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The Truth about Planners: Responding to William Easterly

In his celebrated book, The White Man’s Burden (2006), William Easterly highlights what he believes is the problem behind western aid to the development of poor countries. In a nutshell, he claims that western aid has done little to mitigate poverty in developing countries, and he puts much of the blame on planners. He accuses planners of approaching poverty alleviation from the outside, paying little attention to what the poor are doing to help themselves, and failing to include them in the discussions regarding possible solutions. His accusations imply that a planner never engages in community research to understand needs and wants from the poor, assume that planners impose a universal model on communities, and that planners never monitor or evaluate the impacts of their projects.

Mr. Easterly could not be more wrong.

The Evolution of Planning Thought and Practice

Because planning got its start in the engineering and architectural fields, many of Easterly’s criticisms would have applied in planning’s formative years. However, urban planning thought and consequently the professional practice has changed considerably over the years. Since the early 1900s, criticisms regarding urban ecology, race discrimination in housing development, the redlining of grocery stores, and environmental justice arising from the general public have contributed to shaping the planning discipline in both thought and practice. Shifting paradigms have transformed the planning discipline and have, as a result, forced planners to evolve. They continue to do so.

What Mr. Easterly fails to do is to draw the distinction between planners and other development practitioners. The truth about development practitioners is that not all, very few, in fact, possess training in urban planning. Many of the development practitioners brought in by well-respected institutions, such as the World Bank and the United Nations, do not have the knowledge to apply a comprehensive approach to responding to urban and community problems and thus fail to develop appropriate projects aimed at alleviating poverty.

In fact, Mr. Easterly himself makes the error of drawing parallels between the ideas about ending poverty offered by Jeffrey Sachs, an Ivy-League trained economist (not a planner), and the applications of principles that planners make. For example, while urban planners might invoke economic principles to respond to reiterative conundrums about jobs and revenue, they must also think about the positive and negative impacts of economic development to society and to the environment. Health and safety concerns are further embedded within the folds of these spatial considerations.

Using a Case Project to Illustrate the Distinguishing Characteristic of the Urban Planning Profession

Development is complex. It is precisely this complexity that forces the planning process to be multidimensional, involving many actors including those from the community. Any planning project, including the ones addressing poverty, requires the efforts of a team. Planners, therefore, invite a toolkit of variable skills and knowledge. Even then, with all the skill-sets available to them, planners find it hard to respond to the challenges of personal motivation (i.e. ending corruption, taking business risks, learning to budget personal finances, learning how to cost-effectively acquire and allocate public funds), which are really the driving forces behind ending poverty.

A local area plan developed by a CUSO-VSO planner for the burgeoning squatter compound in Magazine, a section of Kanjala Ward in Chipata, Zambia, illustrates well the complexity of development planning.

The purpose of the local area plan was to upgrade the Magazine squatter compound (a residential area of illegal squatters, which Zambian law defines as people who have established residency in the area, but hold no deed title to a land plot) and resolve some of the health and land problems in order to create a more livable environment for the squatters and to secure land for the lower-income households.

To identify how to go about doing this, the CUSO-VSO planner visited the site many times in the course of more than a month; she spoke with residents about needs and noted the infrastructural amenities of the area. Subsequently, she developed the following programs:

  1. An educational outreach program to inform the residents about the federal regulations of owning land;
  2. A land valuation program that would enable residents to retain hold of their plots and therefore their houses;
  3. Health programs that would test for and respond to imminent health conditions (i.e. malaria and HIV/AIDS);
  4. A food security program of distributing free seeds and chick couples to the poorest households;
  5. A site plan to upgrade the central market to generate consumer demand for the entrepreneurs in the area;
  6. An initiative to install a needed water pump for the residents living in a section of the compound located almost a kilometer away from the nearest water pump.

She later presented her ideas to the community leaders in Magazine and in two other squatter compounds located in the same district.

Final Thoughts

The process of developing the local area plan for the Magazine squatter compound clearly involved many steps and conversations with different people. It also engaged many different elements of quality of life and well-being. Programs and projects were not prescribed without doing research and without the input of different people in the community. And yet, despite what has already been planned, there is still more to do, a truism not lost on the planning professional.

Defining the project based on research findings is but only one phase in implementing a project plan. Local officials and oftentimes federal agents are responsible for ensuring that plans comply with legislation. The final approval of a plan is held in the hands of local officials, but is a decision that arrives only after the public has been given the opportunity to comment and suggest changes to the planning document.

Clearly, planning is a series of public engagements and flexible applications of principles. These realisms are far different from the image Mr. Easterly portrays of a planning culture driven by black boxes, devoid of community engagement, blue prints, and decision-making from the outside.

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