Category Archives: Interviews

Transforming Cities through Social Urbanism: Medellin, Colombia’s Alejandro Echeverri speaks to Lokniti

Lokniti Editors Sanjana Patro and Srilakshmi Nambiar in conversation with Mr. Alejandro Echeverri, on Medellin Colombia’s social urbanism. 

The city of Medellin in Colombia was a drug trafficking hub from the late 1960’s till the early 1990s. A contraband economy, paralysis of justice and a mismanagement of the security apparatus led to a rise in crime and violence, especially in the barrios (neighbourhoods) of the city. These unsafe barrios gave Medellin the tag of the ‘Most dangerous city in the world’. The city’s economy was also grappling with high levels of inequality.

However, things began to change for the better in the 1990’s, with the help of strategic policy intervention called ‘Social Urbanism’. This process included strengthening the state machinery and public services. Special thrust was given to improving public transportation in the city. The metro lines and cable cars provided the much needed  link between the northern hilly areas of the city to the plains. It also focused on active community engagement, along with bringing together academics, the government and experts from various fields.

An architect by training, Mr. Alejandro Echeverri was closely associated with this transformation of Medellin. He has served as the director general of the Urban Development Company from 2004- 2005 and the director of urban projects for the Mayor’s office of Medellin from 2005-2007 under Mayor Sergio Fajardo. He is currently a professor of architecture at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. Among his many architecture awards, his work with Mayor Fajardo in urban renewal won them both the Curry Stone Prize for Transformative Public Works from Architecture for Humanity in 2009. Their urban renewal projects have been praised not just for revitalizing poor neighborhoods but also for the quality and innovation of the architecture itself.

In this interview with Lokniti, Mr. Alejandro Echeverri shares his experience and answers our questions around the parallels that he sees between India and Colombia and the ideas that India can borrow.

 

Q1. What is social urbanism? How did this concept evolve in the case of Medellin? 

A1. The history of social urbanism is related to planning and urban design in Colombia. It is used to describe the process that happened in Medellin, after the crisis of the 1980’s and 1990’s which was dominated by high levels of inequalities in the barrios or the neighbourhood. The government was exploring policies which would work towards greater social justice to counter the high levels of inequity that was prevalent. In this context, social urbanism grew.

In 2004, the government was looking at methods to combine public policy and strategic implementation, particularly in conflict ridden areas. Issues such as ways to combine urban design, landscape design, with programs focusing on culture, education, and economic activities were also explored. Hence, they started the ‘URBAM Project’, to design and apply public policy in a specific territory. Inclusion was the most important part of the agenda, and leadership came from the government. The experience came from a practical reality and the experience they had initially in the government. Real transformation was achieved as a combination of several improvements like the physical space and lives of the people.

 

Q2. The “ambition to control” drives planning exercises which are centralised or top-down in nature. However, as you pointed out earlier, strategic planning and pragmatic efforts can counter such tendencies. How does this manifest itself in the frame of social urbanism?

A2. Social urbanism is more connected with action and implementation. It is a combination between the improvement of the physical space of the city with an improvement in the quality of the life of the people. It belongs more with the history of the people, their personal experiences, and how the people could be a part of those processes. So this is not a policy that came from far, or a top down approach. Since implementation is very important for any policy, one thing that is strategic is how to coordinate different institutions of the government in the strategic territories that they select.

It is improvement not only in housing, public space, and public transport system in terms of public transformation, they were also trying to improve the quality of education, focus on policies which improve  inclusion and diversity, and improve capacity of children and the people. Thus, it is a holistic approach.

 

Q3. In Colombia the ‘Empresas Públicas de Medellín’ (EPM) is a public utility company providing water, domestic gas and electricity in the city. However, in India we have seen public-private led partnership or private sector sharing space with the public sector. How has Medellin been able to sustain its public sector?

