Planet of Slums

Monday, 15 January, 2007 - 15:53

Author: Mike DavisReviewed By: David SatterthwaitePublisher: Verso BooksAsking the right questions about slums: It would be easy to write a damning review of this book based on its flaws and inaccurac

Author: Mike Davis

Reviewed By: David Satterthwaite

Publisher: Verso Books

Asking the right questions about slums: It would be easy to write a damning review of this book based on its flaws and inaccuracies. But it also has well-crafted summaries, with valuable insights and some sensational turns of phrase, making up among the best general summaries of the problem of "slums and shanty towns" in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and what explains their growth. The author, Mike Davis, has written several fine books on urban issues, but focused mainly on the United States. His unfamiliarity with urban issues in the other three regions explains some of the inaccuracies, many of which arise from his failure to question the validity and accuracy of some sources from which he draws. But part of the book's strength is the fresh eyes it brings to the topic and the analytical insights, drawing on urban issues in the United States. This review will consider the book's strengths and weaknesses.

Its strengths are its readability and the evidence it marshals on the crisis in urban areas in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Many examples highlight the awful living conditions for hundreds of millions of urban dwellers. The book describes how large sections of low-income population live in very poor quality rented accommodation, with overcrowding and exploitation from landlords that rival the worst nineteenth-century slums. It emphasizes how poverty is created or exacerbated by government slum-eviction programmes and how these are often justified by "criminalizing" their inhabitants. It rightly emphasizes the much-reduced scope for low-income groups to illegally occupy land on which they can build housing.

The book discusses the reorganization of cities, as middle and upper-income groups concentrate in gated communities and protected sites from which poorer groups are excluded. It contains many nice historical digressions, comparing nineteenth-century Naples to present cities, considering how contemporary city problems are rooted in the policies and precedents of colonial governments. Many of the targets for its criticism get what they deserve, for instance, the false illusions of de Soto's "solutions" and the false promises of poverty reduction from the Washington consensus. The book rightly describes how most informal enterprises are highly exploitative, providing very inadequate incomes for long hours of work. "There is nothing in the catalogue of Victorian misery, as narrated by Dickens, Zola or Gorky, that doesn't exist somewhere in a Third World city today". The book gives strong pointers to the extent of the crisis, for instance, the conditions in Kinshasa and Port-au-Prince, the surging demand for human organs and the industries built on child labour. It ends with a discussion of "a surplus humanity"-a billion workers unemployed or underemployed with no official scenario for their reincorporation into the mainstream of world economy. Slums are the solution to warehousing this surplus humanity, and the author suggests that few people in high-income nations have considered its geopolitical implications. The epilogue has chilling quotes from a United States air force specialist, who sees slums as potential nightmare battlefields and talks about the challenge of "asymmetric combat". He recommends military training in "blighted cities" in the United States, where massive housing projects have become uninhabitable and industrial plants unusable.

This is a book that loves to generalize in pursuit of these conclusions. One wonders if the author has been to any of the cities he describes; if he has, he viewed them with selective eyes. There is little evidence that he has talked to slum dwellers, as the text suggests an author searching the literature for examples that support what he wants to say, ignoring any material that goes against this. The references listed are a mix of good, authoritative and very poor sources, as well as of up-to-date and very out-of-date analyses. Perhaps the book's two main failings are its inability to see the diversity within the tens of thousands of urban centres in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and its determination to damn any person or institution that works to address the problems it describes. There are many cities where conditions have improved considerably for much of the low-income population, which are often driven by a return to democracy, important decentralization reforms and a new generation of city politicians and officials committed to changing the old ways. The book is right to remind us of how the military dictatorships in Brazil, Chile and Argentina cleared "slums", but it also needs to mention innovations in these nations since the return to democracy. And for every Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Port-au-Prince (Haiti), there are more hopeful examples.
The author's attitude to government is summarized by the chapter titled "The treason of the State". But there are many local and national governments that have tried new approaches, working with slum and shanty town residents to legalize tenure and support community-managed improvements, for instance, the work of the Community Organizations Development Institute in Thailand. The chapter on "Illusions of self-help" does what many left-wing critics have done before: to oversimplify the position of John F. C. Turner, whose 1976 book, Housing by People, is far more insightful and sophisticated than this book suggests, and blame him for the limitations of "self-help" programmes. At the core of Turner's book is a discussion of who has the right to determine and manage housing solutions, and what needs to change if low-income groups are to get real influence in this. The book also describes so clearly why the mass public housing programmes that Planet of Slums also mentions failed. It was a wake-up call to all professionals engaged in urban issues on how and why they have to listen to and work with low-income groups and their own organizations and initiatives.

Planet of Slums dismisses local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as having "proven brilliant at co-opting local leadership, as well as hegemonizing the social space traditionally occupied by the Left". As in many of its generalizations, there is a strong core of truth, but it is not the whole truth. Just as the book describes the diversity within the "informal economy" and in types of "slums", so is there great diversity among local NGOs. It misses completely the many local NGOs that work closely with organizations and federations of slum and shack dwellers that do not co-opt local leadership-that also ensure links between pragmatic responses to need and larger political struggles to change local policies and practices. It fails to see what slum dwellers are doing themselves-in the organizations and federations they form, in the initiatives they undertake and in the slow, often painful, negotiation with the State-for land on which they can build or tenure of land they occupy, for water and sanitation and other services, for legal addresses and the right to vote and be considered citizens. It also fails to see the local governments that have responded and now have strong partnerships with these federations, as well as to understand how changing the relationship between the urban poor and their local governments has to be at the heart of change, and this implies a very different orientation for external funders. Of course, these are not the "magic bullet"' solution: these have failures as well as successes, and more macro-changes are also needed to improve poorer groups' income levels and employment opportunities.

The book also has many inaccuracies. In regard to urbanization trends, it misses two key points. First, that urban population growth rates have for many nations slowed dramatically, while many of the world's largest cities proved to be much smaller than had been predicted, as new census data became available since 2000. Second, there is a strong connection between economic and city growth, including the extent to which the world's largest cities are heavily concentrated in the largest economies. The book highlights how China has so many of the world's large cities, but historically it has long had most of them and it is hardly surprising that the world's most populous nation and with the second largest economy has many of the world's largest cities. The text also vastly overstates the extent to which Kenya's population growth in 1989-1999 "was absorbed in the fetid densely packed slums of Nairobi and Mombasa", and describes Seoul as a city growing at breakneck speed, when actually its population is hardly growing at all. But these and other errors are probably drawn from sources that the author considered legitimate.

So read Planet of Slums, but read it critically and appreciate its identification of problems for which far too little attention is paid. However, look beyond it to the places where slum dwellers are organizing and renegotiating their relationship with the State and at some local NGOs and a few external funders that know how to support this. Then imagine what needs to change within national governments and international agencies-and support an alternative urban future to the one described in this book.

(For more details of the work of the federations mentioned in this review, please click here.)

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