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Setting It Up: Basic Services/Spatial
What Standards Will Be Used?

Setting Appropriate Standards explores the different agendas of the various actors involved in service provision. The Problems Involved in Standards examines the importance of distinguishing between what ought to be and what can be achieved when setting standards.

Projects in which standards feature:

Setting Appropriate Infrastructure Standards

Excerpt from:
Infrastructure Standards. Ralph Gakenheimer and Carlos Henrique Jorge Brando. from Shelter, Settlement, and Development. Lloyd Rodwin, ed. (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987)

Should poor countries permit higher risks of failure than rich ones? The answer may be “yes,” because the rich ones have used abundant resources to reduce risks to extremely low levels. Why not? In those countries, water bills for consumers are trivial. In developing countries, this may not be so. Anyway, the rich country is fully served, so there is no trade-off. In poor countries risk is lowered in one locality at the cost of fully exposing another. Thus the terms of the problem of research on uncertainty is to simply induce the understanding that uncertainties are in some ways contemplatable, rather than being detached phenomena that may be dealt with only by maximizing the hedge against them.” (p 148)


Different Agendas that All Lead to Unnecessarily High Standards

Standards are not really a technology problem, but rather an institutional problem that can double the cost of services. (Gakenheimer 133) Often, infrastructure projects are designed with excessively high standards - excessively large pipes, unnecessarily high quality material in pipe manufacture - and thus they reach fewer people with given project funds. The various parties involved are a “series of mutually independent domestic actors, each pursuing an independent agenda, but ending up sustaining the same unfortunate tendency: increasingly high and unrealistic standards for urban infrastructure that make poor use of very limited national resources.” (p 142)

The Actors and Their Agendas:

Project designers and contractors

  • Usually surrounded by large uncertainties, they tend to want to offset the risks by specifying the best possible materials and construction
  • Being part of the “national technical elite,” they tend to strive for development through “engineered construction.”
  • Their reputation could be hurt by infrastructure breakdowns but not by poor people served by high standard facilities (142).

Responsible government agencies

  • This risk-averse group does not want to be a scapegoat. Thus, they prefer to implement higher standards.

Elected officials

  • They usually believe that infrastructure standards are a technical matter, best for engineers.
  • These officials usually come from the country's elite (like the engineers) and are thus more drawn to high technology solutions.
  • Standards are not a political issue unless drastically lowered. The authors point out that dissatisfied users “are more vocal than those who get new service.”
  • Officials are aware of the fact that the wealthy and influential construction and engineering industry members, sources of political support, prefer high standards.

Materials suppliers

  • These companies like projects in developing countries because they usually mean large orders on which no comparative analysis is performed for years.

The users

  • This group has almost no say in the matter.
  • They can, however, be vocal when the infrastructure fails. This gives elected officials and contractors another reason to employ higher standards. The effect, again, reinforces the higher standards tendency.

International agencies

  • These entities are potentially useful intervenors as they are comprised of international representatives of the engineering and planning community, without a vested monetary interest in the standards set.
  • They want to get the maximum effect given a fixed budget.

Steps Toward a Solution
In cities we need to better use the available technologies as opposed to inventing new ones.

Four steps are proposed toward a solution:

1. “Reorganize the planning, design, construction and operations activities.”

  1. “Link the responsibilities for design and operations so that agencies can consider the trade-offs between them.” (143)—the utility should have strong local authority (i.e., be government-related) but at the same time, it should be financially independent of the government.
  2. “Separate the design and construction components so designers are not tempted to favor configurations that put the construction contractor to financial advantage.” (p 143) Contract the design separately from the construction. Try attaching the designers to a national bank or other institutions who normally lend the domestic capital for infrastructure projects.
  3. “Pay for design and construction by some measure of effort, rather than as a percentage of the value of the final construction.” (p 143)
  4. “Increase the feasibility of labor-intensive construction.” (Gakenheimer 144) This can be done by designing larger projects. However, large projects and their uneven money flow can harm smaller contractors.
    Try to attract the larger local contractors (who are usually not interested in labor intensive projects) by including labor expenditures in foreign loans, creating a special financial management organization to deal with the problems related to financial management of the project, and raising the overhead on labor paid to contractors.
  5. “Prepare and build projects in a series of small contracts (not necessarily by smaller contractors) rather than a few large contracts.” (p 145) This facilitates administrative control and control over standards but will likely be met with resistance from the contractors. They want to bid as much of a project as they can and for as long as possible—marketing is costly and uses high level staff time and country economies are uncertain and inflationary.

These measures are aimed at increasing the strength of public agency control over the process to achieve the general goal of better standards (p 145).

2. “Reorganize the budgeting process”

    Projects get funded on need or their individual significance and there is little motivation to stretch a fixed budget. Innovation comes when projects lose some of their budget but still have to serve the same number of people. To influence budgeting, delineate service subareas and assign reliable appropriations to those subareas rather than having agencies submit budget packages where they might be more likely to highlight the package attractiveness in order to get a higher budget. (p 145)

3. “Revise the “social contract” of infrastructure service toward a concern for welfare and development.”