A3.In Colombia and Latin America, in the 1960’s and 1970’s all public services used to belong to the government. But in the 1980’s and 1990’s with the notion that everything has to be privatised, Latin America went through a vast change, where the public services went to private owners.  One of the reasons could be because many of the public services were very inefficient. However, in Medellin since the public sector was extremely efficient, they were never privatised. The main reason can be attributed to people. These public entities had really good managers and they managed to protect the companies from external politics. The public servants had technical capacity to deal with any crisis at hand.

 

Q4. What ideas or recommendations would you give for having the same model in India?

A4.There is no ideal model. However, Medellin could help like an example if you could understand how things and processes happen, and each case has different realities and singularities. Both countries share a lot of things- problems and opportunities. We have to understand how to work simultaneously to solve both formal and informal problems, and thus it is necessary to put intelligence into practice. This intelligence should have the capacity to innovate and give rise to the belief that problems can be solved.

Both countries have high levels of inequalities, there is a high process of migration, and they settle mainly in the periphery of the city, as a result of which informal rings appear. There is a need to have greater proximity with reality. Colombia has very fragile politics and there is a high complexity of things. Additionally, in the case of Colombia, they had the case of violence. These complexities permit us to innovate in a lot of things. We can reframe the concept of planning and give this concept more proximity to reality, and thus combine planning and action.

A lot can be learnt through pilot projects, which then can be implemented at the national level if required. It is necessary to engage the community at each point. Moreover, citizens participate in these things if they find spaces to collaborate and to develop dialogues and some processes. It is necessary to take impartial decisions and to improve the politics, as such a system will help to  sustain innovation.

(Sanjana Patro and Srilakshmi Nambiar are  2017-19 participants of the Master Public Policy programme at National Law School of India University. They can be reached at sanjanapatro@nls.ac.in and srilakshminambiar@nls.ac.in respectively)

 

Policy Simulation Competition in Cairo: Interview with Participants

Aarushi Gupta, Ishita Jain, and Yogaraj Mudalgi, first year students of the Master of Public Policy Programme at NLSIU, participated in the 2018 edition regional rounds of the NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition held in Cairo, Egypt. Ishita’s team was declared winner in the regional round. They share their experiences in an interview with Lokiniti. Edited excerpts:

Yogaraj, Ishita and Aarushi with Vice Chancellor R. Venkata Rao

What were the requirements of the competition? What were you expected to do?

Ishita: NASPAA-Batten is an annual policy simulation competition organized by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration, a Washington DC based international association of public affairs schools. This year, the theme of the competition was Pandemic Crisis Management and Global Health Security. It was held at sixteen sites across the world (eleven in the United States and five in other countries).The first round was the regional round, conducted at the sixteen sites. It involved a live simulation. Think of it like an online multiplayer game, where each participant has to play a specific role for a specific country and try to mitigate the disaster. This round also required us to prepare two policy briefs and a presentation apart from the simulation.The final round is the global round, in which our scores for the regional round will be compared to those of participants from other sites.

Aarushi: The competition was designed in a way that every team was allotted a certain hypothetical country in each round. The competition had a total of four different countries – each characterized by unique geographical, economic, and social factors. The idea was to ensure that each team experiences the simulation from the perspective of all the four countries, one by one. To this end, each team was allotted a new country every round. Each one of these rounds was about battling the looming epidemic, given your allotted country’s budget figures. Other factors relating to the country’s economy and trade relations formed a crucial part of this equation. The simulation interface required the participating team to respond to each development in the crisis by choosing one of the many policy alternatives available.

Yogaraj: Each team executed policy decisions in a real-time environment to minimize casualties, maintain the economy, keep up public approval ratings, and so on. In each round, each team member would take up different roles such as Prime Minister, Health Minister, Finance Minister, and so on. The Prime Minister was the final authority on executing a decision and each team member advised the Prime Minister based on information they were given specific to their function.

At the end of each round, we were scored on our performance. Judges evaluated us on criteria such as teamwork and policy memo. Finalists were required to make a presentation based on the fourth round. Each of the parameters had different weightage based on which the regional winners were declared. The entries of all regional winners would be judged by a separate group of  ‘super judges’ who then declare the final winner and runner-up.

