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The seven myths of ‘slums’ - myth 6: international aid is the answer

Adam Parsons
08 December 2010

“Development has become a big business, preoccupied more
with its own growth and imperatives 
than with the people
it was originally created to serve. Dominated by professional financiers
and technocrats, 
the development industry seeks to maintain an
apolitical and value-free stance in dealing with what are, 

more than anything else, problems of power and values.”[i]


Never in the history of cities have there been so many projects for improving slums and the living conditions of the urban poor by international aid agencies, development banks and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). But just as state policies have failed to meet the needs of the urban poor in most low- and middle-income countries, the current system of donor assistance from wealthier countries - whether from government-to-government or mobilised directly on the ground by NGOs and other agencies – has failed to stem the tide of growing slum formation. As this Myth sets out to explain, international aid not only fails to benefit a major proportion of the poor living in slums, but it often works against their best interests.

The first problem with development assistance for cities is simply one of scale. At no time in the past 30 years has international aid as a whole exceeded US $60bn a year, a sum that is equivalent to 20 percent of the annual budget of the US department of defense over the same annual period, and hardly enough to have a major impact on the lives of 2 billion poor people in low- and middle-income countries.[ii] Even the total aid commitments made by 15 countries at the Gleneagles ‘G8’ meeting in 2005 to great fanfare, comprising a mere 0.51 percent of their national income, have been left unmet. In 2010, the continent of Africa is expected to receive just $12bn of the $25bn pledged.[iii] As a general trend, overseas development assistance is receiving declining support in most Western countries (with only a few exceptions, notably the Nordic countries), particularly in respect to what is traditionally known as ‘urban development’.[iv] Urban poverty reduction is among the lowest priority for aid donations from most multilateral agencies. The proportion of World Bank funding going to improve housing conditions in urban areas aimed at lower-income groups, for example, was 2.3 percent between 1981 and 1998. The figure for the Asian Development Bank was a mere 1.7 percent over the same time-frame.[v] At the same time, the budgetry spending of most national governments in developing countries also fails to sufficiently recognise the urbanisation of poverty, whilst priority is given to the politically articulate and influential sectors of their urban populations.[vi]

These facts dispel an assumption that guided the work of most international aid agencies for many years: that investments in development in poor countries suffer from an ‘urban bias’. According to this rationale, project expenditures have tended to privilege urban areas at the expense of investments in rural areas. Because economic growth and modernisation naturally occurs in the cities where wealth is most concentrated, the policies of leading development agencies were said to be biased against the countryside - a notion that continues to receive support, especially from those who advocate neoliberal economic policies in favour of export-oriented agriculture.[vii] This assumption that city-dwellers benefit more from development than their rural counterparts persists even despite the growing incidence of slums and extreme urban poverty - what amounts to an ‘anti-urban bias’ for the poorest residents in developing cities. Another reason that urban development does not muster enough interest within most aid agencies to attract sufficient funding is the sheer competition from other issues. Climate change, HIV/AIDS, post-conflict reconstruction, child labour, violence against women, and natural disasters like floods or droughts or hurricanes are all issues that may involve life or death for millions of vulnerable people, and therefore hold a high moral imperative in the clamour for assistance budgets. These campaign demands, often backed by high profile celebrities and international NGOs, are more likely to gain popular support than demands for long-term urban development needs such as slum upgrading, capacity building for newly democratised municipal governments, or support for participatory planning initiatives.[viii]

The bottom line is that insufficient financial resources are one of the main impediments to dealing effectively with the problems faced by urban slum-dwellers. This reality is partly attributable to increased public sector austerity resulting from global economic inequalities, structural adjustment policies and liberalisation programmes since the 1980s [see Myth 1]. Other factors include the incapacity (or unwillingness) of governments to provide appropriate support to low-income settlements; the lack or misuse of financial resources by municipal authorities; a growing pressure on municipal budgets from new jurisdictions on their periphery; and the misuse or poor targeting of subsidies for the urban poor.[ix] In short, there is a large gap between what is needed within low- and middle-income countries to reduce urban poverty and what governments, aid agencies or development banks are currently providing in terms of financial and technical assistance. As argued below, there is an even wider gap between the kind of assistance that is needed to ameliorate slums and the forms of action that are currently provided by international agencies and multilateral institutions.

