multi-level governance

Dynamic Federalism

Dynamic Federalism


Traditional federal theory seems no longer apt to grasp recent evolutions in state structures. By delimiting federal states in terms of defining institutional features, federalism scholars put themselves at the margin rather than the centre of where the action is: fragmenting dynamics in multinational states, secession movements, as well as centralist and decentralist tendencies within the European Union. In a dynamic approach to federalism, all multi-tiered systems are assembled with a common denominator being how they manage tensions between autonomy claims of territorial entities on the one hand, and the need for cohesion or efficiency of the central government on the other. In this approach, qualifying criteria to categorise state structures become mere indicators to rank multi-tiered systems on a gliding scale from the most central to the loosest systems. The ranking is based on three sets of indicators, one measuring autonomy, another measuring cohesion and a third, linking both, measuring participation. The core question examined in this contribution is: which mechanisms in the constitutional system have a centralising or decentralising effect?



It is an exciting era for scholars in federalism studies, with a succession of events that keep the world captive, from secession referendums in Scotland and Catalonia, the tiny Walloon Region in Belgium holding some 780 million persons hostage by vetoing a trade agreement between the EU and Canada, to the most pressing concern in the European Union: Brexit. That is – if the UK, Spain, Belgium and the EU are defined as federalist systems, worthy of study by federalism scholars. Books have been written about this question. Traditional federalists would argue that they are not, measured by criteria that have to be fulfilled and that are based on model states of past centuries, such as the USA or Germany. According to the traditional model, states are either unitary, federal or confederal, and systems that do not meet the defining criteria are called ‘regional states’, which, at best, are considered ‘immature federations’, implying that they aspire to become federal. However, excluding these systems leaves federalism scholars at the margin rather than the centre of activity.

At the same time, scholars realise that the federal/unitary distinction ‘is too crude to capture the complexity of contemporary governance’ (Loughlin, 2008: 473). In a new standard book on comparative federalism (Palermo and Kössler 2017), the authors list various definitions of federalism, one leading to a list of 23 federal states world-wide, the other to no less than 180 federal states. ‘The central question’, according to these authors, ‘is whether the question itself is meaningful’. I tend to agree. Whether Spain is a federal or a regional state is, frankly, a purely academic question, such as discussing the sex of angels. In the end, what matters, is to capture the essence of federal systems. The essence is not whether a given state has a bicameral system and a court to solve allocation of power disputes, or whether sub-units have their own constitution. What is at stake, was already defined by Friedrich (1968): the tension between autonomy of territorial entities on the one hand, and cohesion or efficiency of the central government on the other.

This brings us to a dynamic approach to federalism. In such an approach, qualifying criteria to categorise state structures become mere indicators, and the core question is: which mechanisms in the constitutional system have a centralising or decentralising effect?

The Use of Indicators to Define Federal Systems

In a dynamic approach, political systems are situated on a gliding scale, with unitary systems on the left side of the spectrum, and the loosest cooperative associations on the right. Systems are placed on this scale as soon as there is some tension between the central authorities and territorial sub-groups. While we could label these systems ‘federal’ in a broad sense, a more distinctive name that avoids confusion with ‘traditional’ federal systems, is ‘multi-tiered systems’, or simply MTS.

Political systems are situated on this gliding scale on the basis of a general score that relies on three axes: one measuring the autonomy of sub-national units, a second measuring the cohesiveness of the entire system, and a linking third focusing on participation. Political scientists have a longer tradition of scaling political systems on the basis of indicators. However, they are mostly interested in autonomy and they tend to ignore the role of courts (see, e.g., Hooghe et al. 2016). Indicative for the autonomy of sub-units is, amongst others, the entrenchment of subnational entities and competences in rigid acts, subnational representative bodies, financial autonomy, sets of competences and allocations techniques, and whether the entities are (directly or indirectly) involved in decision-making at the EU or the international level. In the literature, much less attention has been given to a second set of indicators that measure cohesion or integration. Indicators are, amongst others, free movement and a monetary and economic union within the legal system, mechanisms to deal with transboundary problems, instruments to prevent or solve conflicts of competences and conflicts of interests, or to prevent subnational entities from undermining central (national of international) policy. The third set of indicators is focused on mechanisms that ensure both autonomy and cohesion, with the subnational entities participating at the central level to ensure central legislative, administrative as well as judicial decision-making while paying attention to subnational specificities.

On this large scale of MTS, we can identify core ‘federal systems’. Federal systems in this narrow sense, find a balance between autonomy/differentiation and cohesion/integration. These systems will score moderate to high on all three axes. On the left side of the scale are those political systems that solve the tension by accentuating centralism. Such systems will score low on the autonomy axis but high on the cohesion axis. On the right side of the scale are those political systems that solve the tension by accentuating autonomy: more effort is made to preserving the autonomy of the subnational units rather than integrative mechanisms.

Within the sub-set of autonomy indicators, a political system can score low on one indicator and high on the other. While under the traditional approach the system should meet certain institutional requirements to be qualified as a federal system, under the dynamic approach other features can compensate for this.

