Study finds wide variations in urban service outcomes and expenditures in South Asia

IDG Research, October 2013 - News reports and other anecdotal evidence suggests that many cities in South Asia are dysfunctional and suffer from serious deficiencies in the quantity and quality of infrastructure, including poor roads, uncollected garbage, regular flooding, stagnant storm and wastewater, and unreliable supplies of drinking water. Despite the increased importance of urban space in economic and social development in South Asia (and elsewhere in the world) and the need to harness the power of urbanization, relatively little is known about the determinants of urban service delivery performance. In other words, what causes some urban areas to deliver better urban services than other urban areas?

With support from the World Bank, a study team from the Urban Institute –comprised of Jamie Boex, Brittany Lane and Guevera Yao- explored the provision of urban public services in South Asia, and analyzed the impact of different fiscal and institutional constraints on the provision of urban public services in South Asian countries.

In order to analyze why some cities in South Asia provide better urban services than others, the team worked with experts in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to collect information on service delivery outcomes, expenditures, and institutional arrangements for four urban services (solid waste management, water supply, local roads and local public transport) in eleven cities in South Asia. Analysis revealed considerable variations in urban service delivery outcomes and expenditures across our sample of urban areas. The analysis further found modest but positive correlations between variations in per capita recurrent expenditure levels and variations in service delivery outcomes across the sample.

Although it is tempting to conclude based on this evidence that higher expenditures cause better urban services, it should be noted that correlation does not necessarily reflect causality. For instance, it might simply be the case that better-functioning cities are able to attract greater resources for the delivery of urban services. As such, the study also took a careful look at the institutional structures within which urban local authorities operate, and the impact of institutional arrangements on urban service delivery performance.

Based on institutional information collected for each of the cities in the sample, indicators were defined for the degree of functional responsibility assigned to urban local authorities, the degree of administrative control that ULAs have over urban services, and the strength of local participation and accountability mechanisms. Analyses of these institutional measures revealed that, overall, South Asian cities are somewhat limited in the assignment of responsibility for urban services (on average, across all four services, 3.2 on a five-point scale) while most urban authorities only have very limited administrative control over the urban public services delivered within their jurisdictions (2.0/5.0). In other words, even in cases where urban services are not delivered by centrally-controlled agencies or authorities outright, higher-level government officials often have a high degree of control over different administrative aspects of urban service delivery (e.g., local human resources management, local procurement, and so on). In addition, our results suggest that local participation and accountability mechanisms in South Asia are generally weak (2.5/5.0). Although we find modest, positive correlations between these institutional measures and service delivery outcomes in the provision of urban water, no such correlations are apparent for solid waste management or local roads.