Aiding or hindering the urban poor?

It wasn’t until the 1970s that development agencies began to set the agenda for urban housing policy in low-income countries. By this time, the large public housing programmes that were launched by many Third World governments during the 1950s and 1960s had made little impact on the problem of urban slum formation. Many of these government-financed housing projects proved too expensive for their supposed target group, and too few units were built relative to needs. Most of the limited allocation of funds also ended up benefitting the middle class, while designs and locations were often ill-matched to the needs of poorer groups.[x] This was the political climate in which John F.C. Turner published his influential critique of public housing policies in 1976, Housing by People [see Myth 2]. From this time, the World Bank initiated a large number of urban development assistance programmes and helped to establish slum upgrading as an officially recognised strategy. Although Turner was a key intellectual influence in the Bank’s new philosophy, there were arguably other ideological reasons for supporting his ideas. The concept of self-help and incremental construction was exactly the kind of cost-effective solution that fitted into the Bank’s neoliberal concept of an austere state; the role of government, in the slum upgrading approach, is to be facilitating rather than fundamental. According to the urban development specialist Cedric Pugh, the intention of the World Bank was to make housing affordable to low-income households without the payment of subsidies, in contrast to the heavily-subsidised public-housing approach. Not only did this downgrade expectations of the state commitment to provide adequate shelter for all, but the new goal in housing policy became ‘improving’ slums rather than redeveloping them.[xi] This required the state to form partnerships with international donors and NGOs to become an ‘enabler’ of the poor – an approach that was consummated by the Cities Alliance initiative in 1999 (led by the World Bank and UN-HABITAT, and comprising a broad coalition of 10 of the major donor countries, the Asian Development Bank, the United Nations Environment Programme, the European Union, local governments, urban poor federations, as well as a number of low-income countries since 2007).[xii]

Although “self-help” and “participation” became the buzzwords of the low-cost housing debate from the mid-1970s, aid assistance has largely failed to adhere to the true tenets of this approach. According to the new consensus that emerged around slum upgrading and ‘sites and services’,[xiii] the urban poor should be empowered to formulate their own solutions to the problems of housing and human settlement, backed up with a redistribution of power and resources in their favour. Government action should therefore focus on facilitating poorer groups in their “freedom to build” their own housing, such as by providing cheap building materials and credit, well-located sites, knowledge and technical advice, as well as infrastructure and services.[xiv] However, giving dwellers control over the design, construction and management of their housing did not imply that all the poor of the world should become do-it-yourself housebuilders, even though they are very often forced to do so. The key principle, as emphasised by John Turner, is to give the poor local control over the housing process, which depends on personal and local access to resources which only governments can guarantee.[xv] The enabling approach to low-cost housing therefore requires governments to prioritise an increase in poor people’s access to resources, rather than grandiose housing projects. Effective community participation also depends upon a decentralisation of power and resources to city/municipal level, and a democratisation of the political system. This is to ensure that citizens can influence government policies and priorities, and local governments can respond to the diverse needs of poorer groups.[xvi]

In practice, the functioning of aid agencies often works against these core principles of participation, decentralisation and redistribution. Especially since the mid-1990s, innumerable NGOs have taken a central role in the provision of aid to thousands of slums and poor urban communities. Under a tiered system of coordination and funding, an international donor agency like the World Bank, the Ford Foundation or the UK Department for International Development will work through a major development NGO which, in turn, often works with local NGOs. Discussions about “good governance” and “capacity-building” have become central to development discourse since this period, but despite the commitment of international agencies to strengthen or build local capacity, local government officials are often bypassed or ignored by aid agencies and foreign consultants. In many cities, a large number of international agencies (both official agencies and NGOs) are often busy funding separate projects with no coordination between them, and with little attempt to work together and help improve the capacity of local institutions.[xvii] In this way, NGOs can serve to pre-empt community level capacity-building by taking over decision-making and negotiating roles.[xviii]

