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The seven myths of ‘slums’ - myth 7: there will always be slums

Adam Parsons

“So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.” [i]


Is it realistic to talk about an end to slums at any point in the future? Or does the same view hold for ‘slums’ as for those who proclaim against global poverty: “the poor have always been with us, and always will be!” For some modern writers, the evidence suggests that the future of cities is a foregone and forbidding conclusion, a “planet of slums” made up of a permanently redundant - and potentially revolutionary - mass of disenfranchised informal workers. As the urban sociologist Mike Davis argues, the self-help squatters on the edge of cities inhabit a “zone of exile”, a “new Babylon”, and the only hope is the “militant refusal of the new urban poor to accept their terminal marginality within global capitalism”.[ii] For other writers, the view of cities as engines of breakdown and apocalypse is far from justified. In 1962, Charles Stokes differentiated between ‘slums of hope’ and ‘slums of despair’, the former category becoming popularised by the anthropologist Peter Lloyd in 1979.[iii] As Lloyd argued, much of the scholarly literature on squatter settlements reflects the prejudices of Western observers to squalor and neglect, as well as fears of the urban poor becoming a socially destabilising force – a view that gained popular prominence, long before Mike Davis, following the anthropological studies by Oscar Lewis in the late 1950s.[iv]

Furthering these dystopian vs utopian viewpoints in more recent times, some writers are tempted to romantise the “magic of squatter cities” for their ecologically and socially sustainable practices, or for the self-help praxis of the urban poor and their values of mutuality, community and solidarity.[v] Both reactions to urban poverty are an extreme of the reality, often serving the ideological purposes of different interest groups who occupy a higher social strata: the political far right who effectively view slum-dwellers as an unwanted burden on market society, or the political far left who imbue slum-dwellers with their hopes of revolutionary social transformation. As a consequence, all of these interpretations tacitly accept the existence, and persistence, of slums.[vi]

Part of the problem is one of semantics. The word ‘slum’ can lump together a wide variety of different tenements and types of residents, and was only given an operational definition in 2003 by the United Nations in terms of a loose set of criteria – restricted to physical and legal characteristics, and excluding the more difficult social dimensions.[vii] This can apply the term ‘slum’ with broad strokes to different cities and countries across the world, although in practice most slums are anything but homogenous. As the studies of architects and planners since the 1960s discovered, slums contain both a mixture of housing conditions and a wide diverstity of people. Anthropological writers such as William Mangin and John Turner, for example, perceived a marked difference in squatter settlements and inner-city slums, and found it was usually difficult to describe squatter settlements as ‘slums’ at all. Peter Lloyd also argued that what might seem a forsaken ‘slum’ to the Western eye may be viewed quite differently, in more positive terms, by the shantytown residents themselves. In this light, it is difficult to conceive of an ‘end to slums’ when the language used to describe them is so generalised and problematic. Even in many developed countries today, the existence of slums still persists despite growing affluence and constant policy shifts. As general housing standards rise, areas that fail to reach the acceptable standard can be newly categorised as ‘slums’.[viii] If countries like the UK or USA have still not managed to end the problem of slums, it is reasonable to argue that countries like Ethiopia or Afghanistan – which according to the UN’s debatable statistics had respectively 99.4% and 98.5% of the urban population living in slum conditions in 2001 – have little hope of ameliorating, let alone solving, the problem of slums in the future.[ix]

Misunderstanding the targets

The problem of language in realising an ‘end to slums’ is further complicated by the campaign initiatives of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). In 1999, UN-HABITAT and the World Bank led a wide coalition of urban assistance agencies under an initiative called the Cities Alliance. The two key issues that the new partnership focused on – the growth of slums, and the management of cities where slum growth is taking place – led to the ‘Cities Without Slums Action Plan’, which was subsequently incorporated into the United Nations Millennium Declaration in 2000. Since that time, ‘Cities Without Slums’ is the main campaign slogan adopted by UN-HABITAT in its promotional material. The branding, however, promises much more than the content. The stated intention of the programme is not to literally ‘end slums’ within a specific timeframe, but rather to strengthen institutions and partnerships for slum-upgrading initiatives at the citywide level.[x] As a slogan, Cities Without Slums is therefore a normative idea, namely a broad conception of what the world should look like, rather than a causal idea that is more operational and usually takes the form of a target.[xi] None of the UN’s publications even vaguely suggest that it has a target for achieving cities without slums.[xii]

