Seven Myths of Slums – Challenging Popular Prejudices About Urban Poverty

New report – Article published on STWR (download the report by clicking on their internal link), 9th December 2010, download the report, 39 pdf pages.

… For anyone who takes an interest in the problem of slums, a few basic facts will soon become clear. Firstly, the locus of global poverty is moving from rural areas to the cities, and more than half the world population now lives in urban areas for the first time in human history. Secondly, most of the world’s urban population, most of its largest cities and most of its urban poverty is now located in Africa, Asia and Latin America – the so-called developing world. Thirdly, the growth in slums since the 1980s is both formidable and unprecedented (even though urban slums have existed in Europe since the Industrial Revolution), and the number of slum-dwellers worldwide is expected to continually increase in the decades ahead … //

… Myth 5: The free market can end slums:  

Many proponents of economic globalisation maintain a rigid faith in the power of market forces to end slums. Get the inefficient government out of the way, remains the assumption, and the beneficent power of the market mechanism and private capital will act as the levers of economic growth and widespread affluence. But after several decades of relying on the market as a cure-all for the ills of the twenty-first century, the increasing number of urban residents living in slums is  sufficient evidence that the ‘growth-first’ strategy for development isn’t sustainable. Employing market forces as the arbiter of resource distribution is socially exclusive, not inclusive, and it does not function when there is a need to produce certain types of goods or services such as housing for the poor or welfare services for low-income groups. The deregulation and privatisation of public services also serves to directly undermine social welfare provision, and further compromises the ability of public agencies to meet the needs of those who cannot afford the market price for housing, healthcare, education and sanitation. In short, the efficiency-oriented, growth-led and internationally competitive strategies of the ‘world class city’ have failed to combat the problem of slums, and are more likely to exacerbate urban poverty than act as a solution in the future.

Myth 6: International aid is the answer

There may be more aid projects for improving the living conditions of the urban poor than ever before, but the current system of donor assistance has clearly failed to stem the tide of growing slum formation. The first problem is simply one of scale; urban poverty reduction is one of the lowest priorities for aid donations from most multilateral agencies and wealthy countries. A greater problem is the difference between the kind of assistance that is needed to ameliorate slums and the forms of action that are currently provided by international aid institutions. In particular, most official development assistance agencies have failed to develop relationships with slum residents and their representative organisations, and rarely assign any role to urban poor groups in the design and implementation of aid programmes. The priorities of aid agencies and development banks are also unlikely to favour the kind of redistributive policies that are central for giving the poor local control over the housing process. Although additional financial resources are imperative for upgrading slums in developing countries, it is doubtful that aid can successfully address the crisis in urban housing unless there is a transformation of the goals and priorities of the major donor countries and the institutions that govern the global economy.

Myth 7: There will always be slums:

Few writers on urban development issues imagine a ‘world without slums’ in the future. In the polarised debates on urban poverty, both the ‘slums of hope’ and ‘slums of despair’ viewpoints tacitly accept the continued existence of slums. Part of the problem is one of semantics, as it is difficult to conceive of an end to ‘slums’ when the language used to describe them is limited and generalised. The UN’s Millennium Development Goal on slums – to “significantly improve the lives of 100 million slum-dwellers by 2020” – also implicitly accepts the existence of slums as an enduring reality, as achieving this (unacceptably low) target would hardly result in cities without slums. If urbanisation trends and cities are to become socially inclusive and sustainable, the development model that sustains them must be wholly reformed and reimagined. In the widest sense, a world without slums and urban poverty cannot be realised without a transformation of our existing political, economic and social structures. A first step lies in recognising the possibility of achieving a new vision of human progress based upon a fundamental reordering of global priorities – beginning with the immediate securing of universal basic needs. Only then can the twin goals enshrined in the Habitat Agenda of 1996 be translated into a concrete programme of action: “adequate shelter for all” and “sustainable human settlements development in an urbanising world”. 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 … (full text).

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