Latin America: Damned to be violent forever?

When I wrote the last post on this subject, Latin America: Populations are also People in April 2015, I felt quite optimistic about the future of that region, with no less than 14 Left wing governments elected, and the Gini Coefficient of Inequality steadily moving downward for the whole region. The hope was that the slow but steady human development in these societies would reduce the glaring inequalities, and this would decelerate crime and therefore violence…

But this was not to be…

As explained in another post, WDR 2017: Revisiting Corruption, Capture and Clientelism, quoting Dr Jong-Sung You – every time an attempt is made at redistributive justice, the aggrieved elite forced to give up their privileges, react with allegations of ‘corruption’ to affect regime change, bring in a rich-friendly government and ‘capture’ the economy. This has happened in Brazil, Argentina and is under way in Venezuela, while the world focuses its energies on the Middle East, and the drama in the White House.

And all the good done in terms of social and human development in the first decade of the millennium is gradually undone, leaving Latin America as prone as ever to violence and crime, as seen below:

Latin American Homicide Rates

Therefore, it was with special interest that I read a recent World Bank Publication Stop the Violence in Latin America – A Look at Prevention from Cradle to Adulthood by Laura Chioda.

The Report makes several important points about what it calls the physiognomy of crime and violence in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC Region):

  • The relationship between crime and development is highly nonlinear: crime can increase as income rises.
  • Economic development per se does not seem sufficient to curb violence: development must occur at a fast enough pace and be inclusive
  • The relationship between crime and inequality is confounded by poverty. If inequality matters for crime, it matters at the local level
  • Not all unemployment is created equal; age and quality of employment opportunities matter.
  • However, employment per se is not sufficient to deter criminality
  • Development has a dark side. What benefits the formal economy may also benefit illegal markets

These ideas are very thought provoking. And as the Report correctly points out, the extent of crime and violence is not unique to Latin America and the Caribbean. It just so happens that the region has been a playground for global politics, located as it is in the backyard of the country which invented organized crime, has the most liberal gun laws, and boasts the highest prison population in the world – the USA.

It suits the US to hide its poor and corrupt policing and enforcement in the areas of drug and human trafficking, and put the onus on the perpetually ‘criminal and violent’ poor neighbours in the South – an image constantly reinforced in entertainment and the mainstream media.

Furthermore, being relatively small and extremely urbanized, crime statistics in the LAC are much easier to compile and publish than other more populous and rural developing countries, such as those in South Asia and Africa – which are equally prone to violence and crime. The only difference I see is that while in Latin America, violence is closely related to organized crime and therefore driven largely by economic forces, in Asia and Africa the causes of violence are more likely to be social  – tribalism, racism, casteism, communalism, gender discrimination, domestic violence, family disputes over land… and so on. And these are the crimes most difficult to record and catalogue .

Which doesn’t mean they are NOT as destructive as drug dealing or gang wars.

 

HDR 2016 – Human Development for Everyone

When it first came out in 1990, the Human Development Report (HDR) laid down a whole new way of thinking about deprivation – it identified poverty not by what a person has or doesn’t have; but what he can or cannot do. This approach to development spoke of humanity’s very basic capabilities – to simply stay alive a reasonable length of time, to be able to read and write, and to earn enough to provide a life of decency for families and communities… The concept of human rather than economic development was to electrify all stakeholders, as they thought of new means of tackling deprivation in their countries – other than government hand-outs, subsidies and the ‘trickle down’ effect.

As the HDR 2016 proudly states:

The human development approach shifted the development discourse from pursuing material opulence to enhancing human well-being, from maximizing income to expanding capabilities, from optimizing growth to enlarging freedoms. It focused on the richness of human lives rather than on simply the richness of economies, and doing so changed the lens for viewing development results.

The HDR 2016 rightfully gives credit to its progenitor (UNDP) for making it possible for diverse countries to adopt the Millennium Development Goals in 1995, for putting the onus of poverty reduction on national governments, and achieving quite substantial results by 2015. But sadly, the MDGs were viewed by the developed world with benign tolerance, and as an acceptable means of channeling donor funds to the poor and deserving in Asia, Africa and Latin America… Nothing more.

However in the last few years, the Left-Right divide has sharpened in Europe and North America, discrimination has become legitimised through travel bans, the 1% are being increasingly resented, every G20 summit takes place amid violent protests, and multilateralism has come under attack everywhere. Add to this the growing awareness of climate change, global pandemics and environmental damage, and the developed world can no longer stand apart as a mere spectator and reluctant benefactor.

Thus, when the 8 MDGs gave way to 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the issues of sustainability moved centre-stage, then every country – rich and poor – had to perforce become part of a global multilateral project. Human development, if it is to be achieved must be achieved everywhere – in the refugee camps of Italy, the war fields of Syria, among the indigenous populations of Australasia and North and South America, the Dalits of India, and the minority enclaves in China. Hence, the theme of the latest HDR – Human Development for everyone.

