The Urban Guru Website

Spatial inequalities – the need for affirmative action

01/06/2005 00:00

The concept of affirmative action was born in the 1960’s of the civil rights movement in the USA. Affirmative action policies have been implemented in many countries – particularly India, the United States and South Africa – to redress historical racial and sexual discrimination. In the United Nations, the system of geographical quotas in hiring staff could be viewed as part of the same movement. Less known is the need for territorial affirmative action to redress

spatial inequalities, be they between regions or provinces or between neighbourhoods in a particular city. Affirmative action is required to promote

a more equitable and more balanced development through incentives, tax

exemptions, subsidies, and pro-poor investments. Territorial affirmative action

can address simultaneously spatial and social inequalities. It should be a major

element of sustainable urbanization policies and a political instrument to bring

disadvantaged groups and areas into the mainstream of economic and social

development. In the planning and management of human settlements, several types of affirmative action can be identified. At least five of these have been tested and applied sucessfully in different countries.


Investment incentives

Regional planning policies often have a limited impact on the ground because of their weak relations with private investment strategies. In many developed countries, financial incentives are the main means of attracting investors to disadvantaged geographical regions.  In the case of France, these incentives

amount to approximately Euros 10,000 per job created in specifically designated

areas (which host one third of the national population). They represent a huge

budgetary effort that has helped revitalize a number of medium-sized cities, resulting in a better-balanced urban network covering the whole country.


Public infrastructure priorities

A very direct way to address spatial inequalities is to spend more public money in the development and expansion of infrastructure and services in low income

or disfavored areas. Slum upgrading is a case in point; likewise the rehabilitation of dilapidated housing estates in the transition countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The challenge for decision-makers is to devote proportionally more public resources per capita to disadvantaged areas than to the rest of the city. Political will is therefore essential.


Pricing of water services

Affordability of water services for the urban poor constitutes a serious problem in most developing countries. Low-income households generally pay more for their water than high-income households because many water utilities are poorly managed. Affirmative action measures in this field are usually tariffrelated, aiming at keeping water bills low for those who consume little. “Block tariff” structures provide a free or very low-priced first block of water to individual households and then reflect the transition in prices from basic to discretionary water uses in  subsequent blocks. This approach has been adopted in South Africa, based on a lifeline supply of 25 liters per person per day at very low price and cross- subsidization of small consumers by large consumers. Several African countries do the same, implementing de facto the human right of access to drinking water. This principle could also be applied to electricity and other marketable services.


Progressive property taxation

A progressive tax imposes a higher percentage rate of taxation on those with

more expensive land and property. In many countries proportional taxes are

however the norm and this does not allow property taxes to be used as a

redistributive fiscal tool. As land taxes are generally a major source of revenue for local governments, regularly updated valuation of properties and efficient tax collection should be a priority of public authorities all over the world. On the other hand progressive land taxation (with rates varying for instance from zero on small plots to 1 percent of the value on very large plots) could go a long way in redressing social and spatial inequalities – if this revenue is adequately used for infrastructure development.


Intergovernmental transfers

Another important source of municipal revenue is the transfer of funds from national and provincial spheres of government to local governments. The provincial and national authorities can thus contribute to the reduction of inequalities among towns and cities.  However, this geographical redistribution

of national income (sometimes known as financial equalization) should also

encourage local initiatives and dynamism.  It cannot simply be based on needs. A delicate balance between two goals (reducing inequalities and encouraging

local dynamics) needs to be found: affirmative action is about positive discrimination, not about aligning the most advanced areas on the lowest standards.


Political challenge

This brief review of various lines of intervention shows that territorial affirmative action is necessary and already applied in several parts of the world. Spatial affirmative action is an essential means of combating unequal development. It addresses the needs of disadvantaged social groups and geographical areas, and promotes justice and social inclusion. Affirmative action always requires

political courage because policy-makers have to convince those better off to share part of their wealth with others to redress historically and geographically

unbalanced development that is very similar to racial and sexual discrimination.

Therefore the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in building the necessary political consensus cannot be over-emphasized. CSOs should appreciate that the full realization of the rights to adequate housing and city life depends on resolute affirmative actions in all countries, rich and poor.