How long ago this seems now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. The impetus of this blog post is Nelson and Maggie’s desperate appeal to help support their people who have been hit extremely hard by this crisis, and to show how COVID-19 affects people in the developing world.
COVID-19 in developing countries
While we have raised awareness of what this crisis means for some of the most vulnerable and marginalized in our own society, having to deal with a pandemic in developing countries is a whole different endeavor. The virus itself and the sickness it causes are only half of the danger. Major societal issues such as widespread poverty, economic deprivation, and lack of access to water, food, sanitation, and healthcare present huge challenges for people in the Global South. The COVID-19 crisis threatens already fragile economies and has the potential to negatively impact human rights, education, basic resource allocation, and food security. Under-resourced healthcare systems and hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed, creating a probability for higher death rates. A majority of people in developing countries also lack access to water and soap, increasing the likelihood of infections and facilitating the spread of the disease. In addition, there are no social safety nets or government bailouts for workers and businesses, exacerbating scarcity, political struggles, violence, and poverty.
In other words, it is not just the virus that threatens people’s lives in developing countries, but the whole context – poverty, underdevelopment, structural violence, lack of government resources to respond to the pandemic – that puts lives in peril and threatens the existence and survival of whole communities. People in developing countries are doubly at risk. This crisis will leave deep scars, not only with regards to lives lost, but also with regards to international development gains made in the last decades in development, human rights, and human dignity. These are the issues Nelson and Maggie are afraid of. They are not only worried about the immediate impact of this crisis on their people, but also about the setback this crisis will cause to the wildlife, economic, and cultural advances that have sustained and elevated their community for the last years and made Nashulai indispensable for their society. Their people, their project, and their way of life are in peril of survival.
What COVID-19 means for Nashulai Conservancy
Nashulai is a community-led conservancy in the Maasai Mara in the southwestern part of Kenya, close to the border to Tanzania. The Maasai are an indigenous community of strong and brave warriors, but poverty and lack of development have negatively affected their quality of life. Most Maasai exist on less than $1 a day, depending mostly on their livestock for food and income. More recently, due to Nashulai’s efforts, the community has been able to garner revenue through tourism by offering safaris and running guest houses and camps. About 2,000 people live on Nashulai’s 6,000 acre conservancy, and an additional 3,000 people live in the surrounding communities. Most of them reside in traditional Maasai villages, in which small dwellings arranged in a large circle for community living. Women, men, and children live together in small spaces and share food, resources, and chores with one another. Men mostly look after cows, sheep, and goats or work in local tourist camps and lodges, while women prepare food, raise children, and make jewelry and art work to sell to tourists. Livestock is sold on twice-weekly open markets in exchange for grains, oil, salt, and other basic necessities.
COVID-19 has put all of this in danger. The markets are closed due to government safety measures, leaving people without food and without income. Tourist streams have run dry, which means no money and no jobs (90% of employed Maasai rely on the tourist industry). The communal way of Maasai life is in direct opposition to the guidelines of social distancing and self-isolation. There is no running water in Maasai homes, making constant handwashing not an option. Healthcare in the rural areas of Kenya is difficult access in the best case, and Sekenani health clinic in the conservancy is not equipped to deal with COVID-19 cases. It is unclear what should happen to people who become infected. There is a lack of information and education about the crisis, and an absence of guidance of what the WHO guidelines of handwashing, social distancing, and self-isolation and quarantine mean for people in places like Nashulai. There is no electricity beyond solar power, and while some people have phones or radios, spreading news and information is extremely difficult.
The situation is dire. People are starving.
Nelson and Maggie have developed an emergency plan to provide each household with basic food items, to repurpose part of Nashulai’s tourist camp to isolate sick people, and find ways to educate the community about safety measures and health. They have established a strategy on how they can become self-sustaining in terms of food production and continue their important conservancy work over the next months. However, because their stream of revenue has been cut, they rely on us, their friends, to support them, the Maasai people in their community, and the long-term survival of their project.
On October 25, 2019, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Mathias Risse, Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, and Sushma Raman, the executive director of the Carr Center. During the lecture and discussion, Risse asked the audience to consider the present and future moral and philosophical implications of ever-growing developments in artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
One of the most well-known ethical dilemmas that Risse addressed is the Trolley Problem thought experiment which, seemed to be irrelevant in real life at the time of its conception, has massive implications in today’s world. Imagine that you are standing by as a runaway trolley is headed toward five people who are tied to the tracks. You can either refuse to intervene and allow those five people to die, or you can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack where a single person is tied. Which option is more ethical? As AI technology is developed and products such as self-driving cars become more common, we cannot ignore the ethical concerns that will emerge and their attendant consequences.