Essentially, the Report conveys five basic messages:

Universalism is key to human development, and human development for everyone is attainable
• Various groups of people still suffer from basic deprivations and face substantial barriers to overcoming them
• Human development for everyone calls for refocusing some analytical issues and assessment perspectives
Policy options exist and, if implemented, would contribute to achieving human development for everyone
• A reformed global governance, with fairer multilateralism, would help attain human development for everyone

Of course the Report dwells especially on the heightened barriers to development placed in the path of indigenous groups, religious and ethnic minorities, women and girls, migrants and refugees, the elderly, disabled, and the differently inclined. These are the disadvantaged, universally acknowledged. What I find more disturbing though, is the almost universal marginalization of the poor because they are poor and without choice or voice – be it reduced health support in the US, or cut in allocations to primary education in India. It’s as if the world has decided to simply write off its bottom 10%, the hungry and the homeless, as being beyond help…

And in this darkening scenario of Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ the slogan of development for everyone seems rather idealistic, although the UNDP claims that it is possible through the right policies and actions by national governments, and the strengthening of the multilateral framework of global governance.

The Report’s prescription for national governments are summarised beautifully in this diagram:

And the Report ends with an appeal to strengthen the multilateral framework of global governance, so grievously undermined by nationalistic rhetoric, growing insecurity leading to an unending arms race, religious hatred and ethnic conflict.

Its formula for strengthening the multilateral framework is:

• Stabilizing the global economy
• Applying fair trade and investment rules
• Adopting a fair system of migration
• Assuring greater equity and legitimacy of multilateral institutions
• Coordinating taxes and monitoring finance globally
• Making the global economy sustainable
• Ensuring well-funded multilateralism and cooperation
• Globally defending people’s security
• Promoting greater and better participation of global civil society


So there you have it… A blueprint for a better world? Perhaps.
A voice to be listened to? Definitely.

 

National Urban Policy – Part II

Today is Guru Poornima in India – a day to honour and respect our teachers, and to be fondly remembered by one’s students. Also an occasion to lament the disappearance of teachers who believed every subject should convey to its learners a sense of history, a continuity with the past, an understanding of the context for the present, and an envisioning of alternatives for the future.

Instead we have economists lamenting the lack of an institutional memory in the institutions of governance in India; a POTUS who has so muddied the waters that it is well-nigh impossible to tell real news from fake news; surveys of American law-makers who have no clue about the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam… and the dumbing down of generation after generation across the world, fed as they are on sound bites, instant images and 140 characters of wisdom. These phenomena are a direct consequence of the waves of globalization, privatization and liberalization which hit the world c.1990, and were reinforced by the simultaneous growth of Information Technology and the Internet.

It is against this background that we realize how difficult it is to formulate and articulate any national policy – let alone something as complex as a National Urban Policy for a very diverse, highly rural and conservative society like India.

Time was, India was ruled by learned scholars, philosophers and historians who produced volume after volume of crystalized wisdom, even if it was replete with the Fabian idealism learnt in the groves of academe in England – Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Dr Ambedkar, and so many more. Even as recently as 1988, the National Commission on Urbanization, chaired by an eminent architect, produced a report fit to be turned into perhaps the only important urban law passed in independent India – the 74 CAA. There have been other excellent pieces of conceptualization like the Rakesh Sharma Report on Infrastructure, or the Ishar Judge Ahluwalia report on urban governance and infrastructure. However, however, however… for reasons of party political advantage, all work carried out by the previous government has been chucked in the bin and been replaced by ‘copy and paste’ flyers and websites on subjects like Smart Cities and Urban Renewal and left to a handful of self-styled urban ‘consultants’ and bottom feeders with virtually NO concept of the evolution of orthogenetic (pre-colonial) and heterogenetic (post-colonial) cities across the Indian sub-continent; its largely agrarian society and values; its distress and economic migrations; its dwindling manufacturing sector and growing services sector; and, most of all, the worsening situation in urban housing and land management.

Therefore, given these immense challenges, India (and other developing countries) need to develop a National Urban Policy out of necessity, as a means of retrofitting, to direct and control the inevitable urbanization of their countries, before the urban situation is beyond redemption and the lives and livelihoods of millions of their citizens are put at high risk.

As I had mentioned in my last post, the UN-Habitat’s Guiding Framework on National Urban Policy had mentioned the 5 step process of:

Feasibility: Understanding…
– What a NUP can and cannot achieve
– What constitutes urbanization in a particular country
– Role of national, regional and local governments and consensus building about these roles
– History, facts and figures

Diagnosis: Identifying …
– The key actors and stakeholders
– The problems that the policy is expected to address
– The opportunities provided by the NUP
– The goals and objectives of the Policy

Formulation: Assess…
– The various policy options available
– The capacity of the institutions and mechanisms of urban governance
– The efficacy of the means for constant monitoring and evaluation

Implementation: putting in place…
– An implementation plan
– A timeline
– An institutional and legislative framework
– Structure for proper delegation, decentralization and devolution

Monitoring and Evaluation: continuous process to…
– Assess the efficiency, effectiveness and dynamics of policy implementation
– Loop back evaluation results as learning and capacity building


All this is fine as theoretical frameworks go, but applying the UN-Habitat framework on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ basis in India and elsewhere will flounder on the very first issue of what constitutes urbanization.

