Living in Asian Cities

Excerpt from UNESCAP’s publication of the same title:

Taking a broad historical perspective, most countries have, to varying degrees, been influenced by the political, economic, social and cultural heritage of Europe. This influence has been the predominant force in shaping the present world and continues to this day. For example, the political ideals of democracy and nationhood; economic philosophies of capitalism, socialism and communism; concepts of human rights, including gender equality and freedom of speech; and technologies and styles of management are all influenced by Western thought. Thus, the lifestyles of most people in Asia and the Pacific have been affected. Often what is considered modern and progressive is European or, by extension, American in nature.

Most countries of the region have been directly influenced by the West through colonialism. But even countries that were never colonized have been shaped by the same forces. Three factors in particular have influenced post-colonial Asia, namely the colonial legacy, attempts at nation-building, and the cold war. Countries that were not colonized still adopted Western forms of government because these were considered essential to a modern nation-state. Although some countries broke from the colonial past by creating new socialist societies, these largely replicated the model of the former Soviet Union.

Colonialism has had two major adverse impacts on national development in Asia. First, it shaped the governments in terms of the forms of political system and attitudes towards politics, law and the bureaucracy. Second, it helped to create and perpetuate an elite and middle class who are in tune with and aspire to Western culture and ideals, but most of whose members are consequently unable to understand or react to conditions in their own cities. Hence, too many laws, regulations and practices in Asian government are still based on an ill-suited colonial model. Thus, settlements of the poor are seen as disease-ridden eyesores and dens of crime which need to be eradicated. The approach to the issue of poverty is based on a combination of indigenous and Western notions of charity rather than empowerment. The poor are also regarded as unwitting tools who can be politically exploited for elite and middle-class ends.

Many of these attitudes were ingrained through formal education which is still Eurocentric and theoretical in approach. Not surprisingly, they have been strongly reinforced by donor governments and international lending institutions which are also largely Western. There has thus been a continuing tendency to interpret reality through development models and theories that were conceived in developed countries, rather than investigating the actual situation and deriving pragmatic approaches from that research.

Read more here.

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