Living in Asian Cities, no 1, November 1998
Where we come from:
|Originally published in 1996 as part of the publication "Living in Asian Cities"|
Taking a broad historical perspective, most countries have, to varying degrees, been influenced by the political, economic, social and cultural heritage of Europe. This influence has been the predominant force in shaping the present world and continues to this day. For example, the political ideals of democracy and nationhood; economic philosophies of capitalism, socialism and communism; concepts of human rights, including gender equality and freedom of speech; and technologies and styles of management are all influenced by Western thought. Thus, the lifestyles of most people in Asia and the Pacific have been affected. Often what is considered modern and progressive is European or, by extension, American in nature.
Most countries of the region have been directly influenced by the West through colonialism. But even countries that were never colonized have been shaped by the same forces. Three factors in particular have influenced post-colonial Asia, namely the colonial legacy, attempts at nation-building, and the cold war. Countries that were not colonized still adopted Western forms of government because these were considered essential to a modern nation-state. Although some countries broke from the colonial past by creating new socialist societies, these largely replicated the model of the former Soviet Union.
Colonialism has had two major adverse impacts on national development in Asia. First, it shaped the governments in terms of the forms of political system and attitudes towards politics, law and the bureaucracy. Second, it helped to create and perpetuate an elite and middle class who are in tune with and aspire to Western culture and ideals, but most of whose members are consequently unable to understand or react to conditions in their own cities. Hence, too many laws, regulations and practices in Asian government are still based on an ill-suited colonial model. Thus, settlements of the poor are seen as disease-ridden eyesores and dens of crime which need to be eradicated. The approach to the issue of poverty is based on a combination of indigenous and Western notions of charity rather than empowerment. The poor are also regarded as unwitting tools who can be politically exploited for elite and middle-class ends.
Many of these attitudes were ingrained through formal education which is still Eurocentric and theoretical in approach. Not surprisingly, they have been strongly reinforced by donor governments and international lending institutions which are also largely Western. There has thus been a continuing tendency to interpret reality through development models and theories that were conceived in developed countries, rather than investigating the actual situation and deriving pragmatic approaches from that research.
The sections that follow explore the implications of this situation for urban development in the region through three historical phases, namely post-colonial nation-building, the age of disillusion with that approach, and the current emergence of a new development paradigm. These correspond very roughly to the periods from the 1940s to 1970s, from the 1970s to 1990s and the present respectively. Particular attention is paid to the plight of the urban poor and low-income settlements. The following papers discuss the options for future urban development that arise from this analysis.
2. Building the nationstate and centralization of government
The concept of the modern nation-state is rooted in the European Enlightenment, a philosophical movement of the eighteenth century that believed in the power of human reason and that fostered innovations in political, religious and educational doctrine. It experienced the demise of feudalism and a reduction in the influence of religion in nation-building. Democracy replaced the divine right of kings and nobles. Science and rationalism became the new ideologies. It was thus the precursor of the industrial revolution. The founding of the United States of America was a major manifestation of the new spirit whose concepts were transferred to Asian elites through colonialism and Western dominance.
After the Second World War, Asian elites tried to impose these ideals on their newly independent countries. This period, roughly from the 1940s into the early 1970s, could be regarded as the era in which countries of the region tried to build modern nationstates. Countries with diverse ethnic and social structures, most of which had never formed single political entities before colonialism, started to build nations which were supposed to act as one entity, joined by a common national language and sharing a common ideology and mythology. Even countries that were never colonized underwent this transformation, in some cases even earlier than those which were colonized. In Thailand, for example, King Chulalongkorn the Great decreed around the turn of the century that all citizens should have Thai surnames, presumably to achieve national unity. Chinese, the predominant language of Bangkok's trading community, was banned and Chinese language schools were prohibited. In fact, until quite recently, Thai children could not study at international schools.1
National myths were created. In Thailand, for example, the Thai script was said to have been invented by King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai. Theories of its evolution from the Divanagri script of the Indian subcontinent were either ignored or consigned to academia, far removed from common knowledge. In Malaysia, Indonesia and Viet Nam, scripts based on Arabic and Chinese were abandoned for romanized versions because these were considered "modern and scientific".
The Cultural Revolution in China and the mass depopulation of cities in Cambodia are other examples of attempts to create new, "scientific" societies. Myanmar's attempts to suppress ethnic identities resulted in an ongoing low-intensity civil war in the eastern and northern parts of the country.
