EUKN interview with Laura Colini and Iván Tosics

8 August 2016

In todays urban landscape, urban poverty remains a very difficult and important topic. As such, one of the four partnerships of the Urban Agenda for the EU focuses on Urban Poverty, aiming to reduce poverty and improve the inclusion of people in poverty or at risk of poverty in deprived neighbourhoods. This month, EUKN interviewed two URBACT experts involved in the Partnership: Laura Colini and Iván Tosics. 


EUKN: What motivated you to become an expert in the field of poverty?

LC: I was asked by the French Managing Authority to collaborate with the Urban Agenda for Europe on urban poverty since my position as senior policy advisor at URBACT (called Programme Expert). Personally I feel uneasy with the definition of expert, as my work is mostly to support the dialogue among the members of the partnerships, providing insights in the topic the partnership has chosen to cover: namely urban poverty with a focus on deprived urban areas and child poverty. My background is on urban studies and I have been doing research on marginalisation processes in different countries in Europe and beyond. My personal view is that there is no expertise which can cover the full complexity of the topic, and that rigorous context-related critical research, involving various disciplines, is needed for more effective public policies. This requires exposing why poverty is created by systemic societal and economic injustice, rather than looking solely at the strategies for its alleviation. While this can open up conflicting political opinions about poverties and the “making of it”, I still believe it is worth exploiting the opportunity offered by the Urban agenda for Europe to rethink most appropriate EU urban policies. 

IT: I was approached in a similar way and I have similar reservations to the role of ‘expert’. On the other hand, I am happy that we can contribute to the work of the partnership with our real-life experiences collected in many European cities in the last decades. One of my specialities is my background, being based and having worked in one of the post-socialist countries, later becoming a new member state. The transition in these countries, the changing patterns of poverty and the conflicts around the use of EU policies and financial support shows – like a living laboratory – the challenges the EU systems have to face.


EUKN: What is the role of local governments in tackling poverty? Do cities mainly support the approach set out on a national and European level?

LC and IT: Local government obviously have a strategic role in tackling the different versions of poverty through different means such as urban & territorial planning, local development, investments, land use, taxation (according to their legal framework) affordability of housing, social services education and so on. The effects of poverties on people also depend from impoverished municipal authorities (e.g. through municipal debts, privatisation, austerities) which today are suffering from budget cuts especially in the social services. Moreover, local government are not the sole referents, as the decisions creating, or alleviating urban poverties are inter-dependent to public and private interests playing at different territorial and government scales. Not to forget that each Member State is free to set its own targets concerning poverty based on the most appropriate indicators for their circumstances and priorities. Therefore, the approaches and policies set at national and European level are crucially affecting the living conditions and the prospects on poverty in cities. Finally, to respond to the second question, whether cities support or do not support the approach set out at national and EU level, it is evident a matter to be analysed on a case to case basis. Local governments as well as other members of civil society should have a stronger voice in decisions taken at EU and national level and the Urban Agenda for Europe could be a platform for this.

Tackling poverty requires obviously multi-level governance collaboration. In this regard European countries are very different and there are also large differences within the same country. We are particularly struck by examples where democratically elected local leaders act against the inclusion of the poor people, in the hope to be re-elected by the majority of voters. There are also cases where the national level is the main barrier, making impossible local efforts for more inclusive policies. Thus there are very different situations to be handled by European policies.


EUKN: On a global level, how well are European cities doing in terms of urban poverty?

