An Interview with the SPURS/Humphrey Program Director Bish Sanya

Prof. Bish Sanyal is the Ford International Professor of Urban Development and Planning and Director of the Special Program in Urban and Regional Studies (SPURS)/Hubert Humphrey program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The article was published in the 2021 Summer InterPlan

InterPlan: What should U.S. planners know about the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program? 

Bish Sanyal: The United States Department of State brings a dozen or so urban planners from around the world to the U.S. each year. The purpose is to give them opportunities to upgrade their skills, foster knowledge exchange, and most importantly, create institutional linkages between them and American planning institutions. In the long term, we hope the Program will help strengthen the relationship between the home countries of visiting planners and the United States. 

The Humphrey Program was created in 1978 by President Carter and the US congress to honor Hubert Humphrey. It was a very interesting time as the Cold War was still on. I think President Carter wanted to create a program to demonstrate the goodwill of the American people towards the world and he wanted to do it in a very specific way: by addressing urban challenges of newly-developing nations.  We know that there has to be a forum to actually bring people together to build good relationships among the people of the world. 

All Humphrey Fellows are placed at MIT for an academic year. They can audit courses at MIT and Harvard University. They also spend a month or six weeks doing professional work in planning organizations across the United States. The fellows do not receive any payment for their professional affiliations since they already receive a stipend from the Program for a period of nine months. The Humphrey program also covers the air transportation costs for the fellows and provides support to get settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

After completing the nine-month program, the fellows return to their homes to influence urban policies in their home countries with knowledge and experience of how urban issues are being addressed in the U.S. The goal is to create leaders around the world who share North American values of democracy and technological innovations. In the process, the program also provides U.S. planners the opportunity to learn about urban planning challenges around the world and provide them a global network for cooperation and mutual learning. 

InterPlan: Who are these planners from around the world? 

Bish Sanyal: They are successful mid-career professionals in their country and have a considerable amount of work experience in their field. Usually, they hold important positions in their own organizations. We usually have 12 Humphrey fellows each year. They are selected through a rigorous process led by the U.S. Embassy in their country. 

InterPlan: Do they apply what they learned in the U.S to their country?

Bish Sanyal: That's definitely one goal of the program, though many people think that the U.S and developing countries are so different that no knowledge is directly transferable. That skepticism is valid, but there is actually much knowledge that is useful across borders.  This includes strategies for environmental sustainability and the role government, private firms, and communities can play in addressing urban issues. 

InterPlan: What is your message to the fellows at the beginning of the Program

Bish Sanyal: First, we want to make them comfortable in the new setting.  They are mid-career professionals, not students, with comfortable homes in their country. Some bring their family with them. They have to be comfortable in their new environment, then they can begin adjusting to day-to-day life in the United States. 

Second, we introduce them to the wide array of courses offered at MIT.  We ask them what they would like to do in five to ten years, after they return home, and advise them what it will take to reach that professional destination. 

The third thing we do is to introduce them to American planning institutions.  We seek to connect our fellows to professional organizations, like the American Planning Association (APA). This helps establish long-term connections between the fellows and their North American counterparts.  

InterPlan: What is your expectation of the collaboration between APA and the Humphrey program?

Bish Sanyal: A two-way flow of knowledge is one of the fundamental principles on which the Humphrey program was created. Humphrey fellows can share with North American planners the urban problems they are facing in their home countries and how they try to meet those challenges.  They can learn how US planners may have addressed similar issues at earlier stages of development.  Such conversations can help American planners expand their networks overseas. These sorts of connections can be very valuable for planners who are interested in comparative approaches to urban development. 

As for the Humphrey fellows, they benefit immensely by getting to know American planners. I hope that we can create a kind of buddy system to facilitate such interactions.  We try to pair them with American planners who are interested in the fellows’ native countries.  Ideally, they can learn from their American colleagues about planning practice in the States and about North American culture in general.

The second possibility is to professionally affiliate the fellows with the organizations where APA members work.  It is helpful if the fellows get the opportunity to observe how US planners do professional work for a month or two.  As I mentioned, US planning organizations do not need to pay the fellows.  The goal is to create a global network of like-minded planners and having professional affiliations may be the first step towards that objective.  

A larger objective is to use the global network to address local instances of globally connected problems. Such a forum is necessary for the kinds of problems we are facing around the world, including in the US. 

InterPlan: So, Collaboration is the key to solving global problems? 

Bish Sanyal: Right. Many of the problems we are facing now have emerged because of global connections and cannot be addressed adequately by any one nation.  Take the examples of environmental pollution., global migration, or global economic fluctuations.  The idea that anyone nation can handle those problems single-handedly is obsolete. I think Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State, said very well recently, that no problem can be solved by any one country anymore. 

