Global Policy Forum

Slums Are the Heartbeat of Cities


By Rasna Warah

East African
October 6, 2003

If you think Africa's problems are mainly rural, think again. According to the latest UN-Habitat publication, sub-Saharan Africa hosts the largest proportion – 71.9 per cent – of urban population resident in slums. In terms of sheer numbers, Africa also has the second largest number of slum dwellers in the world (187 million or 20 per cent of the world's total) after Asia, which in 2001 hosted a total of 554 million slum dwellers (about 60 per cent of the world's total slum population). Latin America and the Caribbean, despite being one of the most urbanised regions in the world, was in third place with 128 million slum dwellers. Europe and the rest of the developed world are host to some 54 million slum dwellers, or 6 per cent of the world's total. Globally, UN-Habitat estimates that in 924 million people, or 31.6 per cent of the world's total urban population, lived in slums in 2001. In the next 30 years, this figure is projected to double to almost 2 billion, unless substantial policy changes are put in place to significantly alter this projection.

And what exactly is a slum? UN-Habitat attempts a definition of a slum household as "a group of individuals living under the same roof that lack one or more of the following conditions: access to safe water; sanitation; secure tenure; durability of housing; and sufficient living area."

The UN-Habitat report, entitled The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003 shows that slum life often entails enduring some of the most intolerable housing conditions, frequently including sharing toilets with hundreds of people, living in overcrowded and insecure neighbourhoods, and constantly facing the threat of eviction. Slum dwellers are also more likely to contract waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid, as well as the opportunistic ones that accompany HIV/Aids. Slum life, therefore, places enormous social and psychological burdens on slum residents, which often lead to broken homes and social exclusion. Although the common perception is that slums are breeding grounds for crime, the report shows that, in fact, slum dwellers are more often victims than perpetrators of crime.

While slums in any city are not a desirably policy objective, the report also shows that the existence of slums in many cities can have unintended benefits. For instance, slums are often the first stopping point for rural-to-urban migrants because they provide affordable housing that enables the new migrants to save enough money for their eventual absorption into urban society. Slums also keep the wheels of many cities turning. The majority of slum dwellers earn their living in informal – but crucial – activities and therefore provide services that may not be so easily available through the formal sector. (Think of Mumbai or Nairobi without hawkers, domestic workers or roadside mechanics.) Many cities and industries would simply come to a halt without the labour provided by slum dwellers.

As Nairobi's art and music scene will attest, slums are also vibrant places where the mixing of different cultures often produces new forms of artistic impression. These unhealthy, crowded environments can sow the seeds of new cultural movements and levels of solidarity unknown among the middle and upper classes. However, as Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of UN-Habitat, states in the report's introduction, these few positive attributes do not in any way justify the continued existence of slums and should not be an excuse for the slow progress towards the goal of adequate shelter for all.

Mrs Tibaijuka admits that many past responses to the problem of slums have been based on the erroneous belief that provision of improved housing and related services (through slum upgrading) and physical eradication of slums will, on their own, solve the slum problem. Solutions based on this premise have failed to address the underlying causes why slums come into being of which poverty is the most significant. The report therefore emphasises that slum policies should more vigorously address the issue of the livelihoods of slum dwellers and the urban poor in general, thus going beyond traditional approaches that have tended to concentrate on improvement of housing, infrastructure and physical environmental conditions. This means enabling informal urban activities to flourish, linking low-income housing development to income generation, and ensuring easy access to jobs through pro-poor transport and low-income settlement location policies. (Have you, for instance, wondered why in a city like Nairobi, where the majority of the workforce walks to work, there are so few pavements?)

Although there is a growing recognition worldwide of the need to address the slum question, as manifested in the recent UN Millennium Declaration, which aims to significantly improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020, the report notes that there is still a general apathy and lack of political will among governments to implement policies aimed at improving the living conditions of slum dwellers. It is clear that slum formation is closely linked to economic cycles, trends in national income distribution and, in more recent years, to national economic development policies. For instance, the report blames the proliferation of slums in Africa on the blanket acceptance of World Bank and International Monetary Fund's Structural Adjustment policies in the 1980s by many governments. The failure of policy at all levels – global, national and local – had the net effect of weakening the capacity of national governments to improve housing and living conditions of low-income groups.

Lessons from several countries underscore the importance and fundamental role of sustained political will and commitment to improving or reducing slums. For instance, some countries in Latin America have implemented wholesale tenure regularisation programmes, which have significantly reduced the number of squatter households. South Africa's national housing programme may not be perfect, but it has reduced the number of informal settlements in the country's cities. The report also suggests that in situ slum upgrading is a far more effective solution to improving the lives of slum dwellers than resettlement. This message, however, appears to contradict what UN-Habitat itself is doing on the ground, illustrating a discrepancy between advocacy and implementation. A joint initiative by the government of Kenya and UN-Habitat signed this year proposes relocation of residents of the Soweto slum in Nairobi to Athi River, on the outskirts of the city. At a stakeholders' meeting organised by Kituo cha Sheria in Nairobi last month, slum dwellers came up with their own policy recommendations on the proposed scheme. In an 18-point policy paper, slum dwellers, including leaders of Muungano wa Wanavijiji (Federation of Slum Dwellers), called on UN-Habitat and the government not to displace or resettle slum residents unless it was absolutely necessary and to include slum residents and communities in all aspects of the slum upgrading process, from the planning to the implementation stages. The slum dwellers also asked the government to invest more in the provision of public housing in order to ensure that there was sufficient stock of housing affordable to low-income groups.

Interestingly, the slum dwellers did not place much emphasis on home ownership, rather they wanted the government to institute a rent-control system that would ensure that unscrupulous landlords do not exploit the poor. Slum dwellers also questioned the relocation of slum residents to the outskirts of the city, when it would make more sense to open up public land within the city for low-income settlement, thereby reducing congestion in the existing slums. Currently, 60 per cent of Nairobi's population lives in informal settlements, which occupy only 5 per cent of the residential land in the city. These recommendations are in line with research conducted by Kituo cha Sheria and other civil society organisations, which shows that while most governments place heavy emphasis on home ownership as a solution, the reality is that the majority of low-income households in cities are only able to afford rented housing. Research also points to the fact that even if decent housing is made available to the urban poor, most cannot afford to buy it. Therefore, indirect cost recovery and other subsidies have to be developed.




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