an arena for the survival strategies of the poor. But the informal economy also contains some extremely successful entrepreneurs, both men and women. They are rarely portrayed in current research and poorly reflected in discussions of urban retail trade. New patterns of stratification need to be explored, not only in terms of gender, but also in terms of age, ethnicity, caste etc.

Source: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, the Nordic Africa Institute's research programme on 'Cities, Governance and Civil Society in Africa'

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