“Everyone has to bring something to the table” – An Interview with Janice Perlman, founder of the Mega Cities Project

Inequality and  insufficient political and social structures in developing countries and and in the megacities of the Global South are still a huge problem, and change only occurs slowly. To enable cities to share their experiences and their efforts to bring about change, Janice Perlman founded the Mega Cities Project. 

The Mega-Cities Project, which you founded and of which you are President, sets out to shorten the time lag between ideas and implementation in urban problem solving. Can you explain how you came to define this goal?

I came up with that mission on the basis of my own personal experiences and observations.  In 1968 and 1969, I did research in several favelas in Rio de Janeiro and published a book called The Myth of Marginality: Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro. It took at least 20 years for the recommendations of that book to reach public policy.

And it was not just my book. In that same period in the late sixties, especially anthropologists were doing research in East Africa, in Mexico, and in other places in Latin America and Asia. They came up with the same conclusions: that the worst possible thing you could do was bulldoze down the informal settlements. It was far better to incorporate them and allow the people who had the guts, the motivation and the aspiration to leave the countryside to come to the city for a better life for themselves and for their children. The urban areas were such a magnet for the best and the brightest people from the countryside that bulldozing the informal settlements would be a huge loss of intellectual capital as well as a loss of economic productivity and consumer power.

It took, as I said, about 20 years for this kind of research to start being incorporated into public policy and to start promoting on-site upgrading of informal settlements. Observing how slow this process was, made me think that there must be a quicker way.

So I said to myself: “Why not leave my university position, try to start a non-profit organisation and create a kind of support network and interchange so that no city has to reinvent the wheel?” The basic idea was that if all over the world people were exchanging solutions and meeting each other’s needs, the process between research and action, or theory and practice, or knowledge and implementation, could be sped up a lot. It would not even be necessary to go through the UN or the national government, or even the city government — it could be a community-to-community process. That is what the Mega Cities Project is about.

So based on your experience, would you say that great ideas exist in cities but it is the implementation that is lacking?

It takes a very long time before the production of new knowledge challenges the prevailing wisdom and stereotypes. So if the new knowledge is that the people who were previously seen as a problem and basically dispensable are actually a really valuable resource, the old knowledge is not replaced overnight. Rather, the mistake that is being made over and over again is removing informal settlements and relocating their inhabitants to public housing, which depletes the resources of the city, state and national governments.

Demolishing squatter settlements also turned out to be a political disaster. Anyone who removes a squatter settlement is never going to be a successful candidate for a political office when between 20 and 40 per cent of the city’s population lives in these settlements. But eventually, the paradigm began to shift so that upgrading of informal settlements could finally start.

This problem can not only be found in the upgrading of informal settlements. Between Habitat I and Habitat II, over the course of 20 years, people did not accept the notion of Mega-Cities. At Habitat I, they thought that cities with a population of more than 10 million inhabitants were going to self-destruct. By Habitat II, the idea that “Mega-Cities have a future” was accepted, but we were just beginning to recognise the role of civil society. It was the first year that non-profit organisations were part of national delegations and now, at Habitat III, civil society is playing a major role. People accept that governments need input from the “third” sector, even if this sector only gives lip service to inclusive sustainable cities and sign formulations of the declaration.

Would you say that it would solve problems if local governments were given more power by the national governments?

It depends. If the local government is a progressive local government and in turn willing to decentralise its governance to the neighbourhood and sub-neighbourhood levels and give voice to people in the communities, and if it is smart enough to work at the metropolitan level and not just at the municipal level, it could be fantastic.

But if the local government is keeping its own little centre city as an enclave of either just the  rich or just the poor people and is not willing to cooperate with state- and national levels, it is a different story. If there is a reactionary mayor who does not like grassroots groups, who does not want to be challenged, who does not want an inclusive city but a global city only for the rich and the privileged, and who tries to sanitise away the part of the city that I find more vibrant, then measures of decentralisation from the national to the local government are not going to have an effect. In that case, decentralisation is just a catch phrase, just like empowerment or capacity building. Anything that really has guts soon becomes a phrase that is polluted and co-opted by people who do not even understand where it came from.

With the Mega-Cities project, we have tried to set up a bottom-up process for exchange and innovation adaptation. When partners at our meetings learned about something that they could adapt to their own city, we raised money to bring delegates to the city that was responsible for the innovation. For example, delegations from other cities went to Cairo and learned about the Zabbaleen (garbage collectors). When the delegates went back home, they adapted the concept to their own reality. We did not force that on them, and it was not a mayor who said, “This is what our city’s Best Practice is.” In fact, it was our team of independent researchers that identified a certain practice as innovative and as a model that others might follow. We had a set of value and replicability criteria, as well as system-changing criteria to see whether an innovative practice really did change incentives for a city’s population. That is what I think made this approach work.

Can you tell us a bit more about your project MC2?

MC2 is our next generation of the Mega-Cities Project which focuses on emerging young leaders and emerging new technologies. We raised money from our board of directors to be able to have an award competition among young people from all over the world. We developed an application, we had a jury, and we asked young people who had come up with something that they thought was strengthening the voice of young people and marginalised people to create something that could be multiplied and scaled up. We picked two award winners: one from a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Gizele Martins, and the other one, Francisco from Nicaragua. What is exciting about this is that agency is not going to be just passed on to the next generation, it is going to be a collaboration where we, the first generation of change-makers and radicals, can learn from the younger people and they can benefit from our experience, our contacts, our networks. This shortens the time lag from being emerging young leaders to being a potent force of change.

