Mind the gap between EU development policies and local authorities

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This week Tunisia will experience its first democratic municipal elections since the revolution. It could be a tremendous opportunity to give local authorities a stronger role in responding to the need of sustainable development as they are more able to meet the needs and demands of the population.

We have recently learned a beautiful Arabic word, tamkin which means to empower, to stabilise and enable. It seems to describe well what the last few years have meant for Tunisia after the 2011 Jasmine revolution. Since then, the Tunisian society has gone through multiple grassroots efforts that were fragile and complex, and yet it has managed to undergo a promising process of democratisation. Over the last years, more than 70 new political parties have sprung into existence and hundreds of citizens’ organisations have formed in the country. In a sense, Tunisia can be seen as a laboratory for democracy in the Arab world.  

A territorial approach to development

Socio-economic development at the local level is a crucial and essential part of the overall economic development of a country, much as local democratic governance feeds into the democratic culture of a society. In order for local democracy to be truly effective, it is important to empower local authorities providing them with precise responsibilities and financial resources which, in return, they will be required to be transparent and accountable. This is in line with the EU commission’s communication of 2013 on empowering local authorities in partner countries for enhanced governance and more effective development outcomes. This is why, some weeks ago, we were in Tunis to support DEVCO – the EU Commission’s Directorate for international cooperation and development- in the facilitation of a seminar gathering together a small group of EU delegations and cities authorities from Palestine, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon and Egypt to present and discuss territorial approach to local development (TALD)

TALD favours the territorial dimension of development, meaning that the territory is seen not just as a simple policy sector – such as urban planning- or a factor of production – such as land. The territory is a social construction, the result of processes of economic, social and cultural stratification. It is the expression of  local needs and demands. In this sense, the territorial development approach is endogenous because it is generated by local resources, co-created by a wide range of actors and context-specific.

Why local matters

This approach to territory implies recognising the key role that local authorities can play in achieving sustainable development at the local level. They are the perfect forum for reflecting on central questions such as equality, justice and the common good. But also, they are the place where to improve people’s lives and to have a real impact. If channels are appropriately fostered, local authorities offer a real opportunity to renew democratic conversations in a way that national platforms simply cannot. In Palestine there is no State and local authorities are alone in fostering social resilience. In Jordan, refugee camps are almost assuming urban features with even a Champs Elysees Avenue with shops. Amid the power vacuum in Libya, the country is being held together only by local authorities.

Working directly with cities and local actors will involve a deep change in the EU development strategy. The discussions around TALD are a demonstration of this shift but it cannot be put in place without the cooperation of all the different actors involved in local development as well as urban development. There is a need  for a clear set of priorities anda good understanding of the local context for this collaboration to happen. However, there are not yet clear financial tools and the delegations have not received a clear roadmap to adopt the territorial approach to development.

We see how its  wide engagement in projects ranging from the next EU budget to  to the post-Cotonou negotiations and  debates around the implementation of the SDG’s, could allow the European Think Tanks Group  to bring new ideas, define priorities and help broker effective development partnerships that would bring tangible results through the analysis of the operationalisation of territorial approach to local development.


Promoting sustainable urban development is key to EU regional policy. However, in the North African and sub-Saharan region, the EU lacked adequate coordination between its different units working on local authorities and urban development to find ways to put the TALD in practice. This underlines that the EU should coordinate more efficiently its different units working on development policy and also be more active in working closely with local authorities in their development project. Perhaps learning from good practices of EU development projects in Latin America such as URBELAC could help find some answers.

Beyond decentralisation

Working closely with local authorities in development projects implies that it is essential to jointly promote transparency and accountability to create trust between those involved, including  the people living in the territories. Also,there cannot be a genuine local development without regular consultations with the citizens living in the concerned localities. The empowerment of local authorities cannot be limited to a greater role in the direct provision of public services, it needs to be extended to their ability to influence and cooperate with those operating in the public and the private sector  at the local level.

The success of reforms to empower local authorities depends on central governance mechanisms that allow people to interact effectively with their own local government at all stages of the design and implementation of local public policies. Without intergovernmental cooperation and trust, there cannot be a territorial approach to local development.


Authors: Dalil Djinnit and Giulia Maci

Photo courtesy Freedom House via Flickr


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