Putting people first: Elevating the conversation around inclusion in Southeast Asian cities
Cities, for all that they promise in terms of opportunities and a better life, are sometimes not what they purport to be. For many women and girls, people with disabilities, older persons, and children, as well as those classified as minorities due to their ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, or a combination of these, life in the city can be riddled with difficulty. They are often marginalized due to cultural norms and attitudes and patriarchal stereotypes and are typically left out of conversations and leadership positions that determine policy and decisions that affect their lives.
Many cities, for all their growth and sprawl, are also gender-insensitive in terms of design. They also do not account for the needs of the differently abled, aging, and the young; thus, limiting their ability to access basic services, livelihood, and social activities.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, this challenging reality worsened. In Southeast Asia, research shows that women bore the brunt of job losses. Gender-based violence also escalated during the lockdowns. However, as with before the pandemic, these numbers tend to be underreported. This points to another challenge for women and marginalized groups—there is a lack of disaggregated data. Therefore, it is hard to get a full grasp of the issues faced (and not just of unemployment or harassment), affecting the solutions that can be implemented.
Specific Interventions Supported
In August 2021, the ASEAN Australia Smart Cities Trust Fund (AASCTF) commenced the Smart Cities–Inclusive Cities Capacity Building Program, also commonly called the Inclusive Cities Dialogues (ICD) Project. Executed in collaboration with The Asia Foundation, this regional initiative aimed to provide a thoughtfully designed platform to directly hear, appreciate, and unpack the lived experiences of marginalized groups, while also bringing on board diverse representatives across different entities and urban sectors, to discuss and galvanize collaborative action for more inclusive cities in Southeast Asia.
The project began with a stakeholder and issues mapping exercise, which was undertaken to assess the local political economies and to understand the scale and depth of inclusion issues across the region and within the AASCTF participating cities. The purpose of the mapping was also to identify the appropriate participants for the dialogues, particularly stakeholders who can potentially lead and support reforms. Over 20 conversations were held with 11 cities from AASCTF’s network of 24 cities in the region. From these conversations, three core inclusion issues were defined: access to infrastructure and services, urban safety and security, and decent work and livelihood. These three core issues reflect the challenges that resonate most among marginalized groups in these cities, and this became the framework for the subsequent dialogues.
The Inclusive Cities Dialogues, an online and interactive gathering, comprised three modules (one for each core inclusion issue) with participants taking part in one of three cohort sessions (with the first two targeting the 14 participating cities, and the third session for national-/regional-level discussions). In all, nine dialogues were held. Each dialogue highlighted two or three ongoing initiatives in the region and provided time for country-specific breakout groups and/or in-plenary discussions. This allowed participants, especially those representing marginalized groups and local governments, to openly share their own experiences and provide inspiration and insight for further action.
One such crucial point was raised by Shiela May Aggarao, from the Nationwide Organization of Visually-Impaired Empowered Ladies (NOVEL) in the Philippines. Highlighting siloed thinking and the lack of comprehensive approaches to inclusion, she said: “Lack of the intersectionality perspective across all levels of development process is a key barrier. As intersectionalities, most of the time, are taken as an afterthought… For example, you’re a person with disability— you’re just that. You do not see the gender dimension or the age dimension, so the solutions are only seen in just one dimension.”
Elga Reyes, AASCTF
Then Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls Christine Clarke delivered the opening remarks during the third cohort of Module 1 of the Inclusive Cities Dialogues (photo: AASCTF).
Shiela May Aggarao from the Philippines (right of photo), a visually impaired yet empowered woman, shares her thoughts on the importance of intersectionality in inclusion, as Sumaya Saluja from The Asia Foundation (left of photo) listens and moderates the discussion (photo: AASCTF).
Results and Impact
The Inclusive Cities Dialogues activated and engaged over 180 stakeholders during its five-month period from March to July 2022. Although the inclusion issues tackled are complex and even systemic, or at times nuanced to a specific culture, city, or country, the dialogues were able to create an open space to raise awareness and prompt deeper introspection into how cities currently function and are planned. Otherwise, as then Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls Christine Clarke mentioned in one dialogue: “Failure to consider the needs of women, girls, and vulnerable groups, who comprise the majority of a society, ultimately leads to a situation where they are less visible.”
The success of the dialogues culminated in a final event that was open to the public, gathering over 100 attendees. Billed as ‘At the Intersection: Smart Inclusive Cities in Southeast Asia,’ the event not only captured the momentum and takeaways of the dialogues, but also led the thinking back to AASCTF’s approach—that being inclusive is part of realizing people-centered smart livable cities. This final event showcased inspiring initiatives that use technologies to integrate marginalized groups into city planning, resilience building, and simply, having a better quality of life.
To further expand the lessons from the ICD Project, (at the time of writing) a free e-learning course on inclusive cities will soon be available in the ADB eLearn website. This combines the concepts and core inclusion issues discussed in the dialogues with a practical guide to start mainstreaming gender equality and social inclusion in projects.
This article was first published as part of the Urban Financing Partnership Facility Annual Report 2022.
“Failure to consider the needs of women, girls, and vulnerable groups, who comprise the majority of a society, ultimately leads to a situation where they are less visible.”
Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls, DFAT