Pro-Poor Sustainability Planning

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Pro-poor sustainability planning is possibly the 4 words that requires the most unpacking this semester. As most of this semester has greatly scrutinized the concept of sustainability, so we can leave that aside.

However, how are we to understand poor? International convention (including multinational organizations such as the UN, World Bank, etc) have identified $2/day as extreme poverty, then there are also the concepts of housing, health, and time poor. How then, can policies be pro-poor? Ideally, this concept should be centered on the empowerment of people experiencing a type of poorness (economic, health, housing, time, etc), yet if that were the case, poor would not be so passive in this concept. Conjuring up an image of planning being done onto the poor. The passiveness of this term illustrates a type of top-down thinking, institutional forces acting upon not even people, but a quality that is not even self defined, but labeled.

In Kakwania and Pernia’s (K and P) article in trying to tackle this concept, the nice language of “policies and programs that mitigate inequalities and facilitate income and employment generation for the poor, particularly women and other traditionally excluded groups.” reeks of state driven neutral terms such as mitigate and facilitate, foreshadowing the style of analysis to come. The conceptualization of the poor in this case are non-actors, as the policies and programs are the actors that will facilitate income and employment generation.

It is precisely this thinking that Roy’s article challenges through the description of these traditional planning epistemology. That the informal is an unplanned space, that women and traditionally excluded groups are unplanned poor, both of which needs to be re-conceptualized in ways need to be recognized by the state and understood to be active actors.

Though K and P’s article goes on make a case against trickle down development, yet their definition of pro-poor growth can be described as such “Broadly, pro-poor growth can be defined as one that enables the poor to actively participate in and significantly benefit from economic activity.” Thereafter, rattling off a number of vague policy ideas, but nothing substantive. They conclude with an analysis the effects of these pro-poor policies in the most macro-sense possible, measuring GDP, incidences of poverty, and measuring the effect of inequality, in Laos, Thailand, and Korea.

The brilliance of economics is its ability to distill massive and chaotic life into neat and inert variables to explain a market based (which, in the field of economics, encapsulates everything) scenario. This also happens to be its worse quality as moving parts and actors are “held constant”.

If we are to truly conceptualize pro-poor policy we need to switch our mode of thinking of how planning applies to the poor, and what those goals should be. Are tools such as indices and indicators the best way to measure advancement of poverty alleviation? The approach of the state also inevitably brings along with it market forces that inevitably forces formality onto those being helped, and then summarily displaced, similar to the anecdote in Roy’s piece that even those who are resettled into government housing will give up their right to it because they do not want to live in a situation where an interruption of payment can strip away their rights.

Even one of the more radical forms of government, Bhutan, which concerns itself with Gross National Happiness is market based. However, there are anchoring philosophies that temper market forces to serve four main pillars which include sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and the establishment of good governance. What Bhutan identifies is the importance of the maintenance of the cultural and environmental components of their country as a part of how they measure “wealth”. Until more countries adopt these priorities, the chances of a pro-poor sustainability plan to address the complex nature of those living in close connection to the environment will not be successful.

Within our topics in metropolitan planning course, one policy that is seen as pro-poor is the creation of college savings accounts for all of its citizens. Matching funds have been proven to improve the rate of high school completion (6x) and college matriculation (3-4x). Yet Black and Brown students are dropping out of post-secondary education at greater rates than their peers. These policies also completely ignores the greater access to education of their Asian and White counterparts.

The universal college savings account is akin to the nature of pro-poor sustainable planning, issues arising from resource and service deprivation are addressed by band-aid approaches that fail to truly empower its intended audience.

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