While we preserve labels such as unitary states, decentralised states, regional systems, federal systems and confederations, a neatly cut categorisation of states is not always possible, and not even necessary. Spain, for example, would probably end up somewhere between regional states and federal states, but the exact label is not really important. Moreover, a categorisation of states is just a snap-shot. States evolve. Nowadays, in the centre of our attention are disintegrative states that move from the left side of the scale to the right. However, traditional integrative federal systems have their own, centralising, dynamics, bringing them from the right side of the scale to the left side, and sometimes leaving some doubt as to whether, in the end, highly centralised systems such as Austria can still be called ‘federal’ if defined as a system that upholds an equal balance between autonomy and cohesion.


Methodological Advantages

The methodological advantages of a dynamic approach are manifold.

First of all, it facilitates comparative research since we can easily group MTS with similar scores on one or more of the three axes. If we are mainly interested in the dynamics of state structures, we have a larger population than the twenty-something pure, traditional federal systems. We can look for factors that explain the position of specific types of states on the gliding scale. In addition, we can test whether the level of integration or disintegration is an explanatory factor for other things – for example the behaviour of courts in federal disputes, or the stability of the political system.

Secondly, we can examine phenomena that are not easily captured under traditional federal theory. An example is asymmetry. While traditional federal theory promotes symmetry for the sake of equality and stability, asymmetry is a growing trend in contemporary MTS. In a dynamic approach, we can measure the different sub-national entities on the autonomy-axis, so that we can give an exact score to the differences in status and competences between the most and the least autonomies subnational entities. This might instruct as to how asymmetric a system can be before it risks becoming unstable.

Thirdly, we can examine the impact of the international level on the relations between central authority and subnational units. This is especially important for MTS that are part of the European Union, as the impact of the European integration process upon the constitutional structure of the member states is more intense than that of any other supra-national organisation.


The Core Question: Which Mechanisms Have a Centralising or Decentralising Impact?

As mentioned, the core question in a dynamic approach to federalism concerns the process of integration or disintegration. In this approach, we examine the mechanisms that have a centralising or decentralising effect on the political system. For example, there is a common agreement that courts generally have a centralising effect when deciding on federalism disputes; yet some courts – mostly in multinational systems – take a more balanced approach (Popelier 2017). Political parties can have such effects as well. For instance, in Belgium, the break-up of national parties into regional parties had a disintegrative effect. Techniques to allocate powers may also have some impact: we can hypothesise that the predominance of concurrent powers has a centralising effect, whereas the predominance of exclusive powers has a decentralising effect.

If we have more insight into the conditions under which these mechanisms have a centralising or decentralising effect, we might be able to answer the question whether the dynamics of a specific political system can be turned through constitutional engineering. This is a topical question in the light of secessionist movements in countries such as Belgium, Canada, Spain and the UK as well as developments in, for example, Sri Lanka, where a devolutionary trend institutionalised at the end of the 1980s a form of multinational conflict management (Oberst 1988) but constitutional guarantees of national sovereignty and indivisibility are relied upon to break secessionist tendencies.


An Example: The Belgian Case

The Belgian case demonstrates the need for a dynamic approach to federalism. In the last five decades, it evolved from a unitary state into a federal state with confederal traits. Up until now, this has taken the shape of six state reforms, resulting, in 1993 in a constitutional provision that labelled Belgium as a federal state.

The Belgian federation, however, does not meet several of the criteria that defines federal states under the Hamilton approach. For example, in 1993, discussions on the use of a second chamber did not result in the abolition of the Senate. Instead the federalism argument was used to maintain an institution that did not fulfil a federalist function: The Senate was reformed, but in the new constellation a minority represented the federated entities and they were appointed on the basis of the federal, not the regional, elections. Since the sixth state reform in 2012-2013, the Senate has been reformed into an actual Chamber of the sub-states, but is left with only few competences. On the other hand, the subnational entities can directly interfere, with a suspensory vote, in the federal decision-making process. Moreover, while not represented as such, they have a dominant say through the linguistic groups that structure the federal parliament, the federal government, as well as the administration and the courts. The federal government consists of an equal number of French- and Dutch speaking ministers; these ministers are nominated by regional parties that represent the interests of their language groups. Besides, the two language groups in Parliament have a suspensory veto right.

The federalism argument was also used in the Flemish fight for subnational constitutional autonomy, although the (little) constitutional autonomy that was acquired has not been used in a way that is substantially different from what was regulated at the federal level. On the other hand, the subnational entities do enjoy substantial autonomy when it comes to concluding international agreements or involvement at the EU level.

This demonstrates that the traditional criteria to qualify federations are not always functional: The Senate did not fulfil the function of involving the federated entities in central decision-making, but they got their say through other means, to the point that the system even acquired confederal traits, as no federal decision can be made without the consent of both language groups. It also shows how a low score on one indicator (subnational constitutional autonomy) can be compensated for by a high score for another indicator (international affairs).

