A slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by: gtorelly / CC BY

“The weak ‘n’ the strong ‘n’ the rich ‘n’ the poorGather together ain’t room for no more.Crowdin’ up above and crowded down belowWhen someone disappears you never even know.”- Bob Dylan

When the people’s prophet penned those lyrics in 1962, he probably had no idea just how accurate they would be 45 years later. It might be a displaced Darfuri bunking with his cousin in Khartoum, a baby born in Rio de Janeiro, or an immigrant renting an apartment in Mumbai. But someday in the coming months, such everyday occurrences will mark the reorientation of humanity from a predominantly rural to a mostly urban species.

And that’s just the beginning. The latest United Nations report on global population predicts nearly 5 billion urbanites by 2030, up from 3.3 billion, with the majority of the increase occurring among poor people in the developing world.

Many are unlikely to receive adequate aid. Assuming that city dwellers have a leg up, donor agencies and humanitarian organizations have long trained poverty alleviation efforts on rural areas.

“Most agencies have a rural bias,” acknowledged U.N.-Habitat’s Rasna Warah, author of the most recent State of the World’s Cities report, in a recent interview. “It’s assumed that citizens of cities will take care of themselves, that cities are islands of prosperity and therefore you don’t need to bother with city residents.”

There is some truth to this. Because of greater infrastructure funding, the integration of women into the workforce and greater foreign investment, urban per capita incomes are often considerably higher than rural areas in the developing world, according to U.N.-Habitat and a recent report from the International Institute for Environment and Development.

The problem is not urbanization per se, but the explosive growth of informal settlements. Estimates put today’s global slum dwellers at about 1 billion, with the United Nations predicting an additional 400 million by 2020. And inhabitants of these growing pockets of urban poverty face the greatest risk of water scarcity, disease, violence, illiteracy and malnutrition.

“Living in an overcrowded and unsanitary slum,” concludes Warah’s report, “is more life-threatening than living in a poor rural village.” These areas are “neglected by local authorities and the development agencies,” Warah added. “It’s a total blind spot.”

Further, the U.N. Population Fund argues that shelter is at “the core of urban poverty.”

Thus, we turn to that most desperate of urban dwellings, the slum, as it yearns for a turn in the aid and development spotlight.

Power to the people: Three cases

In the early 21st century, the zeitgeist of the slums is people power. Groups of informal settlement communities have been banding together – within cities, countries and internationally – to create federations able to wield social and political clout. Popping up in more than 20 countries and improving housing for millions over the past several years, these movements have quietly become the most potent and promising innovation for global slum improvement and eradication.

“The urban poor had been, at best, passive recipients and, at worst, completely absent from the planning and implementing of slum upgrading projects,” Warah said.

Planners have begun to realize that urban poor are “in the best position to advocate for their rights vis-à-vis local governments, and design and implement slum-upgrading schemes,” she added

Recent efforts in Thailand, Cambodia, and Mumbai, India, underscore this new direction, which, although promising, is no panacea.

Two steps forward in Phnom Penh

Ever since Cambodia’s first democratic election in 1993 and increasingly after the economic crisis and greater political stability post-1997, investment and development in Phnom Penh has risen sharply but also marginalized the urban poor. A 1997 study found that more than 20 percent of the city’s population – 172,000 people – lived in informal settlements, about two-thirds of whom were without toilets, water or permanent housing.

In 1998, the Cambodian government formed the Urban Poor Development Fund to provide loans for relocation and housing needs. But the urban improvement ball didn’t really start rolling until the City Development Strategy was announced in 2001.

A joint program between the local government, international nongovernmental organizations (U.N.-Habitat and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights) and the community (the Solidarity for Urban Poor Federation, local chiefs and the Urban Resource Center), the strategy employed an innovative approach from the outset, initiating a study from local communities and independent consultants before taking any decisions. Findings revealed that previous relocation efforts had failed because plans had not been taken with the people’s participation, the resettlement locations had not been wisely chosen, and expenses had not been adequately considered.

