USAID headlines its Web page on Urbanization and Poverty with these words:
"In the next 30 years the world's population will grow by 2.2 billion people. Of these, 2.1 billion will be born in cities. 2.0 billion will be born in the world's poorest cities. Over 1 billion people will be born in slums if we don't do something now."
The text goes on to paint a tragic picture of an impoverished populace facing an "uncertain existence... surrounded by uncollected garbage... without the capital necessary to pull themselves out of poverty." While most poor people in cities do live in deplorable conditions and face colossal disadvantages, this apocalyptic call to action - typical of most outside aid efforts to developing countries - smacks of a dangerous noblesse oblige.
Painting the poor as victims and the rest of us as saviors ends up incapacitating the poor. With such a vision underlying global aid missions, efforts become based on outside interventionism and don't make much room for including the poor themselves.
The fact that attempts to impose Western programs usually do more harm than good is well known. In my own experience working on shelter issues in India, I have heard of laborers who have never set foot in a classroom falling asleep during extended training sessions, international donors demanding receipts from illiterate women's collectives, and fancy water pumps lying dormant because the technology to repair them is unaffordable. These anecdotes represent the ineffectiveness and unsustainability of programs that aren't rooted in the realities of urban poverty in specific local contexts. Outside programs can be worse than ineffective, though - many call them a softer form of colonialism.
While acknowledging our collective complicity in supporting systems that produce poverty, and our responsibility to be part of the reform process, we have to take a more humble approach. Poor people have been coming up with intricate survival strategies all along: constructing affordable housing, locating unoccupied crevices in the city, and developing dynamic neighborhoods. Development will only truly be equitable and sustainable when those of us on the outside support the agency of the poor to produce their own solutions.
Of course, "capacity-building" and "empowerment" are now trendy terms in the development business, but it's rarely more than lip service. Real participation entails letting poor people be involved in setting priorities, defining strategies, and managing projects. To genuinely address the crisis of urban poverty, we have to be willing to let our ego take the back seat and acknowledge that we may not, in fact, know best.