Most official development assistance agencies have also generally failed to develop relationships with urban poor citizens and their representative organisations. Much of the literature on aid assistance concludes that planning and urban management is much more effective if responsibilities are delegated directly to the urban poor, with the decision-making process transferred to the lowest possible levels. But rather than support the work of local communities in slum-upgrading programmes or infrastructure provision, international agencies rarely assign any role to urban poor groups in the design and implementation of aid programmes. Part of the reason is the structure of aid institutions, which were set up on the assumption that development is best delivered by making large capital sums available to recipient national governments, accompanied by the best technical advice. Although the limitations of this fixed relationship between donor agencies and national governments are long recognised, there is still little scope for aid institutions to respond directly to the needs and priorities of local communities. This structure also creates a great distance between the aid agency and the intended beneficiaries of urban development programmes; decisions about funding are made far from the urban poor in government ministries or at the headquarters of large agencies in Europe or North America, and aid projects are shaped by commercial and political influences that filter through many intermediaries before reaching the people on the ground.[xix]

The result is a lack of accountability to the urban poor, as well as a lack of transparency to the poor in the allocation of resources – and yet it is the poor whose needs justify the entire development industry. With so little ability to influence development programmes, apart from the extremely limited power to vote for politicians who oversee the international aid institutions, the urban poor are unable to hold a development bank or a bilateral agency to account if a project fails – or even worse, if a development project threatens their home or livelihoods.[xx] Furthermore, most of the literature on development assistance is written by the staff of international agencies, most of them based in Western countries, with little attention paid to the perspectives of those who live and work in poor communities (such as the staff of local NGOs, schools and health centres, and members of community-based organisations).[xxi] The residents of squatter settlements are normally given little or no say in internationally-funded projects, have no involvement with agency staff during the projects implementation, and are usually abandoned as soon as the project is completed. Such projects may bring considerable improvements in the provision of water, sanitation and some services but fail to alleviate the wider problems of unemployment, violence and generalised poverty.[xxii]  

Box 3: Kibera: a case study in aid ineffectiveness

A notable recent example of the constraints on international aid effectiveness is a pilot slum upgrading programme in Nairobi, a city in which at least half of the population lives in over 100 slums and squatter settlements. First initiated in 2002 as a partnership between the Kenyan government and the Cities Alliance initiative (a coalition of urban assistance agencies led by UN-HABITAT and the World Bank), the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP) aims to “improve the overall livelihoods of people living and working in slums” across Kenya by 2020.[xxiii] In 2008, the Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said the government would complete 30,000 housing units for slum-dwellers in Nairobi in just under three years.[xxiv] According to national newspapers, the project aimed to “do away with shanties” in Kenya within the space of 10 years.[xxv] It took until September 2009 – a preparation period of more than seven years – until the first pilot project was rolled out in Kibera, known as the largest informal settlement in sub-Saharan Africa.[xxvi] The aim, according to P.M. Odinga, was to prepare the ground for a “modern, low-income residential estate with modern schools, markets, playgrounds and other facilities”.[xxvii]

But for all the UN’s rhetoric on community involvement and participatory slum improvement, the relocation of the first 1,300 people into new blocks of concrete flats provided little hope for the remaining hundreds of thousands of residents. As the director of one local NGO commented, “unbearable squalor and grinding poverty” is likely to plague many of those left behind in the midst of increasing unemployment and high food prices – a situation that continues to worsen in Nairobi.[xxviii] Further concerns were raised that the poorest residents, many surviving on less than $1-a-day, would not be able to afford the increased monthly rent and higher cost of electricity and water in the new apartments. Others claimed that by encouraging residents to rent out the remaining two rooms in their unit, the upgrading project would not solve the problem of overcrowding.[xxix]