Risse also discussed rising concerns about the relationship between social inequalities and AI technology. One concern is that, as technology develops, “unskilled” labor will be outsourced to AI, leaving low-income communities that typically work those jobs behind. Not only does that leave people struggling to find work to support themselves and their families, but it also takes away their voice and political power because it pushes them out of the job market and economic system. There is also a concern that technology will become less accessible to low-income communities as it develops, and that under-privileged groups will be left behind. This has led many to worry that AI will “drive a widening technological wedge into society.”
After the lecture, Risse and Raman answered some of the audience’s questions. One person asked which of the problems regarding AI and human rights is the most concerning. In response, Risse pointed out that it depends on who you ask. From policymakers to tech developers to “unskilled” laborers, each group would have a different perspective on which part of the issue is the most urgent because each party has a unique relationship with technology.
In closing his lecture, Risse noted that he wished he could end on a more cheerful note, but he found it to be nearly impossible due to the long list of concerns that the philosophical community has regarding the future of humanity and artificial intelligence. Throughout his lecture and the Q & A session, Risse emphasized the point that there needs to be a serious increase in the interaction that occurs between the AI community and the human rights community. While technological advancements can be wonderful and even lifesaving, it is vital that we evaluate the potential risks that come with them. Just because something is possible does not mean it should be done, and multiple perspectives are necessary to effectively evaluate any given possibility.
The Merriam-Webster definition of gentrification is – the process of renovating deteriorated urban neighborhoods through the influx of more middle class residents into that area. The process of gentrification is now a global phenomenon and is no longer confined to cities. Communities all over the world are experiencing mass societal development, often accompanied by restored housing, business investments, the formation of new infrastructure and public services such as coffee shops and park. “In most countries, evictions and expropriations are justified on the basis of some form of general interest of society – the so-called “public interest” and this concept has often been abused to justify illegal or badly planned mass expulsions of people. The purpose of business investment in neighborhood revitalization is the production of social capital. Social capital is defined as “the interpersonal relationships, institutions, and other social assets of a society or group that can be used to gain advantage.” Successful social capital and economic opportunities strongly attract and dictate where families choose to reside. In terms of gentrification, social capital is an advertising tool to attract white and more affluent families into revitalized areas.
Various positive aspects of gentrification, such as community development and increased job opportunities, certainly exist. However, negative implications to gentrification, most notably displacement, complicate and in many cases outweigh the benefits. Gentrification-induced displacement (GID) describes how residents may be forced to leave their homes as a result of increased housing costs, housing demolition, evictions, and ownership conversion of rental units. During the progression of GID, increased housing opportunities in gentrifying neighborhoods are more likely to be rented by middle income households, thus gradually decreasing the quantity of low-income renters. Eventually, these neighborhoods become unaffordable to low income residents, and force these lower-income residents to secure living in a less expensive neighborhood; these neighbors likely suffer from issues such as underdevelopment and poverty.
Displacement impedes on the human rights of those forced from their home neighborhoods. The right to adequate housing is addressed in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, specifically stating: “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, [and] housing…” GID is both a human rights violation and an environmental justice issue. From a global context, the process of gentrification discriminates and targets minorities and low-income populations society. Marginalized populations do not have the political and economic influence to defend their families and communities from displacement. GID compounds these issues of marginalization, thereby multiplying the effects of structural violence on these vulnerable populations. This post will explore the policy prompting GID in two locations: Harlem in New York City, USA and Prabhadevi in Mumbai, India.
Harlem, New York
Harlem has been at the forefront of American black culture. After World War I, factors such as poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow segregations laws in the American South, and the rise of industrial work opportunities in the North promoted the – the relocation of more than 6 million African-Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West from 1916 through 1970. In the 1900’s, African-Americans constantly battled the oppression of discriminatory housing policies due to blatant racism. In 1937, under the Housing Act, the US federal government developed the Home Owners Loan Corporation; this and other similar agencies were determined unfit and presented a ‘financial risk’ for investment by insurance companies, loan associations, banks, and other financial services companies. In reality, these agencies were deliberately racialized and designed to benefit more white and affluent populations. As a result, neighborhoods were ranked and color-coded based off race, with the color red representing African American communities. This process, known as redlining, is a method utilized by banks, insurance companies, and other financial companies to deny loans to homeowners who lived in these neighborhoods. As a consequence, neighborhoods deemed unfit for loans were left undeveloped compared to ‘white’ neighborhoods.
