Holding Power Accountable: It’s a human rights issue

As privatization in development moves ahead in Baltimore, and government continues to pay tribute to private developers’ bottom line through public:private partnerships and tax subsides to the powerful, Baltimore and Maryland simply reflect a global trend-development which violates the human rights of individual citizens to participate and assure equitable benefit. Recent projects include the plan for privatization of public housing-subsidized by HUD- and transportation in the form of the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the International Corridor (1, 2, 3, 4). Both are subsidized by federal and state dollars aimed at appeasing corporate power and threatening displacement and gentrification. This trend of public:private partnerships was highlighted at recent UN meetings on post-2015 sustainable development and the role of private power in drowning the voice of civil society, violating their human rights (4). They brought front and center the critical need to stop continued privatization and public:private partnerships which diminish democracy and minimize citizen participation, in its attempt to grow the profit of corporations.

In Maryland and nationally we continue to witness this same trend in non-sustainable development and public:private deals which drown out democracy and assure political and economic inequity. And just as the international civil sector demands greater accountability and transparency of public:private partnerships, tax subsidies, corporate profiteering, and lack of community participation, we demand the same. Specifically, the criteria offered to the UN to assure sustainable development post-2015 is an insightful framework for us to adapt in our call for public-lead development with a human rights-based ethic (5). Such criteria would investigate the powerful actors negotiating on their behalf while positing themselves as benefiting the local, national, and global economies and communities. The five criteria question:

– whether the private actor has a history or current status of serious allegations of abusing human rights or the environment, including in their cross-border activities;
– whether the private actor has a proven track record (or the potential to) deliver on sustainable development commitments emerging from the post-2015 process;
– whether the private actor has previous involvement in acts of corruption with government officials;
whether the private actor is fully transparent in its financial reporting and fully respecting existing tax responsibilities in all countries it operates, and not undermining sustainable development through tax avoidance;
– any conflicts of interest in order to eliminate potential private donors whose activities are antithetical or contradictory to the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the SDG [sustainable development goals] framework (6).

Locally we can adapt similar criteria in discovering who’s at the table negotiating on their profit-making behalf and the extent to which public dollars subsidize unequal benefit for private developers-growing the health and wealth gap. The future of sustainable development requires an assurance that equitable partnerships exist going forward and previous corrupt corporate entities and their affiliates do not lead development or benefit disproportionately from public contracting or sub-contracting (7).

Baltimore can begin with an analysis of past developments to include amount of tax subsidies and ratio of benefit to developers and local communities, amount of benefit in the form of local hire, economic growth, local business ownership, live-able wages and benefits provided by new developments, affordable products for historic communities, affordable housing, presence of historic communities in revitalized areas, health of communities displaced and in the revitalized areas. An entity exists in Baltimore to conduct such an investigation, the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC). BDC’s mission “is to make doing business in Baltimore, Maryland beneficial for the business community and the workforce so we can support continued economic growth, job creation and revitalization in Baltimore City”. In order to accomplish this mission they must evaluate the way development has occurred to assure future developments benefit all of Baltimore. We would like to see a report card. The departments of housing and community development, economic development, planning, transportation, health, parks and recreation can do similar assessments of impact of past and current development on their benchmarks. Such assessments would benefit from community participation.

Other ways to assure future development is participatory and respecting human rights include realistic community engagement at all levels of planning, implementing, and evaluating. Government funding for community leadership development and community organizing to ensure community leaders are informed and ready to participate would help to guarantee democratic participation. A city planning department with community organizers on staff working directly with neighborhood organizations to increase community engagement and social capital would begin to prepare residents for decision-making roles in current and future developments (8). If the city of Baltimore could do this in the 1960’s with some success, where is the political will to implement such community engagement practices in 2014?

Activism by citizens and community organizations remain key in assuring human rights is front and center of all development. Baltimore and Maryland is waking up to activism. Those still in by-stander activism mode can switch to engaged activism. We can vote elected officials out of office who maintain heads of departments who continue the same tried and true policies that support corporate welfare. We can publicly demand that such department heads who continue policies and practices which results in inequity in housing, economic, and community development, planning, health, transportation, public safety, parks and recreation, and education be placed on notice to show different outcomes in a specific period. We can be updated on these outcomes through annual report cards from these departments. We can call and email our public representatives each time we see the same patterns of development continue with inequitable outcomes.

Such opportunities for organized activism are upon us today. The Maryland Commission on Civil Rights offered a symposium last week on ‘Gentrification and Revitalization’. In regard an investigation of developer Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions’ expansion in East Baltimore over the past 60 years, HUD’s Baltimore office offered the audience direction in pursuing this. In a few weeks Baltimore’s Public Justice Center is hosting a discussion on residents’ demand for inclusion in housing policy and practices being administered through HABC and HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) project-“Democratizing Development” (9, 10). Casa de Maryland continues to seek support to combat displacement of immigrant businesses and residents because of the expansion of the Purple Line in one of Maryland’s most diverse immigrant community (3). It’s Our Economy is hosting a wealth-building conference to address poverty in Baltimore in May (11). Johns Hopkins Hospital service workers will rally for a livable wage on May 10 after the hospital neglects to return to the negotiation table (12). The recent announcement by Baltimore Development Corporation and Housing Authority of Baltimore City inviting proposals for development of a portion of the Old Town neighborhood in East Baltimore offers us an opportunity to practice with the criteria listed above (13). Why? There exists an organized group of local community leaders and stakeholders who have been meeting, organizing residents, and drafting a community-informed master plan for almost 10 years for this area-Change-4-Real (14). They have done the hard work of building a democratic and community participatory model supporting equitable benefit through community-focused economic development. Whether they receive the contract for development of this area will speak volumes to the use of the above mentioned international criteria for sustainable development with human and civil rights agendas. Baltimore and Maryland must begin to hold public:private power accountable through participatory development that respects the dignity of every individual. Anything else is a violation of all our human rights.

1. Privatization of public housing
2. The power of public:private partnerships
3a. Corporate welfare
3b. The greed of power
4. Purple line in the International corridor
5. Post-2015 development criteria
6. Sustainable Development Goals
7. Private developers benefit from public subsidies
8. Baltimore Sun. December 15, 1968. Renewal with a difference
9. Rental Assistance Demonstration project
10. Democratizing Development. Public Justice Center May 6
11. It’s Our Economy
12. Hopkins workers rally for livable wage
fly_mem_201404_Hopkins_May10_Allies_FINAL (1)
13. City announces plan for Old Town development
14. Change-4-Real

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