A major problem with the slogan lies in its openness to misinterpration; some governments, most notably in Africa, appear to have confused the normative idea – that cities should not have slums – as being an actual target, namely to eradicate slums. As further explained in Myth 3, this objective can be used by governments to validate large-scale slum demolition projects, as evidenced by illegal mass evictions in Zimbabwe in 2005 and in Abuja, Nigeria in 2006, and through slum ‘elimination’ legislation in South Africa in 2007. For example, former President Thabo Mbeki keenly referred to the UN’s campaign on slums when formulating the aim to eradicate all informal settlements in South Africa by 2014, based on the simplistic policy solution of replacing them with formal housing and stamping out any new erection of shacks.[xiii] This is not to apportion blame with urban assistance agencies for the continuance of slum clearance operations, as the Cities Alliance initiative is wholly against this approach and UN-HABITAT strongly campaigns against such policies. However, so long as governments focus on the vision of a globally competitive city free of visible squalor, thereby making them prone to slum removal projects, the use of language in calling for an ‘end to slums’ can help justify anti-poor policies and lead to tragic consequences. The housing policy expert Marie Huchzermeyer argues that a more appropriate objective than the eradication of slums is therefore an official policy of recognition, one that seeks to manage and understand today’s and future informal settlements instead of clearing them away and trying to prevent them from re-emerging. In this respect, the Cities Without Slums campaign would be more appropriately named “Cities Recognising Slums”.[xiv]

The Cities Without Slums slogan is also sharply contradicted by its operational target, as embodied in the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on slums. This goal, tucked away as “Target 11” of the seventh MDG on ensuring environmental sustainability, aims merely to “significantly improve the lives of 100 million slum-dwellers by 2020”.[xv] Not only does this reflect the unacceptably low priority that the problem of inadequate housing receives in comparison to other development concerns, but it also tacitly accepts the existence of slums as an enduring reality – as achieving the target would hardly result in ‘cities without slums’. One hundred million slum-dwellers comprised only about one in 10 of the total number of people who lived in slums in 2000 (according to the statistics in The Challenge of Slums report). The goal effectively ignores the needs of the remaining 1.3 billion people who, according to previous estimates, will be living in slums by 2020.[xvi] Also, the target date of 2020 is five years later than the end point of all the other MDGs. And unlike most of the MDGs, it doesn’t set out to halve or substantially reduce the slum population. As UN-HABITAT recognises, this makes it difficult, if not outright impossible, to set country-specific targets so that governments can know the numbers of slum-dwellers whose conditions they must improve as part of the global MDG.[xvii] Moreover, the target was poorly defined and failed to specify what a “significant improvement” in the lives of slum-dwellers would entail.[xviii] The fact remains that many upgrading and new house development programmes have “significantly improved” the lives of slum-dwellers, but almost never on a scale that significantly reduces the problem.[xix]