The creation of a modern nation-state was seen to require strong centralized governments which could create national symbols with which people could identify. Even in countries with federal systems of government such as Malaysia and India, political parties which had won independence from the British retained a strong hold on power at the centre as well as in the states, thereby assuring de facto central control over nation-building. But this approach also required the portrayal of national governments as agents of progressive change. This view was not difficult for people to accept during this period owing to the rapid expansion of the global economy and advances in technology and sciences in which the new nations shared. For instance, this era saw the emergence of television as a tool of mass entertainment and communications, as well as the green revolution in agriculture and rapid, capital-intensive industrialization. In the social sector, the same growth led to increases in nutrition and literacy, decreases in child mortality and increased life expectancy. Thus, the prevalent, easily acceptable idea was that the development models, whether capitalist or communist, had been worked out by the developed countries. All developing countries had to do was to follow the same path.
2.1 Impact on local urban government
Governance in pre-colonial Asia and the Pacific was shaped by essentially four influences: tribal traditions, divinity and complete supremacy of the monarch, Confucianism and Islamic Shariah. Divine rights of rulers and Confucianism, were based on tradition that all power and authority flowed from the emperor or king, and consequently every one had to look after his interests.3 While the traditions of tribalism and Islamic Shariah stipulated that the rulers had to look after the interests of the society as a whole. Over the course of history all these influences intermingled. In almost all countries the interests of the monarch or the ruler were considered paramount. The tradition of "public service", that the government had to serve the people, was somewhat weak. Even in countries with tribal traditions and Islamic Shariah, these were usually distorted to serve the interests of the rulers and the elite. Moreover, in many societies with tribal democratic traditions, these gave way to heredity rulership. Often governors or local officials were removed not because of their poor record of service to the people but because they displeased the king or the rulers. At the local level, at least in India4 and in some parts of China,5 there were formal or informal consultative councils of eminent citizens who advised the ruler of the city. However, the responsibility of governance rested with individual officials who in many cases were in charge of both civic and military affairs. In the early colonial era, the colonizing powers essentially left existing local government structures intact. It was only in later stages, towards the second half of the nineteenth century, that local government structures were formalized, often based on models from the home country.
Such governments were often non-representative. However, towards the end of the colonial era, "native" representation was often allowed in order to meet some of the self-rule demands of the colonized populations. Because of their colonial nature, these governments catered primarily to the needs of the administrative and business elite of the colonizers and their native counterparts. At independence, however, even these nascent forms of representative local government were seen as running counter to the requirement for strong central government. They were therefore often superseded by centrally appointed civil servants who had veto powers over the decisions of local councils. In other cases, local councils were given limited legislative and regulatory powers which were administered by centrally appointed bureaucrats. This pattern still continues in many countries today. In Thailand, for example, cities other than Bangkok have very weak local governments whose decisions must be cleared by provincial governors appointed by the Interior Ministry in Bangkok.
As a result of this post-independence focus on developing national political and administrative structures, local institutional and administrative development was either ignored or given low priority. There had in any case never been a tradition of local government which was often seen as a potential source of upheaval against central power. Hence career opportunities in local government were practically non-existent. In many instances, local governments were seen as impediments to rapid national development and their limited powers were further curtailed. Most national constitutions, promulgated after independence, did not consider local government as a legitimate level for popular representation. Provincial or national governments were thus empowered to establish or dissolve local bodies. In Pakistan, for example, a district commissioner who is often a mid-level bureaucrat of the Pakistan Administrative Service, can dissolve an elected local council at the behest of the provincial government.6
Thus instead of building local capacity to manage rapidly growing cities, top management echelons at the local level were filled by centrally or provincially appointed civil servants. In India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, most local administrative decision makers are members of the national civil service and can be transferred from city to city or between central and local government at the behest of the national government.
Local governments were, and in many countries still are, responsible for the delivery of services and the raising of revenue through various forms of property tax, other local taxes and the issue of licenses. However, because their capacities were not developed, local governments became increasingly unable to maintain the local tax system. In many countries, therefore, local revenues were supplemented by central government grants. In Malaysia and Thailand, for example, 35 per cent of local funds are provided by the national government as loans or grants. Most of this money is used for capital investments in urban areas.7
The ability of municipal governments to raise revenue and provide adequate services continued to deteriorate as city populations grew while their administrations remained trapped in the bureaucratic traditions and staffing patterns of the past.
For these reasons, local government service became increasingly demoralized and underpaid. It offered few career opportunities to capable and ambitious professionals. This compounded the local authorities' inability to provide and maintain adequate services and made it almost impossible to formulate and implement forward-looking development projects.
In addition to these shortcomings, governance in general, and local governance in particular, suffers from a duality of traditions. While formal local governments are a legacy of the colonial era, the traditional forms and attitudes have also survived to some extent. The result has been essentially a duality of government structures, where formal government institutions are set up on the Western model while governance itself is often carried out on a traditional and informal system. One often finds mayors, governors, district officers holding "court" in their offices and dispensing and receiving favours. Decisions are often arrived at through informal channels and through personal connections. This dual system of government results in government institutions being non-transparent and those controlling them averse to change in the status quo.
