08 Aug Better Cities — An Argument and a Manifesto
By Anjum Altaf
What is to be done when we believe strongly that the present in which we live falls very much short of what it ought to be? Clearly, we don’t need to prove that that is indeed the case — widespread poverty, hunger, marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation stare us in the face every day.
While almost everyone, especially in countries like ours, agrees on the discontents of the present, there is a very clear split when it comes to thinking of what is to be done. There is a segment of the population that believes the solution lies in going back to a past in which all these problems did not exist. And there is a segment that believes that such a return is not possible simply because one cannot step into the same river twice — too many things have changed to allow a reconstruction of any, let alone some very distant, past. This latter segment believes that the only recourse is to build a better future.
A further division occurs at this point. There are those who believe that this task is best left to the benevolence of a larger power. Others believe that the onus is on people to strive to make the future that they desire. They believe that human beings have the agency to change situations for the better.
Our task is not to convince those who believe in returning to the past nor those who wish to leave the future to supernatural intervention. It is their democratic right to act in accordance with their beliefs.
Our task is to craft a manifesto for those who believe in human agency. But here again we are faced with two perspectives. We can choose to conceive an ideal utopia and strive for a meta systemic change that yields that utopian future. Or we can choose to work within an imperfect present and attempt to redress it one flaw at a time — the outcome would still be less than desired but better than what we started with. The premise is that if this process is followed consistently over time many of the most egregious flaws would be addressed. More importantly, there could be a snowball effect in which, by virtue of its achievements, the movement for change is strengthened by the addition of those who were sceptical and sitting on the margins at the outset.
Based on our experience we advocate the latter course of action. Issues that require intervention at the national scale, e.g., foreign and security policies, notwithstanding the reality that they have an immense bearing on the state of the present, are beyond the scope of the individual to influence at this time. Coalitions to attempt such change are virtually impossible to build even if one subscribed to the opinion that the vote, the primary vehicle for change at the national level, represents a true expression of the popular will.
Any feasible manifesto must perforce be a pragmatic one. It must delineate a scale of action at which the forces that are confronted and challenged are reasonably proportionate to the strength of those striving for change.
I propose that the city offers just such a scale and therefore the manifesto for a better future must be crafted around an agenda of municipal activism.
I propose that we concentrate on attracting a set of core municipal activists in as many cities as we can. Each set would then identify a program of action for its specific city under a common umbrella, e.g., Behtar Sialkot, Behtar Mardan, Behtar Shikarpur, Behtar Zhob, etc.
The first task of municipal activists in each city would be to identify the set of municipal rules and practices that lead to the most egregious injustices for its citizens. As a further concession to pragmatism this list would be reordered to enable the formation of the widest coalitions possible across the spectrum of municipal residents. The activists would then formulate the possible remedies within the law and including advocacy and lobbying of various forms.
These lists of actionable items and possible courses of actions would then be the subject of deliberations at a national convention of municipal activists — Behtar Pakistan. A steering committee would be formed to link the city teams and it would engage like-minded professionals at think-tanks, law firms, and universities to act as advisors to the initiative. Based on the outcome of these deliberations and the resulting guiding principles, each municipal team would commence the program of action in its city.
This argument and manifesto is set out as a preliminary call for discussion. Those who subscribe to its fundamental premise are welcome to provide their input. Based on the feedback, the manifesto would be finalized and readied for implementation.
Dr. Anjum Altaf was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS where he pursued research on small cities. He has a PhD in Engineering-Economic Systems from Stanford University. His writings on urban issues can be found at http://thesouthasianidea.com/category/cities-urban/