The Census of India in 1961, defined an urban area as:

– Firstly, those settlements that were given urban civic status, like corporation, municipality and cantonment by the State Governments, and were recognised as ‘statutory’ towns.
– Secondly, ‘census town’, applied to areas which met the following criteria: (1) population size of 5000 or more; (2) density of at least 400 persons per square kilometre; (3) at least 75% of the male workers to be engaged outside agriculture.

As urban development is a State subject in the Constitution of India, there is quite a bit of variation in identifying Statutory Towns across States, making comparisons difficult. State Governments have been declaring overgrown villages as municipalities with great alacrity, often in the neighbourhood of existing metros. As these metros expand, land-owners on the periphery acquire overnight wealth and in order to match their new economic clout with political power, displace the traditional landed elite by the simple expedient of having their home village declared an urban area.

According to the Government of India Census 2011 there are 7,935 urban centres or townships that house the 377 million urban citizens of the country. Of these, the 53 million-plus urban agglomerations account for 160.7 million persons (or 42.6%), and the remaining 217 million – or more than half of the total urban population of India – live in small and medium sized towns.

So the question arises: should there be two parts to India’s National Urban Policy

  • One for the million-plus cities with emphasis on telecommunication, connectivity, quality public utilities, tertiary education and health care and infrastructure – to encourage the growing services sector and consolidate and centralize manufacturing
  • Another for the small and medium towns acting as the traditional agricultural hubs for their immediate hinterland, with good roads, telecommunication, infrastructure, primary and secondary health care and education to develop agro-industries which will be the acupressure points to relieve rural distress

Worth a thought, wouldn’t you say..?

 

National Urban Policy – Part I

In a book published in 2000, one had lamented the fact that even after 50 years of independence, India had no National Urban Policy. It was a very naive conclusion: One cannot forget that at the time of Independence, the tragedy of Partition and the havoc of colonial rule required the Indian government to concentrate solely on the famine stalking the Indian countryside, and cities had to be left to fend for themselves.

However, this neglect of urban areas also meant that outdated and retrograde laws inherited from the British colonial masters continue to rule the way Indian cities are governed to this day. For example the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act of 1888 spawned all the municipal legislation not just in India, but also surrounding areas like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and eventually Bangladesh. There was also no effort to update the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, and the new Act proposed in 2013 and drastically amended since, is mired in party politics and yet to become law. Finally, the eminently ‘British’ Town Planning laws and procedures were imported wholesale to India without any modification to make them relevant to the Indian urban scenario.

The problem with retaining these colonial laws is that they were premised on a deep distrust of the ‘natives’ and gave too many powers to the permanent civil servant at the helm of municipal affairs, and this bifurcation of powers between a permanent bureaucracy and representatives elected for 5 years continues to hamstring local governments, and breeds corruption, clientelism and capture in the local economy.

These issues are not exclusive to India and continue to dog former colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America as well, and this widespread malaise prompted UN-Habitat, the urban organization of the UN, to draw up guidelines for formulation of national urban policies.

The basic premise of the NUP: A Guiding Framework is that given the increasing clout of cities in national economies in a globalized world, federal governments have the opportunity and responsibility to establish the “rules of the game”. The Report emphasizes that in addition to setting a vision for their cities, countries must establish a financing and implementation framework to realize that vision.

The structure of this framework will determine:

  • The responsibility for implementation
  • The powers delegated
  • The resources allocated
  • The monitoring and evaluation process, and
  • The enforcement mechanisms to ensure follow-through

The guide makes it very clear that without strong, effective “rules” within the national urban policy, neither cities nor countries can achieve the goals set out within the foundational vision.

A well-constructed national urban policy can establish a clear, cohesive vision for sustainable urban growth and development. At the same time, it can create systems that empower cities with the freedom to make the right choices on sustainable solutions for their unique contexts — and to ensure the financial resources to invest in them.

Interestingly, while debate on the NUP Framework in the developing countries is focused on greater privatization, liberalization, infrastructure and business; in the advanced economies the focus is clearly on putting people at the centre of national urban policies, emphasizing the environmental aspects of sustainable urban development and highlighting the role of cities in decelerating climate change.

A National Urban Policy should enable national governments to control and direct urbanization and capitalize on the opportunities it offers, for the sustainable and equitable development of the country as a whole, without negatively impacting global well-being. Further, as the Guide rightly points out, working within a national policy framework will promote good practices, innovative management, stakeholder consultation, capacity development and evaluation of country policy processes. Integrating these lessons into future policy practice can promote systems change and institutional learning.

