Achieving Equity, Access & Inclusion through legislation & planning in Bissau

Thomas Coggin

In early July 2014, a group of experts in urban governance and the right to the city met for an Expert Group Meeting (EGM) in the city of Bissau.

Located in Guinea-Bissau, Bissau offers fairly unique challenges that many cities around the world have overcome. Bissau is a small city, with an estimated population of just over 400,000 people, according to a 2007 census. The city has been scarred by civil war during the late 1990s, as well as a coup d'etat in April 2012. The result is a city characterised by poverty and a lack of access to adequate services. 

This also results in a city characterised by a lack of institutional infrastructure. These include, for example, the role of institutions, whether this be a functioning judiciary, appropriate planning laws, rights regimes, as well as regulatory and administrative authorities. 

In thinking about how to achieve access, inclusion and equity using planning and legislation, there is thus a need to think beyond the realm of one's own assumptions about how a city may work, in that certain institutions necessary for citizens to claim their right to the city may not actually be as effective as they could be - or may not even exist at all.

Similarly, in understanding urban governance, and the role of law and planning in this regard, it is necessary to think about different ways of understanding and interpreting the city - ways which many of us may not be exposed to because the narratives and discourses in which we study make certain assumptions that, inadvertently perhaps, blind us to alternatives.

The EGM was broken into two days. 

The first day involved situating the EGM within the context of Guinea Bissau. This was particularly interesting because of the EGMs interaction with officials from Guinea Bissau, both from the General Director of Planning in the Ministry of Infrastructure, as well as from the Director of Public Works within the Municipal Corporation of Bissau. The EGM further included inputs from students from the Faculty of Law in Bissau, who were able to provide valuable insights into how the legal system in Guinea Bissau worked.

These insights were valuable not only because it looks at urban governance through the prism of a 'least-developing country', but also because of Guinea Bissau's history, in which ownership of all land vests in the state and belongs to the people, and which tends to attact more of a usage value than an exchange value.

The second day involved widening the focus of the EGM to look at the experiences of other cities. This included presentations from IRGLUS members Edesio Fernandes and Nelson Saule Jnr on the experiences of Brazil. I presented on the role of the judiciary in facilitating claims to the right to the city, and UN Habitat's Melissa Permezel presented on the role of legislation in urban development - which included outlining UN Habitat's role in bringing urban legislation to the fore.

The outcome of the EGM appeared to me to broaden the role of law and planning policy in urban governance. Whether or not this has any direct impact remains to be seen, for now. Certainly, however, there was intense interest in the EGM and the knowledge it generated, knowledge that undoubtedly was shared between both the visitors to the EGM, and the hosts. 

Urban Law Lab