Urban Theory, Community and SMEs

Jun 23, 2011 Blog

Development. What does it mean? Hundreds of thousands of pages may have been devoted to the subject, but at its core is an instinct to enrich the lives of many people as possible. Originally the goal was life sustenance; distributing the basics for life in the form of food, water, shelter and health services. This is admirably moral, and this type of aid has mitigated its fair share of suffering and grief over the years. However, nobody would argue that meeting these needs guarantees a satisfied existence. In any case, Ghana is beyond that point, and Challenges Worldwide devotes itself to the next objectives in development; autonomy, mastery, purpose and acceptance.

These terms aren’t used enough, even in development studies, so it’s worth examining each word. Autonomy is the sense of control over your own destiny. Mastery is the feeling that effort will allow you to improve your skills and ability. Purpose means being driven by an external goal. And acceptance is the feeling of being a valued part of a community. Just as the previous four were physical, these are very much psychological. All four are about information, motivation and connection, and Challenges can help with all four. It’s worth acknowledging how deeply small entrepeneurs’ sense of self and value is caught up in their businesses, as well as how much their financial livelihoods depend on it. With this in mind, Challenges’ capacity building helps existing businesses and entrepreneurs to realise their own personal goals, as well as illuminating new social and environmental goals.

But I will focus for the remainder of the article the last goal – acceptance.

Economic development and acceptance don’t have a great relationship. In 1956, just as Ghana’s independence timetable was agreed by the British government, many of their distant African-American cousins were living in deteriorating racially segregated housing in inner city enclaves. The Pruitt-Igoe estate in St Louis, completed by the US government in 1956 and blown up by the US government in 1972, is probably the most infamous example. The huge scale of the corridors created common spaces that no single individual felt responsible for, yet they were still narrow enough to force strangers together. Neither the state nor the 4,000 residents cleaned or maintained the building – after all, the tenants all rented their apartments from the state, with little to no say in their management. Poorly lit stairwells soon attracted crime. Broken windows and empty apartments followed. By 1971, the complex housed just 600 people. Evidently, nobody living in Pruitt-Igoe had reason to feel accepted into a community. It is a facile comparison, but nothing like that has ever existed in Ghana.

It is worth noting that in the 1950s and 60s Ghanaians lived in a country that was financially 15 times poorer. What accounted for the disparity of outcome? Firstly, Ghana is one of the world’s most welcoming countries. After any amount of time here, that label doesn’t need to be explained. It is ingrained in Ghanaian ‘culture’. But friendliness runs much deeper. I would argue that it has been designed into the fabric of the city, just as St Louis designed it out.

Ghana is a more communitarian society, which is reflected in the average bustling Ghana street scene. Small single-family plots dominate, separated by dusty alleyways lined with stalls. Courtyards adorned with hanging clothes provide more private, calmer spots shared between a few neighbours. This development is mixed-use. It is shared-space. High-density. Pedestrianised. Ironically these are buzzwords self-importantly thrown about by current urban theorists in the US as if they had just discovered the Fountain of Youth. Really, they’ve been sitting in plain sight in community patterns that have existed here since the era of villages. This is what Ghana is accomplishing – a replication of the village atmosphere on an urban scale.

My favourite anecdote here is that Ghanaians walk at half the speed of Londoners. Well, after a few weeks here, I’m starting to approach the Ghanaian norm. The physical environment is slowing me down as much as cultural pressure. Uneven pavements, dubious looking water and irregularly shaped open spaces are all contributing factors. Sure, slower walking is less efficient, but the benefits must also be appreciated. As you slow down, you not only appreciate your surroundings, but interact more with people. And the village analogy is back.

You may argue that Challenges and its SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises) don’t have the power to affect the physical urban environment. You’d be wrong. SMEs are fundamental to the urban village model. They facilitate mixed-use development by allowing businesses to be operated from the home or the street, rather than after a long commute. Small retailers are important service destinations, preventing long journeys, and may provide comfortable neutral space for social interaction. The management aligns with the local area and has a stake in it, giving each community its distinct identity. The social responsibility element is also bound up with the concept of community, as businesses begin to add value in ways other than profit. In these physical surroundings, as they fulfil their autonomy, mastery and purpose, entrepreneurs served by Challenges can also help to maintain an accepting community as Ghana becomes wealthier.  Massive interventions often end up like Pruitt-Igoe, but this is grassroots development. Perhaps this is what development means.