Ultimately, the report recommended relocation in only the rarest cases, instead advocating upgrading and redevelopment of existing slums and settlements. Studies of land availability, eviction practices and development possibilities followed, and when they were completed in May 2002, the results were analyzed and discussed in a series of large and inclusive workshops. Thus, the precedent had been set: This would be an initiative that would build relationships between different levels of society and administration, share knowledge, and employ cooperative methods to improve the living conditions of the poor.

By early 2003, several successful pilot projects had been implemented. When UPDF celebrated its 5th anniversary with a gala event that May, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a policy to provide secure land tenure and assist in upgrading 100 informal settlement communities each year until all the city’s poor communities had land tenure and full basic services.

Observers from both sides applauded the progress.

“This reflects a changing attitude,” Municipal Cabinet Chief Mann Chhoeurnn said at the event. “The position of poor people as important actors in solving the city’s housing problems is being increasingly accepted by various levels of the government.”

“In this process in Phnom Penh, poor people are the agents of change, they are the ones influencing the government and persuading it to support what people want,” Somsook Boonyabancha, founder of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, told reporters at the time. “Today’s announcement by the prime minister represents a totally new direction. There is a critical mass of the urban poor in place now in Phnom Penh.”

In the interim, there have been successes – such as a recent land-sharing settlement at a settlement called Borie Kiela – as well as failures.

In mid-2006, the Human Rights Watch reported the evictions of at least 6,000 Phnom Penh shack dwellers. And the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights recently reported that more than a hundred Phnom Penh families were forcibly evicted from their homes when government forces demolished their living structures. Media and monitoring groups were barred from the site, and the evicted were given 4-by-10-meter plots at Trapeang Anh Chanh, a flood-prone village on the outskirts of the city without running water, electricity, schools, health care or waste management systems.

Maximum unpredictability in Mumbai

A crowded, chaotic city in which terrible poverty abuts grand decadence, Mumbai may well be the perfect microcosm of the demands and the risks, the wonders and complexities of 21st century urban living. With about 8 million of 18 million residents living in informal settlements or on city streets, and several major redevelopment plans reaching into the billions of U.S. dollars, it is also a fine testing ground for contemporary resettlement techniques. (Note that in India, the states, not the national government, control housing and other infrastructure issues.)

First up is the Mumbai Urban Transport Project, a $945 million plan initiated in 2002 to upgrade and assist the densely populated city’s aging and decrepit transportation facilities. Backed by a $542 million loan from the World Bank, the project includes the relocation of 20,000 shacks and shanties along roads and railways and is scheduled for completion in 2008. All had gone as planned until an early 2006 World Bank analysis found that resettlement efforts fell below previously established World Bank resettlement standards. As a result, the bank suspended its financing that March. Only after state government officials altered the plans several months later, agreeing to resettle people inside the city, did the bank renew payments.

Next is the plight of the pavement dwellers. Across the city of Mumbai, tens of thousands of urban poor have lived on streets and sidewalks for decades, in fragile, temporary dwellings without basic services. In April 2006, these so-called pavement dwellers won a hard-fought housing battle when hundreds were given keys to their own homes. Two local grass-roots NGOs (the National Slum-Dwellers’ Initiative and Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers) and a women’s collective (Mahila Milan) pushed the government for more than 20 years, and achieved success in late 2004, when the state agreed to house all of the city’s nearly 100,000 pavement dwellers on government-purchased land over the next two years. The keys to new homes in suburban Mankhurd were that policy’s first fruit.

The most divisive effort has to do with developing Dharavi, Mumbai’s monster shantytown and home to a million residents, according to some estimates. Living conditions have improved in recent years: Residents have 24-hour electricity and running water for one hour every day; about 70 percent of the buildings are used for commercial purposes like banks and restaurants; and most inhabitants have a TV, a pressure cooker and a gas stove. But a controversial $2.5 billion Dharavi Redevelopment Plan looms.

Devised by local developer Mukesh Mehta in association with the state, the plan lays out plans for new hotels, offices, restaurants and a university. An October 2007 report in The Wall Street Journal’s India publication, The Mint, estimated the Dharavi project could bring nearly $2.6 billion into state government coffers because of rising real estate prices in Mumbai. Some 25 financiers and contractors from around the world have begun bidding for the prized waterfront parcel even as resettlement plans provide for an estimated half of Dharavi residents.