Questioning the global statistics

If the only way of measuring progress towards achieving the “slums target” is the number of slum-dwellers worldwide, the efficacy of UN-HABITAT’s statistics - as the only provider of global slum data - also gives cause for great concern. When the Millennium Development Goal on slums was set in 2000, it was not actually known how many slum-dwellers existed in the world.[xx] It wasn’t until The Challenge of Slums was published in 2003 that the first-ever estimate of slum-dwellers was given as a global figure, reported as 924 million in 2001, or 31.6 percent of the world’s urban population.[xxi] This was a historic UN statistic, and its grim predictions made headlines across the media: that the “number of people living out their days in the squalor of a slum is almost one billion”, a number that could double in 30 years “without radical changes”.[xxii] In a subsequent State of the World’s Cities report published in 2006, the number of slum-dwellers worldwide was estimated at 998 million – expected to cross the one billion mark some time in 2007. The Report’s authors predicted that if nothing is done to improve the lives of slum-dwellers or prevent slum formation, the global slum population could grow to 1.4 billion by 2020 (when the MDG on slums is scheduled to be met).[xxiii] Since that time, the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, Anna Tibaijuka, has declared the number of slum-dwellers worldwide to have broken the one billion mark.[xxiv] It was therefore a surprise when the latest biennial State of the World’s Cities report for 2010/11 stated that the number of slum-dwellers in the developing world stood at 828 million – and that governments have collectively exceeded the MDG on slums by at least 2.2 times already![xxv]

Although this might be considered good news, there were reasons to question the validity of these claims. In contradicting earlier statistics, the baseline total of slum-dwellers was downward revised to 767 million people in 2000 (not 912 million as estimated in the 2006 report), but without any qualification (such as an explanation for a change in measurement, as the World Bank has repeatedly done with global poverty data – resulting in massive revisions to its statistics each time).[xxvi] This gave the misleading impression that the number of slum-dwellers in the developing world was reduced from over a billion people in 2007/8 (as previously reported) to 827.6 million people in 2010 – a remarkable achievement, considering that the numbers were expected to dramatically increase.[xxvii] Even if an explanation for the downward revision in baseline figures had been provided, such an enormous fluctuation would be unacceptable for most economic statistics and make them unfit for use.[xxviii] Indeed, a meticulous study by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) suggests that the scale of urban poverty could be under-stated in official statistics used by governments and international agencies in most low- and middle-income nations, which could lead the UN to report inaccurate data on the extent of poverty in many cities.[xxix] The number of people living without adequate shelter could, in this regard, be far beyond 827.6 million people. At the very least, the lack of clarity and reliability over the measurement of slum-dwellers worldwide highlights the difficulty in realising an ‘end to slums’. If we cannot be sure how many slum residents there are in the world, or how to measure our progress in improving their lives, then it is unlikely that the UN’s “Cities Without Slums” campaign can turn its slogan into a reality.

Where the world is headed

Setting aside all of these analytical and conceptual problems, some straightforward observations can be made about where the world stands in relation to the slums challenge. Firstly, no statistics are required to reveal what every urbanite in the developing world must realise: that the problem of slums is a growing reality. Although the UN’s data on slums is contestable and probably underestimated on many counts, the latest figures revealed that “the urban divide still exists” and is expected to increase in coming years. Even according to UN-HABITAT’s significantly downward-revised figures, the global slum population will probably grow by six million people each year unless drastic action is taken. Put bluntly, the absolute number of slum-dwellers across the world is expected to increase, and keep on increasing.[xxx] The number of town and city-dwellers is expected to rise to two-thirds of humanity by 2030, and in the case of sub-Saharan Africa it is likely “that nearly half of the growth in sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population will take place against a background of poverty and deprivation between now and 2020.”[xxxi] If present trends continue over the coming decades, we can expect the same things as forewarned in the 1989 classic Squatter Citizen: “...tens of millions more households living in squatter settlements or in very poor quality and overcrowded rented accommodation owned by highly exploitative landlords. Tens of millions more households will be forcibly evicted from their homes... The quality of many basic services (water, sanitation, garbage disposal, health care) will deteriorate still further, and there will be a rise in the number of diseases related to poor and contaminated living environments.”[xxxii]

