On World Cities Day, Putting Urban Issues into Perspective

As heavy rains lashed across South Asia this year, affecting over 41 million people across the subcontinent, Mumbai in particular witnessed chaos and collapse… of buildings, transport, infrastructure and everyday life. Roads were clogged, hospitals flooded, schools closed and flights grounded as scenes of people wading through waist high water did the rounds of international media.

A lot has been written since about the problem, blaming urbanisation, population growth or climate change. Is Mumbai, like urban centres in developing countries, growing too fast? How can we stem the inflow of migrants? Perhaps the destruction was inevitable and the increasing levels of rainfall in itself is the issue? While these may be relevant factors a singular focus on climate change or population growth or migration often discounts the issue of governance and administration, and fails to recognise the complexities and particularities of the political economy of developing cities. These scenes of a city coming to a standstill are a routine annual occurrence in Mumbai. Every year during the monsoons residents try to cope with clogged drains, flooded roads, disruption of transport and threat of infection from rubbish and waste circulating in the city.In 2005 flooding in the city claimed over 1,000 lives with shanty towns most severely affected. It is a failure of planning, policy and governance but also a result of social and political factors that need unravelling.

A number of overlapping issues contribute to urbanisation challenges: a lack of affordable housing (where they do exist, as per a 2014 McKinsey report 33% of India’s housing are of substandard quality), poor infrastructure related to the poor regulation of land use and construction of buildings, roads and bridge; lack of authority at local administrative levels and a lack of financial autonomy of urban local bodies; according to one report, while the share of local governments in total Chinese government revenue is 25%, the share in India is 3%; in per capita terms, India's annual capital spending of $17 is only 14 per cent of China’s $116 and less than 6 per cent of New York's $292. Add to the mix, education, social and cultural norms, structure of governance or the patterns and nature of migration, and we quickly realise the need for more knowledge and analysis.

For instance, while critics of migration point to the problem of people leaving rural areas, migration is both a problem and a positive force, a marker of progress in many developing countries. An insightful analysis in the Mint puts the issue of migration into perspective: arguing that while greater urbanisation “will boost citizens’ quality of life and boost the country’s GDP” one of the problems of migration in the Indian context is that the majority of migrants are seasonal labour not absorbed into formal sector, pointing also to the need for more nuanced data on migration patterns and composition of migrant population for effective policymaking.

India’s urban population is expected to hit the 600 million mark by 2031. According to the UN World Urbanisation Prospects report 2014, the annual growth in urban population in India between 2010 and 2015 was the highest among the major economies. Cities are therefore important centres of change, they fuel growth but also present very particular challenges. According to a McKinsey report on urbanisation, Indian cities are expected to generate 70 per cent of the net jobs created up to 2030, produce around 70 percent of Indian GDP.

Urbanisation is a positive force, a driver of change and development, of competition, strife, conflict, innovation — both material and cultural. It is also a complex web of political, social and economic issues. There is no ignoring the fact that for many developing countries urbanisation is desirable and inevitable. It is also a source of many challenges in need of better governance, planning and policy and the way to achieve that will be to acknowledge the importance of cities and strive to develop a better nuanced understanding of the drivers of urbanisation, its failures and successes and its unique complexities.

Introducing Bodhi Global Analysis -- informing policy through research rigour

‘Stop trying to save the world’ said a scathing and insightful piece in the New Republic written three years ago by a former international development worker, on the failures of international development. Hobbes laments that ‘donors, governments, the public, the media, aid recipients themselves—they all contribute to the dysfunction’. He is not alone; many of us who are familiar with international development programmes can relate to Hobbes’ frustrations.

In the past few years many others have voiced similar opinions and concerns. Where millions in many western developed countries came out to partake in one of the biggest celebrity backed “make poverty history” campaign a decade ago, the public mood is now more sceptical, questioning the point of development aid and the inefficiency of many donor and NGOs programmes. Perhaps that was the problem; that admirable rhetoric of “making poverty history”, which is so often disconnected from realities on the ground.

International development theories have shifted and evolved over six long decades from the basic-needs approach popularised in the 1970s to rights-based development advocated by Amartya Sen in his book. In practice, development projects focussed on implementing top-down agendas and priorities. For example Hobbes in the article above talks of the idea of PlayPumps — the brainwave of an NGO that proposed to harness clean water in sub-Saharan Africa by getting children to spin around this big colour wheel installed in villages. The project caught the imagination of donors, media and celebrities only for a UNICEF report to find two years in that these pumps were left abandoned, rusting and broken, and some accusations of child labour. Our own experiences of speaking to people in India, Ghana or Thailand reveal similar stories — of slum-dwellers raging against training programmes in hygiene when they did not have access to running water or sanitation facilities or gender-sensitisation training for communities when they would prefer jobs, toilets or healthcare.

Two ingredients have been missing for long — a political context and research objectivity. Unfortunately the need to ‘do something’ sometimes overlooks or disregards both. Our starting point should be not what we would like to see but what already exists. What are the most pressing problems in a particular community, area or sector? What is their relationship to their own governments? What are the political and cultural norms, the historical context? Who are the different stakeholders and their respective roles? How does conflict or political volatility affect these roles? What are the constraints to governance? The list goes on… and increasingly, the value of sound political analysis and research is taking hold within development circles.

There is a greater acknowledgement among donors and policymakers of the need for objective dispassionate research that goes beyond pushing agendas, ticking boxes or fitting within pre-conceived frameworks. The emphasis should be on trained professionals building knowledge, conducting fieldwork and creating a context in which opportunities and constraints play out.

Bodhi Global Analysis was born out of this recognition of the need for political context, and a commitment to objective knowledge. We had worked in international development research for a decade, living and working in different countries, speaking multiple languages and building networks on the ground. In pursuing a Phd we were trained in research practices, going through the rigour of objective analysis and intellectual integrity. We now want to build a new standard in international development research where our aim is to provide context through equitable analysis and an independent approach. We want to use sound methodology and intensive fieldwork to create a knowledge base of useful data, insights and perspectives. We hope that in providing this service we can inform best practice and approach to policy-making within international development.