Despite a long period of professed consultation between officials and community groups during the planning process, the blocks of flats were built very close to each other, making it difficult for the highly entrepreneurial tenants to use the remaining space to make a living. Some of the relocated residents even claimed to have been moved against their wishes, and said the Kibera slum settlement had provided more living space and freedom than the new flats.[xxx] Regardless of all these issues, the total budgetary costs of rolling out the nation-wide government slum-upgrading plan had already been considered a “pipe dream” as early as 2006.[xxxi] In August 2009, the Housing minister said the total cost of “eradicating” Kenya’s slums was Sh885 billion – an amount the government simply does not have.[xxxii] Besides which, at the rate the Kibera project was being implemented in 2009 the upgrading of all existing residents will take another 1,170 years to complete.[xxxiii]

The priorities of the World Bank and other bilateral aid institutions are also unlikely to favour the kind of redistributive policies that are central to the enabling approach. A longstanding critique of the Bank and other big multilateral lending agencies involves the use of aid to ensure that recipient governments adopt policies that favour the interests of private corporations and financial institutions based in Northern countries. The World Bank may in theory exist to promote long-term and pro-poor development through funding projects, but it also serves to influence the economic policies of governments in an orthodox and monetarist direction – a practice that became public in the 1980s as a result of structural adjustment lending. In seeking to maintain the current structure of the international economy, biased in favour of the rich industrialised nations and particularly the United States, the priorities of the World Bank are often at odds with a truly pro-poor development strategy that benefits the majority of developing countries. The political analyst Walden Bello attributes part of the reason for this bias in priorities to the ideology and academic background of most economists who work within the institution. In the neo-Keynesian worldview that dominates the thinking of World Bank technocrats, development is viewed as a technical question that omits the relations of conflict and exploitation that govern economic life. Poverty is therefore abstracted from the context of the unequal relationships of power that create and perpetuate it. The problem of poverty is transformed principally into a problem of scarcity; the solution to scarcity is posited as economic growth; and the key to economic growth is viewed as ‘efficient production’. Under this paradigm, redistribution of wealth is a secondary issue. At best, redistribution is conceptualised in a superficial way as the sharing of increased national income - the ‘benefits of growth’ - rather than the deeper problem of access to and control of resources.[xxxiv] This may go some way to explaining why very few of the ‘slum upgrading’ and ‘sites-and-services’ schemes of the 1970s and 1980s, many sponsored by the World Bank, took the land issue into consideration. The inequitable distribution of land is an eminently political issue that clearly goes to the heart of the problem of slums, and yet plays a minor role in the formation of many aid assistance programmes.[xxxv]

Beyond slum upgrading

Notwithstanding the limited achievements among international donor agencies since the 1970s, it is not to say that aid assistance is not needed or is incapable of improving the living conditions of the urban poor. Many examples could be cited of the positive results that follow from aid projects: the provision of housing and basic services that reduce health burdens for low-income individuals, the real benefits that communities receive from water supply and sanitation systems, neighbourhood health care clinics or even from improved forms of local governance. If anything, international assistance needs to be massively scaled up if the crisis in urban housing is to be adequately recognised and addressed, especially when many bilateral assistance programmes and even the World Bank have reduced their support to this sector. The more fundamental question is whether the processes used to achieve any such development targets will utilise the real actors in housing projects – not only governments or NGOs, but the people and organisations who actually live and work in slums.

