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Tackling Poverty from the Classroom and the Field

Sumila Gulyani

One of the hallmarks of Columbia is the ability of its faculty to combine scholarship and teaching with personal and professional commitment so as to use their knowledge to address the global issues of our times. Nowhere is this more evident than in recently arrived Sumila Gulyani, a new assistant professor of urban planning at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Gulyani balances her continuing interest and experience in helping to alleviate poverty in developing nations with a strong sense of how that experience can inform and energize her classroom teaching where she is intent on nurturing the next generation of leaders and professionals.

"This is where academia needs to come in and contribute -- both new ideas and a far better understanding of what is working and why," says Gulyani. And that is precisely what she intends to do in her new role as director of the Infrastructure and Poverty Action Lab (I-PAL) at Columbia.

Gulyani arrived on campus in February and has already begun work on a new project. She is leading a World Bank study of 4,000 slum households in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dakar, Senegal. She will examine the nature of poverty, jobs and service delivery in these low-income, informal settlements, located in parts of the cities that generally have poor access to physical and social infrastructure, few economic opportunities and, in some cases, high levels of crime.

Nairobi and Dakar are similar in population -- 2.2 million to 2.5 million people -- and an extraordinary 50 percent to 60 percent of their population is estimated to reside in such slum settlements. Preliminary analyses of the data her team collected show that a majority of the slum dwellers (72 percent in Nairobi and 82 percent in Dakar) fall below the poverty line. That is, they survive on monthly expenditures of less than $37 in Nairobi and $51 in Dakar.

"Despite the concern with the slums issue, it is hard to find reliable data on these settlements. There are few statistically representative studies and little understanding of who lives there, country by country and city by city," Gulyani says. "This research project is a step in that direction. It will provide facts and insights that are required to improve the design of development programs targeted toward the urban poor residing in slums. We also hope it will provide an impetus for similar studies in other parts of the world."

As a development practitioner and researcher, her focus has been on improving infrastructure in developing countries and enhancing service delivery to poor households. Now Gulyani is bringing these experiences and this passion to campus in her first academic appointment. This semester, she is teaching "Infrastructure Planning and International Economic Development," which focuses on the theory and practical lessons that can help meet the challenge of providing quality services -- especially, water and electricity -- in the developing world.

"In planning education, the focus is on real-world problems, and it is crucial for us [as a department] to deepen our engagement with planning issues emerging in the developing world," she says. "I am very excited to be here at Columbia. It brings the two sides [international economic development and urban planning] together. It also offers an opportunity to explore training formats and projects in which architects and physical planners work together to address critical urban issues."

During her recent trip to India, Gulyani met with water and sanitation experts to discuss possible projects for I-PAL. The lab will serve as a research, design and action project, where teams of faculty and students will assist real clients with innovations in infrastructure and service delivery in poor areas. She envisions city governments or agencies such as the United Nations and World Bank hiring teams through I-PAL to advise on or research specific problems. I-PAL also will conduct independent grant-financed research on infrastructure and aim to support graduate theses and dissertations in the area.

Four days after returning from India, she joined a Columbia team in Nairobi to help develop an International Urban Development Studio/School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) workshop, an intensive, multidisciplinary course for spring 2006. Students will spend two to three weeks on-site researching the city's land-use and transportation problems and working as a team to solve them. The course will be offered jointly with Nairobi University's Planning Department, providing an opportunity for students and faculty from the universities to collaborate and learn from each other. Each year, the studio will move to a different city in the developing world.

"The planning studio/SIPA workshop uses our experience and contacts in developing countries to set up studios with real clients to produce a training ground for our students, create partnerships with other academic institutions in the developing world and generate real output that benefits our clients," says Gulyani.

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Published: May 12, 2005
Last modified: May 11, 2005

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