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Slums, however deadly and insecure, have a bright future

UN Habitat has just published its State of African Cities 2010: Governance, Inequality and Urban Land Market. Globally, the 21st century is and will continue to be an urban century, but especially so in the periphery. As the report states:

“In 2009 Africa’s total population for the first time exceeded one billion, of which 395 million (or almost 40 per cent) lived in urban areas. Whereas it took 27 years for the continent to double from 500 million to one billion people, the next 500 million will only take 17 years. Around 2027, Africa’s demographic growth will start to slow down and it will take 24 years to add the next 500 million, reaching the two billion mark around 2050, of which about 60 per cent living in cities. Africa should prepare for a total population increase of about 60 per cent between 2010 and 2050, with the urban population tripling to 1.23 billion during this period.

Strong demographic growth in a city is neither good nor bad on its own. Experience shows that across the world, urbanisation has been associated with improved human development, rising incomes and better living standards. However, these benefits do not come automatically; they require well-devised public policies that can steer demographic growth, turn urban accumulation of activities and resources into healthy economies, and ensure equitable distribution of wealth. When public policies are of benefit only for small political or economic elites, urbanisation will almost inevitably result in instability, as cities become unliveable for rich and poor alike.

Around 2030, Africa’s collective population will become 50 per cent urban. The majority of political constituencies will then live in cities, demanding means of subsistence, shelter and services. African governments should take early action to position themselves for predominantly urban populations. In the early 2040s, African cities will collectively be home to one billion, equivalent to the continent’s total population in 2009. Since cities are the future habitat for the majority of Africans, now is the time for spending on basic infrastructure, social services (health and education) and affordable housing, in the process stimulating urban economies and generating much- needed jobs. Deferring these investments to the 2040s simply will not do. Not a single African government can afford to ignore the ongoing rapid urban transition. Cities must become priority areas for public policies, with investment to build adequate governance capacities, equitable services delivery, affordable housing provision and better wealth distribution. If cities are to meet these needs, municipal finance must be strengthened with more fiscal freedom and own-source funding.”

This growth is dramatically illustrated by the following graph:

African Urban 2010

By cities:

African Urban Table 2010

These policy recommendations are all well and good but one has to wonder how developing countries are expected to fulfill them, especially those relating to massive public investments in infrastructure and human capital, considering the history of structural adjustment policies imposed by institutions of global governance upon these countries. The state of urban Africa has everything to do with what Mike Davis calls being “SAPed”.

As Mike Davis states in Planet of Slums:

“Slums, however deadly and secure, have a brilliant future. The countryside will for a short period still contain the majority of the world’s poor, but that dubious distinction will pass to urban slums no later than 2035. At least half of the coming Third World urban population explosion will be credited to the account of informal communities. Two billion slum-dwellers by 2030 or 2040 is a monstrous, almost incomprehensible prospect, but urban poverty overlaps and exceeds slum populations per se. Researchers with the UN Urban Observatory project warn that by 2020, “urban poverty in the world could reach 45 to 50 percent of the total population living the cities.” (151)

But as Davis demonstrates, this is not something that just happens. This is the culmination of 40 years of global development policy imposed by the IMF and the World Bank, and that has been a massive failure, practically everywhere it has been imposed. Rural peasant families do not move to already overcrowded cities, with uncertain prospects just because it looks fun. Part of the structural adjustment policies (SAPs) involved removal of subsidies, tariffs and price control / support on agricultural goods. As a result, peripheral peasants became unable to compete with heavily subsidized American and European agricultural goods. So, when they can no longer make a living, they more to urban areas.

At the same time, SAPs also required the shrinking of the public sector, lay off of workers, diminution of state capacities, and the privatization of the most basic services such as health care and education. So, these new urban dwellers faced a situation of unemployment and lack of basic services at a time where the people already there were facing downward mobility. As always, along with the losers (those who ended up in the food riots), there were winners at the SAPs games: privatizers, foreign importers, organized crimes, traffickers of all kinds, military and political elites.

And unsurprisingly, there is a gender aspect to this:

“As male formal employment opportunities disappeared, mothers, sisters, and wives were typically forced to bear far more than half the weight of urban structural adjustment. (…) As geographer Sylvia Chant emphasizes, poor urban women under SAPs had to work harder both inside and outside the home to compensate for cuts in social service expenditures and male incomes; simultaneously new or increased user fees further limited their access to education and healthcare. Somehow, they were expected to cope. Indeed, some researchers argue that SAPs cynically exploit the belief that women labor-power is almost infinitely elastic in the face of household survival needs. This is the guilty secret variable in most neoclassical equations of economic adjustment: poor women and their children are expected to lift the weight of the Third World debt upon their shoulders.” (158)

And so, women went to work in economic development zones, in the formal sector, in the informal sector, in the illegal sector, anywhere there was a little money to be made… and then, especially in Africa, the AIDS crisis started (poverty-imposed prostitution for poor women was a part of the story).  No wonder the 1980s was called the Lost Decade.

But in the current context, it looks like we’re all in for more shock therapy.

Note: This is an archived article by SocProf the author of this article