How did the Public Policy course help you tackle the problems that were presented to you during the competition? Did you employ any of the skills that you picked up during the first two trimesters?

Aarushi: The domain of public policy is marked by an intricate union of politics, economics, finance, and a myriad factors relating to a country’s socio-economic milieu. The simulation interface and its design were an embodiment of all these factors combined – to create an experience that should be as close to the real world as possible. Having said that, the readings that we were assigned as part of the coursework for ‘Introduction to Public Policy’ (IPP) did play an instrumental role in making us aware of the aforesaid intricacies in the public policy space.

For instance, one of the metrics for measuring a team’s performance in the simulation was the impact its policy decisions had on the popularity of the (hypothetical) incumbent political leadership. Therefore, there were instances where the Health Minister would advocate for a seemingly unpopular (yet predictably effective) measure to combat the epidemic, whereas the PM would be hesitant to take that hit on the popularity of his/her government. I think IPP effectively familiarized us with such dynamics of “political will” and “policy windows”.

Also, the course on Economic Analysis for Development has proven to be indispensable, considering that we were required to be preemptive about the potentially devastating effects our policy decisions might have on the economic condition of the country we were representing in the competition.

Ishita: Apart from specific skills, like drafting policy briefs, which we picked up during the course of MPP, the political economy approach learnt during the course was very helpful. We had to manage the crisis while taking care of the economic position of the countries and ensuring popular support as well. Reflecting upon the health system and suggesting measures to prevent future crises formed a part of the competition, and different frameworks learnt during the course helped us in problematizing and analyzing the situation. Moreover, the number of presentations we have for our course has attuned us to prepare one in a short time!

Yogaraj: The biggest learning in the competition was the critical thinking that we had developed over the two trimesters in identifying and approaching problems. In addition to that, the sensitization towards ‘wicked problems’ was of great help. For example, any policy decision we took had ‘unintended consequences’ and we had to accordingly modify our policies in real-time to deal with the fallouts. And all this had to be in a short time so you had to think on your feet to respond to problems. Another useful skill picked up during the course was that of writing policy memos and presenting your arguments in a structured manner.

The competition had participants representing various institutions from across the globe. How was your experience interacting with these students? What kind of skills did they bring into the competition given their diverse backgrounds?

Aarushi: The competition site allocated to us by NASPAA was Egypt – which was the site location for participants from countries in the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) region. Accordingly, my three teammates belonged to UAE, Lebanon, and Egypt. This diversity enriched the entire experience, considering that each brought something unique to the table. While two of my teammates were pursuing Political Science and Public Administration respectively, the other was a former consultant in the UAE Health Ministry. The academic quotient did prove to be beneficial in rounds which required policy-memo writing, and professional experience came in handy while responding to tricky situations in the crisis. All in all, we did benefit as a team from our collective professional and academic backgrounds.

Yogaraj: My experience interacting with students from different backgrounds was very illuminating and more challenging than I had imagined it would be. The composition of the teams were multicultural, multilingual, and multi-disciplinary. Some of them were students of public administration, public health, and so on. There were often disagreements because students of different disciplines had a particular outlook towards how problems should be dealt with. The language barrier also posed a challenge in how well you can communicate with each other. Probably the most important challenge was to build a consensus regarding the actions that needed to be taken. And this must be done continuously as the situation within the game evolves continuously.

Ishita: The most striking thing about the Public Policy and Public Administration students whom we met was the diversity! It made us realize how intellectually rich the fraternity is, with each person having very different areas of expertise and interest, but all keen to experiment with new domains.What really helped our team during the competition was in fact the diversity of academic backgrounds and experiences. While someone was proficient with numbers and could set the finances straight, others were great with communications and diplomacy.   

Given your experience in the competition and the opportunity that was presented to you to solve a policy problem, how would you assess our classroom learning? Would you recommend some addition/change in the current course which could help in tackling the kind of problem you were posed at the competition?

