Who’s governing in cities in Jordan and Lebanon?

Published on 30 August 2019

Hart Ford

For decades, Jordanian and Lebanese cities have been witnessing a rapid growth and urban sprawl. Disparities have grown with chronically under-serviced neighbourhoods hosting large numbers of vulnerable individuals, hosts and refugees, living in precarious formal and informal environments.

Urban policy responses have been distinct. Whereas in Jordan the central state has been supporting urban informal settlements upgrading for many years, national law in Lebanon forbids Lebanese municipalities from providing basic services to informal urban zones. Consequently, non-state actors including political parties, NGOs, and others have attempted to fill the gap. But in what ways do funding agencies interact with such actors? What challenges do they face, with what consequences?

As part of Public Authorities and Legitimacy-Making (PALM) research project undertaken by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), IMPACT Initiatives, Occlude, and ACTED, an end-of-project consultation workshop was held in Beirut in August. It was attended by humanitarian and development practitioners and researchers from Jordan and Lebanon to discuss key considerations for designing and implementing interventions in low-income urban areas with hybrid governance systems.

Generating legitimacy

The last five years have seen a strong shift by international humanitarian and development agencies towards supporting municipalities in Lebanon and Jordan. Decentralisation processes in Jordan also reshape governance in urban environments. However, residents living in informal settlements, including the most vulnerable migrant and refugee populations, often fall outside the jurisdiction of state authorities allowing other neighbourhood authorities to play a greater role in some aspects of governance.

While local state governance actors have an accountability link through the national system, these neighbourhood authorities often do not have such links, and draw their legitimacy from charisma, popularity, and service delivery, amongst others.

A number of legitimacy-making practices from the PALM research were displayed at the event, highlighting the ability of non-state actors to adopt the behaviours of the state, for example through the use of administrative or bureaucratic paraphernalia or images, the influence on market areas, labelling of services for attribution to non-state authorities, or images highlighting the charisma or character portrayed by the political figure in question.

Programming in low-income urban settings

Using a range of interactive activities, attendees from UNDP, UNHABITAT, World Vision, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) Institute, among others, reflected on current academic thinking and operational practices, using examples from Lebanon and Jordan, and considered the enabling role of donors in effective and accountable practices.

Working groups within the workshop recognised how state and non-state authorities draw on a range of claims to legitimacy and in turn low-income residents expect more from non-state actors than state actors, especially when it comes to security and resources.

We also considered that it is important for international humanitarian or development actors operating in low-income urban areas with multiple public authorities to establish strong and continuous context and stakeholder analysis for effective programme design and building productive relationships ahead of programmatic interventions.

These hybrid governance systems, the distinction between formal and informal actors is often not clear, with both formal and informal actors working simultaneously to influence the behaviour of the other. It came through strongly at the workshop, that because of complexity of the issues and disparity of donor policies on how to operationalise projects in these areas, researchers, aid organisations and donors should seek out and initiate dialogue on this subject when it comes to designing their response. One donor emphasised that they want to hear more from practitioners on the ground about their experiences in engaging with non-state actors.

There is no doubt that greater dialogue and research on this issue is needed – this was echoed throughout the discussions. The way researchers, aid agencies and donors operate in within these systems can have major implications for vulnerable communities living within them, as well as for wider peace and stability.

Related content


An Uprising in Parliament? Lebanon’s 2022 Parliamentary Elections

Miguel Mendelek
Nay El Rahi

14 June 2022