The devolving dynamics in Belgium are based upon the allocation of exclusive powers, equality of federal and federated entities, regionalised political parties, and a general ambiance of distrust and conflict typical of dyadic federalism. The dominant political party, N-VA, is a Flemish-nationalist party that supports Flemish independence. According to surveys, Flemings support autonomy though not secessionism, the N-VA’s strategy is to ‘naturally’ end up at independence through confederalism. Legal scholars and political scientists are eager to point out that confederalism, according to traditional theory, means the association of independent, sovereign states, implying that technically confederalism cannot precede secession. This shows, once more, how traditional theory is unable to capture political reality. In a dynamic approach, the N-VA’s strategy makes perfect sense, and the core question for those who support the continuation of the Belgian system, is whether through constitutional engineering – be it federal districts, shared competences, or otherwise – we can turn the tide.



Friedrich, K. 1968. Trends of Federalism in Theory and Practice. Frederick A. Praeger.

Hooghe, L. et al. 2016. Measuring Regional Authority. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Loughlin, 2008. ‘Federalism, regionalism and local government: comparative perspectives on transforming the nation-state’, 7 European Political Science, 472-482.

Oberst, R.C. 1988. ‘Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. 18 Publius 175-194.

Palermo, F. and Kössler, K. 2017. Comparative Federalism. Constitutional Arrangements and Case Law. Oxford and Portland: Hart.

Popelier, P. 2017. ‘Federalism disputes and the behavior of courts: explaining variation in federal courts support for centralization. 47 Publius, 27-48.


Further Reading

Aubert, J.F. 1963. ‘Essai sur le fédéralisme.’ 80 Revue du droit public et de la science politique. 401-452.

Popelier, P. 2015. ‘Secessionist and autonomy movements in Flanders: the disintegration of Belgium as the chronicle of a death foretold?’ in Belser, E.M. et al. (eds), States Falling Apart? Secessionist and Autonomy Movements in Europe. Bern: Stämpfli Verlag, 215-246.

Popelier, P. 2014. ‘Subnational multilevel constitutionalism.’ 6 Perspectives on Federalism, 1-23.

Popelier, P. 2012. ‘The need for sub-national constitutions in federal theory and practice.’ 4 Perspectives on Federalism 36-58.

Popelier, P. and Lemmens, K. 2015. The Constitution of Belgium. A Contextual Analysis. Oxford: Hart.



Posted by Patricia Popelier, 0 comments
Nigeria: A Federation in Search of Federalism

Nigeria: A Federation in Search of Federalism


This article argues that the Nigerian federation epitomises an incomplete federal arrangement. The feelings of marginalisation, which had been suppressed during the military era are fully expressed by ethno-regional groups in the post-military era and these feelings finds expression in the potent agitation for a more functional federal system. The Nigerian political elites have at different times attempted to grapple with the imperfections inherent in the country’s federal system by putting in place a range of distributive and structural mechanisms but the increasing agitation for “true federalism” indicates that the governmental system is defective and in serious need of some bold political reform.



The increasing agitation for a functional federal system or what is referred to as ‘true federalism’ in the Nigerian parlance, after the democratic transition that culminated in civil rule in 1999 is an indication that all is not well with the existing practice of federalism in Nigeria. The apparent defects in the federal system, no doubt, provide the basis for this agitation. Nigeria is a federation operating a federal constitution but in practice the country works as a unitary state, a fallout of the centralising tendencies that have come to characterise the governmental system. However, there seems to be a consensus, especially in the southern part of the country that the operation of federalism in Nigeria does not conform to the fundamental principles of federalism. As Wheare (1963: 20) argues, ‘a country may have a federal constitution, but in practice it may work that constitution in such a way that its government is not federal’. Also, as Erk (2004: 3) suggests, ‘the presence of a federation should not blind us to the absence of federalism’. In other words, there may be a federation without federalism. The Nigerian model is argued to be a reflection of such an incomplete federal arrangement.

This article seeks to depict Nigeria as a federation without federalism.  It further seeks to examine the quest of the Nigerian people for an authentic federal system. The starting point, therefore, is to make a conceptual clarification between federalism and federation. This helps to avoid the danger of misapplication and also put the article in a proper theoretical perspective.


Federalism and Federation: Conceptual Clarifications

Federalism, like most Social Science concepts, has no standard definition as it ‘may mean all things to all men’ (Duchacek, 1970: 189). However, the difficulty in defining this concept has not stopped earlier writers from bequeathing to us some valuable definitions. Federalism has been defined variously as a political philosophy and an ideological position (King, 1982: 75); a ‘political principle’ involving ‘the constitutional diffusion of power’ between the central and the constituent governments to achieve ‘self-rule and shared rule’ (Elazar, 1987: 5–6); and a ‘value concept’ that informs federation (Burgess, 1993: 3).