What is a common misunderstanding or bias regarding international planning that young planners may have? 

Bish Sanyal: Well, the world is very different from 30 years ago. China has been a huge success in terms of economic development. Even though it is not a democratic country, what it has accomplished is incredible. Other nations, like India and Brazil, have also moved forward in a significant way even though there is still widespread poverty.  In general, many newly-developing nations have done reasonably well despite many constraints, financial and otherwise.  However, North American planners tend to think that the international development scenario has not improved significantly. They are often not aware that there are large variations in performance among newly industrializing nations.  

There's also a huge mistrust of foreign governments, a general feeling that most governments are corrupt and that is why nothing gets done. This broad pessimistic assessment overlooks many instances of small successes in developing nations. Things do get done, despite many challenges. For example, food production has increased significantly in many nations, industrial production has increased, and some nations have implemented effective social policies to assist the poor.  

It's frustrating that people are more inclined to look at what did not get done than what did. And when good results do become visible, people tend to attribute such success to individuals, not organizations. This attitude hurts the ability to replicate success because charismatic leaders cannot be cloned!  In fact, no leader can be successful in every situation, no matter how charismatic they may be.  The same leader who may have been successful in raising agricultural production might not be as successful to address urban problems.  That is why it is important to carefully study the context for planning action rather than celebrating the charisma of individual leaders.   

There are misconceptions about the U.S, as well. Many new fellows tend to think that Americans are very wealthy and are not aware that there is a considerable amount of poverty in both rural areas and in some big cities. The fellows are surprised when they see homeless people begging on the street. On the positive side, the fellows also often assume that North America’s advanced technology is the answer to urban problems.  Certainly, some technological innovations can create opportunities to address old problems in new ways, but it is never technology alone that solves any problem. Technological knowledge needs to be used by flexible organizations that can learn quickly from mistakes.

A further misconception is that many fellows wrongly assume North Americans are overtly individualistic people who care only about their own ambitions. This sort of thinking does not help the fellows understand the complexities of how American families operate.  It also ignores many community-based collective efforts at problem-solving. To rectify such biases on both sides, there need to be more conversations between international fellows and North American planners. This is one goal of our effort to connect more deeply with APA. 

InterPlan: Is there is a lot of room to improve mutual understanding? 

Bish Sanyal: Yes. I used to run a seminar at MIT for our fellows. It was called "Difficult Conversations". To create a common bond among all of us, we need to ask each other difficult questions that do not have a clear-cut answer. For example, a North American student might ask an Indian fellow why India continues to be so poor. The Indian fellow might reply that mass poverty has been reduced significantly and that one can learn from what India has accomplished despite many constraints. Then, the Indian fellow may raise concerns about race relations in North America.   The North American student may respond by pointing out varying successes in different states and ask the fellow to talk about “caste” in India. This sort of conversation can be hard to manage but are necessary to transcend simplistic and biased views on both sides. 

There are many such misconceptions that need to be cleared before we can create a global network of like-minded planners who are committed to working together. Building a learning environment that creates genuine common ground between people of different cultures and nationalities is not an easy task.  We need to experiment with many forms of interactions, including the ones MIT and APA are discussing right now. 

InterPlan: What skills are essential for planning international development successfully? 

Bish Sanyal: The first skill that comes to my mind is the ability to negotiate. This is important because the globally interconnected problems that we are dealing with have no clear-cut, black-and-white solutions.  Multiple stakeholders need to be at the table to negotiate any long-term settlement. Sometimes a technical solution may appear adequate for the task at hand, but eventually, all solutions need to be politically executed by creating a consensus among groups with varying interests.  

The second is understanding how to bypass financial constraints. How do organizations or government agencies operate with limited budgets?  Where does the money come from? How do you attract investments, both private and public, to generate revenue? In this regard, it is important to remember that generating new revenues is more difficult than using old revenues in new ways!

The third aspect of development planning that is often ignored are skills necessary to address implementation challenges.  Why don't good plans get implemented as envisioned?  We always hear about good plans that were badly implemented. But a plan is no good if it cannot be implemented. I think there's a huge need to learn from past experience why certain elements of post policies or projects were easier to implement than others. The skill necessary is asking questions regarding the basic assumptions underlying past project/policy design. One needs to have an open mind to ask the question: Did we make wrong assumptions? This is not easy, which is why it is so common to hear broad-brushed assessments that projects failed because of “systemic corruption. “Of course, corruption exists, but the essential skill is designing projects and policies to minimize the scope for corruption. It is also a skill to identify which part of projects/policies worked better than others and why rather than either dismissing any project as totally failed or glorifying one as it was a total success. 

