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The seven myths of ‘slums’ - conclusion

Adam Parsons
08 December 2010

A new vision for cities clearly begins with a change in mindset by the business and political community and all those involved in the governance and construction of cities. This requires a rethinking of the entrepreneurial and ‘marketing’ approach to urban development in which the city is regarded as a product for exchange with the rest of the world, as if the city is a saleable commodity that can be made available to the best buyer on the global market. Since the 1990s, the main question that concerns decision-makers in almost all developing cities is how to apply the economic rationality of business to urban management in order to improve its efficiency and functionality. In the competitive race to attract resources and investments, public institutions continue to be opened to the private sector. Citizens are valued for their role as customers and consumers; the focus of policymakers is to minimise costs and maximise the quality of private enterprise; and the primary goal of urban development is to increase the city’s prospects for unending GDP growth and material prosperity. The last concern is the living standards of the weaker social classes, or the social disintegration that accompanies rising affluence and growing levels of inequality. As the provision of urban housing and services is shifted from the public sphere to the market sector, those with insufficient purchasing power are further excluded. There is little or no incentive for business to produce assets for the urban poor who inhabit informal settlements, yet market-based solutions are still promoted as the only real solution to the global housing crisis [see Myth 5]. The withdrawal of the state from its social redistribution role, mirrored by the shirking of much of its regulatory functions, is a key factor in the growth of slums in most of the developing world [see Myth 1]. In relying upon the market to provide access to resources, few governments have made a concerted effort to build or subsidise the building of adequate supplies of low-income housing.

A reversal of current trends undoubtedly depends upon strong state involvement and a different role for governments. It may be a truism to assert that efforts to redistribute land are needed, but such state intervention in the land market – always opposed by powerful vested interests – is no longer a viable policy option since the advent of economic liberalisation. Considering the inability of the market alone to correct distortions in the distribution of land, it is inevitably up to city public authorities to establish subsidies and loan programs for the purchase of urban land or houses, to regularise land ownership, and to guarantee the right of immediate provision of an adequate, sufficient and independent living space to vulnerable and homeless groups.[i] It is also up to governments to give correct support to low-income groups in their direct attempts to upgrade informal housing and provide services, or to construct new buildings, or to negotiate land tenure agreements for informal settlements [see Myth 2]. The same holds true for international development assistance agencies, which often have no relationships at all with urban poor groups. In turn, the participation of community groups in government programmes requires a strengthened role for local governments, with the decentralisation of control and revenues from national governments based in the capital [see Myth 6].[ii] The ‘enabling approach’ to slum improvement cannot therefore be reduced to simply restraining governments from intervening in housing and land markets, and allowing markets to function more efficiently – based on the orthodox policy prescriptions of privatisation, decentralisation and deregulation (as promoted by the World Bank and other bilateral and multilateral donors, Western governments and NGOs since the late 1980s).[iii] In contrast, the truly bottom-up and demand-driven process entails a more humanised model of development that empowers grassroots movements, promotes social transformation, and curbs growing inequalities through redistribution and integration.[iv] Overall, the approach of governments cannot focus exclusively on housing, which reduces the problems of squatters to merely the lack of adequate shelter and services, but must integrate actions in other sectors (such as food security, healthcare, education and employment).

In broader terms, the envisioning of a world without slums begins with questioning many of the assumptions that drive international development: that migration to cities is an inevitable and unstoppable process, that small-scale and peasant agriculture in rural areas is inefficient and a thing of the past, that the Western model of industrial development and free-market capitalism is the only possible route to progress. While newspaper articles in recent years have repeatedly quoted the UN’s statistics about half of the world becoming urban, this doesn’t negate the hardships endured by the remaining population who are still rural-based – particularly in Africa and Asia where rural inhabitants are a majority.[v] There are still around 500 million small farms in developing countries, supporting almost 2 billion people – one third of humanity, most of whom are struggling to live and feed their families on less than US$2 a day.[vi] For these people, the push-factors for rural-urban migration are driven by a number of formidable forces that lead to poverty and unemployment, including the deteriorating productivity of the land, the cost of industrial inputs, declining prices for commodities produced for sale on the market, and the enclosure of agricultural land for airports, highways, resorts, or for development projects such as big damns.[vii] The crisis in the agricultural sector continues to cause the disappearance and massive displacement of peasants and indigenous people.[viii] As organisations and social movements from Asia and Africa stated in discussions for ‘The World Charter on the Right to the City’ in 2004/5, the “absence of policies of agrarian reform and support for family agriculture, and the lack of access to essential natural resources such as water and technology, has been a contributory reason for the constant migration to the cities”.[ix] To deal with the causes and not the effects of poverty in the South, and to reverse the trend of increasing slum growth in cities, inevitably requires new strategies to be envisioned that focus on rural development for smallholder farmers based on agro-ecological farming methods.[x] If policymakers are to take sustainable development and poverty eradication seriously in the future, a basic question will concern - as Mohandas Gandhi famously campaigned for 80 years ago in the context of India - the renaissance of farming and village life and the re-peasantisation of rural areas. This is not to de-emphasise the importance for governments and international agencies to prioritise securing the basic needs of informal communities and the poor in towns and cities, but to question more widely the exported-oriented model of industrial agriculture that has led to the destruction of local food systems and livelihoods across the developing world.[xi]

Transforming the global economy

The more fundamental reasons for why poor groups in low-income countries lack access to adequate housing and basic services is about the explicitly political questions of a governments’ orientation on broader social and economic issues, and the unequal distribution of resources between the richest and poorest nations. In the widest sense, a world without slums and poverty cannot be imagined without a transformation of our existing political, economic and social structures. This is to recognise that development is not synonymous with economic growth, and a higher standard of living in material terms is not the only yardstick of human progress. A new development paradigm must be based on a more moderate use of the world’s resources, and the recognition that the earth’s products must be shared more equitably between nations. For rich countries this requires accepting the need for simpler lifestyles and a reduction in overall consumption at the national level, which logically follows from a more holistic vision of man’s relationship to the environment and a growing rejection of the work/consume treadmill. All this depends on evolving development strategies that incorporate moral, ethical and spiritual values, and that promote cooperative and non-economic relationships between public, private and social players – as opposed to the market-driven culture of today that places material acquisition and maximum profit at the centre of development.