Jokin Arputham, president of the National Slum Dwellers’ Association, is among those battling the project.

“In Dharavi, it is a real estate scam,” Arputham, who has helped push through equitable projects in South Africa and Malawi as well as in India, told Frontline Magazine this past June. “It is pulling the same trick on the airport slums.”

Arputham referred to a fourth ongoing plan, to redevelop and expand the Mumbai airport, around which hundreds of thousands of locals have lived in ramshackle dwellings for more than 40 years. With India booming and Mumbai real estate becoming more valuable by the day, their 276 acres represent prime land. Residents were given notices of eviction last February, but with no resettlement site or any rehabilitation package, they are unlikely to budge soon.

“The problem is that the government has yet to identify the land and that is a huge task given the lack of land availability in Mumbai,” said a spokesman of the Mumbai International Airport Limited, the consortium slated to develop the parcel.

In October 2007, the relocation effort was awarded to a private developer, which expected the process of relocating some 85,000 households to as yet unidentified land to take up to four years.

Back at Dharavi, the government recently halted the bidding process and backed off its ambitious redevelopment plan, likely in response to residents’ furor. In November, International Institute for Environment and Development Senior Fellow David Satterthwaite said the government was exploring ways to develop Dharavi in cooperation with residents’ organizations as well as developers and NGOs.

“Hopefully, a good compromise between the inhabitants’ needs and the needed improvement in conditions in Dharavi will be arrived at,” Satterthwiate said.

And after the short-lived funding hiccup of mid-2006, the Mumbai Urban Transport Project has shown considerable progress as well. As of August 2007, nearly 17,000 households have been relocated into their own proper homes with running water, indoor toilets and electricity. Real incomes have increased for many along with personal security, according to a World Bank review.

In November 2007,  World Bank President Robert Zoellick visited one of the new resettlement sites and pronounced himself pleased.

“It is a fine accomplishment to have been able to move ahead with critical transport infrastructure in a way that takes care of people who have very little,” he told reporters.

Thailand cares about secure housing

In 2000, Thailand’s mostly ineffective Urban Community Development Office merged with another agency to form the Community Organizations Development Institute, a funding and networking arm for poor communities. Three years later, government efforts to improve informal settlements still lacked organization and scale, and 5,500 low-income communities housing 8.25 million inhabitants in 300 cities remained.

Then, the Thai government announced two new programs for the urban poor: Baan Mankong (“secure housing”) and Baan Us Arthorn (“we care”). The first provided subsidies and loans to help poor communities improve their housing environments, while the second constructed and sold subsidized flats and houses for lower-income households.

From the beginning, Thailand’s national slum initiative was grandly ambitious. In a 2005 review of Baan Mankong, Boonyabancha, one of its designers, said the plan reconceived “how to achieve large-scale impacts by supporting local community-driven processes in each urban center, which, when added together, achieve city and national scale.” Now in its fourth year, upgrading efforts are either finished or under way in 949 poor communities in 226 cities and involving some 53,000 households, according to CODI.

A closer look

The variety of slum upgrading and resettlement efforts are legions, as are the degrees of their success. That is why experts from the World Bank, U.N.-Habitat and the International Institute for Environment and Development have in recent years arrived at a general consensus about what’s required for effective slum improvement or resettlement: broad-based and sustained urban planning initiatives that respect and incorporate the views of the local poor; public-private sector partnerships; improvements that include, at a minimum, land tenure and basic services; and, if possible, dispassionate international assistance.

That last point is exemplified by the World Bank’s conditional funding of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project. Making donor money conditional on equitable implementation could go a long way toward more effective projects.

But despite the progress, inequitable policies are not uncommon. South African government efforts to evict thousands of residents from a township just outside Cape Town in September 2006 were met with violent resistance. And just over a year later, some 20,000 residents still faced eviction as a result of a multimillion-dollar government-backed housing project.

The Cape Town scheme is not dissimilar to ongoing efforts in Durban and World Bank-supported evictions in Lagos, Nigeria. In late 2007, the Philippine government, too, vowed to eliminate all squatter communities in three years’ time, threatening forcible removal for any that didn’t comply.