The fourth essential skill is technological savvy.  Technological change has always been a major social force. The question is how to use it appropriately or, in other words, how not to misuse it.  Planners should take advantage of information and communication technologies without being obsessed with them. It is customary to hear folks who believe that technology will solve all problems. In contrast, others argue that technology will solve nothing. The answer is in between and impacted by some factors outside the control of urban planners.  

InterPlan: What is your general advice to planning students who are interested in international development? 

Bish Sanyal: International development remains a major field of expertise and knowledge. Even though some of the original ideas regarding growth and development have been revised over the last 70 years, international development has returned as a key issue in discussions on how to achieve environmental sustainability and income equality. We need to constantly revise the dominant paradigms based on changing circumstances.

Another thing to bear in mind is that the problems we are facing have emerged because of intertwined causes across the world. No one country can solve such problems by itself. We need a global network of like-minded nations to collectively address these problems.

Lastly, to bring people around the world together, knowledge of any one language is not enough. One needs to speak languages in addition to the ones they grew up with and thereby understand different cultures. We need to better understand cultural differences and seek overlaps to create social consensus.  There was and still is a point of view that North America is the best nation in the world. Even though the US has many positive attributes, this attitude of superiority has to change. The United States is definitely a prosperous and dynamic nation, but there are many other nations that are doing innovative social experiments.  We need to work with them instead of distrusting them. This is why a Cold War mentality won't solve our current problems.

InterPlan: President Biden said during his recent address on Capitol Hill that we have to prove democracy still works. How can planners prove that democracy still works?

Bish Sanyal: This is a very important question. First of all, as planners, we neither define problems by ourselves nor assume that we can devise solutions without consulting various stakeholders. The democratic approach is based on the premise that there may be multiple and conflicting views of the problems to be addressed, by whom they should be addressed, and in what ways. It is widely acknowledged that good outcomes emerge from processes that are inclusive and fair. This is true for both North American urban planning and international developmental challenges.  

Now, let's take a historical approach to the question.  After World War II, a consensus emerged among US social scientists and policymakers that democracy and development go hand in hand - we need one for the flourishing of the other. It was based on the idea that individuals need to make choices for markets to flourish individuals and it is democratic political systems that allow individuals to make such choices.  That theory came to be questioned in the 1970s when the majority of the capitalist nations in Latin America turned from democracies into authoritarian regimes led by the army. As a result, scholars began to question the relationship between political and economic systems, suggesting that perhaps there is no clear-cut connection between the two. Then, as the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, the idea that development requires democracy returned with new momentum. By then, however, mainland China had begun to grow rapidly thanks to new trade connections between China and the rest of the world. Some interpreted the rise of China as a form of “State Capitalism, “but China remains a nation with a strong communist party with a powerful central government. 

Recently there has been a rise of autocracy in some parts of the world, ranging from Brazil to Turkey to some east European nations that were previously controlled by the former Soviet Union.  As President Biden recently remarked, there seems to be a new challenge facing the global community: which political system, autocratic or democratic, can lead to rapid and sustainable economic growth?  If you consider the steady growth of the Chinese economy and the way it helped to lift billions of poor people out of poverty, then it will be hard to dismiss the Chinese system as if it is totally out of touch with its people and likely to eventually fail.  National planning of the Chinese variety is attractive to many newly industrializing nations, particularly when China is willing to provide concessionary funding for developmental projects. 

As for the United States, the national economy seems to be in some element of decline, particularly when compared to the rapid growth the nation experienced after the Second World War.  Yet the notion that the US may be losing out to other global competitors is not new: you may recall the way American industries had reacted to the rise of Japan during the 1970s and 1980s! The bottom line is that the US is a very resilient nation that learns quickly from past mistakes and can be flexible in altering policies, in part because of its democratic system. Sometimes we lose sight of that strength as, say, when the nation initially failed to tackle the Covid 19 crisis.  But eventually the vast infrastructure of scientific innovations and the nation’s ability to quickly commercialize scientific research demonstrated that the US remains a leader despite the many mistakes made while China successfully clamped down with draconian measures to control Covid 19. Perhaps Sir Winston Churchill made the right observation: that the U.S. ultimately adopts the right strategy, but only after pursuing many wrong strategies! That is an indication that the nation can learn from its mistakes and its political system is flexible enough for continuous learning in a rapidly changing world. ■ Edited by Andy Cross