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The seven myths of ‘slums’ - myth 1: there are too many people

Adam Parsons
08 December 2010

“Poor peasants and artisans have existed from time immemorial;
but miserable
and destitute villagers in their thousands and
urban pavement dwellers in their hundreds of thousands - 

not in wartime or as an aftermath of war, but in the midst of
peace and as a seemingly 
permanent feature – that is a
monstrous and scandalous thing which is altogether abnormal 

in the history of mankind. We cannot be satisfied with
the snap answer that this is due to 
population pressure.”[i]


Since Thomas Malthus first warned of an impending population explosion in 1798, the idea that there are too many people in the world for everyone to share in the earth’s bounty is one of the most persistent and widespread myths in popular thinking on development. When applied to the problem of informal housing and slums in developing countries, the implications are clear: that there are too many people sharing the land, and too many people migrating from rural to urban areas for governments to contend with the strain on housing, infrastructure and job provision. It is easy to agree with such a viewpoint when contemplating the foreboding statistics from the United Nations. At the beginning of the century it was estimated that 170,000 people were moving to cities on a daily basis, and they required about 30,000 new housing units per day.[ii] As the latest figures from the UN’s State of the World’s Cities report suggest, the world slum population will probably grow by six million people each year unless drastic action is taken (equivalent to more than 115,000 people moving into a slum somewhere in Africa, Asia or Latin America each week, or more than 11 people each minute).[iii]

In the face of such dramatic figures, it is perhaps understandable if politicians and more privileged citizens perceive that city authorities across the developing world simply lack the resources to provide such vast numbers of the immigrant poor with adequate housing; that governments lack the needed financial resources and capacity to provide basic infrastructure and services to the immigrant poor on such a scale; and that the existence of slums is an inevitable consequence of a mushrooming and increasingly mobile human population. But is it really true that governments are unable to provide adequate housing and public services for all residents in rapidly growing cities, or that population growth and overcrowding is the source of the problem of slums? Chelsea in London (UK), after all, is one of the highest-density urban concentrations in the world, yet it is a much sought after and exclusive district - at the density of Chelsea, you could fit the entire world into the area covered by Senegal.[iv] There are also many examples of Western cities that grew at comparable rates to the developing world’s fast-growing cities, but without comparable rates of poverty, malnutrition and disease (such as Los Angeles in contrast to Calcutta since 1900, or Tokyo in contrast to Mexico City).[v]

The basic reason why shacks or houses are built on illegally occupied land in many low- and middle-income nations is straight forward; there is a gap between the cost of the cheapest ‘legal’ accommodation and what large sections of the population can afford. Formal urban land markets are too expensive for most of the immigrant poor, while government regulations that influence the provision of land and its cost largely fail to account for the needs of newcomers to the city. The inevitable result is a high proportion of the population living in overcrowded tenements and informal settlements, most of which provide very poor quality housing on land sites that are occupied or built on illegally.[vi] It may be tempting to view the sheer volume of poor urban migrants as ‘the problem’, but the real problem is the failure of urban governments to ensure there is sufficient land for new housing with infrastructure and services to support low-income residents. In other words, the manifest and pervasive urban squalor in many cities of the South is by no means an inevitable consequence of having too many people, but the outcome of outdated institutional structures, inappropriate legal systems, incompetent national and local governance, and short-sighted urban development policies.[vii] The existence of slums is essentially the manifestation of a greater and fundamentally political problem of unequal land supply, discriminatory resource allocation and usage, and the age-old questions of social equity and distributive justice.

Policy choices, not population growth

To understand the deeper causes of rapid rural-urban migration and slum growth in cites of the South, it is necessary to examine the economic policies that have driven the process of development in recent decades. Although changes in the development policy paradigm are not uniform for all countries in the developing world, the impact of neoliberal economic reforms have contributed in large measure to increases in poverty and inequality since the late 1970s. Much has been said and written about the now-discredited Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) that were led by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank from the mid-1980s throughout the developing world. Most of the countries who committed to restructuring their economies were heavily indebted and reeling under the impact of soaring oil prices, and thereby susceptible to receiving further loans on condition of implementing adjustment reforms. These policy lending ‘conditionalities’ - summarised by state withdrawal, free market expansion and privatisation of public services - had a devastating impact on the poorest members of society in both the rural and urban sectors of recipient countries.