This Guiding Framework outlines five NUP phases: feasibility, diagnosis, formulation, implementation and monitoring, and evaluation. In addition, the Framework considers the inclusion of the three NUP pillars: participation, capacity development, acupuncture projects resulting in iterative policy design. (Incidentally, ‘acupuncture projects’ is a phrase originally coined by Barcelonan architect and urbanist, Manuel de Sola Morales and developed by Finnish architect and social theorist Marco Casagrande, applying the tenets of acupuncture to urban renewal: just as you treat the points of blockage and let relief ripple throughout the body, so also localized initiatives can release pressure at strategic points, and thus release pressure for the whole city.)

These five elements are simultaneous and overlapping in most cases and the Guide represents them in the following diagram:

National Urban Policy Process.png

It is expected that the National Urban Policy, once formulated and accepted by a national government, will manifest itself in transformations in Urban Legislation, Urban Economy and Urban Planning.

How this framework can work for an emerging economy like India, I shall discuss in Part II of this post. Until then….

Power, Authority and Influence

My apologies for a recap of Anthropology 101, but it is necessary to understand what I mean by the title of this post.  Anthropologists define political organization as the way in which a society handles the distribution of power, to maintain order which will enable the peaceful social and economic functioning of society.  When this power is legitimized on the basis of culture/mores, it becomes traditional authority (as in a Council of Elders); and when it is legitimized through a modern legal-institutional framework, it is termed rational authority. In other words, if I have the power I can make you act in a particular way, whether you want to do so or not, and if I exercise authority over you then you must act in the way outlined, or face social and legal sanctions.  The third element in this triad is influence – a far more subtle ability to make others think and act in a particular way, of their own volition.

I was reminded of these lessons of long ago by the constant harping in the Indian media about the Trump Twitter forays and the ‘War of Thrones’ in State elections in key North Indian States – with a liberal use of words like ‘power’, ‘defeat’, ‘victory’ and ‘demolition’ ad nauseam. The two self-proclaimed greatest democracies on Earth, reducing the hopes and aspirations of over a billion and a half souls  to a tawdry reality show on commercial TV. And this is how it works – in theory:

But how much of this much vaunted ‘power’ is real? Given the quirky electoral systems in both countries, the US Presidential race was won with just 46% of the popular vote; and India’s General Elections of 2014 gave the present government a great number of seats with just 31% of the electoral vote. Since then, Indian State Government elections have become vital to strengthen the government’s hands in the Upper House. This is seen as very important, because the sitting government wishes to tweak the legal-institutional framework to enhance its authority in a way that will enable it to achieve its agenda before the next General Election, in 2019 – just as POTUS can affect the legal process there, by select appointments to the judiciary.

Whenever there is an attempt to put the cart before the horse (assuming authority before legitimizing power) it falls flat – like the Trump travel ban and the hasty amendments to India’s Land Laws. I doubt whether both countries will allow their basic systems of legitimacy to be tweaked quite as easily as the incumbents seem to imagine – there are far too many checks and balances in both Constitutions, too many dissenting voices, too much inbuilt inertia, and rampant multiculturalism – the only safeguard for democracy in a globalised, multipolar world.

However, there is a clear and present danger that until this much coveted legitimate authority materializes, there will be extra-legal efforts to intimidate and coerce, through the rewriting of history, the marginalization of immigrants and minorities, and the quelling of all dissent by questioning the integrity of all those who disagree – like the campus unrest in India and the media war in the US. It is again the bottom 20% in both countries who will bear the brunt of these ambitions.

What is surprising is the convergence of vision between two such disparate leaders – one wants to make America great again, the other wants Development for all – but through the common route of infrastructure! This sector is globally acknowledged as the greatest source of corruption, and has been used in both countries to win elections – taking clientelism and crony capitalism to a new high : support today, profit tomorrow.

In fact the American Society of Civil Engineers has already submitted a wish list by outlining the horrendous costs to the country of deteriorating infrastructure, and the aspiring classes in India too dream of totally unviable and expensive bullet train networks criss-crossing their vast country.

Infrastructure development provides both a carrot and a stick in times of elections: on the one hand, investment in physical infrastructure benefits large companies in the heavy engineering, construction and mining sectors, whose shareholders are among the richest and have the deepest pockets; and on the other hand, it keeps the recalcitrant and minorities in line through coercion – the highly centralized governance in India gives an immense advantage to the party in power at the Centre, and States that choose to go with other parties pay a very heavy price in terms of systematic deprivation of development funds.

The price paid by West Bengal for voting in the Communists for a quarter century was huge – and Kolkata as the consumptive dowager metropolis of India is living proof of this, while Delhi was lavished with beautifying additions at the cost of other cities. Further, it is not only the cities but the rural areas which are impacted adversely if the Central and State Government are political adversaries. The Ministry of Rural Development gets the bulk of Government subsidies and aid, and antagonizing the powers-that-be at the Centre can dry up a river, create a famine, isolate a village, target a community, unleash a deadly epidemic, or devastate an eco-system.