    It is important to emphasize the positive benefits of infrastructure improvement to the city as a whole rather than show it as the provision of personal service. Adequate infrastructure in place will reduce communicable diseases, produce a better workforce through better health, and contribute to the improvement of property. (p 147)

4. “Show the savings and improvements resulting from more appropriate standards.”

    There is a need for adequate research to flesh out what appropriate standards are and what is gained by implementing them.

The Problem of Standards

Excerpt from:
“Housing is a Verb”. Turner, John F.C. 1972. In Freedom To Build. Edited by John F.C. Turner and Robert Fichter. The Macmillan Company, New York, pp 148-151.

The most common objection to changes in public policy which would increase the user's control in housing at the expense of central institutions is that standards would be lowered as a result. The standards the objectors have in mind, however, are not something which can be achieved with available resources but, rather, represent the objector's own notion of what housing ought to be.

The fact that the enforcement of unrealistic standards (unilaterally defined as the minimum acceptable) serves only to worsen the housing conditions for the poor raises the basic issue in housing – that of its meaning and value for people. The emotions which this universal aspect of housing problems stirs up prove its close association with deep human and cultural values.

The minimum standards for housing, building, and planning to which I refer are those which specify what should be built, and very often, they go a long way to determining how the subdivision, dwelling, or ancillary equipment should be built as well. Almost all official codes, in the wealthiest and poorest countries alike, require that a building plot be fully equipped with modern utilities, and even with paved streets and sidewalks, before it may be sold to a would-be home builder. Even then the buyer cannot occupy his house until it is completed, at least to a minimum standard, which usually means separate bedrooms, and equipped bathroom, and a kitchen separated from the living area. An investment of this kind demands a mortgage loan, and if the property cannot be occupied until it is finished, or at least certified as habitable, it is extremely difficult for the owner to build it himself – he is virtually obliged to employ a general contractor or, more likely, to buy a ready-made unit in a speculative development or in a publicly sponsored project.

Subdivision codes of the kind and standard described above were instituted in Lima in 1915; these were followed in 1935 by conventional modern minimum standards for dwelling units. It is easy to anticipate the problems created by regulations like these in cities with a large and rapidly growing low-income populations such as Lima (which is more typical of the contemporary world than the cities of Europe and North America). Insofar as such standards are enforceable, they price the great majority of would-be home builders out of the market, and even without the added discouragement of rent freezes, they inhibit legitimate, inspected, taxable private investments in low-income housing, whether for rent or for sale.

Hence it is not surprising to find that two-thirds of all new dwellings built in Lima since the early 1940s and over 90 percent in the poorer provincial city of Arequipa were put up by squatters or buyers of lots in clandestine subdivisions. Neither is it surprising to observe that since it became illegal to build tenements which the mass of the people can afford, those remaining have become grossly overcrowded while illegal shanty towns have proliferated. (I refer to conglomerations of tented shacks that must be distinguished from the pueblos jóvenes and the urbanizaciones populares consisting of owner-built dwellings of far superior standards.) In fact, housing conditions for the poorest fifth or quarter of Lima’s population are far worse now than they were in the 1890s, and demand substantially higher proportions of personal income to boot.

Although building codes have made great contributions to human welfare in countries with high per capita incomes, their rigidity often contributes to a shortage of safe and sanitary housing. In many cities of the U.S., for example, owner-building is virtually prohibited, and in many more the administration of building codes is an important factor in the precipitate abandonment of older housing, so badly needed by the urban poor.

The disastrous abandonment rate of structurally sound but obsolescent housing – which each year in New York City alone currently amounts to the stock for a fair-sized town – is in part due to housing codes and their administration. A license has to be obtained in order to replace a defective roof, for example. But if the building is obsolescent, this may not be granted unless the entire building is brought up to standard and by licensed builders. Therefore, because the owner or a willing tenant is forbidden to do a job he would have been quite able to do, and very cheaply, an entire building is lost, thus accelerating the decay of the neighborhood.

This begins to suggest that minimum specification standards are frequently, if not generally, counterproductive under at least two sets of conditions. First, when there is a significant gap between levels of investment they require and the effective demand; and second, when that gap cannot be closed with subsidies, whether through lack of financial resources or lack of will on the government’s part.

If governments cannot, or will not, make up the difference between what housing laws require and what the effective demand can purchase, then why do they create these problems? Why is the common sense solution of allowing and encouraging people to make the best use of what they have treated as subversive nonsense by the technocratic and bureaucratic authorities? Why do these authorities and the institutions they control refuse to let people live and move between the extremes of neglected, dangerous slums and residences suitable for middle-class Joneses? Why, in other words, are the “problems” so universally defined in terms of what people ought to have (in the view of the problem-staters) instead of in realistic terms of what people could have?

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