In the second decade of the new millennium, as the world economy reels from the impact of a global financial crisis, the outlook is increasingly pessimistic. As in previous economic recessions since the 1980s, many governments in Latin America, Asia and Africa face large deficits in their balance of payments and insuperable problems with national debt. Application for loans from the International Monetary Fund still leads to pressure to reduce public spending, especially in social programmes. As a result, government subsidies for basic goods and services (such as staple foods and transport) are more likely to be cut, while the provision of basic services and new investments in city infrastructure are more likely to be postponed. And as always, it is the urban poor who are among the hardest hit, with little or no safety margin to allow them to absorb or survive the impacts of the crisis. As millions more people migrate from rural areas to the cities, where the lack of employment and declining real incomes is affecting the middle-class as well as the lower-income groups, increasing numbers of urban-dwellers will be forced to organise the construction of their own shelters.[xxxiii] This depressing outlook is reinforced by The Millennium Development Goals Report 2010, which states that the recent crisis in housing markets may offset the progress made in lifting people out of slums since 1990: “Although the crisis did not originate in developing regions, it has hit their populations and cities, where millions continue to live in precarious conditions... In many cases, public authorities have exacerbated the housing crisis through failures on four major counts: lack of land titles and other forms of secure tenure; cutbacks in funds for subsidized housing for the poor; lack of land reserves earmarked for low-income housing; and an inability to intervene in the market to control land and property speculation. Low incomes in the face of rising land prices virtually rule out the possibility that the working poor can ever own land, contributing to the problem of urban slums.”[xxxiv]

Another observation is that few, if any, governments have development plans that sufficiently address the housing demands of urban growth and development in developing countries. As urbanisation continues apace, few of these governments are even attempting to put in place the infrastructure and services that are needed to make cities liveable for all low-income residents. Even when investments are made, they tend to be in high-end infrastructure projects to attract foreign capital rather than to provide services to the poor, or to make cities more attractive to domestic investors.[xxxv] As mentioned in Myths 2, 3 and 5, city ‘beautification’ programmes continue to result in the mass dislocation of squatters and slum-dwellers – an ongoing phenomenon that is making news headlines, at the time of writing, in Durban (South Africa) and Delhi (India) for the 2010 World Cup and Commonwealth Games respectively.[xxxvi] There is also little evidence to suggest that a framework has evolved to adequately address the problems of slums at the global level, let alone shape a clear vision of a future without any incidence of urban poverty and inadequate housing. For many fast-expanding mega-cities, the pressing concern is not the longer-term sustainability of rapid urbanisation and its social and environmental consequences for generations to come, but the short-term viability of the continued divide between rich and poor – especially in the context of an economic crisis and food price volatility that led to riots across the developing world in 2007 and 2008.[xxxvii] The impasse in urban policy is exacerbated by the ideological belief that states as well as cities have no alternative but to accelerate headlong in the same direction, relentlessly driven by the pressure to compete for high-class tourism, foreign investment, large-scale development projects and all other hallmarks of the ‘world class city’. As urban leaders seek their own bit of competitive advantage over the others, the very poor living in illegal squatter communities represent the unwelcome shadow side of globalisation.

Although faith in deregulated markets has been jolted by the world stock market crash in 2008, there are few world leaders who question the trajectory of the privatised and globalised market economy, based on the assumption that further and higher growth is the speediest and most effective route to alleviate poverty, despite all evidence to the contrary.[xxxviii] In the corridors of power, turning back on the export-oriented, growth-led model is seen as neither practical nor viable. Yet there is nothing inevitable about the current processes that result in an uncontrolled form of urbanisation that is resource depleting, polluting and exploitative of the urban poor. The choice rests with governments and decision-makers to either accept the social instability and rising slum growth that accompanies current trends, or forge a new path with different policies to achieve more inclusive and sustainable outcomes. If urbanisation trends and cities are to change, the economic model that sustains them must be wholly reformed and reimagined. A first step lies in recognising the impossibility of continuing in the same direction of urban development, and 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”.[xxxix]


[i] William Shakespear, King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1. The words are spoken by the blinded and suicidal Earl of Gloucester as he hands a purse to the naked madman, ‘Poor Tom’.

[ii] Planet of Slums, pp. 201-202.

[iii] Charles J. Stokes, ‘A Theory of Slums’, Land Economics, Vol 38 no. 5, August 1962; Peter Lloyd, Slums of Hope? Shanty towns of the Third World, Manchester University Press, 1979.

