New Internationalist

What makes the stars shine?

Issue 352

Nicholas You on what works – and why.

I started working in developing countries as an architect and planner early in the 1970s. The urban projects that I came across were massive. So was the wasted opportunity. Many of these projects copied a Western model of urban environment and development that did not respond to the needs and wishes of the people and the communities for whom they were designed. Fuelled by financial institutions afloat with oil money or with development assistance, most of these projects were conceived mainly by foreign experts, with their objectives and their processes. Development planning became a process directed largely by those who supply it, rather than those who receive it: driven by politics more than people.

Work by some anthropologists helped illustrate the dilemmas many of my colleagues and I were facing. Their studies identified three levels at which people and the space that had been planned for them did not work. At the first level are people who don’t understand the space – that a living room is a living room or that a public park is for collective leisure. The result is that the space gets trashed and the people are blamed. At the second level are people who understand the space, but whose living conditions make it hard or even impossible for them to comply with it: for instance, extended families of rural migrants who have moved into two-bedroom high-rise city apartments in order to live and work. In this case, the space gets trashed and the people suffer. Finally, people who both understand the space and can comply with its design intent, but for whom the space does not work because it inhibits social interaction and enjoyment. As a model for urban development, this last level is just as alienating and unsustainable as the first. Yet it is the model for cities (planned more for cars than for people) that is being adopted all over the world.

Creating a more sustainable model of development is first and foremost about governance. The fundamental issue is ‘who decides for whom?’ The stories in this magazine demonstrate how effective participation – participation that truly results in empowerment – can overcome the shortcomings of traditional representative politics that have rarely responded to the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised, not to mention the sustainability of our planet’s eco-system.

These stories remind us that the administrative and bureaucratic boundaries of our government institutions and public authorities make little or no sense to the average citizen. People are seldom interested in which part of a government or department is responsible for doing what – let alone the territorial battles that they engage in. They are, however, more than willing to organize themselves and contribute to actions that result in tangible outcomes for their quality of life. The initial reaction by Porto Alegre’s planners and technocrats to people-participation in the city’s budget was that havoc would result. Experience has proved them wrong. The process is both effective and highly efficient. People have not made unrealistic demands. If governments and technocrats trust ordinary people, they will respond – provided that the structures are in place for them to do so.

Last but not least, the stories in this issue highlight that the more sustainable forms of development are, in effect, win-win solutions. The ‘Butterfly Project’ described on the previous page shows us that the inexorable processes of urbanization and globalization do not necessarily have to take place at the expense of the environment. A workers’ takeover of a textile concern in Argentina, abandoned by management in the face of global competition and national economic crisis, shows how jobs and dignity can be preserved while responding to the local market demand.

While these examples provide unique pointers for the future, they have to date made relatively little impact on mainstream decision-making and remain largely local in their scope and application. The question that begs is: ‘What does it take to turn best practices into common practice and policy?’

I don’t have the answers. But I think that parts of the solutions are beginning to appear. In my view, we need to re-examine how we are governed or how we govern ourselves. The institutional and governmental frameworks in most countries are conceived on models dating back centuries and are woefully inadequate in responding to the challenges of globalization and sustainable development. Government at a local level – whatever form that takes – should be strengthened. As Porto Alegre shows, the process of involving people in local government is as important as the outcomes that it achieves. Local government should be empowered to act as the custodian of the environment, the broker of effective economic development, the marshal of social equity and justice and a leader in forging a shared vision of what constitutes quality of life.

We need to demand of the media not only sensational news but also positive news. A starting point would be to accompany each and every story of natural or human-induced disaster with a report on a good or best practice. We need a renewed commitment to international co-operation and solidarity to mitigate and reverse the negative impacts of globalization. We need fairer trade. We need a responsible international financing system that lends to countries that need finance without abandoning them if things go awry. We need an international community that is willing to apply what works, irrespective of where the initiative comes from.

Finally, we need a good dose of common sense. We have lost touch with fundamental values: what is right, what is wrong and what is decent. Today’s dominant models of how we should live that are provided by big business or stockmarket trading have proven to be fools’ gold, based on absolute greed and a total lack of moral grounding. Like any adult who has had to answer the seemingly naïve yet ultimately rational questions posed by children, we need to rediscover independent thought and analysis and redefine what we mean by ‘sustainable livelihoods and development’. This challenge requires an investigation of the norms that both shape our daily habits and lifestyles and underpin our life-term pursuits. It requires an interrogation of the trust we place in public institutions and corporate enterprises. It requires reflection based on the spiritual values and ethical dimensions of our humanity. And it requires the courage to act – and to change.

Nicholas You is the Chief of Best Practices and Policies at UN-Habitat, based in Kenya.

Change the world

While working on this magazine, a realization hit me like a bolt of lightening. And, like all inspiring revelations, it provides a simple but fundamental critique about where I’ve been directing my energy and focus in life. To date, my activism has always been about fighting power rather than taking it. It has been more directed towards identifying the problems and less towards building the solutions.

In part, this is because of the sheer size and force of globalism. Influencing outcomes can seem impossible when decisions about how we work and live are increasingly made in far-away offices and places. Politicians aren’t helping. As they bow to privatization and de-regulation, the ‘people’s representatives’ are handing over control of our health, transportation, education and economic systems to corporations, many of which are in other countries. And while the governing forces move further and further away from ordinary people, the time and energy that’s available to try to reverse this trend continues to shrink, as those who are employed work ever-harder to keep their jobs and those who are not employed struggle to keep confidence in themselves and their families alive.

The people that you’ve just read about have started to overcome these obstacles. They are paving the way for travelling along a different road. Primarily, they are reasserting that economic development is a sub-set, not super-set, of human development. And they are doing this by taking the control over their lives that has been sucked away from them by unseen global decision-makers and dragging it back into their communities and work places. In this sense, acting locally can be truly revolutionary.

To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing

The stories in this edition can’t just be lifted from these pages and placed in other towns and regions with different cultures and attitudes. But thinking globally allows us to lay some claim to these stories by learning from their common themes. Here are just some of the directions that they offer me:

1 Take the lead. Don’t wait for politicians and government to do it.

2 Define solutions together with others. Whether it be through street parties or meetings, connect more with work-mates and neighbours.

3 Be creative. Invent new ways of operating and thinking to fix the problems at hand rather than relying on pre-formed agendas.

4 Recognize everyone has a valuable role to play. Income and education are no barriers to participation. Give most weight to those most affected.

5 Work with rather than through problems facing a community. See problems as opportunities to act.

6 Govern from the bottom up. Draw in appropriate organizations – government or otherwise – to work together on solutions that communities formulate.

7 Above all, concentrate more on the positive and less on the negative. Focus on what can be achieved, not what has been lost. For, in the spirit of the words of English academic Raymond Williams, ‘To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.’

Chris Richards

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