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The seven myths of ‘slums’ - introduction

Adam Parsons
08 December 2010

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 future prospects for the growing number of slum-dwellers is currently less than optimistic.

Beyond these facts, there seems to be little awareness about the reality of slums in the popular imagination. Thanks to the tireless work of many activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) over many decades, the issue of global poverty is now high on the international policy radar – but the issue of slums, which forms a major component of poverty in urbanising cities, still fails to register in most people’s concerns. Part of the reason is the low priority given to slums compared to other development concerns, which often have high-profile celebrities and international charities backing their cause. It is more difficult to generate widespread interest in the gritty problem of inadequate housing than in such issues as gender equality, primary healthcare and education, or human rights violations like child labour and human trafficking. There is also a lack of general agreement about the seriousness of slum formation; for some writers, the ingenuity and resourcefulness witnessed in many slums is even viewed as a model for social organisation in wealthy nations. At the same time, governments and policymakers appear at a loss to understand how to respond to the problem at a global level, as reflected by the Millennium Development Goal on slums that aims merely to “improve the lives” of 100 million slum-dwellers by 2020 (one in 10 of the total number when the target was drawn), which effectively accepts that the burgeoning slums of the developing world are here with us to stay.

For these reasons, this report is an attempt to help promote a wider interest in the challenge of slums and urban poverty. Much may be written about informal settlements in academic books and journals, but the depiction of slums in popular movies and literature often serves to reinforce a number of long-held prejudices against the urban poor. The complacent indifference expressed by many governments and middle-class citizens to the struggles faced by the millions of people living in slums can also lead to other forms of discrimination, as explored throughout the following chapters. It is on this basis that the material is structured around seven different ‘myths’. As popularised through the popular book “Hunger: Twelve Myths” published by Food First in 1986, conventional thinking on development issues in the West is often characterised by many assumptions, clichés and rationalisations about the very poor who live in distant countries. In challenging some of these core myths, we are able to move beyond a response to poverty motivated by guilt or fear, and instead focus on the structural causes of powerlessness that result in insecurity and deprivation.[i] Any number of different myths about slums could have been chosen, but the ones selected aimed to give a general perspective on a range of key issues related to human settlements – including the impact of economic globalisation, the role of national governments, the significance of the informal sector of employment, the question of international aid, and the (little mentioned) controversy surrounding global slum data and development targets.

This report is also meant as a counterpart to the book Megaslumming about life in Kibera, the famous low-income settlement based in Nairobi, Kenya. The purpose of this other STWR publication on slums was to help raise awareness about the reality of extreme urban poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, presenting a first-person narrative about the author’s personal encounters with the communities’ different residents. Although the short book gives an overview of the political and economic forces that have shaped the conditions of poverty in Kenya, its account was necessarily focused on the human stories within one particular low-income community, and was less focused on the global picture and solution to slums. A key element that was missing from this account was the inspiring work of urban poor groups and community networks in many cities of the South - a cause that is championed by innumerable grassroots movements and many NGOs around the world. As outlined in several of the chapters that follow, the first step toward realising a ‘world without slums’ lies in supporting the resourcefulness, capacity and organisational ability of the people who actually live inside these settlements – a fact that is long recognised by development practitioners, but still ignored by many governments who continue to displace the urban poor from their places of living and livelihood.

A few words of clarification may be needed on the use of terminology, especially for anyone who objects to the word ‘slum’. Many writers prefer to use alternative, less emotive phrases to describe these differing forms of inadequate or illegal housing, such as low-income communities, informal settlements, squatter colonies, shantytowns, or else the country-specific names that often reflect either their rural character or material status, such as bustee, bidonville, favella, katchi abadi, barrio or kampung. While the word ‘slum’ is purposefully used throughout these seven myths (along with other synonyms for the sake of variety), it is by no means intended to carry any derogatory associations. On the contrary, the main reason for using this colloquial term is to draw people’s attention to the many injustices that afflict the world’s urban poor – hundreds of millions of whom live in conditions that would cause public outrage and moral indignation if replicated in the ‘developed’ world. During another visit to East Africa in early 2010, it was a surprise to learn that most well-heeled citizens in globalising cities like Nairobi are equally as uninformed about the slums beyond their doorstep as their affluent counterparts in the West.[ii] This is not to deny that the word ‘slum’ may tell us something of the living conditions in unplanned shelters, but nothing about the qualities of the people who live there, or the many differences in informal settlements throughout the developing world. In Myths 3 and 7, further attention is paid to the many conceptual problems and dangers of using the word ‘slum’, particularly in relation to the campaign slogan adopted by UN-HABITAT and other urban assistance agencies: “Cities Without Slums”.

