Elmond Bandauko, an expert in local governance issues

The Role of Municipalities in Poverty Reduction: Experiences from Canada

By Elmond Bandauko

“Local spaces are ultimately the key site of delivery and development and, as such, local government is central to the success of sustainable development.” – South African Local Government Association (SALGA)

While the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are global in nature, their achievement largely depends on our ability to make them a reality in our cities and regions. All of the SDGs have targets directly related to the responsibilities of local and regional governments, particularly to their role in delivering basic services. As the level of government closest to people, local governments are well placed to contribute to sustainable development through their interventions in tackling development challenges such as urban poverty. In today’s briefing, I focus on the role of municipal governments in addressing urban poverty, drawing lessons and experiences from Canada’s municipal sector.

Municipalities and Poverty Reduction

Municipal poverty reduction strategies are still emergent in Canada, with many communities only starting to focus on this topic in the last five to eight years. Urban municipalities are further along than rural communities, with many rural areas just starting to establish roundtables and beginning to discuss an approach to poverty reduction.

In terms of municipal responses to poverty, they must involve a combined effort of municipal driven public policy, programs and initiatives, and a collaboration of efforts with community stakeholders. Comprehensive poverty strategy must be composed of a set of core public policies related to affordable housing, early childhood development, education and training, income security, and social infrastructure. It must also recognize and should provide support for the wide range of efforts in communities that are making critical contributions through their collaborative efforts, innovative interventions and policy impact. At the end of the day, a robust poverty strategy combines public policy and place-based interventions to create a powerful combination of government and community in the fight against poverty.

Local governments have many of the levers to support basic needs, ensure inclusion and promote learning for all, and can use public policy, programs and initiatives to accomplish this. They have a broad based social infrastructure in the form of affordable housing, emergency shelters, recreation, transit and libraries, with many municipal facilities, programs and services. According to the report, “The Social Role of Local Government,” there are several key roles that local governments can play in overall poverty reduction. These are: service provider (child care, social assistance, public health, arts, recreation); investor (provide funds to community programs and processes), leader and champion for community-based poverty reduction initiatives, provider of information and data (to help stimulate new thinking and ideas) and convener of and partner with various sectors (municipalities are well positioned to build effective local partnerships among individuals, communities and governments).

Local government must also be involved in a community approach to poverty reduction and is a crucial sector in comprehensive community initiatives. In many communities, municipal government is involved in broader community initiatives to reduce poverty, such as poverty roundtables. These tables bring together municipal representatives with local stakeholders to develop comprehensive responses to poverty. Municipal governments have the ability to use their policy levers and leadership position to create environments where people enjoy a high quality of life, innovation thrives, and a robust social infrastructure leads to economic and social benefits for all residents.

Examples of Poverty Reduction Actions Taken by Canadian Municipalities

The actions taken by Canadian Municipalities to address poverty can be grouped into broad categories namely Social Awareness and Engagement, Reducing the Impact of Poverty and Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.

Social Awareness and Engagement

Many local communities have employed social awareness and engagement strategies to help shift attitudes towards poverty by educating those who may not understand the full complexity of the issue. These strategies range from social media campaigns, to surveying the public about issues important to them, to awareness raising campaigns on specific topics related to poverty, to business engagement initiatives.

One of the key supports to this area of social awareness and engagement is Vibrant Communities Canada (www.vibrantcanada.ca). This is a pan Canadian collaborative of cities and provinces working to reduce poverty. It is a connected learning community of more than 28 cities and provides opportunities for information and resource sharing, and dialogue.

Reducing the Impact of Poverty

Programmatic interventions are the most common strategies employed by municipalities in the area of poverty reduction. These strategies address people’s immediate needs and make day-to-day life better, but do not address the root causes of poverty. Examples of these interventions include the following:

  • Affordable Transit Pass Program, providing discounted bus passes for those people living with low income. This is implemented by municipalities such as Abbottsford, Calgary, Guelph, Hamilton, Region of Peel, Windsor-Essex County, York Region
  • Affordable Housing Programs and Strategies. There are a variety of programs offered to make housing more affordable, including: financing of the purchase of homes, building grants, rent supplement, and emergency maintenance funds. The Housing First approach to homelessness is a key trend in this area. Examples of municipalities with such programs include Edmonton, Greater Vancouver, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Surrey, Windsor-Essex County
  • Food Programs. Food programs can be found in many municipalities. The types of food programs include: good food boxes, bulk fresh produce, mobile food markets, student nutrition programs, community gardens, voucher programs, collective kitchens, couponing programs, virtual supermarket, retailer initiative. Food programs are implemented in municipalities such as Baltimore City, Chatham-Kent, City of New Orleans, District of Sault Ste. Marie, Hamilton, London, Toronto, Windsor, Windsor-Essex County

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Several municipalities have used their policy levers to implement public policy at the local level that assists with the reduction of poverty. Some of the main actions being taken by Ontario municipalities in this regard include:

  • Community Poverty Agenda/Poverty Reduction Tables. Local decision-making tables are being created across Canada to help set a guiding vision for community efforts and its associated strategic plan. These tables are usually composed of diverse sectors, including business, government, voluntary organizations and people living in poverty. Together, they contribute a wealth of ideas, resources and practical solutions. One key role of these tables is to figure out how to integrate the multiple pieces that typically are set up to tackle a complex problem like poverty. Poverty reduction tables are being used in Halton Region, Hamilton, Huron County, Kingston, Leeds & Grenville, London, Niagara, Oxford County, Peterborough, Region of Peel, Region of Waterloo, Simcoe County, Thunder Bay, Windsor-Essex County.
  • Food Policy Councils. Food Policy Councils are developing across Canada to support and integrate an increasing number of community food initiatives and encourage the development of policy that supports a food system that is both just and sustainable. Food policy councils have been established in the following municipalities: Calgary, Edmonton, Grand Prairie, Guelph-Wellington, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Vancouver, Waterloo Region, Windsor-Essex County, Winnipeg.
  • Efforts to Influence Public Policy at the Provincial and Federal Levels of Government. Conducting community consultations and making submissions to the Provincial government in a number of policy areas, including: Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy, minimum wage, termination of Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit, Social Assistance Review

Form these Canadian experiences, it is clear that without changing public policy and breaking the cycle, the root causes of poverty will never be addressed. Attitudes about poverty need to be shifted while, at the same time, addressing the needs of those currently living in poverty. Municipalities by their nature have an in-depth understanding of their local communities and as such are best placed to tackle poverty using placed-based policy interventions.

About the Author

Elmond Bandauko holds a Master of Public Administration (MPA) with specialization in Local government from the University of Western Ontario (Canada) where he studied as an African Leaders of Tomorrow Scholar. He did his BSc. (Hons) in Rural and Urban Planning from the University of Zimbabwe. His interests include participatory policy making, policy innovation and policy diffusion, public management, program and policy evaluation, collaborative governance and the politics of urban development in cities of the global south. You can follow most of his work at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Elmond_Bandauko




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