[iv] Oscar Lewis, Five Families; Mexican Case Studies In The Culture Of Poverty, 1959.

[v] For example, see Stewart Brand, ‘How slums can save the planet’, Prospect, 27th January 2010.

[vi] Lebbeus Woods, ‘Slums: The Problem’, 8th January 2008, www.lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com

[vii] In 2003, the United Nations gave an operational definition of a slum for international usage in terms of the following characteristics: inadequate access to safe water; inadequate access to sanitation and other infrastructure; poor structural quality of housing; overcrowding; insecure residential status. See Challenge of Slums, pp. 10-13.

[viii] Alan Gilbert, ‘The Return of the Slum: Does Language Matter?’, op cit, pp. 704-708.

[ix] According to figures in The Challenge of Slums, 2003. See A. Gilbert, ibid.

[x] World Bank and UN-HABITAT, Cities Alliance for Cities Without Slums: Global Action Plan for Moving Slum Upgrading to Scale, (undated - assumed 1999); see also United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), UN-HABITAT’s Strategy for the Implementation of the Millennium Development Goal 7, (Target 11: “By 2020, to have achieved a significant improvement in lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers”), Nairobi, 2005.

[xi] Marie Huchzermeyer, ‘How to improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers by 2020’, UN Chronicle, 1st July 2006.

[xii] Marie Huchzermeyer, ‘Slums law based on flawed interpretation of UN goals’, Business Day (South Africa), 19th May 2008.

[xiii] Marie Huchzermeyer, ‘Uplift slums, don’t destroy them’, The Mercury (South Africa), 12th July 2007. See also Alan Gilbert, op cit, p. 708.

[xiv] Marie Huchzermeyer, ‘How to improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers by 2020’, op cit. Professor Alan Gilbert at University College London also notes: “If the key problem to be addressed is to improve the quality of people’s housing, then a campaign entitled ‘In search of better shelter’ would be much more accurate and honest. Most importantly, it would represent a reasonable goal and would not convey the negative images evoked by the use of the word ‘slum’. ‘Better shelter’ suggests a progression: that housing problems are so complicated and deep seated that they cannot easily be resolved, let alone eliminated. Improving shelter does not demand the end of ‘slums’, which is unachievable, but to produce better housing conditions, which is. The danger with the term ‘cities without slums’ is that it is just a slogan; rhetoric that carries with it an empty promise.” See Alan Gilbert, op cit, p. 709.

[xv] see UN-HABITAT’s Strategy for the Implementation of the MDG 7, Target 11, Nairobi, 25th November 2005.

[xvi] Amnesty International, ‘Slums: Human Rights Live Here’, Briefing Paper, May 2009; see also Irene Khan, The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights, Amnesty International, 2009, p. 161. Note: the forecast of 1.4 billion slum-dwellers by 2020 was made in the UN-HABITAT report State of the World's Cities 2006/7.

[xvii] The latest State of the World Cities report acknowledges the many conceptual problems with the Millennium Development Goal on slums, concluding that the “slum target” was achieved ten years early only because it was set too low at the outset. See UN-HABITAT, State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011: Bridging The Urban Divide, Earthscan, March 2010, pp. 45-49.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Somsook Boonyabancha, ‘Baan Mankong: Going to Scale with “Slum” and Squatter Upgrading in Thailand’, op cit.

[xx] UN-HABITAT, State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011: Bridging The Urban Divide, Earthscan, March 2010, p. 40.

[xxi] The Challenge of Slums.

[xxii] For example, see Alex Kirby, ‘Slum growth ‘shames the world’’, BBC News, 6th October 2003; John Vidal, ‘Every third person will be a slum dweller within 30 years, UN agency warns: Biggest study of world’s cities finds 940 million already living in squalor’, The Guardian, 4th October 2003.