Even citywide slum upgrading/housing development projects that support decentralised actions and community groups are only a part of the solution to slums. Upgrading projects and interventions, when targeted at informal settlements with an extremely high density of people, can be tantamount to endorsing the inequity of a quarter of the city’s population living on just five percent of the city’s land (as in the case of Delhi, India).[xxxvi] Overseas aid agencies may support many slum improvement schemes in low-income cities (often coordinated by Western consultants and advisors with foreign funding who facilitate urban development from the most expensive hotels, restaurants, cars, trains and planes) whilst at the same time supporting a development path that privileges wealth, large-scale development and international business. Aside from urban development assistance, other policies and programmes that bilateral agencies and multilateral lending institutions implement can further marginalise the very large segments of the population who act as the recipients of aid. This was notoriously the case with structural adjustment lending, which the World Bank and IMF imposed on more than 70 countries during the 1980s and 1990s with devastating outcomes for the poor across much of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Advocating the need for more overseas development assistance in the short-term is also not to countenance an international economic order that offers the palliative of aid as a form of charity, often provided with conditions for macro-economic reforms that benefit multinational corporations and Western financial institutions. In the huge volume of literature informing the aid debate, there is no shortage of voices that proclaim against ‘aid dependency’ in the South; it is incontestable that a truly sustainable form of development has to come from within a country, and cannot be the result of external help.[xxxvii] Focusing solely on development aid can also divert attention from other related global justice issues, such as debt, tax havens, corporate power, trade justice and the need for policy freedom. Without a transformation of goals and priorities by the major powers and the institutions that govern the global economy, it is doubtful that aid can ever work as intended (ie. as a means of “providing sufficient impetus to overcome the strong forces that keep people poor”).[xxxviii] The unequal access to resources and services that lies at the heart of urban poverty cannot ultimately be redressed by a development paradigm that gives priority to the market over government, to wealth accumulation over redistributive strategies, and treats the poor as an afterthought to be partially relieved with international aid.


[i] David Korten, Getting to the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda, Kumarian Press, West Hartford, CT, 1990, p. ix.

[ii] Michael Cohen, ‘Urban Assistance and the Material World: Learning by Doing a the World Bank’, Environment & Urbanization, Vol 13 No 1 April 2001, p. 37.

[iii] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), ‘Donors’ Mixed Aid Performance for 2010 Sparks Concern’, 17th February 2010, www.oecd.org

[iv] Richard Stren, ‘International Assistance for Cities in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: Do We Still Need It?’, Environment & Urbanisation, Vol 20 No 2, October 2008, p. 377.

[v] David Satterthwaite, ‘Reducing Urban Poverty: Constraints on the Effectiveness of Aid Agencies and Development Banks and Some Suggestions for Change’, Environment & Urbanisation, Vol 13 No 1, April 2001, see table 2, p. 154.

[vi] Care International UK, Cities on the Brink: Urban Poverty in the 21st Century, June 2006, p. 8, www.careinternational.org.uk/urban

[vii] A leading scholar of the urban bias thesis since the 1970s was Michael Lipton, whose ideas were developed in many World Bank documents by analysts such as Robert Bates and Elliott Berg. See Stuart Corbridge and Gareth A. Jones, ‘The Continuing Debate About Urban Bias: The Thesis, Its Critics, Its Influence, and Implications for Poverty Reduction Strategies’, Progress in Development Studies, vol. 10 no. 1, January 2010.

[viii] Richard Stren, op cit, pp. 378, 382.

[ix] Challenge of Slums, pp. 136-145.

[x] Squatter Citizen, pp. 106-113.

[xi] Cedric Pugh, ‘The Role of the World Bank in Housing’, in Brian Aldrich and Ranvinder Sandhu, Housing the Urban Poor: Policy and Practice in Developing Countries, Zed Books, 1995, p. 64.

[xii] Cities Alliance, Cities Alliance: Cities Without Slums, Home Page, 2007, accessed June 2010,  www.citiesalliance.org/ca/about-cities-alliance

[xiii] ‘Sites-and-Services’ schemes are the provision of plots of land (ie. sites), either on ownership or land lease tenure, along with a bare minimum of essential infrastructure needed for habitation (ie. services such as roads, water supply, drainage and electricity). In most projects, the beneficiaries were left to construct and develop the actual houses using their own and the community’s resources. Although many serviced-site projects have faced considerable opposition and failure, this concept received widespread support by the World Bank and was taken up by many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. A key departure from earlier housing schemes was the recognition that low-income groups are able to build their own houses, as long as appropriate support is provided by government agencies. See, for example, World Bank, Sites and Services Projects, Washington DC, 1974; World Bank, Shelter, Washington DC, 1980.

[xiv] John F.C. Turner and Robert Fichter (eds), Freedom to Build: Dweller Control of the Housing Process, Collier Macmillan, New York, 1972. 