Federalism may mean different things to different people, but what appears to be constant about this political system is the intrinsic principle that distinguishes it from other systems. This principle, which Wheare (1963: 10) called the federal principle, has been defined as the ‘method of dividing powers so that the general and regional governments are each, within a sphere, co-ordinate and independent’. What is meant by ‘independent’ here is that each tier of government has its own independent functions and neither has supreme authority over the other. However, this view poses a problem of applicability because some measures of interdependence and cooperation are necessary for the successful operation of any given federal system. Therefore, federalism refers to a system of government in which powers are shared between the central (federal) government and the federating/constituent/component units (or states as used in Nigeria).

Federation, on the other hand, is a state in which both the central government and the constituent governments ‘rule over the same territory and people and each has the authority to make some decisions independently of the other’ (Riker, 1964: 5).  Also, as King (1982: 77) posits, a federation is a sovereign state in which the central government incorporates governments of regional units into its decision-making procedure on some constitutionally entrenched basis. Thus federation is a state with two or more tiers of government in which there is a constitutional division of power between the central government which is in charge of the whole territory and the constituent units. Given these definitions, therefore, Nigeria is a federation. An average citizen in Nigeria is subjected to at least two main levels of authority: that of the state and the country, but does the federation practice federalism?

The country’s constitution entrenches a clear division of competences between the federal government and the 36 states that make up the federation. There are basically two legislative lists – the exclusive and concurrent lists. Functions not specified in these two are assigned to the state governments as residual functions, and as we know, ‘whoever has the residue, neither general nor regional government is subordinate to the other’ (Wheare, 1963: 12). With this constitutional arrangement, it is not difficult to see the dominance of the federal government or put differently, the subordination of the states to the centre.


Federalism in Nigeria

Nigeria, a previously unitary state, became a federation in 1954. Nigeria’s founding fathers desired a federal political framework, believing that federal states have the structural capacity to accommodate diversity. Besides this desire, there was also the presence of certain socio-economic conditions (Babalola, 2013; Suberu, 2001). Although Riker (1964) had earlier argued against the relevance of these conditions, Babalola (2013) has convincingly argued that Riker’s rejection of social and economic conditions in the creation of the Nigerian Federation is unsustainable. The presence of these factors evidently explains why the initial three-region federation that emerged in 1954 reflected the cultural, political and economic differences among the three largest ethnic groups in the country – the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo – which dominated the then Northern, Western and Eastern Regions respectively.

The role of the country’s military in shaping the character of the Nigerian federation cannot be overemphasised. Before 1966 when the military intervened in the politics of the country through a coup d’état, the constituent units enjoyed substantial political and economic powers. However, the civil war (1967-1970) brought about a number of political and economic measures, which in turn resulted in the federal government assuming a central role, particularly in economic activities. Throughout the war years, the states were subordinated to the centre, ostensibly for the effective control of the various divisions of the military. The central government took over revenue sources previously controlled by the states, thereby contributing to a fall in the states’ revenues. Thus, the concentration of economic powers at the centre resulted in the supremacy of the federal centre as well as the over-centralisation of the federal system.

The oil boom of 1973, which coincided with the era of military rule also increased the economic centrality of the federal government. With the federal government enjoying enormous revenue, particularly from oil sales, the centre became the sole distributor of oil rents, dictating which state got what share of the national oil wealth. The states, in turn, became extensions of the federal government rather than independent tiers of government. By 1999 when Nigeria returned to civilian rule, the character of its federal system had significantly changed from ‘bottom-heavy’, that it used to be at inception to ‘top-heavy’. What exists today is a federation in which the states are fiscally dependent on the centre. This is a negation of the federal principle that enjoins independence among the governments of a federation.

The effect of excessive concentration of revenue at the centre began to manifest in 2015 when state governments started finding it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets. This problem arose when the states began to experience a drop in federal allocations, which is a result of the drop in the price of oil in the international market because public finance is mainly dependent on oil revenue. It is, therefore, not surprising that Nigerians, especially from the south, began to clamour for the practise of ‘true federalism’.


The Clamour for ‘True Federalism’

In Nigeria, true federalism means different things to different people. The newfound  phrase could be better understood using a geo-political lens. Let us begin with the south-west, which is dominated by the Yoruba.

The agitation for true federalism started in the south-west immediately after the annulment of the 1993 presidential election, believed to have been won by a Yoruba man. The Yoruba elite had argued that the election was annulled simply because their northern counterparts were not willing to concede political power to the south. Hence, their vigorous campaign for a ‘power shift’ to the south. By power shift, they meant an end to the northern elites’ stranglehold on political power and, by extension, economic power. However, with a Yoruba man, Olusegun Obasanjo, emerging as the president in 1999, the clamour for power shift became moribund and was replaced with that of ‘true federalism’. By true federalism, the Yoruba elite mean a federal system with a weak centre; a system in which the constituent units are independent of the centre, especially in the fiscal sphere.

