Location: Providence, RI, U.S.A. Another day, another panel. Not that that's a bad thing. Today's opener at the Development and Inequality BIARI was "Governance and Inequality: The Urban Question in Comparative Perspective." Our group from yesterday met again in Kassar House's Foxboro Auditorium, and the crowd seemed considerably more talkative this morning than last. Today's panelists took us to three continents, beginning with John Logan, director of Brown's S4 (Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences) initiative. His presentation on China explored the organization of inequality in urban society, which is an especially apt inquiry for China given the rapid and dramatic re-organization that country has undergone in the past 20 or 30 years. Logan told the crowd how, during his first visit to China in 1986, he needed a special ID card to spend Chinese money, which no one wanted because the economy wasn't based around cash. A market in "connections" had emerged, such that someone who wanted housing in the city would stand a better chance of getting it by completing favors for the right people in town; if you were lucky/connected enough to get housing in the first place, Logan said it only cost the equivalent of about $3 (USD) per month. By contrast, during a more recent visit he found that street vendors accepted credit cards, and many even sold shares in companies trading on the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
Likewise, a person's "authority" in society held much greater sway over their treatment than how much they could afford to pay for housing or even a seat on the train. The big theme of what China used to be was the allocation of centrally planned resources in response to scarcity. Urbanites used more of these resources, so the government had an incentive to make it difficult for them to leave the countryside. The narrative shifted dramatically in the 1990s and 2000s, with the creation of the aforementioned stock exchange and a new tune from the government: "to get rich is glorious." However, the new China was no more a paragon of equality than its predecessor. Logan explained the plight of rural-urban migrant workers, especially those "without permits," who were segregated from the rest of the modern city. But he disavowed the idea that this societal exclusion was unique to China, asking the people in the audience familiar with American history to consider freed African-Americans under Jim Crow laws following the Civil War, or even contemporary undocumented Latinos in the U.S. "There are places within every country that...their futures are determined somewhere else, and are not as rosy as you thought they might be," he said. Alex Ezeh, the director of the African Population and Health Resource Center (APHRC), "shifted gears" from China to Africa in his subsequent presentation. He said the APHRC, headquartered in Nairobi, aims to improve well-beings of Africans through policy-relevant research; but how do you really manage that research? Continued population growth and the constant migration of peoples in and out of slums made this a thorny and substantial question. Ezeh volunteered that the extent of inequalities in Africa, their implications, and how to fix them are still big question marks as his organization moves forward. But he indicated that one important strategy will be creating opportunities in urban areas because they have better access to everything, and they will be the site where most of the growth will take place in the next 50 years anyway. Inequality, for many Africans, is a constant and unflinching part of everyday life. One eye-opening remark from Ezeh's presentation was that "access" to medical care is a tricky term, because some "health facilities" are run by people without medical training. Indeed, 64 percent of deaths among under-5 children in Nairobi came from diseases that are well-studied and presumably could have been prevented with a more developed medical infrastructure. Another interesting point concerned the differences among different slums in Kenya. For instance, the infant-mortality rate in one slum in Nairobi was five times greater than the IMR in another slum in the same city. As one of the scholars in the audience pointed out during the Q&A, different slums are at different points of "slumification." This seems obvious in hindsight, but perhaps I let the dismal statistics I've heard from social organizations like Ezeh's blend together too much in my mind. In brief, Ezeh's presentation connoted a mammoth project that is only in its early stages; despite the confidence with which he put forth his call to action, I couldn't help but think that I would feel overwhelmed if I were tasked with finding solutions to these life-or-death problems alone. That's really where I see BIARI playing an important role--by drawing in academics from so many schools worldwide, perhaps the discussions this week and next can make Ezeh's challenge a mite more manageable. Adrian Lavalle dominated the second half of the day, first by finishing the panel presentations and then returning after lunch to lead the plenary session. An expert on Latin America, Lavalle's first talk concerned urban governance in Brazil, a country that has undergone changes of an arguably comparable scope to China's on both domestic and international fronts in the past quarter-century. Following the 1988 constitution that marked Brazil's emergence from 20+ years of military dictatorship, municipalities were declared to be part of the union, meaning that they could bypass their respective states and make agreements directly with the federal government. This meant, of course, that power was dispersed far more widely than in other federalist societies; eventually, the legislature had to pass a law to slow the out-of-control proliferation of thousands of municipalities nationwide. Another unique facet to Brazilian federalism was that the government delegated more authority--rather than just potential responsibilities--to the local levels, complicating the process of getting federal funds to carry out those complicated responsibilities. The country's means of political expression have changed dramatically in the past 20 years, perhaps most notably by the embrace of national conferences (80 of which have occurred under the current president, Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva). Despite decreasing poverty and inequality in Brazil, Lavalle noted the cities contain a lot of as-yet-uncaptured potential for civil organization. In his afternoon presentation, he delved even deeper into the nature of social organization and networks in the country, specifically comparing the networks of São Paulo to those of Mexico City, Mexico. Breaking down his exhaustive and impressive research is beyond the scope of this blog, but suffice it to say that I think I saw more detailed charts and graphs in one afternoon than I have in some whole semesters as an undergraduate here at Brown. As a former student of a class on the history of Brazil, what interested me most about the plenary session was the discussion of a "second wave" of social movements known as the New Civil Society. These newer movements that began during the fall of the dictatorship in the late 80s challenged moral inequalities and problems both within their own societies and at the national level as far as the state could effect change through policy. As time progressed, however, the NCS fell under increased scrutiny as less effective replacements for the first wave of social organizations in the 1970s and early 80s. The new programs were depoliticized and socially detached, Lavalle said, in a process known as "NGOization." However, newer forms of organization ("new" in his parlance meaning invented since the 1960s) were more centralized than the older neighborhood/community alliances, and thus better able of making connections and decisions. The ecology of community organizations seen in Lavalle's two talks was impressive and overwhelming - I suspect this may become another theme as I immerse myself more in the thoughts and theories of these visiting scholars. It's been another long day for this blogger, but I'm excited to find out what I'll learn tomorrow--that's when I'll be attending my first sessions from the other current BIARI, "Towards a Critical Global Humanities." All photos by Eric Johnson.