2.2 Economic and physical development policies and their impact on the poor
The main economic development strategies that were pursued in the immediate post-independence era were rapid urban industrialization, particularly among capital-intensive medium and heavy industries, and increased productivity in the agricultural sector, achieved through land reform, mechanization and the use of agro-chemicals. The basic development philosophy in many countries was that rapid modernization of the industrial and agricultural sectors would create general wealth that would eventually trickle down to the urban poor. Within this general context, urban development policies often concentrated on planning and developing modern cities. Satellite towns and new subdivisions, on the models of developed countries, were built. In some countries completely new cities were established. Le Corbusier, a modern architect-planner, was engaged by the Government of India to plan Chandigarh, the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana states. Islamabad is another example -- a city built from scratch, with wide tree-lined boulevards, according to a master plan developed by Doxiades, a Greek consultant. Even today it is known as a city 14 kilometres away from the rest of Pakistan.
These strategies, together with advances in education and health care, had two major impacts on urban areas. First, they led to a rapid increase in urban populations. Second, they concentrated additional wealth among the already rich and, to some extent, the middle classes, at least in the capitalist and mixed economy countries. These developments, together with centralized government and the distinct urban bias in government investment policies, particularly through food and urban services subsidies, then led to the creation of mega-cities. In Thailand, from 1980 to 1990, for example, roughly 70 per cent of total government investment in the urban sector was spent on Bangkok, already a primate city, while the rest of the funds were shared by all other urban centres.9
In most cases, the poor were essentially left out of this march towards modernization. Although they were supposed to benefit from "trickle down", centralized government effectively ensured that it did not occur. In these processes, decision-making was dominated by a limited number of politicians, bureaucrats and leaders in the private sector. The urban poor thus found themselves marginalized. Nevertheless, the region's cities still constituted powerful "magnets" so that most of the rapid urban population growth in the 1950s and 1960s was due to rural-urban migration, resulting from both push and pull factors. As cities expanded, another important growth factor was that many peripheral villages became incorporated into urban areas. Moreover, in some countries, the struggle for independence also added to urban migration.
The weak institutional base of local government meant that city planners and managers were unable to cope with this rapid increase in urban populations. There was already in some cities a backlog of non-serviced or poorly serviced land in "native" settlements but these problems were then exacerbated by the influx of fresh migrants. The result was a rapid increase in urban slums, squatter settlements and illegal subdivisions where the poor worked at traditional labour-intensive modes of production.
Similarly, the formal urban economy was unable to absorb the expanding labour force. While the luckier among the poor found jobs in formal sector industries or the public sector, the more enterprising members of the community started small service or manufacturing ventures to meet their own needs as well as those of the lower middle classes. However, these small-scale enterprises were not legally recognized by the government which was, and in most cases still is, biased towards modern, more capital intensive activities. The poor thus developed their own mechanisms for providing housing, employment, social services and finance. Power relations within the community were often defined by patron-client networks. In these, the wealthier among the poor dispensed favours and cash in return for loyalty and various forms of corvée labour.
The formal government response to this unexpected and unwelcome by-product of development was essentially one of denial. The urban slum and squatter communities became classified as an under class that was at best a transient phenomenon which further economic development would soon eradicate. At worst, they were seen as aberrations in society which needed to be stamped out. Thus instead of recognizing the entrepreneurial drive and dynamism of the urban poor and seeking to encourage it, government officials and other elites either ignored or tolerated the slums in the hope that they would eventually disappear. At the other end of the scale, the communities were harassed as being detrimental to the overall vision of the cities.
Hence, policies towards the poor, even where these were explicitly formulated, had a paternalistic air of "government knows best". The poor were considered incapable of taking care of themselves otherwise, it was reasoned, they would not have been poor. This philosophy, together with the notion of a technology-led development that would eventually benefit everyone, was propagated and supported by the international donor community. In terms of shelter, this approach led to the provision of high-rise low-income housing which had appeared to be a solution to low-income housing problems in developed countries. Unfortunately, little attempt was made to understand the socio-economic environments of the supposed beneficiaries in this region.
These attempts to improve the housing conditions of the urban poor failed miserably. Governments soon found that provision, or purchase or rent, of subsidized housing was too expensive for national budgets. Where such housing was provided at cost, it proved to be unaffordable by the beneficiaries. Furthermore, as the poor depended on petty trade and labour-intensive ventures which often used the house as a place of business, they were unwilling and ill-suited to live in multi-storey apartments. Moreover, the informal settlements had developed their own community-based political, social and economic support systems which government housing, by its very nature, was unable to provide. Thus, many of those who had been allocated apartments sold them and moved back to their slums and illegal settlements. The initial reaction of most government officials and elites was to blame the poor as ungrateful and opportunistic money-grubbers. This attitude still prevails among many government officials, politicians and the social elite.Go to the top