The cry of marginalisation has been loud in the south-east, home to the Igbo ethnic group. The Igbo’s position as regards the Nigeria’s federal system is that the system is characterised by lopsidedness, particularly in the allocation of national resources. Another ground of Igbo agitation for true federalism is their perception of non-integration into mainstream politics since the end of the civil war in 1970, citing  lack of federal presence in the region. This sense of lack of belonging informs the views of some pro-self-determination groups like the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) that the Igbo people are no longer interested in being part of Nigeria and should be allowed to secede and form an independent state of Biafra. It is, however, doubtful if the campaign for the resurgence of Biafra is popular among the elite of south-east whose political and business interests cut across the country. By true federalism, therefore, the Igbos of the south-east mean a federal practice that accommodates every ethnic group in the multinational federation.

Similarly, a sense of political and economic marginalisation forms the basis upon which the  minorities in the Niger Delta (or the south-south geo-political zone), where the bulk of Nigeria’s oil is located, persistently demand their own exclusive political space using the euphemism of ‘resource control’ and true federalism. In the Nigerian context, the term resource control means the right of a federating unit to have absolute control over the mineral resources found within its jurisdiction and make contributions to the central government to fund federal responsibilities. The perceived injustice in resource distribution is the main driving force for the struggle for resource control. The oil-producing states have repeatedly argued that Nigeria’s fiscal federalism, which encourages lopsided distributive politics, has been unfair to them. For the people of the Niger Delta, therefore, resource control is a solution to marginalisation. Thus, for the people of this region, true federalism means a federal practice whereby the federating units are allowed to own and manage their resources as they desire.

Seemingly, the northern elite wants the status-quo to remain based on the belief in some quarters that the present system favours its interest. These include the federal character principle, majority representation at the federal level and quota system.



We have been able to demonstrate in this article that central to the agitations for true federalism in Nigeria is about struggle for access to national resources. Oil rents and their distribution have shaped the operation of Nigeria’s federal system and have also contributed largely to the failure of federalism in Nigeria. Nigeria’s history of revenue distribution is about each ethnic group or geo-political region seeking to maximise its share of national resources. One reason for the acrimonious revenue allocation system is that Nigeria’s component units lack viable sources of revenue of their own. Also, the economic disparity that has given rise to unequal development among them is another source of contention. Therefore, any future political reform must ensure the accommodation of the country’s ethnic diversity because this is one of the many ways national unity could be achieved.

As a way out of the over-centralisation of the system, the country’s fiscal federalism should emphasise revenue generation rather than revenue distribution, as this would ensure fiscal viability of the states. Any future reform should be tailored towards the states generating their own revenue and those not endowed with resources should devise strategies to generate revenue from other sources. Internally-generated revenue should only complement a state’s share of federally collected revenue. Moreover, with decentralisation of economic resources, the states would be in relative control of their resources and be less dependent on the centre.

A weakening of the federal centre may not be a bad idea but Nigeria needs a federal system that would ensure the relative supremacy of the central government vis-à-vis the state governments. The size of the federation, as well as its ethnic diversity and economic disparity, requires a relatively strong federal government that would be able to regulate the competition for national resources.

It may be concluded at this juncture that Nigerian federalism is defective and reforms are inescapable. The unending quest for true federalism, political restructuring, and self-determination within the context of the ethnically heterogeneous Nigerian federation will disappear until the political leaders reform the institutions and structures of the federal system to give a semblance of genuine federalism.



Babalola, Dele (2013), “The Origins of Nigerian Federalism: The Rikerian Theory and Beyond”, Federal Governance, Vol. 8, No. 3, 43-54.

Burgess, Michael (1993), “Federalism and Federation: A Reappraisal” in Burgess, M and Gagnon, Alain-G (eds.), Comparative Federalism and Federation: Competing Traditions and Future Directions, New York; London: Harvester Wheatcheaf.

Duchacek, Ivo (1970), Comparative Federalism: The Territorial Dimension of Politics, Lanham; London: University Press of America Inc.

Elazar, Daniel (1987), Exploring Federalism, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press.

Erk, Jan (2004), ‘Austria: A Federation without Federalism’, Publius, The Journal of Federalism, 34: 1, 1-20.

King, Preston (1982), Federalism and Federation, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Riker, William (1964), Federalism: Origin, Operation, Significance, Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Suberu, Rotimi (2001), Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria, Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Wheare, Kenneth (1963), Federal Government, 4th ed., London: Oxford University Press.


Further Reading

Amuwo, K. et. al., (eds.), (1998), Federalism and Political Restructuring in Nigeria, Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum Books Limited and IFRA, 1998

Burgess, M. (2006), Comparative Federalism: Theory and Practice, London, New York: Routledge.

Elaigwu, J.I. (2007), The Politics of Federalism in Nigeria, London: Adonis & Abbey Publisher Ltd.


Posted by Dele Babalola in Case studies, 0 comments
The Politics of Ethnically Diverse Cities: Why Should We Care?

The Politics of Ethnically Diverse Cities: Why Should We Care?


Ethnic diversity is a quintessentially urban attribute. Because of this, city governments are called to make decisions about the daily management of diversity, often in ways that contradict or even openly challenge state-level agendas. Thus, cities are not to be treated as simply a lower level of government: they are central actors in the multi-level governance of diversity and in the negotiation of inter-ethnic relations. This contribution reviews examples of city-level diversity policies and discusses some of the contradictions of urban multiculturalism. In doing so, it makes an argument for the need to pay more attention to cities in the study of ethnically diverse societies.


