Urban Poverty Essay Competition: Jason B. Scott

by Rebekah Revello and Jason B. Scott

Each year, IHC, the World Bank, Cities Alliance, the Woodrow Wilson Center and USAID collaborate to hold an Urban Poverty Essay Competition, in order to hear from the best and brightest in the urban development community and to encourage new thinking and innovation about urban poverty from young scholars. This is the second of the interviews with our three finalists.

Jason B Scott is one of the finalists of the 2016 Urban Poverty Essay Competition. Originally from Milwaukee Wisconsin, Scott is a PhD Candidate and Cultural Anthropologist at University of Colorado Boulder. He is currently living Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where he is bringing his passion for social justice and achieving urban development through government to the sprawling slums (Favelas) of Rio.

  1. What inspired you to get into the urban development sector?

I am currently writing my doctoral dissertation concerning the use of digital technology in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. It is a subject with great history behind it yet still reflects humanity’s technological and social future. One major concern for favela residents is that the world’s attention will turn away from their plight after the Olympic Games.

  1. What are your current or future plans?

I am approaching the final year of my doctoral program. In this final year, I will leave Rio de Janeiro and move back to Boulder, Colorado where I will be teaching classes and working at a Center that helps junior scholars to see their teaching as a form of research. During this time, I will also attend academic conferences while writing and publishing articles based on my dissertation research.

After completing my Ph.D., I hope to find an academic position at a university where I can find continued support for my research and help grow the next generation of Brazilian anthropologists. I am also very much to take part in policy and nonprofit discussions. Through my ethnographic research, I have seen the positive ways that academic concepts shape underdeveloped communities.

  1. What is a particular cause you are motivated by? (One that you haven’t discussed)

I am particularly motivated to information, reading, and literacy. The ability to express and create knowledge is a fundamental right that is often unavailable to many. With modern digital technology, expression relies on a new set of tools and literacies. The idea of literacy–both in a technical and traditional sense– and expression informs my understanding of almost every issue I have encountered in Latin America.

  1. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing cities is, as they work to reduce and eliminate extreme poverty?

A lack participatory democracy is the ultimate obstacle for cities attempting to eliminate and reduce urban poverty. Government and civic institutions–even when well-meaning and locally engaged–often fail to sincerely hear the same marginalized voices they claim to include. Cities must not only seek to change a community but also develop mechanisms for a sustainable and critical form of urban citizenship.

In the favelas where I do research, everyday violence between police and drug traffickers has seriously threatened all other forms of economic, political, and educational development. A history of discounting residents’ claims to land helped to justify the government’s failure to develop adequate sanitation, electrical, and transportation infrastructure. A failure to build schools has left generations with little cultural and social capital to escape the clutches of generational poverty.

As such, modern technological developments such as online social media–that allow communities to share their opinions and experiences as well as participate in a broader civil society–are incredibly ineffective without those in political power paying attention. Communities that are silenced need to be heard and involved in long term political discussions.

  1. Is there a benefit of thinking through development issues through an urban lens (rather than a specific sector)? Have you seen differences in how projects might be implemented in cities vs rural areas?

The “urban lens” is incredibly important. Over half of the world lives in cities and this share is projected to grow in the future. About a third of urban residents in the developing world live in slums, a number that is also expected to grow. Due to globalizing social forces, urban slums increasingly share common problems and needs. Issues-based development such as digital inclusion, delivering potable water, and  providing housing will indeed improve urban lives but no single issue will provide a panacea to these issues.

Using my research in the Complexo as an example, the urban/rural dichotomy could be seen as problematic. Many of the residents of the community are rural migrants or the children of rural migrants. In this sense, individual poverty displaced from a rural to an urban setting. Furthermore, Brazil’s suburban regions combine both rural and urban problems. In rural areas, projects are far more difficult to deliver and resources become ‘stretched’. Issues related to poverty become entrenched and amplified in urban environments. The urban/rural dichotomy is ultimately a matter of perspective, scope, and intensity, but they should ultimately be seen as related.

  1. As you continue your research, what topic(s) do you think are most in need of further research and attention?”

My current research concerning digital inclusion in violent Brazilian favelas has led me to several related topics. Firstly, some of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are experiencing a wave of gentrification: a new socio-economic and geographic process heretofore unseen in Rio de Janeiro. Many believe that gentrification has been brought on by mega events such as the world cup and olympics but this perspective overlooks the militarization of the favela and decades of real estate speculation in Rio’s “formal city” that has made the city one of the most expensive in the world. While some scholars, activists, and journalists have begun to explore the short term effects of gentrification in the favelas, I believe only a longterm generations-long research project will reveal the effects economic removal will have on these communities.

Secondly, I believe the illegal drug policy will continue to decide the destiny of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Over the course of 30 years, anti-drug policy has allowed governments and civil society to avoid the favela. While debates over decriminalization and legalization of marijuana and other illegal drugs have garnered significant attention in Brazil, it remains unclear if the favela will reap the benefits of loosened drug laws. The war on drugs could possibly transform into a new type of “war” in the favela or it could lead to a significant step towards the end of police abuse.

Jason is one of the many students honored for their participation in the Urban Poverty Essay Competition, and who are dedicated to creating sustainable urban communities across the globe. Check out the rest of our blog to learn about the other honorees.