Thursday, November 11, 2010


Photo: Tidal Basin, Washington, DC  Credit: Destination DC

When I think about the world and how we view and deal with its problems, I often think about two people I got to know through my work a few years ago.

One is Mohamed Halfani. He’s a Tanzanian who was at the University of Dar es Salaam before moving to leadership roles with global organisations, most recently the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UN-HABITAT) in Nairobi. The other is Joyce Malombe. She’s a Kenyan formerly at the University of Nairobi who's worked at the World Bank and other international, academic and philanthropic organisations.

I admire these two for several reasons, but I want to mention in particular their contributions as visiting scholars at the Washington, DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. They were part of an International Working Group at the Centre’s Comparative Urban Studies Project in the late 1990s. Their innovative task was to examine and help local leaders solve the serious urban problems facing Washington, DC.

So often the way the world works is that experts from northern, developed countries arrive to analyse and solve the issues facing developing countries. It doesn’t usually work the other way around – but it could. You see, both Joyce Malombe and Mohamed Halfani are internationally-recognised experts on urban development, each with many years of experience analysing cities, identifying solutions, and advising national governments and international organisations.

In Washington, DC, Mohamed Halfani looked at an aspect of urban governance which had been neglected: the role of civic organisations and their relationship to the elected city government and federal administration. Halfani found that vibrant community and neighbourhood associations had achieved a great deal, especially compared to inefficient and mismanaged local governments. But he also found their potential was constrained by prohibitions on political advocacy, financial dependency on governments, and other factors.

Joyce Malombe examined poverty in Washington, DC and the federal, local government and non-profit programs to address it. She found that these programs were insufficient and mainly designed to deal with short-term problems rather than the complex causes that kept people in poverty. She also noted a lack of community involvement in policies and programs, and a history of power struggles between levels of government, exacerbated by a context of racial and social tensions, that inhibited addressing poverty.

Malombe's and Halfani's analyses gave a fresh perspective on Washington's persistent problems, perhaps one that could only have come from their experience with developing country cities. (Halfani’s paper, "Local Dynamism and the Governance of Washington, D.C.: A Study on the Scope of Civil Society-State Engagement" and Malombe’s paper, "State and Local Approaches to Poverty in Washington, D.C." are available at

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