Helping slum dwellers to help themselves

  • 14/03/1993

Helping slum dwellers to help themselves AT LEAST 600 million of the 1.5 billion urban inhabitats in AsiaAfrica and Latin America live in squattersettlements on illegally occupied land or in housingdevelmopment schemes that never received municipalapproval. Their houses fail to meet government buildingstandards and their inhabitants are victims of overcrowdingpoor constructionlack of piped waterrudimentarysanitationinadequate drainage and uncollected garbage.

Butif 600 million city-dwellers are forced to contravene laws daily in their search for affordable shelterthere must be something wrong with the law and withthe attitude and actions of the government to slum housing.

The most remarkable aspect of illegal housing is thatthey house a large number of people at extremely lowcost and without any government funding. Without illegal housinghundreds of millions of people would behomeless in such metropolitan cities as DelhiManilaKarachiLagos and Buenos Aires. In most of these citiesthe only affordable option for modest-income householdswanting their own home is to build on land that is illegally occupied or illegally sub-divided. Legal sites areusually either too expensive or too far from their work-place.

Their building is a slowincremental process - oftenstarting with one room and then adding more - but it isthis process that is responsible for most new city housingin AsiaAfrica and Latin America. For people seeking torentthe cheapest alternativbs are boarding houses androoms in illegal settlements. Andthe only option for thevery poor is temporary shacks on open land or pavements or graveyards.
Vested interests Illegal housing flourishes because it is advantageous topowerful interests. It provides shelter for a majority ofthe working populationbut makes no demands on tax-payers or enterprises. Many businesses make money outof the illegal building process. Landowners make largeprofits from selling land in illegal sub-divisions becausethey can avoid the cost of providing roadsdrains andthe other requirements for legal land sub-divisions.Landlords can benefit from renting out rooms in illegalsettle 'mentsbecause there is neither rent control norchecks on the quality of the accommodation.

The hundreds of millions who have no option but to live in these settlementsface the uncertainty of never knowing when their houses will be bulldozed because they are "illegal". They cope with inadequate water supplysanitationdrainage and garbage disposal and have no legal recourse or access to government services that would entitle them to cheap food and schools for their children.

Many illegal settlements develop on unsuitable sites - land prone to flooding or landslides - because it is just these hazards that make the land unsuitable for commercial development. One of the most revealing indicators of conditions in illegal settlements is that in many of themone child in three dies before the age of 5compared to one child in 100 in the wealthy neighbourhoods of the same cities.

Most governments tolerate these illegal processes so long as they pose no threat to landowners and city plans. Twenty years agogovernments would not provide alternative accommodation or compensation for the inhabitants of a bulldozed inner city slum. This is less comon todaythough there are notable exceptions - the city "beautification" drive in Seoul before the 1988 Olympic Games destroyed hundreds of homes and the "smartening up" of the Dominican Republic before celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas.

Though mass eviction is less frequent nowcity authorities is still evict people from illegal settlements when the land is needed for public development work. Many governments now support "improvement" or "upgrading" programmes in illegal settlements. Countries such as India and Indonesia have been working on such programmes for more than 20 years and they have reached hundreds of thousands of households.

Butsuch programmes seldom sustain their initial impetus. An upgrading programme seeks to make up for a lack of past investment in piped waterdrainspaved roads and other forms of basic infrastructure. In effectit suddenly makes a series of basic investments that should have been made on a continuous basis by the local government. Upgrading programmes may improve conditions considerably at firstbut rarely do they increase the local government's capacity to maintain the new infrastructure and services and to continue the process of upgrading.

Few governments treat people living in illegal settlements as "citizens"with the same rights as those living in legal settlements. Andthe allocation of public resources never reflect the contribution to a city's properity made by those living in illegal settlements in the form of cheap labourgoods and services and through building and developing their own homes. Governments and their advisers continue to cling to inaccurate notions that "these people would be better off in rural areas"though 30 years of research has shown that the vast majority of the poor in cities are there because there best chances of advancement is in the cities.

Can governments support low-income groups in building their own houses? There are many examples of successful community initiatives in illegal settlements. Not unsurprisinglythis often happens just before an election - and it seldom benefits the poorest groups or the worst settlements. But it is possible to envisage a local government structure that from the outset can respond efficiently and equitably to such pressures - to the needs defined by lower income groups through their community organisations. The impact of such an approach can be compared with the results of other conventional approaches such as public housingserviced sites and slum upgrading (See chart).

This new approach to funding community initiatives not only saves money because local residents contribute free labourit also enables major savings in the time of architectsplannerssurveyors and other high-paid professionals. Community consultations can resolve such issues as moving a house if it stands in the way of an access road and collecting money to pay for improvements.

The two major blocks to the community approach are rooted in the attitude and institutional structure of governments. Many governments are working actively todeny the legitimacy of political ilssociatlons that emergefrom civil society and actively disempower the very processes they should be supporting. The other block is thehighly centralised nature of government and its weaknesses in technical capacitycompetence and investmentcapacity whether at city or municipal level.

New funding channels must be developed if this pro-cess of

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