In rural areas, the agrarian welfare state that functioned in many poorer countries in the post-war period until the mid-1970s was effectively dismantled under adjustment policies that necessitated the deregulating of land markets, the drastic cutting of farm subsidies and price supports, and a shift to export-oriented agriculture. As a result, subsistence-level small farmers were forced to compete with (heavily subsidised) transnational food corporations from the industrialised Northern countries. In the formerly protected home markets, millions of small producers were rendered redundant and either dispossessed or displaced, leading to a structural shift of people from rural to urban places of residence through migration, and a “reserve army of migrant labour”.[viii] The phrase often used to describe this process of upheaval in rural areas of the South throughout the 1980s and 1990s is ‘de-peasantisation’. SAPs and economic liberalisation policies represented the convergence of the worldwide forces of de-agrarianisation and national policies promoting the consolidation of small holdings into larger industrial-scale agribusiness.[ix]

In urban centres, most notoriously in many African and Latin American countries, the consequences of economic restructuring was similarly catastrophic for millions of people in the urban lower- and middle-classes. Structural adjustment enforced such measures as reduced government expenditure through substantial public-sector redundancies and freezing salaries; the privatisation of state-run industries leading to massive lay-offs without social security; removal of price controls leading to sudden price rises for basic goods and services; the introduction of ‘user fees’ for public services such as health and education; and raised interest rates to tackle inflation which hastened the closure of many small local businesses.[x] Many cities became trapped in a vicious cycle of increasing rural-urban migration, the collapse of formal urban employment and falling wages, and an undeveloped manufacturing sector that was unable to provide sufficient jobs for those displaced from the traditional agriculture sector. At the same time as structural adjustment forced millions of people out of the countryside, infrastructure spending and public sector jobs were significantly eliminated in the cities. In effect, the cities became a dumping ground for a surplus rural population with limited skills, scant education, and little hope of attaining employment in the formal sector. This was the basic recipe for a dramatic rise in inequality and urban poverty, a burgeoning informal sector of employment, and the dramatic growth of urban slums throughout the developing world from the 1980s onwards.[xi]

It is only in this context of the neoliberal agenda that the problem of governance can be fully appreciated. In 2003, the United Nations’ Challenge of Slums report – the first truly global audit of urban poverty – gave an almost damning indictment of the role that neoliberal policies played on the expansion of urban slums in the developing world. In a pivotal chapter entitled Cities and Slums Within Globalizing Economies, the Report states: “The main single cause of increases in poverty and inequality during the 1980s and 1990s was the retreat of the state. The redirection of income through progressive taxation and social safety nets came to be severely threatened by the ascendancy of neoliberal economic doctrines that explicitly ‘demanded’ an increase in inequality.”[xii] Despite its diplomatic and erudite phrasing, the essential message of the Challenge of Slums was explicitly clear: that appropriate government intervention on a national and international level is fundamental to the management of sustainable and equitable cities. The root of the problem of social exclusion and urban poverty, says the Report, was the “abandonment of the redistributive agenda” following almost 50 years of government intervention and wealth distribution in the Keynsian period. According to neoliberal ideology, markets were somehow regarded as being capable of delivering prosperity for all, and “the major problem was regarded as governments who were sapping the ability of the people to generate wealth.”[xiii]

While the World Bank continues to identify the remedy to urban social problems as ‘good governance’ – demanding the transparency of public sector institutions, political decentralisation, legal reform and anti-corruption measures – the neoliberal agenda has placed intolerable constraints on national governments to deal effectively with urban poverty. Crippled by debt, forced to prioritise loan repayments over basic services such as healthcare, and held in thrall to the ‘Washington Consensus’ diktats that demanded a withdrawal of government from almost every sphere of public life, it has been impossible for initiatives by the state, international agencies, donors or NGOs to keep pace with the rate of urban slum formation since the 1980s. The promotion of decentralisation by the World Bank and IMF has led to greater responsibilities for local administrations, but without the power or resources to carry out these duties successfully.[xiv] Under these constraints, national governments cannot control the land market for housing, or afford the infrastructural investment and services required in rapidly expanding cities. As the Challenge of Slums testified, there is no effective alternative to intervention by the instruments of local, national or international governance.

The failure of governments

Although it cannot be said that neoliberal globalisation is the main cause of slum growth everywhere throughout the developing world,[xv] the development policy paradigm promoted by the IMF, World Bank and most major powers since the late 1970s is a foremost reason for the ongoing deluge in urban poverty and the ‘big bang’ in slum formation. The resurgence of a non-interventionist ideology has weakened the role of national governments, and de-prioritised the importance of an activist state in planning for the equitable distribution of resources in cities. This prevailing model of development has also spawned projects and policies that have destroyed the livelihoods of millions of small farmers in rural areas, diverted resources to export production that might otherwise be used by the poor to produce for their own needs, and created the structural conditions for mass migration into many cities of the South.