Much of the focus of minority studies is on state-level approaches and solutions to ethno-cultural divisions. Regions with high concentrations of minority populations have also attracted significant attention. However, while the nation-state obviously remains a crucial setting for the development of inter-ethnic arrangements (and conflicts), the city has emerged as a primary “site for generating, managing, negotiating and contesting cultural and political identities” (Uitermark, Rossi and Van Houtum, 2005: 622). The urban concentration of ethnic minorities in many countries has made diversity the quintessential city attribute. In cities around the world, ethnic and cultural diversity are growing in increasingly complex combinations, as migration-driven diversity interacts with pre-existing patterns of ethnic, cultural, and social diversity (Vertovec 2015).

This has direct political consequences. First of all, concentration and proximity force all sorts of inter-ethnic encounters, fostering the development of daily practices of urban coexistence (Amin and Thrift, 2002). Secondly, diverse cities have to respond to different demands for the distribution of resources and accommodation of different cultural expressions, so that city administrations are constantly called in to make decisions on the daily management of diversity. Moreover, minority urban concentration also creates the conditions for the emergence of minority grassroots initiatives and organisations, and makes it easier for minorities that are otherwise marginalised in state-level politics to achieve representation (and sometimes positions of power) in city administrations (Back and Solomos, 1992: 346; Bird, 2004: 182). As a result, cities have come to be a central setting for the negotiation of inter-ethnic relations and for the development of on-the-ground practices of ethnic inclusion and exclusion.

The Two Faces of the Diverse City

Diverse cities call to mind two different – and in many ways opposite – images. On the one hand, diverse cities can be seen as laboratories for a new post-national society. Because urban life forces diverse people to live side by side and share spaces (public transport, pavements, shops, neighbourhoods etc.), the city is often seen as “the most promising site for the negotiation of ethnic identities” (Uitermark, Rossi and Van Houtum, 2005: 623). Indeed, although the overall framing of ethnic relations occurs at state level, much of the actual “negotiation of difference” happens at the local (most often urban) level through everyday, “banal” encounters (Amin 2002). The expectation that cities function as laboratories for new modes of inter-ethnic coexistence is more or less loosely based on the “contact hypothesis” of inter-group relations. Originally developed by Allport (1954), this maintains that, under the right conditions, contact among ethnic groups reduces prejudice and breeds inter-ethnic understanding.[1] This expectation is also inscribed in the EU Common Basic Principles for Immigrant Integration, which state that “[integration] is a process that takes place primarily at the local level” and “[f]requent interaction between immigrants and Member State citizens is a fundamental mechanism for integration” (Basic Principle no. 7, A Common Agenda for Integration, COM [2005] 389 final).[2]  Following this view, city administrations are expected to devise new policies to facilitate positive encounters and foster peaceful inter-ethnic living.

On the other hand, cities are also associated with ethnic and racial segregation, in the forms of the banlieue, the ghetto, and the ethnoracial tensions and insecurities these call to mind. According to this less rosy view of diverse cities, the inequalities and divisions that exist in society are embodied (and potentially amplified) in urban settings (e.g. Wacquant 1996). Unequal access to economic, social and political rights has deep effects on how different groups experience the city and on the kind of inter-ethnic encounters that are more likely to occur (Smith 1989). This ties in with widespread discourses of fear about the city that have been in circulation as long as there have been cities (Body-Gendrot and Martiniello, 2000: 2) and have recently come to prominence with US President Trump’s remarks about supposed no-go zones in European cities. Therefore, rather than (only) sites of positive encounter, cities are also potential sites of division and conflict.

Governing the Diverse City: Some Examples

For the reasons sketched above, city governments find themselves at the coalface of diversity politics. Their role cannot be reduced to the mere implementation of state policies. Rather, they are key (and relatively autonomous) players in the multilevel governance of inter-ethnic integration (Gebhardt 2014). As city administrations have to deal with the day-to-day (and often mundane) governing of diversity, they tend to take a more pragmatic approach compared to the state level, where often highly symbolically charged discussions of identity and culture prevail (Jørgensen 2012). In addition to this, city administrations offer an alternative (and often more accessible) platform for minority representatives to gain political office. The rise of minority representatives to positions of power in cities has obvious symbolic and visibility effects. According to studies focused on the US and – more marginally – Europe, it might also have concrete effects on city minority policies and, consequently, on minorities’ welfare and social integration (Mladenka 1989; Browning Marshall and Tabb 1990; Back and Solomos 1992; Garbaye 2005).