When you were doing field work in Brazil, was there something that really surprised you that maybe is not really what you would expect, and that also is not commonly expected?

Yes, many things. The Mega-Cities Project created partnerships in every city. We created a really strong partnership of the steering committee with each of the six sectors. In these meetings once a month with our steering committee, the committees job was to listen to the needs of the other cities, think about and listen to the successes of the other cities, think about what they could bring to the table from their sectors and what they could adapt. But the first rule was “You can never criticise the partners for something that they have to do because that is their work”. So the committee should never criticise their partners from the private sector for being profit-oriented. The committee members might want them to be more socially conscious but private-sector companies have to make a profit in order to stay alive.

Never criticising someone who is running for office for trying to get votes or an academic for trying to get tenure or grassroots groups for being parochial or an NGO for being system-changing. Once criticism was out of the way, we found real partnerships. Most of the partnerships that are supposedly collaborations, are mostly partnerships between the private sector, the private sector, the private sector and the government. And academia hardly has a voice. Certainly NGOs and grassroots groups have very little voice. This is improving, but I think the word partnership is bandied about much too lightly, and I think to be a partner, you have to have some skin in the game. In other words, you have to be either giving ideas, material support or locational support – because to make partnerships work, everyone has to bring something to the table.

When I went back to Brazil for research 40 years later, the first big surprise was that the changes were very great and at the same time, things had not changed at all. On the one hand, in terms of consumer goods and access to urban services and the quality of building materials, Rio de Janeiro saw an enormous improvement. Almost all the houses now are made of permanent materials, almost all have electricity, a much larger proportion has running water. Still, a very low proportion has sewage connections. But the new way of defining the ’emerging middle class’ is a consumer-oriented measure of how many electro-domestic products people have in their houses. So it looks like there has been a huge lifting out of poverty because people have plasma TVs and air conditioning. But that is not true. These people are not awarded the status of any middle class citizen, they are not treated with equal respect in the law, they are not given the education of a middle class person, or the health care, or any services.

They are in a way pseudo-citizens, being told that if they consume a lot and if they pay for their electricity, somehow they are included as citizens, and I think that is a really dirty trick. I am really quite opposed to the idea that this lifting out of poverty is a meaningful way to measure progress.

Also I observed that the violence in the favelas changed enormously. It is so brutal, so many lives have been lost and so many favelas are now being removed once again because in the last five years leading up to the Olympics, governments used the Olympics as an excuse to blatantly get rid of favelas everywhere.

One in every five people that we interviewed when we were there had lost a family member to homicide mostly by the police or in crossfire, and people were much more afraid than when I first visited Rio. Instead of being afraid of losing their houses, they were now afraid of losing their lives.

Another thing that did not change is that 40 years later people in informal settlements are still not considered full citizens. The last chapter of my book Favela is called “The Importance of Being Gente”, which translates into “The Importance of Being a Person” – not an invisible man, not some throw-away utilitarian servant that makes your life easier.

One of the big issues that no one had been talking about was the question of dignity and personhood. There is definitely a link between this issue and income generation. Because what people wanted was not a fancier house, they did not want more consumer goods; all they needed was income, either in formal work or informal work.

Once people had income, they could buy what they needed in services, they could hire who they needed and they could send their kids to private schools. So I think that the important thing here in the right to the city is the right to a decent livelihood and an entire city organising itself around the principle that meaningful work for everyone reduces violence. This also helps the economy; it enhances political stability and creates a huge amount of new kinds of cultural products and other products that are emerging because the creativity of those one billion people who live in informal settlements around the world is not being tapped into whatsoever.

Where do you think we will be in 20 years’ time, by Habitat IV, what will have changed?

When I come to Habitat IV, I expect to see an enormous flourishing of either the retrograde old guard that denies climate change, denies inclusion, denies the rights of poor people, young people, dark-skinned people and it is all going to be private sector, real estate people talking to the government officials they support as candidates.

Or we are going to see a huge flourishing of real partnership where the neighbourhoods that are now called marginal or informal will be a normal part of the diversity of neighbourhoods and the city just like any. There will be the very rich, the medium rich, the rich, the middle class and then the people with low income, but they will all have equal citizenship and they will all have a voice in creating their strategic plan for the next 30 years.

I am hoping for the second scenario to happen but I am not counting on it because the forces against change are very strong as well as the forces to preserve the privilege of the privileged. They already have the money, they already control a lot of the power and it is not going to be with light-hearted abandon that they are really going to embrace the fact that they will all be better-off if they have a city for all, and everyone has the right to the city and the city centre.

Janice Perlman

Founder and CEO at Mega Cities Project
Perlman is the President and CEO of the Mega-Cities Project, which she founded in 1988. She is an award-winning author and speaker who has mobilized collaborative partnerships among business, government, non-profits, grassroots groups, and academia to address global and local urban issues in the worldwide. She has consulted for small organizations and large international institutions including the World Bank, USAID, UNDP, UNFPA, IADB and the Slum Task Force of the Millennium Development Goals.
Janice Perlman
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