Aarushi: Our classroom learning is currently skewed more towards the theoretical aspects of public policy. While I do realize the merits of this kind of pedagogy, we can nonetheless strive for a more balanced approach between theory and practice. Although we do have Sectoral Workshops as part of the coursework on Regulatory Governance and Policy Analysis & Clinic, the case-study approach needs to be followed in all other areas as well, especially in all the Economics courses.

Ishita: I think the frameworks and methods that we are taught are very useful for analysing policies. We can benefit from including a greater application component to the frameworks. One way of doing this could be in the form of case studies. Moreover, we can ourselves try to relate what we are taught to real life problems and try to analyse situations with existing frameworks, or may be even develop new ones! Peer learning can be very useful for this.

Yogaraj: I feel that our curriculum creates a fertile ground for us to become successful policy professionals. When we study in the classroom we might feel disconnected from the real world and might often feel that the theories are of limited value. However, more than the application of theories directly, it is the critical thinking developed through an understanding of these theories that is most useful. Direct transfer of classroom learning on to a professional setting rarely occurs in any field, anyway. I honestly feel that more than tweaking the curriculum, we will benefit more from changing our approach towards the existing curriculum. The knowledge and skills we need are all nearly there, we need to figure out better as to how we can piece them all together to derive the best value as policy professionals.

I can give you an example from the competition itself, a pandemic outbreak can be dealt with using different policy actions such as distribution of masks and vaccines, restricting movements of the population within and outside the countries, setting up quarantine zones, raising taxes too meet increased expenditures. Performing each of these actions does not ensure a successful result because one of them might lead to a consequence you had not imagined of. For example, if you restrict movement of people, it might reduce the infection rates but it will have a negative impact on the economy and will further impact the government’s ability to take up other measures that involve public expenditure. Or, some times raising taxes on eating out can not only bring in more revenue but also restrict unnecessary movement of people in public places. One of the best learning I gained from the simulation was that there is no singular ‘best possible outcome’ in any situation, rather there are ‘multiple outcomes’ that can occur based on different scenarios and different inputs. This is exactly what the ‘wicked problem’ I referred to earlier is all about. And, this is something that came up in nearly every interaction I had with people during the competition.

One thing that we could probably include in our curriculum is increased exposure to simulations as a supplemental means of learning. This is already happening around the world as more policy schools are adopting this hands-on, gamified approach. Although, I would caution against using this extensively as the success of a simulation is directly determinant on the model based on which it is created and subsequently, the research it is based on. The more solid the research, the more successfully can a simulation mirror the real world.

(Aarushi, Ishita, and Yogaraj can be reached at aarushigupta@nls.ac.in, ishitaj@nls.ac.in, and yogarajsmudalgi@nls.ac.in respectively)

Independence Day message from Prof Haragopal

Happy Independence Day from the Lokniti Editorial Board!

On India’s 71st Independence Day, Lokniti Editor, Trisrota Dutta, speaks with Prof G Haragopal about his thoughts on the true meaning of freedom, the importance of history and what kind of perspectives and politics can help achieve social transformation. He also shares a special message for all his students past and present about the role they can play in bringing about greater freedom for all Indians.

Prof Haragopal is a Visiting Faculty member for the MPP programme and teaches both the Political Economy of India and Public Administration courses.

Interview | Prof Harvey Jacobs

Have you always been mesmerised by how central the conception of ‘property rights’ is to the understanding public policies in the global north and south? Have you wondered about the future of property rights and whether that shall evolve further? Did you always wonder if human development and a reliable ‘property rights regime’ are interconnected? And finally, are you concerned about how the rights to land for indigenous people conflicts theoretically and practically with the colonial and postcolonial conception of property rights? Look no further, and listen to this insightful interview with Prof Harvey Jacobs, during his interactions with ‘Lokniti’ where he provides an insightful commentary on land issues from decades of experience and expertise in the United States and globally, more fundamentally providing perspectives on how significant land policies are to the overall policy space for governments and institutions.

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