Of course different cities have taken different approaches to diversity (proactive or responsive, innovative or state-led), and some cities have been openly antagonistic towards their non-majority residents (Varsanyi, 2008; Ambrosini, 2013). Nevertheless, expectations remain high that cities might hold the solution to the issues and uncertainties of how to live (and prosper) with diversity. This is evidenced, for instance, by the emergence of a number of trans-national networks of multicultural cities, which aim to share good practices in devising city-level diversity policies. The EU, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe all support such networks, which include hundreds of cities throughout the world.[3]

So, are these expectations justified? Some examples can illustrate what proactive cities can do to shape their own inter-ethnic politics beyond, and sometimes against, state-level approaches. First of all, cities can collect comprehensive data (often lacking at state-level) as a starting point to understanding the needs of diverse communities, create awareness on the potential effects of policies on specific groups, and inform policymaking. This is the case, for instance, of Thunder Bay (Canada)’s Diversity in Policing Project. Awareness of minority-specific barriers to accessing local services can prompt cities to adapt the ways in which they promote and deliver such services. Efforts of some Swedish, British and Dutch cities to mainstream non-discrimination and inclusion in the provision of their services are an example of this (Gebhardt 2014). As city administrations are often the biggest local employer, they can also develop strategies to recruit diverse staff. Urban development and housing can also be managed in ways that are more or less sensitive to inter-ethnic needs (for a typology of city approaches on this, see Wood [2009]).

While city minority policies can be fragmentary and responsive, some city authorities have developed programmatic charters to spell out their guiding principles on diversity and inter-cultural integration – such as Potsdam’s New Tolerance Edict, and Montreal’s Declaration for Cultural Diversity, both drafted through extensive consultations with local residents. Some cities have also established dedicated diversity agencies, departments, or posts, which are tasked with coordinating city efforts on non-discrimination and minority inclusion. An example of this is Barcelona’s Agency for Civil Rights and Non-Discrimination, which also provides services to help its non-citizen residents navigate the complex path to access state-level rights and resources. Moreover, city funding can be made available to support minority organisations and to provide specific services to members of minority groups – such as for example state language training or adult education targeted to socio-economically marginalised groups. Finally, cities can compensate for minorities’ political underrepresentation by promoting minority participation in city politics through ad hoc consultations, regular inclusion of minority organisations in some aspects of decision-making, or institutionalised minority advisory councils (as in Amsterdam from 1985 until the early 2000s, or in several Italian cities through the “Consulta dei Migranti”). These councils can be tokenistic but can also provide an alternative route for excluded voices to influence local policies.

In short, cities cannot change the formal bestowing of citizenship to their non-citizen residents (a prerogative of the state) and the formal rights of their citizen-minorities are also determined at state level. However, by providing access to services and routes for political participation to their non-majority residents and by creating spaces for the development of city-based, post-national identities, cities can de facto redesign the practice of citizenship from the bottom up (Gebhardt, 2016).

Conclusion: Diverse Cities vs. the Nation-State?

After several European leaders have announced the failure of multiculturalism and, more recently, nationalistic and nativist discourses have seen a resurgence in the politics of many democracies, the role of cities in the multilevel governance of ethnic diversity has become even more important. In some cases local governments have been the first line of enforcement of restrictive and exclusive policies (Ambrosini 2013). More often, tasked with the routine governing of diversity, cities have remained pragmatic, de facto implementing local versions of multicultural policies under different names (Ambrosini and Boccagni 2015). More than that, some cities have responded to state-led exclusive pressures with open resistance. The US Sanctuary Cities movement against federal restrictive immigration policies and the city of Munich’s resistance against the German Government’s directive for healthcare providers to denounce irregular migrants (Gebhardt, 2016: 851) are illustrations of this. Therefore, also under the double strain of growing nationalism and decreasing budgets, cities have shown the potential to carve out some autonomous space as potential bastions of diversity.[4]

However, cities’ inclusive potential is not without contradictions. Cities often display more extreme inequalities than their country as a whole (United Nations, 2015), and minorities (both with and without citizenship) persistently find themselves among the most socio-economic disadvantaged (FRA, 2012). As a result, many European cities are experiencing rising housing segregation along socio-economic and ethnic lines (Tammaru et al. 2015). This has drawn the critique that cities market themselves as proudly diverse but in fact cannot or would not tackle the underlying, persistent inequalities that hinder minority social and political inclusion (Bridge and Watson 2002; MacLeavy 2008).

To conclude, any study of ethnic and diversity politics must take into account its multi-level nature. The potential for cities to develop alternatives to nation-states’ nativist tendencies as well as the contradictions of urban diversity policies and practices cannot be ignored. All the more so since city life is now the norm for most of humanity. In 2014 the UN calculated that 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to rise over the next decades.[5]  As cities are caught between the normativity of nation-state frameworks and the reality of dealing with daily, “banal” diversity, their responses will be key to determining the future of our increasingly diverse societies.



Allport, G. W. (1954) The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Ambrosini, M. (2013) ‘“We are against a multi-ethnic society”: Policies of exclusion at the urban level in Italy’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36(1), pp. 136–155.

Ambrosini, M. and Boccagni, P. (2015) ‘Urban Multiculturalism beyond the “Backlash”: New Discourses and Different Practices in Immigrant Policies across European Cities’, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 36(1), pp. 35–53.