Another term used throughout these chapters that may need clarification is ‘neoliberalism’, or the policy of non-intervention by the state in the economy (often called ‘market fundamentalism’), which some people may consider obsolete in light of the failures of deregulatory policies that led to the world stock market crash of 2008. It is true that many governments have been forced to contradict the dominant ideology of recent decades by intervening in and regulating the economy, and even by nationalising many financial institutions. Various world leaders have declared that we are witnessing the end of laissez-faire economics and the so-called Washington Consensus, while the Financial Times opined during the run-up to the crisis that “the dream of global free-market capitalism has died”.[iii] But over two years later, it is clear that the priorities of most governments have not fundamentally altered. The incredible bank bailouts of late 2008 were used to help sustain rich financiers in city capitals, and conservative governments – newly elected in many countries – are now relentlessly cutting back on social welfare, public services and worker privileges. The same ‘failed’ banks continue to operate in global financial markets, while most governments continue to push all the major hallmarks of neoliberalism since the 1980s: more privatisation of industries and services, reduced barriers to trade and increased capital flows between states, a sustained reliance on export-led growth and supply-side economic policies. In other words, state interventions to shore up ailing financial sectors may have temporarily saved the free market global economy, but it far from constituted any structural change in economic relations. In fact, the underlying dynamic of international competition that characterises the world-market orientation of most governments is more entrenched than ever before.

This forms the main subject of critique throughout this report: the straight-jacket of economic globalisation that forces governments to turn their cities into an attractive home base for financial capital, at the expense of redistributive strategies that would directly benefit the excluded poor. So long as policymakers prioritise economic growth ahead of the basic human needs (and entitlements) of the weakest members of society, the prevalence of slums will inevitably worsen across the Global South, as the following chapters set out to explain. This is perhaps the most interesting, if mystifying, aspect of the slums challenge. Just as climate change is leading countless people to question the limits of a growth-led, consumption-based globalised economy, the rapid growth of slums is a direct confrontation to the logic of competitive free markets. The current model of development is unsustainable not only because the planet cannot endure the environmental costs of unending pollution and resource depletion, but also because the continuing divide between rich and poor – expressed most visibly in the form of urban slums – is leading to social tensions and segregations that no society can ultimately contain. Yet few people decry the rapid growth of slums and urban poverty, or forewarn the lack of planning by governments for how to accommodate this “surplus humanity” in the developing world. In its final conclusion, this report suggests that the hope for an urgent transformation of economic priorities rests with the goodwill and solidarity of a united global public voice, as much as with the organisational ability and political influence of the poor in developing countries.

Link to STWR Report [pdf]: The Seven Myths of 'Slums' - Challenging Popular Prejudices About the World's Urban Poor


[i] Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, World hunger: Twelve Myths, Grove Press, 1986. See introduction.

[ii] The imperative need to raise awareness about slums is also stressed in the work of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). As stated by its Executive Director, Anna Tibaijuka: “Awareness of the magnitude of slums in the world is key. As awareness increases so openness to discuss this issue increases as well, and new ideas will inevitably expand.” See UN-HABITAT, Slums of the World: The face of urban poverty in the new millennium, Nairobi, 2003, foreword by Anna Tibaijuka.

[iii] Martin Wolf, ‘The rescue of Bear Stearns marks liberalisation’s limit’, Financial Times, 26th March 2008.