It is not simply the occurrence of rural-urban migration that is the source of the problem, nor is it simply the manifestation of a population explosion within cities or demographic change, but rather the failure of governments to implement the necessary redistributive policies to provide low-income residents with sufficient land, infrastructure, services and support for new housing. For the many countries that committed to structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s and 1990s, reduced government expenditure and massive public sector redundancies further limited the possibility of low-income residents securing adequate employment in the formal sector. Today, this same ideology continues to legitimise policies that deprive persons in need of essential public services. If the governments of developing countries wish to access loans and grants with which to sustain their economies, they are given little option but to agree to pro-market policy prescriptions (such as reducing agricultural trade barriers, privatising housing and the supply of essential services, and spending less on social support).[xvi] In its simplest form, the existence of slums and urban poverty is a result of the failure of policy at all levels – global, national and local – and the adoption of an international development paradigm that fails to prioritise the basic needs of the urban and rural poor.

The challenge of slums is ultimately determined by the recognition of a mass injustice. We are led to wonder at the morality of a world that denies people employment in a homeplace that may have sustained their ancestors for millennia, and then denies them a home or a life of dignity in areas where they go in search of a new livelihood. The excluded poor are constantly left to fend for themselves in the interstices of the urban fabric, without any planned locations to populate, or economic resources to buy or rent their way into the formal housing market. Forced to construct primitive settlements upon marginal lands at the urban periphery, or on steep hillsides, along railways and riversides, or on other dangerous areas not suitable for development, the residents of ‘slums’ are often caught in a limbo existence that is neither strictly urban nor rural. With no security of employment for the unskilled rural migrant, and with no access to adequate housing or security of tenure in illegal settlements, the residents of slums are easy targets for exploitation in the economic and social order of the city system.


[i] E.F. Schumacher, ‘Roots of Economic Growth’, Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi, India, p. 38.

[ii] cf. Luigi Fusco Girard, ‘Introduction’, in Luigi Fusco Girard et al (eds), The human sustainable city: challenges and perspectives from the habitat agenda, Ashgate Publishing, 2003, p. 4.

[iii] UN-HABITAT states that 22 million people in developing countries moved out of slum conditions each year between 2000 and 2010, but 55 million new slum-dwellers were added to the global urban population since 2000. Short of drastic action, the world slum population is expected to grow by six million people each year. These statistics are significantly downward-revised from previous estimates, as discussed in Myth 7. See UN-HABITAT, State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011: Bridging The Urban Divide, Earthscan, Nairobi, March 2010.

[iv] Personal communication from David Satterthwaite to Jeremy Seabrook, in J. Seabrook, In the Cities of the South: Scenes from a Developing World, Verso, 1996, p. 10.

[v] Jorge E. Hardoy and David Satterthwaite, Squatter Citizen: Life in the Urban Third World, Earthscan, 1989, p. 53.

[vi] ‘Getting land for housing; what strategies work for low-income groups?’, Environment and Urbanization - Brief 19, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), October 2009.

[vii] see Squatter Citizen, chapter one. See also Cecilia Tacoli et al, ‘Urbanization, Poverty and Inequity: Is Rural-Urban Migration a Poverty Problem, or Part of the Solution?’, in George Martine et al (eds)., The New Global Frontier: Urbanization, Poverty and Environment in the 21st Century, IIED, UNFPA and Earthscan Publishing, 2008.

[viii] Farshad Araghi, ‘Peasants and the Agrarian Question’, in Fred Magdoff et al (eds), Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2000.

[ix] Deborah Bryceson, ‘Disappearing Peasantries? Rural Labour Redundancy in the Neoliberal Era and Beyond’, in Deborah Bryceson et al, Disappearing Peasantries?Rural Labour in Latin America, Asia and Africa, Practical Action, 2000, pp. 304-5.

[x] Frances Stewart, Adjustment and Poverty: Options and Choices, Routledge, New York, 1995.

[xi] Walden Bello et al, Dark Victory: The United States, Structural Adjustment and Global Poverty, Pluto Press, 1998; see also www.whirledbank.org

[xii] UN-HABITAT, Global Report on Human Settlements 2003: The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London, chapter 3, p. 45.

[xiii] ibid, p. 43.

[xiv] For example, see Richard Peet, Unholy Trinity: The IMF, World Bank and WTO, Zed Books, 2009, chapter 4.

[xv] Myanmar is a notable exception in the case of neoliberalism, while Venezuala is a noted exception in the case of structural adjustment programmes across Latin America. See Alan Gilbert, ‘Extreme Thinking About Slums and Slum Dweller: A Critique’, SAIS Review vol. XXIX no. 1 (Winter-Spring 2009), pp. 37-38.

[xvi] According to the European Network on Debt and Development, both the World Bank and the IMF are still making heavy use of economic policy conditionality, especially in sensitive areas such as privatisation and liberalisation. For example, see EURODAD, Untying the Knots: How the World Bank is Failing to Deliver Real Changes on Conditionality, 2007; and Nuria Molina and Javier Pereira, Critical Conditions: The IMF Maintains its Grip on Low-Income Governments, April 2008, www.eurodad.org

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

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