Meanwhile, the daily struggle for survival continues for a major proportion of the world’s population. So long as current trends continue, summed up by intense international competitiveness and the increasing centralisation of power and wealth through a globalised marketplace, the organised resistance of the urban poor remains critical. The response of many academics and development practioners is to rightly advocate for more community empowerment, participation, autonomy and devolution of control, but immense forces of state and market power are still arrayed against slum-dweller and civil society groups - forces that perpetuate an unjust global system which is rooted in the disempowerment of the urban poor, the dispossession of rural livelihoods, and growing extremes of inequality. The hope is not for the poor to rise up in revolution and reclaim their right to the city through violent social protest, a prospect that has long been deemed unlikely in light of the political conservatism that defines most of urban life, and the simple fact that squatters and the urban poor – despite their potential to outnumber police and paralyse such cities as Mumbai where they make up half the population – are largely characterised by a law-abiding quiescence that has yet to organise into a viable social movement or alternative political force.[xii]

Yet signs of hope are found in the myriad experiments and new movements of recent years based on collective forms of democratic governance and communal decision-making, including participatory budgeting in Brazil,[xiii] the Agenda 21 ideals of sustainable cities undertaken by many municipalities, the formation of neighbourhood committees and voluntary associations, and not least the urban poor federations that have emerged from grassroots savings groups since the 1990s. Many of these inspiring examples highlight the social solidarities that already exist and underpin urban life, and the potential for rapid improvements when poor communities are included in development processes. Whether these movements and innovations can be scaled up to form a viable alternative to the current development paradigm, accompanied by reformed economic and political structures that can rapidly secure basic human needs in all nations, is a question that will determine the social stability and international security of the coming century. The hope not only rests with the mobilisation of sufficient power through political organisation in the South, but also with the willingness of those in affluent societies to join voices with the poor, to sense the urgency for justice and participation, and to strengthen the global movement for a fairer distribution of the world’s resources.


[i] see ‘World Charter on the Right to the City’, elaborated at the Social Forum of the Americas (Quito, Ecuador – July 2004) and at the World Urban Forum (Barcelona, Spain – September 2004).

[ii] see Squatter Citizen, pp. 270-274.

[iii] For example, see World Bank, Housing: Enabling Markets to Work, A World Bank Policy Paper, Washington DC, 1993; see also Vinit Mukhija, ‘Enabling Slum Redevelopment in Mumbai: Policy Paradox in Practice’, Housing Studies, 18(4): 213-222, 2001.

[iv] see G. Gran, Development by People: Citizen Construction of a Just World, Praeger, New York, 1983; David Korten, Getting to the 21st Century, op cit; Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1990.

[v] UN-HABITAT, ‘Declaration on Cities and Other Human Settlements in the New Millennium’, General Assembly: Special Session for an Overall Review & Appraisal of the Implementation of the Habitat Agenda, New York, 6-8 June 2001.

[vi] The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), ‘Food prices: smallholder farmers can be part of the solution’, undated, www.ifad.org/operations/food/farmer.htm

[vii] Jeremy Seabrook, Cities, Oxfam GB publication, Pluto Press, 2007.

[viii] La Via Campesina, ‘Declaration of Rights of Peasants ‐ Women and Men’, June 2008, http://viacampesina.org/en/

[ix] Leticia Marques Osorio, The World Charter on the Right to the City, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, Paris, 2005.

[x] see Agriculture at a Crossroads - Global Report, International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), April 2008.

[xi] For example, see GRAIN, ‘Global agribusiness: Two Decades of Plunder’, Seedling Magazine, July 2010, www.grain.org/seedling

[xii] Most researchers have found that urban protests in the developing world were against specific actions or policies, such as the IMF riots that broke out during the 1980s, and have not constituted a ‘social movement’ that posed a significant political challenge or sought any radical forms of change. See Alan Gilbert, The Latin American City, Latin American Bureau, London, 1990; also T. Evers, ‘Identity: The Hidden Side of New Social Movements in Latin America’, in D. Slater (ed.), New Social Movements and the State in Latin America, Foris Publications, Amsterdam, pp. 43-71; also Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots, Edward Arnold, London, 1983.

[xiii] see Hilary Wainwright, Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy, Seagull, 2009.

Further resources:

Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack Dwellers Movement, South Africa): www.abahlali.org

Amnesty International ‘Demand Dignity’ campaign: www.amnesty.org/en/campaigns/demand-dignity/issues/slums

Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, Thailand (ACHR): www.achr.net

Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE): www.cohre.org

Community Organisation Resource Centre, South Africa (CORC): www.corc.co.za

International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED): www.iied.org/human-settlements

Landless Workers Movement, Brazil: www.mstbrazil.org

La Via Campesina (International Peasant Movement): http://viacampesina.org/en/

Megaslumming microsite, Share The World’s Resources: www.stwr.org/megaslumming

People-Centred Development Forum: http://www.pcdf.org

Practical Action: http://practicalaction.org/shelter

The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, India (SPARC): www.sparcindia.org

UN-HABITAT (United Nations Human Settlements Programme): www.unhabitat.org

Link to full report [pdf]: The Seven Myths of 'Slums' - Challenging Popular Prejudices About the World's Urban Poor

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