[xxiii] UN-HABITAT, State of the World's Cities 2006/7: The Millennium Development Goals and Urban Sustainability - 30 Years of Shaping the Habitat Agenda, Earthscan, London, 2006, p. vi.

[xxiv] For example, in a statement given by Mrs Anna Tibaijuka on World Habitat Day 2008, she said: “[One] historic turning point is that the number of urban slum-dwellers worldwide has broken the 1 billion mark, making it clear that the urbanization of poverty is arguably one of the biggest challenges facing development today.” See UN-HABITAT, ‘Statement of the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka on the occasion of World Habitat Day 2008’, 9th October 2008, www.unhabitat.org

[xxv] State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011, op cit.

[xxvi] For a short critique of the World Bank’s global poverty statistics, see Adam Parsons, ‘World Bank Poverty Figures: What Do They Mean?’, Share The World’s Resources, 15th September 2008, www.stwr.org

[xxvii] Rasna Warah, ‘UN-HABITAT’s Slum Estimates: Fact or Fiction?’, unpublished article, 23rd April 2010.

[xxviii] In a personal communication with the Press & Media Relations Unit at UN-HABITAT in April 2010, clarification was sought on why the total number of slum-dwellers in the developing world had changed so markedly in comparision to previous statistics. A reply was promised from the chief statitician of the Global Urban Observatory Section (GUO) under the City Monitoring Branch, but despite several further requests it was never forthcoming.

[xxix] David Satterthwaite, The under-estimation of urban poverty in low- and middle-income nations, International Institute for Environment and Development, Poverty Reduction in Urban Areas Series: Working Paper 14, April 2004.

[xxx] According to The Millennium Development Goals Report 2010; “...in absolute terms, the number of slum dwellers in the developing world is actually growing, and will continue to rise in the near future. The progress made on the slum target has not been sufficient to offset the growth of informal settlements in the developing world... Redoubled efforts will be needed to improve the lives of the growing numbers of urban poor in cities and metropolises across the developing world.” See pp. 62-3.

[xxxi] State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011: Bridging The Urban Divide, op cit, p. 42.

[xxxii] Squatter Citizen, p. 301.

[xxxiii] cf. Squatter Citizen, p. 60.

[xxxiv] United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report 2010, New York, pp. 62-3.

[xxxv] cf. UN-HABITAT, State of the World's Cities 2006/7: The Millennium Development Goals and Urban Sustainability - 30 Years of Shaping the Habitat Agenda, Earthscan, London, 2006.

[xxxvi] Richard Lapper, ‘Poor cry foul over World Cup in Durban’, Financial Times, 7th June 2010; Jason Burke, ‘‘Shining India’ makes its poor pay price of hosting Commonwealth Games’, The Guardian, 11th July 2010. In a report on the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, it was estimated that 100,000 familes had already been evicted due to Games-related projects by June 2010, and a further 30,000-40,000 familes were estimated to be displaced before the Games commenced in October. It stated: “The goal of portraying Delhi as a ’world class’ city and an international sports destination, has led the Indian government - both at the state and central level - to lose sight of its priorities and legal and moral commitments to its people.” See Shalini Mishra, Shivani Chaudhry and Miloon Kothari, The 2010 Commonwealth Games: Whose Wealth? Whose Commons?, Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN),  13th June 2010.

[xxxvii] cf. Eric Holt-Giménez, The World Food Crisis: What’s behind it and What we can do about it, Food First, Policy Brief No. 16, October 2008.

[xxxviii] For example, see David Woodward and Andew Simms, Growth Isn’t Working: The Unbalanced Distribution of Benefits and Costs from Economic Growth, New Economics Foundation, January 2006.

[xxxix] The Habitat Agenda is the main political document that came out of the Habitat II conference in Istanbul, Turkey, 3rd to 14th June 1996. Adopted by 171 countries, it contains over 100 commitments and 600 recommendations on human settlements issues. See also Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements: General Assembly resolutions 51/177 of 16 December 1996 and 53/242 of 28 July 1999. 

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

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