So as they forge new means to maximize the private profits from public investment in infrastructure, both countries will forget their shortcomings – like the world’s largest incarcerated population, child poverty, growing homelessness, deteriorating public schools, crippling student debts and unaffordable healthcare in the US; and the highest incidence of modern slavery, growing malnutrition, child labour, non-existent social security and rampant informalisation of the economy, in India.

And the poorest will continue to fall off the grid…

 

Suffer Little Children…

One watches the TV News at one’s own peril these days. The UN Secretary-General asking for over $4 billion for the starving children of Africa; the ragged and emaciated children scavenging for scraps in Yemen; the wounded children of Aleppo and the dead of Gaza… and TV channels vying with one another with more ‘in-depth’ reports about the inhumane juvenile justice system in ‘developed’ countries. Peddling more and more misery in High Definition, but with a polite warning ‘Viewers may find some of the images disturbing.’ Then they move on to more important things, like the Great Twitter Wars of the twenty-first century…

Frankly, activists and development agencies have simply given up on the poorest of the poor. In the face of growing disparities, extremist polities, unprecedented inequality and insatiable greed, what chance do the children of humanity’s lowest quintile have? Branded and damned by an accident of birth. Ironic that millions live and die with their low ascribed status in an era which worships merit and achievement and makes billionaires of tech lords for a single innovation.

UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2016 reflects this growing despair with the same tired pleas for:

  • More accurate Information (They have to beg for this in the age of Information?!)
  • Greater Integration across sectors like education, nutrition, health and housing
  • Innovations that accelerate development for the most disadvantaged
  • Investment to create equitable solutions
  • Involvement of communities, businesses, organizations and citizens around the world who believe that change is possible.

Five I’s to combat the big I – Inequality.

However elegantly alliterative the Report may be, it doesn’t acknowledge one simple fact. The poorest of the poor across the world have not only become marginalized, but are increasingly redundant for the rest of us, our governments and our big businesses. The five I’s listed above will not happen, because it is in nobody’s interest to alleviate the lot of the most disadvantaged – as simple as that.

Just look at each of these in the South Asian context, for instance:

  • India prides itself on developing and implementing the biggest biometric ID programme (Aadhar) for a billion-plus people, and provides the bulk of Information Technology’s foot soldiers across the world. Yet in its deep hinterland, millions of births go unregistered. Why?
  • The Human Development Index was said to be the brainchild of a Pakistani and an Indian, yet neither country has been innovative or effective in integrating child development programmes, and both remain high on the malnutrition and illiteracy indices. Instead, tireless advocates of child rights like Kailash Satyarthi remain unheard and unknown until anointed by the Nobel Prize, when they are famous for a week and return meekly to obscurity, with nobody paying heed to their words anymore. Instead, the Indian Government goes so far as to legitimize child labour in family trades, washing its hands of millions of the most disadvantaged children in the country. Why?
  • As regards investment, no country in this region is willing to step back from an unnecessary arms race, and invest instead in its women and children and their future. Why?
  • And the middle and business classes in the entire South Asian Region are clones of one another – materialistic and self-centred to a fault. So much for their involvement in reaching the poorest of the poor…

The report has its dire warnings too, if the Sustainable Development Goals are not met by 2030:

unicef-sowc-2016


The Report rightly points out:

The arithmetic of equity is relatively simple and it is not a zero-sum game. Everyone should move forward, in rich and poor countries alike. But with greater investment and effort focused on reaching the children and families who have made the least progress, advances in child survival, health and education can be more equally shared to the benefit of all. To realize our global development goals, we must invest first in the children who are furthest behind.”

All we need: political will and a social conscience… and the resources can always be found.

 

WDR 2017: Revisiting Corruption, Capture and Clientelism

It was one of those cold misty mornings that you only get in North India in January, and I was being dropped to the airport at 5 a.m. by the hotel cabbie, and we were  lamenting the state of the world (ALL Indians always lament the state of the world when passing the time with total strangers…). Anyway, it emerged that despite working for a luxury hotel run by what is considered India’s most ethical business group, the driver is paid such a paltry salary that his family just makes it above the poverty line. And this despite being at the hotel’s beck and call 24/7. I am sure his father would have blamed his poverty on bad karma from an earlier life, and as a younger man, this gentleman would have ranted about discrimination (in arguably the world’s most discriminatory and unequal society), but in Modi’s India he blamed it on one single thing – corruption.