Amin, A. (2002) ‘Ethnicity and the multicultural city: Living with diversity’, Environment and Planning A, 34(6), pp. 959–980.

Amin, A. and Thrift, N. (2002) ‘Cities and ethnicities’, Ethnicities, 2(3), pp. 291–230.

Back, L. and Solomos, J. (1992) ‘Black politics and social change in Birmingham, UK: An analysis of recent trends’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 15(3), pp. 327–351.

Bird, K. (2004) ‘Obstacles to ethnic minority representation in local government in Canada’, Our Diverse Cities, 1(1), pp. 182–186.

Body-Gendrot, S. and Martiniello, M. (eds) (2000) Minorities in European Cities. The Dynamics of Social Integration and Social Exclusion at the Neighbourhood Level. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Bridge, G. and Watson, S. (2002) ‘Lest power be forgotten: Networks, division and difference in the city’, Sociological Review, 50(4), pp. 505–524.

Browning, R. P., Marshall, D. R. and Tabb, D. H. (eds) (1990) Racial politics in American cities. New York: Longman.

FRA (2012) Fundamental rights: Challenges and achievements in 2011. Annual Report. Vienna: FRA – European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.

Garbaye, R. (2005) Getting into local power: The politics of ethnic minorities in British and French cities. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Gebhardt, D. (2014) Challenges in the Multilevel Governance of Immigrant Integration in Europe. Migration Policy Institute.

Gebhardt, D. (2016) ‘Re-thinking urban citizenship for immigrants from a policy perspective: The case of Barcelona’, Citizenship Studies, 20(6–7), pp. 846–866.

Herrschel, T. (2014) Cities, State and Globalisation. London: Routledge.

Jørgensen, M. B. (2012) ‘The diverging logics of integration policy making at national and city level’, International Migration Review, 46(1), pp. 244–278.

MacLeavy, J. (2008) ‘Managing Diversity? “Community Cohesion” and its Limits to Neoliberal Urban Policy’, Geography Compass, 2(2), pp. 538–558.

Mladenka, K. R. (1989) ‘Blacks and Hispanics in Urban Politics’, American Political Science Review, 83(1), pp. 165–191.

Smith, S. J. (1989) The Politics of ‘Race’ and Residence. Citizenship, Segregation and White Supremacy in Britain. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Stephens, A. C. (2013) The Persistence of Nationalism: From Imagined Communities to Urban Encounters. London: Routledge.

Tammaru, T., Marcińczak, S., Van Ham, M. and Musterd, S. (eds) (2015) Socio-Economic Segregation in European Capital Cities: East Meets West. Oxon: Routledge.

Uitermark, J., Rossi, U. and Van Houtum, H. (2005) ‘Reinventing Multiculturalism: Urban Citizenship and the Negotiation of Ethnic Diversity in Amsterdam’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 29(3), pp. 622–640.

United Nations (2015) ‘Inclusive Cities’, HABITAT III Issue Papers, 1.

Varsanyi, M. W. (2008) ‘Immigration Policing through the Backdoor: City Ordinances, the “Right to the City”, and the Exclusion of Undocumented Day Laborers’, Urban Geography, 29(1), pp. 29–52.

Vertovec, S. (ed.) (2015) Diversities Old and New. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Van der Waal, J., De Koster, W. and Achterberg, P. (2013) ‘Ethnic segregation and radical right-wing voting in Dutch cities’, Urban Affairs Review.

Wacquant, L. (1996) ‘The Rise of Advanced Marginality: Notes on its Nature and Implications’, Acta Sociologica, 39, pp. 122–139.

Wood, P. (ed.) (2009) Intercultural Cities: Towards a model for intercultural integration. Council of Europe.

Zukin, S., Kasinitz, P. and Chen, X. (2016) Global Cities, Local Streets: Everyday Diversity from New York to Shanghai. London: Routledge.


Further Reading

Tassilo Herrschel (2014) Cities, State and Globalisation. London: Routledge.

Angharad C. Stephens (2013) The Persistence of Nationalism: From Imagined Communities to Urban Encounters. London: Routledge.

Tiit Tammaru, et al. (eds) (2015) Socio-Economic Segregation in European Capital Cities: East Meets West. Oxon: Routledge.

Sharon Zukin, Philip Kasinitz, and Xiangming Chen (2016) Global Cities, Local Streets: Everyday Diversity from New York to Shanghai. London: Routledge.

[1] For recent studies that confirm and refine Allport’s contact hypothesis, see for example Bohman (2013) and Van deer Waal et al (Zukin, Kasinitz and Chen, 2016).

[2] The Agenda can be accessed here:

[3] [3] Information on Eurocities’ Integrating Cities Process can be accessed here: For UNESCO’s International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities and its regional organisations see For the Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities Programme see

[4] Interestingly, right-wing populist discourses push back on this by pitching the “true” (rural) heartland against the liberal, multicultural, “out-of-touch” city.

[5] The UN report on urbanisation found that not only the number and size of megalopolis is increasing, but also small and medium-size cities are steadily growing in size:

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