Building Civic Consensus in El Salvador

Mario Lungo, with Alejandra Mortarini and Fernando Rojas, Janeiro 1, 1998

Decentralization of the state and growing business and community involvement in civic affairs are posing new challenges to the development of institutions focused on land policies and their implementation throughout Latin America. Mayors and local councils are assuming new responsibilities in the areas of environmental protection, urban transportation, basic infrastructure, local financing, social services and economic development. At the same time, business and civic organizations are finding new avenues to ensure public attention to their demands through participatory planning, budgeting, co-financing and control at the local level.

Thus, decentralization and democratic participation are gradually building an environment in which public-private alliances can develop joint projects of common interest to both government and individuals. However, many government institutions have a long way to go before they are fully adjusted to their new roles in planning, regulation and evaluation.

Long-entrenched cultures of apathy and citizen distrust of government have to be transformed into mutual confidence capable of mobilizing the best community traditions of the Latin American people. Political and economic patronage and state corruption need to be superseded by political and administrative accountability. Obsolete budget, contract and municipal laws still restrict the capacity of both local governments and civil society to interact creatively through contractual and co-financing arrangements.

The institutional challenges and policy dilemmas currently confronted by the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador (MASS) illustrate the transformations occurring throughout the region. After years of civil war, the Salvadorans signed a peace agreement in 1992 that provided the framework for real competition among political parties and stimulated more active participation by business, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community organizations. MASS incorporates several municipalities, some of them led by mayors from opposition parties to the central government. The coordinating body of MASS is the Council of Mayors, which in turn is supported by a Metropolitan Planning Office.

With technical assistance from international NGOs, MASS has prepared a comprehensive development plan. Contemporary urban planning instruments such as macrozoning, multi-rate property tax, value capture for environmental protection, public-private consortiums and land use coefficients are being considered for the implementation of land, development and environmental policies. Indeed, the Salvadorans have the support of several research centers that are familiar with the use and impact of these and other instruments in other parts of the world. Their primary need now is to mobilize public and private metropolitan actors around common policies and to develop shared instruments for their application.

Toward that end, PRISMA, a prominent Salvadoran NGO and urban research center, invited the Lincoln Institute to develop a joint workshop on urban management tools, intergovernmental coordinating mechanisms for metropolitan areas and public-private initiatives for sustainable cities. The workshop, held in San Salvador in October, included high-ranking officers from the central government, mayors, planning officers and other authorities from MASS, and representatives from builders’ and developers’ associations and some cooperative housing institutions and community organizations.

Speakers from the Lincoln Institute presented experiences from Taiwan, The Philippines, Mexico and other Latin American countries that underlined policies and instruments capable of harmonizing the interests of different urban stakeholders and coordinating several layers of government for land use and urban development objectives. The Salvadorans explained their immediate concerns, such as the lack of intergovernmental coordination to protect the urban environment, discontinuities in policy measures, arbitrariness at all levels of government, and legal and administrative uncertainties.

The workshop participants concluded that to foster the new legal and institutional framework sought by MASS the Salvadorans need to expand discussions among other metropolitan actors. They also need to continue to work with institutions such as the Lincoln Institute that have the trust and credibility to present internationally recognized land management policies and can help build consensus among different public and private interests.

Mario Lungo is a researcher at PRISMA, the Salvadoran Program for Development and Environmental Research; Alejandra Mortarini is the Lincoln Institute’s Latin America and Caribbean programs manager; and Fernando Rojas, a lawyer from Colombia, is a visiting fellow of the Institute this year.