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Essential Matter: Megacities and Local Development

1 Jun 1997

  • Author(s): Jaime Joseph

Latin American Megacities: Growing Poverty and Violence
The great cities of Latin America were once an expression of prosperity and modern times. Peasants flocked to the cities to break the bonds of feudalism in the countryside and escape from the cosmovisions which condemned them to a fixed and subordinated role in society. The cities offered them some hope of obtaining housing, property titles, permanent employment, education and exposure to the advances wrought by new technologies. In a word, the move to the city represented for many a step along the road to citizenship.

In the present "globalized" world, however, megacities in Latin America mirror the trend toward exclusion of the vast majority of the population, as well as ever-increasing concentration of power and riches in the hands of a few. Roads from rural areas to the cities now often end in endemic poverty, unemployment and social decay.

From the 1970s onward, the transfer of financial crisis from the First World to the Third — with its consequent burden of unpayable debt — pushed most people in Latin American countries into an economic corner. The "new poor", including segments of the former middle class, joined the "old poor" within the population of megacities; and in a number of countries, political unrest, terrorism and civil war worsened the trend toward urban growth with poverty.

It has taken some time to comprehend the full impact of structural adjustment on our large cities. For most people, urban services and housing opportunities have declined markedly; levels of nutrition and health have grown worse; and there is a sharp rise in delinquency and urban violence. Since the economic system is unable to offer most urban inhabitants productive employment, large numbers of poor people must try to survive in new ways.

At first, increased poverty — measured both in numbers of the disadvantaged and in degree of human misery — was considered a temporary condition that would correct itself once growth resumed. Poverty relief programmes were therefore divorced from any broader development perspective and targeted toward the poorest sectors of society. But no country has the resources to compensate for poverty indefinitely, when the poor are a majority of the population.

Several points have become increasingly obvious. One is that poverty relief must be re-connected to workable development strategies. Another is that local people themselves will have to take responsibility for shaping these strategies. Neither states nor international development agencies can by themselves deal adequately with the challenge of poverty. In the neighbourhoods of urban Latin America, the poor must develop new strategies not just for poverty relief, but also for human development. This point was well made by the women in charge of Lima's Community Kitchens, when they decided to move "from protest to proposal", while still continuing to make just demands on the national government for assistance and services. New interest in micro-enterprises, community banks, local development committees and the strengthening of local government reflects this change in attitude.

A Cautionary Note
It would be a costly mistake to think that a new sense of political and social responsibility is emerging throughout the population of low-income and marginal urban settlements. Many among the urban poor are opting for destructive and individualistic solutions to their problems. Some migrate, others fall into delinquency or simply survive on the streets.

We should also remember that while it is becoming increasingly common to hear voices throughout society calling for the promotion of local development and local democracy, these terms mean different things to different people. For many, local development implies no more than promoting actions to relieve poverty — running a community kitchen, setting up a health committee or forming a micro-enterprise. There is no understanding of a need for integrated development strategies. And local democracy is often limited to encouraging participation by volunteers in delivering local services, with no consideration of the need to improve participation in planning or programme direction.

New Scenarios for Development
Our concern should be to help local communities go beyond the boundaries of local poverty relief programmes, without abandoning them, in order to shape more integrated development proposals. We are making progress in several areas.

A systemic approach to concrete human needs
As the state withdraws from its responsibilities to respond to unsatisfied basic needs (housing, health, nutrition, employment), there is a growing demand for community-based organizations and NGOs to provide professional expertise in these fields. (See Corina Villacorta's article in this issue of UNRISD News.) But expertise is often not linked to approaches concerned with the structural roots of different problems, or the relations between them. Methods must be designed to encourage different actors to look at medium- and long-range strategies, while still dealing with immediate needs. At the same time, the links between environment and health, nutrition and farm production, the habitat and water conservation, and so on, should be explored. These synergistic strategies are a basis for participatory democracy.

An integral approach to local development
It is important to go beyond the view that limits local development to poverty relief, or at best to increasing the number of micro-enterprises. In different parts of the developing world, new techniques are being used to arrive at an integral approach to development which responds to the aspirations, capacities and needs of local communities. One of these approaches, proposed by Denis Goulet, orients the community toward constructing its own vision of development, in all its dimensions: economic, social, political, environmental, cultural and spiritual (see Goulet's article, "Development indicators: A research problem, a policy problem" in The Journal of Socio-Economics, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1992). Then there is discussion of which aspects of each dimension should receive priority attention. When a community constructs its own proposal for integrated development, there is a better basis for interaction among all social groups and a greater interest in political participation. This helps counteract the growing tendency toward political dropout which often accompanies increasing and prolonged poverty.

Building local, subjective development indicators
Constructing human development indicators is not a new concern. UNDP has produced its Human Development Report for the last seven years. What is new, however, are efforts to involve local communities in building their own subjective or qualitative indicators, which are congruent with their global vision of development and their priorities. Community organizations are now building such indicators, which reflect their own evaluation of where they stand on the road to accomplishing various goals.

When communities are invited to construct their own vision of development and to measure their progress in subjective, qualitative terms, they also come to realize that they must be able to handle objective, quantitative indicators in order to enhance their ability to plan. In the process, they learn to "decode" the quantitative indicators used by state planning agencies, national statistical institutions, multilateral organizations, and so forth. That is to say, they discover what these numbers show and hide, what visions they reflect. And they also discover their own need to produce hard data for their own development planning.

We would suggest that building and using qualitative indicators is not only improving the vision and planning capacities of local communities and municipal governments, but also creating a basis for communication and interchange among different localities — both within countries and across national borders. We would like to end this brief reflection with an invitation to build networks of communication (which Internet makes possible) among our local communities, sharing their vision of development and their instruments for planning and measuring progress.

Jaime Joseph is former Director of Regional Planning at Centro Alternativa, an NGO in Lima, and is Director of the Escuela de Lideres, an innovative training centre for community leaders. He co-ordinates research in Lima for the UNRISD-UNV (United Nations Volunteers) project on Volunteer Action and Local Democracy: A Partnership for a Better Urban Future.