[xv] John F.C. Turner, Housing by People, Marion Boyars Publishers, 1976, p. 6.

[xvi] Squatter Citizen, p. 139.

[xvii] For example, in the Kibera settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, an estimated 2,000 government organisations function alongside up to 15,000 community-based NGOs. See also David Satterthwaite, op cit.

[xviii] Diana Mitlin, ‘Civil Society and Urban Poverty: Examing Complexity’, Environment & Urbanisation, 13:2, October 2001, p. 164.

[xix] David Satterthwaite, op cit.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Environment & Urbanisation Brief 3, Rethinking Aid to Urban Poverty Reduction: Lessons to Donors, International Institute for Environment and Development, April 2001.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Countries/Kenya/Activities, ‘Kenya Slum Upgrading Project (KENSUP)’, UN-HABITAT, www.unhabitat.org (accessed June 2010)

[xxiv] ‘30,000 Houses for Slum Dwellers on the Way’, Daily Nation, Nairobi, 28th October 2008.

[xxv] Kibiwott Koross, ‘Move to ‘paradise’ for Kibera slum dwellers put off again’, Daily Nation, Nairobi, 20th August 2009.

[xxvi] Note that estimates for the population of Kibera vary widely from around 170,000 residents to 1 million. See Muchiri Karanja, ‘Myth shattered: Kibera numbers fail to add up’, Daily Nation, 3rd September 2010; and Rasna Warah, ‘How numbers game turned Kibera into ‘the biggest slum in Africa’’, Daily Nation, Kenya, 12th September 2010; see also Raakel Syrjänen, UN-HABITAT and the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme Strategy Document, UN-HABITAT, May 2008.

[xxvii] ‘Kenya begins huge slum clearance’, BBC News, 16th September 2009, www.bbc.co.uk

[xxviii] Dan Okoth, New Dawn for Kibera but Poverty Persists, The Standard, Nairobi, 16th September 2009.

[xxix] Rasna Warah, ‘Slum tourism may become history in this country’, Daily Nation, Nairobi, 20th September 2009.

[xxx] Joy Wanja, ‘Former Kibera Slum-Dwellers Find Life in New Houses Not As Blissful’, Daily Nation, Nairobi, 2nd October 2009.

[xxxi] Mwangi Muirur, ‘Slum Upgrading Initiative Hits Snag’, The Standard, Nairobi, 11th June 2009.

[xxxii] Kibiwott Koross, ‘Move to ‘paradise’ for Kibera slum dwellers put off again’, Daily Nation, Nairobi, 20th August 2009.

[xxxiii] Jean-Christophe Servant, ‘Africa: escaping the slums’, Le Monde diplomatique, April 2010. For further background, see Marie Huchzermeyer, Slum upgrading initiatives in Kenya within the basic services and wider housing market: A housing rights concern, COHRE, 2006; COHRE, Listening to the Poor: Housing Rights in Nairobi (Fact-find mission to Nairobi - Final Report), June 2006. See also the documentary Good Fortune by Landon Van Soest, Transient Pictures, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), May 2010.

[xxxiv] Walden Bello, David Kinley, and Elaine Elinson, ‘Development Debacle: The World Bank in the Philippinnes’, in The Paradox of Plenty, Douglas H. Boucher (ed.), Food First Books, 1994, pp. 221-225; see also David Korten, Getting to the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda, op cit.

[xxxv] see Erhard Berner, ‘Learning from Informal Markets: Innovative Approaches to Land and Housing Provision’, in David Westendorff and Deborah Eade (eds), Development and Cities, UN Research Institute for Social Development, Kumarian Press, Oxford, 2002.

[xxxvi] Gita Verman, Slumming India: A Chronicle of Slums and their Saviours, Penguin, 2003, pp. 72-72.

[xxxvii] For example, see Yash Tandon, Ending Aid Dependence, Fahamu Books, 2008.

[xxxviii] Phil Vernon, ‘Is Overseas Development Aid Working?’, International Alert, 18th September 2008, www.international-alert.org 

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

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