Global Policy Forum

The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003


By Rasna Warah

UN Human Settlements Programme

If you think that Africa's problems are mainly rural, think again. According to a UN-Habitat publication launched on World Habitat Day (6 October), sub-Saharan Africa hosts the largest proportion of the urban population residing in slums (71.9 per cent); 166 million out of a total urban population of 231 million are classified as slum dwellers. The region has the second largest slum population in the world after South-central Asia, which has 262 million making up 58 per cent of the total urban population in that region. UN-Habitat estimates that 924 million people worldwide, or 31.6 per cent of the global urban population, lived in slums in 2001. In the next thirty years, this figure is projected to double to almost 2 billion, unless substantial policy changes are put in place.

And what exactly is a slum? UN-HABITAT attempts at a definition by describing 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; access to sanitation; secure tenure; durability of housing; and sufficient living area".

The UN-Habitat report, "The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003", shows that slum life often entails enduring some of the most intolerable housing conditions, which frequently include 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 water-borne diseases, such as cholera and typhoid, as well as opportunistic ones that accompany HIV/AIDS. Slum life, therefore, places enormous social and psychological burdens on residents, which often leads to broken homes and social exclusion. Although the common perception is that slums are breeding grounds for crime, the report shows that slum dwellers, in fact, are more often victims than perpetrators of crime.

While slums in any city are not a desirable policy objective, the report shows that their existence in many cities can have unintended benefits. For instance, they are often the first stopping point for rural-to-urban migrants; they provide low-cost 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. Many cities and industries would simply come to a halt without the labour provided by these 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 expression. 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 Executive Director Anna Tibaijuka of UN-Habitat states, 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. She 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 will, on their own, solve the problem. Solutions based on this premise have failed to address the main underlying causes of slums, of which poverty is the most significant. The report therefore emphasizes that 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 urban informal 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.

Although there is growing recognition worldwide of the need to address the slum question, as manifested in the recent United Nations 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 their living conditions. 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. But policy failure at all levels—international, national and local—has 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 regularization 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 its cities.

The report also suggests that in-situ slum upgrading is a far more effective solution to improving the lives of slum dwellers than is resettlement. This message, however, appears to contradict what UN-Habitat itself is carrying out on the ground, illustrating a discrepancy between advocacy and implementation.A joint Kenya/ UN-Habitat initiative proposes to relocate residents of the Soweto slum in Nairobi to Athi River, on the outskirts of the city.

At a stakeholders' meeting organized by Kituo cha Sheria in Nairobi in August 2003, slum residents came up with their own policy recommendations on the proposed scheme and on Kenya's housing policy in general. 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 of Kenya, among other things, not to displace or resettle slum residents unless it was absolutely necessary, and to include them and their communities in all aspects of the upgrading process, from the planning to the implementation stages. The dwellers also asked the Government to invest more in the provision of public housing, in order to ensure that there is a sufficient stock of housing that is affordable to low-income groups. Interestingly, the slum dwellers did not place much emphasis on home ownership; rather, they want the Government to have a rent-control system that would ensure that unscrupulous landlords do not over-exploit the poor. They also questioned their relocation 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 slum areas. Currently, 60 per cent of Nairobi's population lives in informal settlements (slums), occupying 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 organizations, 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 housing of a rental nature. Research also points to the fact that even if decent housing is made available to the urban poor, most cannot afford to buy homes. Therefore, indirect cost recovery and other subsidies would have to be developed.

About the Author: Rasna Warah is a writer based in Nairobi, Kenya. She was until recently the editor-in-chief of Habitat Debate.

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