After the great migration, racial tension and rising rents in segregated areas in the North, resulted in African-Americans forming their own communities within big cities, thereby fostering the progression of African-American culture. Harlem in New York City, a formerly all-white neighborhood that by the 1920s housed some 200,000 African Americans, is the perfect example of the great migration. The relocation of low income African Americans into Harlem is known as the Harlem Renaissance, and during this period African American writers, musicians, and artists expressed their civil and human rights through their respective artistic media. However, towards the early 1980s, African-American culture and identity in Harlem began to and continues to face the threat of gentrification and subsequent displacement. In 1979, the areas in Harlem lying between 110th and 112th street and Fifth Avenue and Manhattan Avenue, located on the edge of Central Park, were designated for redevelopment by the Harlem Urban Development Corporation. By 1982, 450 housing units displaced by the infrastructural development in that area were relocated into five different units of Section 8 federal housing for low income families. This is just one example of the displacement of low-income minority groups in Harlem. Since the 1900’s, New York City as a whole continues to experience the effects of GID. The effects of gentrification in Harlem are highlighted by the demographic shift happening in the city since the beginning of the 1900’s. In the 1950’s, African-Americans accounted for 98% of Harlem’s population; however in 2015 (just 67 years later), this percentage decreased to 65%. The effect of white “return” to Harlem expedites the process of the displacement of low-income African Americans.
Policies Contributing to GID in Harlem
In Harlem, the disproportionate escalation of housing rental prices, influenced by state housing policies, contributes to displacement. In 1969, New York City established and designated a Rent Stabilization Law (RSL), a form of rent control, to all six or more unit buildings built before 1947. Rent stabilization sets maximum rates for annual rent increases during lease renewal. Every year, the NYC rent guideline board meets to determine the annual rent increase landlords can charge tenants. Currently almost half of the rental apartments in NYC, about 1 million units with 2.6 million people living in them, are stabilized. Still, “rent-stabilized apartments are disappearing at an alarming rate: since 2007, at least 172,000 apartments have been deregulated. To give an example of how quickly affordable housing can vanish, between 2007 and 2014, 25% of the rent-stabilized apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were deregulated.” The intention of this law is to protect tenants from unreasonable rent spikes, however, amendments to the RSL legislation in 2003 created a loophole allowing renters to subvert stabilization. The amendment to RSL legalized preferential rate – “a rent which an owner agrees to charge that is lower than the legal regulated rent that the owner could lawfully collect.” In theory, this amendment is supposed relieve the pressure of rent on tenants, but on the contrary, it provides landlords an opportunity to exploit lower income tenants. Under preferential rent, Owners have the choice to terminate preferential rent and charge the tenant higher legal regulated rent upon renewal of the lease, forcing tenants to either pay more rent or relocate to cheaper housing.
In Prabhadevi, Mumbai, gentrification gained prominence after the decline of textile mills. Post-industrial / neoliberal policies resulted in the sale of mill lands for large amounts of money to private developers. Gradually, huge mill landmass in the main part of the city became a central region for gentrification as land transformed from mills, to malls, and eventually towers. From 2000 to 2001, the area around standard mills was surrounded by 4 slums in which thousands of families resided. After the mills closed, some of the population left the area in search of employment in the suburbs while other families stayed in the area. From 2004 to 2005, the mill lands in Prabhadevi, Mumbai were sold to private corporate builders and remaining agricultural land was redeveloped into high end commercial or residential buildings. Land value and infrastructure continue to develop in this area, and consequently by the end of year 2015, 3 out of 4 slums were converted into Slum rehabilitation (SRA) buildings. The revitalization of these slums into high-rise towers attracted more affluent populations. In 20 years, Prabhadevi underwent a revolution from a rural slum to the down-town and cosmopolitan landmark of the city. The rapid development of the city also contributed to the rent gap between residents. The high-rise towers developing in this area are leased exclusively to the upper-class and elite.
In terms of both Harlem and Prabhadevi, “when rental units become vacant in gentrifying neighborhoods, they are more likely to be leased by middle-income households. Only indirectly, by gradually shrinking the pool of low-rent housing, does the re-urbanization of the middle class appear to harm the interests of the poor.”
The process of gentrification in India, which began in 1998, was greatly expedited by federal housing policies. “India’s 1998 housing and habitat policy emphasized the role of the private sector, as the other partner to be encouraged for housing construction and investment in infrastructure facilities. This resulted into rapid growth in private investment in housing with the emergence of real estate developers mainly in metropolitan cities.”
India’s federal governments 2012-2017 five-year plan’s main goal is to create a ‘slum free India’ by enshrining public-private partnerships in slum rehousing. “This five-year model gives developers access to valuable slum land in exchange for an obligation to rehouse the displaced slum dwellers in a portion of the multistory flats built on the site- a process known as transfer of development rights (TDR).”
Harlem and Prabhadevi are just two examples of what’s happening every day, all over the globe. As countries and communities continue to develop, land is inevitably going to be utilized and transformed for the sake of public interest. Unfortunately, land is a finite resource, which is the reason why gentrification-induced displacement is a prominent concern and reality for millions of people. As countries and communities continue to progress, we need to start asking ourselves a very important question: is displacement inevitable? If so, what policies are in place to protect displaced people from further marginalization? What policies are currently effective in stopping the GID and how can we implement those policies in different regions around the world? Future research and policies regarding displacement need to address these issues in order to find a feasible and sustainable solution for future displacement. As a global community, we can continue to educate and empower each other to protect our rights, homes, and families.
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