There is of course, a growing school of thought which believes that neo-conservative regimes like the current Indian government come to power by promising development, and blaming the preceding governments for holding the country back because of widespread corruption. Come elections, they promise to eradicate corruption through ‘good governance’. Their concept of governance (based on the classic World Bank model) is however, more like corporate governance with all emphasis on efficiency, grand announcements and fast but centralized decision-making, with the citizen-centric governance promoted by UNDP, totally forgotten along with effectiveness, participation, responsiveness, and accountability. Naturally, in this context, the entirely business-centric scales like Transparency International’s to measure corruption, or WEF’s ease of business are given far too much importance, and the UN reports on social indicators generally neglected. Consequently, wealth qua wealth is worshipped and accumulated, enterprise rewarded, bad debts incurred, and the informality and inequality in the country keep rising.

This is how the very core neocon agenda undermines itself, because as the social analyst Jong-Sung You argues in his latest book, inequality produces several causal mechanisms that serve to embed corruption within democratic structures and make them difficult to eradicate. Linking economic to political power, he explains how the ruling elite in an attempt to safeguard its own interests, buys political influence through both legal and illegal channels in order to ensure their interests are over-represented in the corridors of power. High rates of inequality thus compound the problem of state capture by powerful figures in politics, business and the media, with the result that democratic processes of accountability are undermined by corrupt practices.

Further, Dr You points out that an unequal state with enfeebled democratic infrastructure is ripe for persistent and prevalent clientelism, forcing the poor to become dependent on corrupt chains of patronage for the provision of particular benefits like medicine, education and nourishment, which would otherwise be considered entitlements in a functioning democracy. These chains of patronage on which the poor rely, are then mobilized during elections to buy votes and, in the bureaucracy, to buy favours. Importantly, this illustrates that the role elections should play as a mechanism for accountability ceases to function under high conditions of inequality; elections meant to fight corruption, become a means to legitimize a corrupt regime. And so we have come full circle.

Maybe it is the work of thinkers like Dr Jong-sung You which has begun to influence that bastion of free enterprise, the World Bank. Their latest World Development Report is a refreshing recant on their earlier version of governance and now considers governance as “… the process through which state and non-state actors interact to design and implement policies within a given set of formal and informal rules that shape and are shaped by power. This Report defines power as the ability of groups and individuals to make others act in the interest of those groups and individuals and to bring about specific outcomes.”

So there you have it: in the end, the institutions of governance do eventually subserve the demands of the most powerful in society. The WDR 2017 acknowledges that the power asymmetries in society can greatly undermine development and policy making and implementation because they lead to exclusion, capture, and clientelism. This in turn leads to the power of elite bargaining in a modern democracy, and its impact on policy-making and eventually, development.


As part of the World Development Report 2017, the World Bank, in collaboration with the V-Dem Institute, has conducted expert surveys to generate cross-national indicators that enable comparison of who holds bargaining power and how they wield this influence. The surveys cover more than 100 years of data in 12 countries across six regions and their findings are very interesting, as this graph shows:

WDR 2017 Elites.png

Some observations:

  • Power in Russia, Turkey (and Rwanda!) is apparently centralized totally to the exclusion of all other actors. So what happens when the mighty One is no more?
  • Do Brazilians really feel that the media there are such powerful players? Perhaps, especially after the media hounding of a democratically elected President…
  • Are foreign governments and international donor agencies really so powerful in Sri Lanka, or is there a defence angle India should worry about?
  • Local Governments, Organized Labour Unions and Civil Society Organizations seem to wield power only in Bolivia making it some sort of last refuge for the socialist idealist, and
  • Finally, India is true to the South Asian archetype, where power is centralized in the National Executive, National legislature, the Judiciary, national political parties and the All-India Civil Services – a permanent bureaucracy bequeathed by our erstwhile rulers to the entire sub-continent. Noticeable too is the absence of influence at the local or municipal level, despite the 74th Constitutional Amendment on decentralization, dating back to 1992, and that goes a long way in explaining the pathetic state of India’s burgeoning cities…

Dimensions of Urban Poverty – Revisited

My rather long absence from the blog was meant to be an assessment of the usefulness and direction of what I have been writing on issues of development and governance, and it is quite gratifying to learn that the traffic on the site holds steady, and the readership has now extended to 115 countries… What is rather surprising, is the continuing popularity of the ‘dimensions of urban poverty’ post I put up almost two years ago.

I had then optimistically hoped that with a new government, which came to power in India on a promise of ‘Development for All’, the following issues would receive serious consideration:

  • Ending the rural-urban bifurcation
  • Tertiarising the rural economy to stem distress migration to cities
  • Assuring food security for all: rural and urban
  • Providing a place of business that is legitimate, affordable and secure
  • Moving towards urban housing that is formal, affordable and secure
  • Putting in place a representational system for all assets, liabilities, and inventories
  • Augmenting access to institutional finance for all, not just rich industrialists
  • Vigorously enforcing the Right to Education
  • Giving easy and universal access to immunisation and health care
  • Guaranteeing public goods and services on the basis of equity and inclusion
  • Putting in place a social security net to cope with the unexpected

However, recent events in India force me to revisit this subject, and perhaps add a refinement or two to the original enunciation. I have been covering the different dimensions in various posts, and wish to bring them together only to underline one sad reality: that a country cannot progress, no matter how many missions are launched to make it SMART, digital or business-friendly, unless the various dimensions of poverty, especially urban deprivation, are addressed with long-term, cogent, inter-related, holistic policies and programmes.