“I hope these evictions will slow, but the power of the vested interests within government and land owners is difficult to control,” said Satterthwaite, pointing to Slum Dwellers International and local federations of the poor as key to stopping forcible removals.

The ups and downs of the Phnom Penh and Mumbai efforts also underscore the need to remain vigilant and pragmatic.

“Social and political forces supported by better information and improved communication,” said the State of World Population 2007, “will have to come into play to denounce deceitful and ruthless maneuvers that can stand in the way of improvement in the lives of the poor.”

Long a motivating factor in the creation of cities, greed will continue to play a part in urban development, making the abusive practices of developers and officials a constant challenge.

As for Thailand, the latest Baan Mankong data represent about half of the original five-year goals, still a significant accomplishment. Boonyabancha highlighted the project’s breadth.

“Working on a city-wide scale suddenly makes apparent the differences between all the slums within the same constituency,” she wrote in her study for the journal Environment and Urbanization. “If the process is managed properly, suddenly all of these differences become a kind of university, where people learn about their own city.”

More importantly, the Thai initiatives were designed and approved by the poor themselves, with government subsidies and loans given directly to poor communities that then plan and implement housing and services improvements of their choosing. Many see this empowerment as integral to the plan’s success; Boonyabancha has called it “a new politics of slum upgrading.”

“This direction is only possible because people have done the groundwork first,” she added.

Attracting the heavy hitters

With the urban poor doing their part, two prominent urban development experts put the onus on local and national governments.

“Underneath almost all aspects of urban development and poverty reduction are issues of governance,” Warah said in U.N. News Center repor.

She pointed to health care, education and basic services, and advocated stronger and more integrated governmental intervention.

Satterthwaite saw encouraging signs.

“City and municipal governments are the key,” he said. “But national reforms that strengthen local government capacity and accountability to their citizens helps, and some national governments have moved a long way to improving this.”

Satterthwaite pointed to government-slum dweller partnerships in Brazil, Tunisia, Thailand, South Africa, Malawi, India and the Philippines, noting that most projects had been created from the bottom up by communities of urban poor. He wondered whether policymakers, donors and NGOs could reorient their efforts to foster and nurture cooperative projects between governments and urban poor communities.

“The only international agencies likely to have influence on national and city governments are those with serious funding that these governments want or need – and this means relatively few such agencies,” said Satterthwaite. “The real problem is that the large official aid agencies and development banks are not very good at working direct with the urban poor and have not paid much attention to supporting the needed increase in competence and capacity among city and municipal governments; many official aid agencies have no urban policy at all, and most have structures ill equipped to support the kinds of pro-poor urban reforms that are needed.”

NGOs such as Habitat for Humanity, Misereor and Cordaid have committed to building and improving low-income urban shelters. Most find the work difficult but rewarding.

“It is more difficult to integrate things in urban areas because it is an impenetrable environment,” Helena Gayle, director of CARE International, which has been working in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, said in a recent interview. “Urban areas are dense; they are complicated. It is not so much that the actual substance of the programs will change—for instance we do village savings and loans but in urban settings they are called group savings and loans—but you just have a lot more complex networks to work with.”

Gayle also saw another problem.

“We are somewhat driven by who is actually providing resources for work in this area, and we feel like there aren’t enough donors who recognize the need to look at urban poverty as a high priority,” she said.

This is not news. In a 2003 journal article, M. Vitor Serra, lead World Bank urban specialist, urged greater donor involvement in urban housing and land markets. He also recommended the following: learning from and incorporating the perspectives of the poor; scaling projects at the national level while devolving responsibility to local governments; and fostering private partnerships.

About a century ago, Jacob Riis, the muckraking journalist and champion of the poor, wrote that “the slum is the measure of civilization.” One wonders when we will learn.

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About the author

  • David Lepeska

    David has served as U.N. correspondent for the newswire UPI and reported for several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Newsday. He was chief correspondent for the Kashmir Observer in Srinagar, India, and regularly contributes to the Economist, among other publications. Since 2007, David has reported for Devex News from Washington, New York, as well as South Asia.