AUB City Debates: Regionalization as Policy Panacea?

This is a synthesis of the panel “Regionalization as Policy Panacea?” given by at the AUB City Debates 2016 (other reports are listed here). The panel was composed of Dr Sylvia Bergh (Erasmus University, Netherlands), Pr Mona Harb and Ms Yara Najem (American University of Beirut, Lebanon), and Pr Sami Yassine Turki (Ecole Nationale des Ingénieurs de Tunis, Tunisia).

Map of Northern Africa and Western Europe, Piri Reis, Kitab-ı Bahriye, Public Domain

Map of Northern Africa and Western Europe, Piri Reis, Kitab-ı Bahriye, Public Domain


1. Sylvia Bergh, “Advanced regionalisation and Local Governance Reforms in Morocco: What role for International Donors?”

Before starting her presentation, Bergh insists that she is not specialised in the urban at first and has developed an approach much more attached to her roots in public administration and political anthropology. She also insists on the interest of bringing together refugee studies and urban studies. Her own presentation relies on the types of local reforms which have taken place in Morocco in the last years.

Morocco is a context of important investments in urban projects lately: the development of an important solar power plant, development of a brand new harbour in Tangier, action of emptying slums and replacing them with social housing, development of a tramway and a marina in Rabat, are the most visible projects of a change influenced by Muhammad VI after a period of urban neglect by his father. What we can immediately notice is the setting aside of these urban project from the forms of Moroccan popular participation or democratisation: all these projects are managed by independent and localised agencies situated outside of the realm of the democratic practices in the country and funded by donors for a large part. The presentation will focus on the political agency of these practices of urban reform.

a. The Moroccan socio-political context

The Kingdom is not attarctive to donors out of chance: in the regional context of the Arab Springs, it has been perceived regularly as a model, a perception which goes back to before 2011 – and has partly been criticised since then. The country had engaged a certain number of reforms, notably of the Constitution which marked a certain renewal of the regime (despite the maintaining of the privileged position of the King in the power apparatus). This relative change was perceived positively. In the same time, the Kingdom negotiated on a long period its participation to the logics of restriction of immigration and of counter-terrorism in favour of Europe, for development support.

The reforms started by the regime form a new context for the donors, who have to work in a context of valorisation of information, participation, and governance planned in the new Constitution.

Indeed the main territorial reform concerns the regions, which have been increased in size and reduced in number, to follow the model of Western Sahara and the Berber Country. The new regional councils are also elected, and a consultative commission on regionalisation has been appointed to follow the process and develop it. Nonetheless we can immediately notice a cleavage between this progressive goal and the practice: because of the tensions around the issue, the process of implementation of the Constitution has been long (from 2011 to 2015) and often partial or incomplete. The first elections took place in a rush, not allowing the participants to prepare correctly, certain documents were translated in Arabic rather late in the process, and participation remains a taboo which is loosely applied, if applied at all.

b. The main features of regionalisation

Despite the gap between the promises and the effective measures, there is an effective process of decentralisation, notably of the budget and responsibilities, to the regions. Previous to that reform, funding was mostly in the hands of the walis – civil servants assocciated to the Ministry of Interior – but the regions’ budgets should be multiplied by 10 over the 2011 – 2021 period. Nonetheless the walis maintain a certain control by validating or blocking projects a priori, and through their important responsibilities in the interpretation of the law. Therefore if regions have gained independence, the role of the Ministry of Interior still maintains a strong influence on local development projects.

c. Implications for regional planning

Regional planning, between the power struggles between the Ministry of Interior and regions, the existence of independent agencies, and other scales, leads to an elaborate feeling of unclarity and confusion. We can notice that this confusion between scales, reponsibilities, power relations and the difference between official rules and the rules effectively applied tends to favour the role of the King to whom everyone related as an arbiter in last resource.

d. The role of donors

In that context donors find an adequate “democratisation” framework for their effort: for the European Union, which serves mostly as an importer of methods, as well as for the UNDP, participation of German actors on knowledge actors, and the importation of a lot of tools forged in Europe in the Moroccan local government system.


The limits of that system are showing. More recently the regime has therefore favoured systems of coopted participation in relation with networks of patronage, to which the donors do participate. The question is nonetheless how this new model can serve for an effective practice: we can see the emergence of local, grassroots, initiatives. Their future effects should be considered.