Under the Income Dimension of urban poverty, we had noted that its commonest manifestation was the daily cash transactions that constitute the economy of the poor. Nowhere was this point better illustrated than in the furore and hardship caused to the urban poor and middle classes, by the Indian government’s decision to demonetize 86% of the country’s currency in one fell swoop. Venezuela too tried something of the sort, leading to riots in the streets.

Another side effect of the demonetization was that it turned the focus on the urban informal sector (again marked by cash transactions) which is on the verge of choking the formal economy to extinction, as mentioned in my previous post. It emerged that it is this informalisation of the urban economy (unchecked over the years) which results in tax evasion on a massive scale, though in a myriad petty ways, by the poorer classes of middle India. And I iterate that unless these informal sectors are formalized through cooperatives, labour collectives and self-help groups, with a user friendly tax regime to back it, the transactions of the average Indian consumer will continue to be in cash, unrecorded and therefore untaxed.

Under the Health Dimension of urban poverty, we had noted the pernicious impact of chronic malnutrition, and how it debilitated a nation’s human resources, bringing India’s demographic dividend to naught. It is also well documented that in a food deprived household in a largely patriarchal society like India (with a marked son-preference), the meagre resources go to feed the men in the family – the male ‘breadwinner’ and the beloved son; and the girl child is doomed to a lifetime of malnutrition and anemia.  In such a scenario, any attempt to introduce a fixed basic income cash transfer to replace subsidized food grains under the Public Distribution System, would be tantamount to condemning vast swathes of the population to virtual starvation, as the direct cash transfer is unlikely to feed an individual buying food on the open market. So much for the basic human right of food security. This does not augur well for the future of India, which is already home to 25% of the world’s hungry.

Under the Education Dimension, we had noted how the lack of access, facilities and quality in primary education doomed the urban poor to a lifetime of deprivation – generation after generation. The Indian Government has made no new investments in primary and secondary education and even the Prime Minister limits himself to the children of the well-heeled in his frequent radio and TV broadcasts to motivate them about such earth-shaking things as Yoga! Of course, the worst thing this government has done to the children of the poor, is to virtually legitimize child labour by permitting it in ‘family’ businesses. The same absence of policy results in a total failure to take concrete steps along other dimensions of urban poverty like housing, security and empowerment.


The single-minded pursuit of higher economic growth in a globalized world, has only resulted in increasing inequality and disparities, the flip side of which is the growing marginalization of the world’s poor, and a cold disregard for the UN’s recently announced Sustainable Development Goals.  This graphic from Statista, based upon the latest Oxfam Report on disparity, says it all:

world-inequality-in-oxfam-report

What an irony then, that the move away from globalization to a more insular and protectionist mode has begun in the West, where it was born; and its strongest defendant today is the President of Marxist China addressing the world at Davos…

Inclusive Cities – But who pays?

The world today is becoming increasingly difficult to classify along old ideological strands of left and right, or liberal and conservative. Essentially, it is divided between those who have benefited greatly from globalization, and those who have qualms about its impact on the environment and the vulnerable.

While the new right believes in a free market, wealth accumulation, exclusivity, exceptionalism and stronger state protection; the new left today is defined less by working class solidarity (virtually destroyed in any case, by 25 years of globalization) and more by its concern for the environment, renewable energy, climate change, gender discrimination and universally acceptable and ‘politically correct’ causes like child labour, slavery, LGBT rights and extreme poverty. The new left mantras are: Inclusion, Sustainability and Equity. And they are spattered all across the latest draft (18 July 2016) of the UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, expected to be discussed, modified and accepted at the Habitat III in Quito, come October.

A look at the Agenda’s principles and commitments makes this point very clear:

Leave no one behind, by ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including the eradication of extreme poverty, by ensuring equal rights and opportunities, socio-economic and cultural diversity, integration in the urban space, enhancing livability, health and well-being; promoting safety and eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence; ensuring public participation; and providing equal access for all to physical and social infrastructure and basic services.

Sustainable and inclusive urban economies, by leveraging the agglomeration benefits of well-planned urbanization, high productivity, competitiveness and innovation; ensuring full and productive employment creation and equitable access for all to economic and productive resources and opportunities; preventing land speculation; and promoting secure land tenure.

Environmental sustainability, by promoting clean energy, resource and land use efficiency in urban development, as well as protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, including adopting healthy lifestyles in harmony with nature; ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns; building urban resilience; reducing disaster risks; and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The draft agenda then moves on to transformative commitments for sustainable urban development, covering everything like: growing inequality and discrimination in cities; growth of internal, international and crisis migration; inadequate housing and social infrastructure; and paucity of safe public spaces. On institutions of urban governance, the agenda commits to facilitate grassroots democracy and also look beyond city-specific governments, to larger regional mechanisms.

