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Urban social movements and local state capacity


Year published: 2024
Categories: Journal Article
URL Link: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2023.106415

Author / Authors:

  • Benjamin H. Bradlow


World Development, Volume 173, 2024, 106415, ISSN 0305-750X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2023.106415


Studies of social movements generally focus on the mechanisms through which movements affect the political will of states. Much of this research, in turn, implicitly assumes that the state has the capacity to realize the decisions adopted as a result of movement action. Focusing on local governments in young democracies, this article examines whether and how state capacities contribute to movement-initiated policy change and associated delivery in the sphere of housing and land use. It analyzes contrasting cases of local state capacities using a paired “most-similar” comparison of two megacities of the Global South, each of which underwent transitions to democracy in the past three decades: São Paulo, Brazil, and Johannesburg, South Africa. In São Paulo, state capacities facilitated policy success. These capacities were developed through interactions between movements and key bureaucratic allies. In Johannesburg, by contrast, the local bureaucracy became both impervious to movement pressure and unable to counter strategies by business elites to weaken efforts at policy reform. State capacity in this case hindered reforms. As a result, in São Paulo, sequential, reinforcing feedback loops of city-wide movement mobilization and formal policy reforms took shape. In Johannesburg, lack of openness of the state to civil society led grassroots movement organizations to refrain from city-wide policy reform efforts and to increasingly organize their activity at the neighborhood and street levels.


  • Journal Article