Karachi, a city in southern Pakistan, has a population that has grown from 5.2 million in 1981 to about 15 million in 2017.[1] It embodies vibrancy in its crowded markets and congested roads, and through its large migrant population. At the same time, the city, like many other cities in the developing world, struggles with effective service delivery, with many citizens often unable to access water, sanitation, and housing. Similarly, the pace of its infrastructure investments cannot keep up with city growth; for example, there is no integrated public transport system.

July, 17 2020   |   Astrid Haas & Shahrukh Wani

This is in part a consequence of Karachi’s highly fragmented institutional structures. For example, only a third of the land is under the control of the metropolitan government; the rest is split between federal and provincial governments. Many local services, like waste management, are not in the remit of the city’s control, but rather are centralized at a provincial level. Even these centralized functions are then further split between various agencies. All of this gives about 20 agencies the mandate to provide key urban services in Karachi, with no formal coordination mechanisms between them.[2]

Karachi isn’t alone. Many cities struggle with building what we call an enabling authorizing environment, i.e., the institutional structures that determine how policy decisions are made in a given city. There is no one given formula for this: cities have prospered under differing authorizing environments. However, cross-country experiences suggest that there are certain core features that tend to support better outcomes for urban governance. Some of these features include adequate geographic and administrative reach that, at the same time, is flexible enough to include a growing urban population; sufficient temporal longevity to encompass long-term planning and implementation of large projects; and wide functional span to be able to coordinate the many different types of activities underpinning an urban system.[3]

Some cities have recognized and taken steps towards addressing the weaknesses in their urban authorizing environments. For example, in 2011, a new city authority was established in Kampala, Uganda, to reflect the unique and complex nature of governing the capital city. It is led by a combination of technocrats and politicians.[4] The changes to the underlying institutional structures permitted further reforms that have resulted, for example, in higher revenue collection and better service delivery. However, many challenges still remain to this day; for example, the administrative remit of the authority does not reflect the geographical footprint of the city and so further reforms will have to take into account aspects such as metropolitan governance.

In a forthcoming policy paper, we outline policy options which can improve urban authorizing environments, based on three features: 

The first is to ensure the adequate spatial coverage of the authorizing environment. Particularly, as urban settlements grow, often no single urban authority has the jurisdiction to provide integrated service to the full geographical remit of the city, like in Kampala. Lagos, on the other hand, is an example of one of the few cities in Africa where a single government has authority over the full urban space, mainly because the city has grown to encompass the entire state of Lagos, giving the governor of the state the necessary authority to make decisions for the whole city. 

Where there are several urban authorities governing parts of a metropolitan region, one policy option is to promote voluntary cooperation. For example, São Paulo’s metropolitan region is made up of 38 municipalities, without any overreaching metropolitan structure for their coordination. Seven of these municipalities, however, collaborate voluntarily through the Greater ABC Inter-municipal Consortium. Key features of the consortium include a Council of Municipalities which makes collective decisions, and a Regional Strategic Planning Department which forms thematic groups for specific sectors and is made up of representatives of each of the seven municipalities.[5] However, in other places, stronger forms of cooperation are necessary, such as in the case of Cape Town, where the entire metropolitan region is governed under a single local government. A stark contrast from pre-1994 Cape Town, which comprised as many as 61 local government entities.[6]

The second feature is functional control and coordination within the urban authorizing environments. These have to do with the allocation of responsibility for decision making in a city, and the corresponding enforcement authority. One manifestation of potential functional fragmentation is the existence of numerous organizational silos which prevent urban agencies from sharing information and collaborating to make policy decisions or provide a service.

In Cairo, for example, there are 18 separate government entities and four parastatal organizations with a substantial role in Greater Cairo’s transportation, contributing to a fragmented transport system with little intra-modal integration.[7] To overcome these same challenges, Singapore established a consolidated transportation agency, the Land Transport Authority, in 1995. This authority administers all land-based transport services in the city-state. Lagos too has acted in this respect by establishing a single agency to coordinate all transport-related activities.[8]

The third feature is the temporal reach of the authorizing environments. For effective urban policymaking, cities need to be able to take decisions over longer time periods that can, for example, anticipate future growth. Enabling authorizing environments allow urban policymakers to be forward-looking in terms of their investments in infrastructure and institutions.[9] However, given limited resources and short-term political cycles, this is a struggle in many cities. 

Some cities have adopted policies and institutions that transcend and thus enable planning beyond political cycles. For example, in three major cities in Indonesia, the World Bank has helped establish city planning labs. These labs are dedicated municipal-level facilities, which provide data and analysis to the city for planning and investment decisions. In Semarang, one of these three cities, for example, the lab has conducted various analyses for the city, including on the water supply network and poverty rates, which are then used as inputs to the city’s medium-term plans.[10]

As the columnist Vaqar Ahmed once wrote, “Karachi is ruled by everyone, run by no one.”[11] Many cities feel the same. Therefore, we believe that, for cities like Karachi and others, addressing the underlying constraints to the authorizing environment of cities could lead to more livable and productive cities overall.



Astrid Haas is the Head of the International Growth Centre’s (IGC) Cities that Work Initiative, based in Kampala. Shahrukh Wani is an Economist at IGC’s Cities that Work Initiative, based at the University of Oxford.


The IGC directs a global network of world-leading researchers and in-country teams in Africa and South Asia and works closely with partner governments to generate high quality research and policy advice on key growth challenges. Based at the London School of Economics (LSE) and in partnership with the University of Oxford, the IGC is majority funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

This article is based on an upcoming International Growth Centre (IGC) policy paper co-authored by Paul Collier, Anthony J. Venables, Edward Glaeser, Astrid Haas, and Shahrukh Wani.



[1] Khawar, H. (2017). Karachi’s population — fiction and reality. The Express Tribune

[2] Ellis, Peter D.; Friaa, Jaafar Sadok; Kaw, Jon Kher. 2018. Transforming Karachi into a livable and competitive megacity : a city diagnostic and transformation strategy (English). Directions in development; infrastructure. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. 

[3] Collier, P. and Venables, A.J., 2017. Urbanization in developing economies: the assessment. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 33(3), pp.355-372. 

[4] Andema, F., Haas, A., (2017) Efficient and effective municipal tax administration: a case study of the Kampala Capital City Authority. London. IGC Cities that Work Case Study

[5] Kellas, H. (2010). Inclusion, collaboration and urban governance: Brazilian and Canadian experiences. University of British Columbia.

[6] Bahl, R.W., Linn, J.F. and Wetzel, D.L. eds., 2013. Financing metropolitan governments in developing countries. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

[7] Gómez-Álvarez, D., Rajack, R.M., López-Moreno, E. and Lanfranchi, G. eds., 2017. Steering the Metropolis: Metropolitan Governance for Sustainable Urban Development. Inter-American Development Bank.

[8] Kumar, Ajay; Agarwal, O. P.. 2013. Institutional Labyrinth: Designing a Way Out for Improving Urban Transport Services--Lessons from Current Practice. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/17630 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.”  

[9] Collier, P. and Venables, A.J., 2017. Urbanization in developing economies: the assessment. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 33(3), pp.355-372

[10] World Bank. (2016). How Sharing Data and Collaboration Can Improve Indonesia’s Urban Planning. [online] Available at: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2016/09/22/how-gathering-data-in-one-place-can-improve-indonesia-cities [Accessed 13 Feb. 2019].

[11] Ahmed, V. (2014). Karachi is ruled by everyone, run by no one. DAWN.


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