Please bear in mind that this is an agenda for a fast changing world, where the face of urbanization will be definitively Asian:

Urbanization by 2030

And that is why, when it comes to the commitments to the urban economy, I find it too rose-tinted, idealistic and impractical. For instance point #51 reads:

We commit to recognize the working poor in the informal economy, particularly women, as contributors and legitimate actors of the urban economies, including the unpaid and domestic workers. We further commit to develop a gradual approach to formalization with a view to facilitating the transition from the informal to the formal economy, extending access to legal and social protections to informal livelihoods, as well as support services to the informal workforce.

If the new urban age is going to be essentially Asian, then there are two fallacies in the above point: The urban informal sector is no more the exclusive realm of the urban poor; and the assumption that efforts to formalize the informal will be welcomed by the practitioners of informality is also false – at least in the prevailing Asian context.

In India, for example, if you are redecorating your house, it is possible to procure the services of a decorator, builder, plumber, electrician, AC man without paying a penny tax, and you may even buy the materials in cash (without receipt) and save some more on tax! It is the middle class, and not the poor, who keep the urban informal sector going. Secondly, although everybody likes the idea of ‘inclusive’ municipal services, nobody likes the idea of ‘inclusive’ taxes, rates and user charges to pay for them. As a result, every hike proposed by municipal officers tends to get shot down by our elected representatives as being ‘anti-people’, thus ensuring their victory in the next election… And the infrastructure and services continue to deteriorate because of inadequate funding.

So if Habitat III is to be more than a talking shop for the international ‘urban mafia’, the New Urban Agenda needs to be more grounded in reality (and increasingly, the Asian reality) and propose more practical ways of making both income and expenditure truly ‘inclusive’ at the local level.

 

Cities without Shelter…

The maiden edition of UN Habitat’s World Cities Report (WCR 2016) reviews the changing face of urbanization in the last 20 years, covering the period when the global urban population hit the critical 50% mark, and our world was forever changed.

It identifies and discusses the following key issues or challenges before our cities, citizens and local and federal governments:

Emerging Issues in World City Report 2016

Of particular interest to countries like India is the section on Slums and Informal Settlements. UN-Habitat defines slums as “… a contiguous settlement that lacks one or more of the following five conditions: access to clean water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area that is not overcrowded, durable housing and secure tenure.” The WCR 2016 clearly avers that “…slums are the products of failed policies, poor governance, corruption, inappropriate regulation, dysfunctional land markets, unresponsive financial systems, and a lack of political will.”

And what is apparently true of the world, is true of India as well. In spades.

The WCR 2016 draws a dismal picture of government efforts to address the problem of informal settlements, across the world:

  • Over the last 20 years, housing has not been central to national and international development agendas, and urban land management and administration have suffered as a result
  • The housing policies put in place through the enabling approach have failed to promote adequate and affordable housing
  • Inequality, focus on homeownership, speculation and neglect of rental housing have gone on unchecked
  • Most involvement by governments has focused on helping the middle class to achieve home-ownership in a formal sector that only they can afford
  • The dependence on the private sector to provide housing has steadily increased across the world

The Report suggests the following policy initiatives at all tiers of government, to address the issue of adequate and affordable housing:

  • If the emerging future of cities is to be sustainable, a new approach that places housing at the centre of urban policies is required, to re-establish the important role of housing in achieving sustainable urbanization
  • At the national level, the goal is to integrate housing into national urban policies
  • At the local level, the importance of housing must be reinforced within appropriate regulatory frameworks, urban planning and finance, and as part of the development of cities and people.

Nobody in India is paying the least attention, as housing subsidies for the poor are rapidly replaced by ‘subsidized housing loans’ and initiatives like Smart Cities run into local resistance, because they are seen as a means of further enrichment of multinational IT firms, by raising local tariffs and taxes. RIP!

And as the Government of India jettisons all rights-based approaches in the social sector, the situation in the country’s slums will only get worse. Urban land transactions have bred land and construction mafias, which have totally penetrated and undermined local governments; engendered corruption on an unimaginable scale in State and Central Governments; and transferred huge tracts of public lands into private hands through the back door – in the name of the poor. Where else but in Mumbai can a rich man buy a 5 bedroom penthouse, signing 4 different contracts with the developer for 4 ‘lower income’ flats ‘merged’ into one while the government authorities conveniently looked the other way? And even the beleaguered and heavily indebted middle class must turn its hard earned ‘white’ money into ‘black’ to appease the property developer who demands part of the price of a house in this form, to avoid paying taxes. None of the successive governments of various ideological hues has done anything to address these woes, and none will, because the builders’ lobby is simply too strong and influential.

So it goes in various guises across the world, as the global housing shortage is expected to hit a billion by 2025…