Good Intentions ,Poor and Cities

Zahid Asghar

Sympathies for poor are very common and there is no lack of good ideas. Good intentions for helping the poor may be fine but helping the poor in real terms is a different story. Thousand miles journey begins with a single step but it should be in the right direction. Do we really want to help the poor is a question which is difficult to answer but very important one.

Allah, the Almighty, in Quran (58:11) says     “O YOU who have attained to faith! When you are told, “Make room for one another in your collective life”, do make room: [and in return,] God will make room for you [in His grace]”

According to Dr.Muhammad Asad, “making room for one another in your collective life” implies the mutual providing opportunities for a decent life to all- and specially to the needy or handicapped-members of the community.

This goal cannot be achieved by charities and aid from donor agencies as is currently the case in most of the developing countries and in Pakistan as well. Charities can be good only in the short run and for targeted beneficiaries. For solving an issue like poverty requires more than charities and good intentions. There is need to have a change in the mindset.

We can’t accommodate poor in our life by having charities and funding by donor agencies (most of which is misallocated due to local and donors’ bureaucratic perverse incentives). Most of us are happy to give a charity of few dollars to few hundreds to poor. This is fine but do we think its sufficient to alleviate poverty or will accommodate poor for a decent life. These charities are not enough for poor to send their children to schools, get their health problems financed, construct a small house etc. Without these basic amenities it is foolish to talk a decent life for poor. So helping poor in the long run requires more than charities.

To alleviate poverty means accommodating these people by making them part of our economic activities. To bring people out of poverty means we have to think about a viable mechanism.  Job generation is one of the mechanisms to accommodate people for a decent life. Quality education and mix-use living are also part of accommodating poor in our collective life. Cities can play an important role in this regard. Dense/walkable and mix-used cities can lead to economic growth and job generation since there will be economies of scale and benefits of specialization. Residential and commercial mix-use cities will not only make housing affordable but will also save cost which we are spending to maintain two separate infrastructures (one commercial area and other residential). Moreover it will reduce the need for driving and parking spaces for cars and will provide more opportunities for business leading to more job opportunities.  Friendly density and mix-use cities ensure walkability, social cohesion, and schools within 10-15 minutes’ walk, transit facility, parks and t-cafés. Current trend of moving from city centers to gated colonies is making good schools to shift from poor areas to those suburbs. This will deprive poor people from having good school in their vicinity leading to permanent social gap for future generations. There is need for quality schools for these people both in the public sector and private sector.

We should stop having gated communities. We have zoning laws and strict rules which does not allow compact smart mix-use buildings. This actually creates gap between demand and supply and due to shortage of supply housing prices become so high that slums population is increasing over time. Rich people are not ready to accommodate lower and middle income groups in their communities. This (Not in My Backyard) NIMBYISM culture is very detrimental and has increased gulf between the poor and the rich. This is exactly what I mean that we love to talk about poor but not ready to make poor as part of our collective life. These zoning restrictions resulted into urban sprawl and suit the interests of upper class. This promotes car culture and makes life difficult for poor in absence of public transport. Moreover, urban sprawl damages the climate more than anything else since driving cars for long distances burns lot of carbon dioxide. If we love poor then we have to invest in our city infrastructure so that we accommodate poor in socio-economic fabrics of city life.

Date posted: February 15, 2014
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