The Anti-Poor Bias in Planning and Policy

Regional and national conflicts, ethnic and sectarian killings, and the so-called clash of institutions, has understandably pushed the national development debate into the background. However, development related seminars and workshops are still held and they continue to blame Pakistan’s under-development (as they have done for the past forty years of my professional life) to a lack of financial resources, absence of capability and capacity in government institutions and insufficient community support. This is in spite of the fact that development budgets lapse every year, that we have spent billions of rupees on “capacity building” in the last two decades alone, and that we have some of the finest community development projects in the world. So where do we fail? I feel that one of the reasons which has not received much attention is an inbuilt anti-poor bias in planning and policy.

Let’s take housing, which after employment is the most important requirement of our people, especially in the urban areas. First we have failed to provide housing or land at an affordable cost to the poor in spite of the fact that physical and financial solutions are staring us in the face. Then, when people have acquired housing themselves we have bulldozed them to the periphery of our cities. In Karachi alone in the last decade, we have displaced over 30,000 families from within the city to the periphery. As a result, they have become much poorer, socially stressed, and their access to employment (especially for women), health facilities, education and recreation and entertainment has been drastically curtailed. When proposals for resettling them on government land within the city have been made, the proposers have been told that this land is too expensive for the poor and even if they can pay market rates for it they cannot have this land for settling them here would lower the cost of land in the adjacent areas. However, a lot of similar land within the city has been sold at well-below market rates for middle income housing.

The same bias exists in the planning and delivery of infrastructure projects. Per capita investment in them is much lower in poorer than in rich areas. Again, in poor areas, projects are seldom completed. Even if they are completed, they are not maintained. If they are road projects, they are washed out in the first rains. If they are sewage projects, they stop functioning within a year. The contractors who build them, unlike in the rich areas, are un-experienced and their workmen have poor skills.

In the design and construction of roads, the needs of pedestrians are not taken into consideration. This is one of the major causes for fatal accidents as shown by research on the subject. Many of the victims are pedestrians who were trying desperately to cross the fast signal-free roads that our planners and politicians think are the only elements required to solve our traffic problems. Similarly, public facilities such as bus stands (except for the bus stands put up by the city government in Karachi) and terminals are of poor quality and are not maintained in spite of the fact that there are budgets allocated for them every year. After a few years, they resemble archaeological sites. In their designs no attempt is made to segregate pedestrian and vehicular movement creating insecurity for the pedestrians. There are no proper toilets and the shade provided for the waiting passengers does not provide shade because of bad design and lack of knowledge or interest in understanding how the sun behaves. For the drivers and cleaners there are no designed rest rooms and eating places. It is well established that people behave “properly” in well planned and pleasant environments and are quarrelsome in unpleasant ones. So let’s not blame our people for behaving “badly”.

This bias comes across very strongly in the case of school class rooms and their furnishings. Badly lit, badly insulated and semi-finished class rooms with shabby and/or no toilets have become acceptable for many NGO, donor and government programmes. This is not to belittle the attempts that these organisations are making towards education but to point out that the physical environment of the school has a major impact on the students psyche. Standards of design and construction of government schools also deteriorates depending on the location of the site. It is comparatively better in richer environments. Corruption levels also increase considerably in poorer locations.

Another issue where bias asserts itself strongly is related to the issue of hawkers. All attempts at arguing for accommodating hawkers and informal entertainers in public spaces, such as parks and transport terminals and in urban renewal designs have failed. This is in spite of the fact that it is well established that hawkers, commuters and the poor are intrinsically linked together both in social and economic terms. This is in addition to the fact that the hawkers are a major economic asset to the cities in which they are located.

The list of where all this bias exists and at what levels is endless.

It shapes public space, transport, ecology, and also research subjects and their methodology. It exists not only in practice but also in much of academic theory which both in concepts and vocabulary belittles poor communities. But the question is, why is there this anti-poor bias?

The most important reason is culture and tradition. The poor do not matter. They have no rights and relief is to be provided to them through charity (for which they should be grateful) and not through equitable development. The other reason is that the micro level problems of poor households and communities do not form part of the grand development visions and theories on the basis of which planning and administration is taught and done. Exceptions apart, professionals and bureaucrats practice what they have learnt in their courses and teachers teach as they have been taught. So the system replicates itself.

I have come to firmly believe that by simply overcoming this anti-poor bias, through identifying and seeking to eliminate its causes, we will have better designed and constructed physical infrastructure and a far healthier social environment. But the question is, How do you overcome it?

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  1. […] Hasan, A. (2012). The Anti-Poor Bias in Planning and Policy. Retrieved from […]

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