2. Mona Harb and Yara Najem, “Donors, policy mobilities, and Urban Politics: How is the European Union transforming Planning (and Politics?) in Lebanon”

In the context of Lebanon, Harb and Najem insist that donors have preferred an integration of the local framework because it has been identified as efficient in a context of democratisation, regionalisation, and decentralisation in the country, often without the support of the government who favours a deconcentration approach in which the biggest decentralised level is the union of municipalities, which rely heavily on international aid. This presentation focused on the comparison of a few case studies of projects on which the EU – the main donor in the country – has participated. The question which will be asked is that of the relation between donors and hegemony in terms of urban politics.

Case studies: The two cases of the study were identified by the EU based on a high population density and the presence of local leadership. In both cases the projects aimed at a local approach of development, both in urbans and social terms. As we will see the conditions of success or not of such projects is dependent on their implementation.

  1. The ARLA project (Assistance to the Rehabilitation of the Lebanese Administration) was developed in the Bekaa on the basic notion of developing local clusters of actors for development. ARLA brought expertise and concepts, but relied heavily on the presence of local experts able to navigate the spaces of the various actors present in the area, particularly municipalities. The main outcome has been the emergence of a new scale of government on which projects could be implemented.
  2. The ADELNORD project was implemented in the Akkar province. Contrarily to ARLA it did not aim at developing its own scale but worked on the different scales it was implemented on, including parts of administrative divides. The programmes involved community development, environment, infrastructure, and agriculture. The goal was that the ideas cannot promise to be successful, and therefore the project should start with the implementation of projects followed by their assessment.

Assessment and conclusion: These two projects marked very different approaches, in terms of size (small vs. large scale), approach (bottom-up vs. top-down), wideness of the projects (focused vs. unfocused), the relation to the local leadership (integrative vs. non-integrative), and to the beneficiaries (planned vs. not). For these reasons they form a good comparative case, and we can identify the causes of the failure of the ADELNORD project much more clearly.

We can then ask two questions:

  1. Did these projects participate in empowering local governments? Partially, yes, but many constraints still remain, especially in financial terms. The local authorities remain in a situation of emergency and scarcity which is not overcome by the presence of international donors.
  2. Did the projects manage to develop a new hegemonic configuration? It is the main difference between ARLA, which did, and ADELNORD, which didn’t. Here the main hypothesis could be the relation with the local elites and the second project’s open attempt to avoid them.

3. Sami Yassine Turki, “The regional issue in post-Revolutionary Tunisia: Between People’s aspirations, impotency of the state, and International cooperation agencies’ intervention”

The regional issue in Tunisia before 2011

The regional issue and spatial inequalities are a feature of pre-Revolution Tunisia. There are strong disparities and differences between the various regions, and especially between on the one hand the coast and the country, and on others the big and small cities, urban and rural areas, formal and informal neighbourhoods. Even the state’s action which began in the 1980s was failing on that point. Depending on the neighbourhood, the variation of time to travel to the Tunis city centre could take from 20 mn to more than two hours, for example. Similarly the state’s support for development was mostly directed toward the already developed cities of the coast. This state of affairs was for a big part a cause of the Revolution: before asking for the departure of Ben Ali, the protestors were demanding the right to development.

The regional issue in Tunisia after 2011

After the 2011 Revolution, Turki shows how the regional level has been the first political focus of the new regime: in the country the first social problem was urban development and infrastructure, mostly via the increase of funding. This reflects in a state of the Tunisian citizenry, in which the dispositions acquired during the Revolution were re-employed in contentious politics against specific local elites like governors (the re-activation of the “Dégage” slogan can be evoked), and social movements emerged focusing more and more on urban issues (such as for or against train lines, or universities, to be installed). Even non-urban contention was spatially expressed through the multiplication of sit-ins, for example.

In other words the question of space reflects the evolution of the regime, going rapidly from a dimension of inequality to a very contentious dimension of the Tunisian society.

Treatment by the post-2011 regime

The first answer of the new regime has been an increase of resources and budget, as soon as 2011 and a multiplication of budget by four for the local administrations. This quick change has unsettled the actors, who neglected the local level previously due to its lack of power. This has led to a certain disarray surrounding the first local elections.

Conclusion: What evolution toward decentralisation?

There is a deep decentralisation process at play in Tunisia. The question is, how will the state adapt to this? What control will it maintain? And what will be the role of the international agencies in this process? The post-revolutionary situation opens a lot of interrogations and will have to be considered with attention.

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