LA and IT: Urban poverty has many dimensions and spatial differences. Definition of poverty calls in many synonyms such as disadvantage, exclusion, marginalisation and segregation which are conditions as well as processes. The latter are more difficult to measure in statistic terms and different methods and indicators have been developed for measuring poverty in urban areas. Europe wide the conditions of poverty are measured according to AROPE  (At risk of poverty or social exclusion) registering the conditions of people at risk of poverty, or severely materially deprived or living in a household with a very low work intensity. With this the European Commission adopted a broad ‘at-risk-of-poverty or social exclusion rate’ indicator to serve the purposes of the Europe 2020 strategy. This indicator is an aggregate of three sub-indicators: (1) monetary poverty, (2) material deprivation, and (3) low work intensity. The latest Eurostat indicators describe a situation in which people can suffer from more than one dimension of poverty at time, and that after a peak in poverty rates (after the financial crisis) there has been a reduction of poverty figures between 2012-2014. Even so a percentage of 24,1 % of EU population is at risk of poverty, namely one in four people has been registered in 2014. The data might be different within Member states and they definitely differ from other countries beyond the EU where struggle of hunger and survival due to climate change and wars are more alarming. 


EUKN: What are the expectations with regards to the levels of poverty in Europe, also looking at the current Refugee Crisis? Are the Europe 2020 targets for poverty and social exclusion realistic?

LC and IT: The Europe 2020 strategy has set the target of ‘lifting at least 20 million people out of the risk of poverty and social exclusion’ by 2020 compared to the year 2008. This would have meant to reduce the number of poor from 116 million (2008) to 96 million by 2020. In the meantime, this number peaked at 123 million in 2012. It is easy to conclude that there is no chance to reach the EU2020 target – and this negative outcome is not even the result of the migrant and refugee crisis...


EUKN: On the Partnership of Urban Poverty: What role will the Urban Agenda for the EU play in tackling urban poverty?

LC and IT: The Urban Agenda asks the partnership to produce Action Plans at the end of three years, providing guidance on better knowledge, better funding and better regulation. The participation to the Urban Agenda partnership is on a voluntary basis and the guidance resulting from the partnership are not mandatory and legally binding. In this limited frame the impact is hard to foresee.

The true occasion for this as well as for other partnerships is to harness the opportunity of having different actors from EU to Local level, as well international organisations sitting at the same table to provide insights in ameliorating the current policies regarding poverty. Therefore, in our opinion the final guidance should be concrete as much as possible, taking into consideration the feasibility of proposals, but should not miss the chance to suggest changes to the existing frameworks pointing the fingers at those systemic contradictions which are creating the conditions of poverty.


EUKN: Urban poverty has a lot of different dimensions. What topics will be addressed by the partnership in the coming 3 years? What is the focus of the Partnership?

LC and IT: The leaders of the partnership, France and Belgium, aim to concentrate on deprived urban areas and child poverty. These are obviously two important aspects of urban poverty. However, already in the meetings so far other aspects have been mentioned as well, such as homelessness (an issue cross-cutting with the housing partnership) or the case of the Roma minority.


EUKN: What are the biggest issues and/or obstacles that the partnership faces?

LC and IT: Even if the process to create the partnership was relatively open to all stakeholders who wanted to join, whatever the composition of the partnership is, there are issues with the legitimacy and representativeness of the decisions taken within the partnerships. We encourage the partners as well as the coordinators to find methods to involve, consult and open up the debate to the broad spectrum of other actors who may have a say on the topic.


EUKN: When will the partnership be a success?

LC and IT: It depends from which perspective, and the partners should be asked to respond to this question. Speculating it may be:

  • From the EU possibly when concrete proposals are formulated in terms of better funding, regulation and knowledge.

  • For cities when their voices and opinion may find a place to be heard beyond the local debate.

  • For some civil organisations, when there is an opportunity for changing the procedures of planning and implementation of EU funded projects towards grassroots initiatives. 

Ultimately, the better results would be that there is a clearer and shared commitment in taking the issue of poverty as key for shaping all future policies concerning cities.


EUKN: Both of you are URBACT Expert. In what way can URBACT support the partnership on Poverty?

LC and IT: For the moment there are several options under discussion. It is clear that URBACT can contribute in very different forms, from short-term urban-lab type meetings to long-term cooperation between interested cities aiming for comparing, re-thinking and developing strategies to tackle urban poverty. A decision about the URBACT contribution will be taken late autumn.