Through a glass darkly – 39

Out of my comfort zone

In 1982 I travelled outside Europe for the first time; two weeks on a market research trip to Jakarta, followed by a few days in Singapore. Before I left I called at Blackwells in Oxford and bought a street map, a Falk Stadtplan, of Jakarta. The map showed a lot of canals; and, knowing it was a former Dutch colony, I thought it might be a bit like Amsterdam. Jakarta was a revelation: I was staying in a very comfortable, high-rises hotel, the Sari Pacific. Any clothes left on the floor were immediately carried away and returned washed and ironed. In the bar attractive hostesses rushed up to take my order and offer me cigarettes and bowls of peanuts. But outside the hotel, beyond the hooting traffic of Jakarta’s one dual carriageway, the people lived in great poverty. And the canals that looked so attractive on my map were more-or-less open sewers, from which people drew their drinking water and in which they washed their clothes and bathed their small children. As a newcomer to the Third Word I was quite shocked. And uncomfortable.

Jakarta ‘canal’

Some of that memory came flooding back recently as I read Mike Davis’s book Planet of Slums. The book came out in 2006, and I knew of it from reading for an MTh in Mission in an Urban World at ICC, Glasgow,in 2006-08, but I’d never read it before. Some of the statistical information is now two decades old. But the book, like my visit to Jakarta, made me feel uncomfortable. Or, to put it differently, it made me feel too comfortable here on the south side of Edinburgh,

Davis: Planet of Slums

Much at the time the book was publishedthe urban population of the world was bigger than the rural population for the first time. The speed and scale of Third Word urbanisation dwarfs that of Victorian Europe. In the twenty-first century we have new megacities with populations of 8 million plus, and also what are called  hypercities with more than 20 million inhabitants. In addition there are new urban networks and corridors; e.g. the Gulf of Guinea, and the Pearl River [Hong Kong] and the Yangtze River [Shanghai] deltas. At the same time we have increasing inequality between cities of different sizes and specialisations.

There is no correlation between the economy [wealth] of the city and its population. “Over-urbanization is driven by the reproduction of poverty, not the supply of jobs.” Africa’s slums are growing at twice the speed of their cities. Between 1989 and 1999 an incredible 85% of Kenya’s population growth was absorbed in the densely packed slums of Nairobi and Mombasa. “Instead of light soaring towards heaven, much of the twenty-first century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.

The Prevalence of Slums

Slums are characterised by an amalgam of dilapidated housing, overcrowding, disease, poverty, and vice. Residents of slums form 6% of the urban population in developed countries; but 78% in the least developed countries. Davis estimates that here are more than 200,000 slums on earth, ranging in population from a few hundred to more than a million. Some slums have long histories, e.g. in Rio de Janeiro; but most mega-slums have grown up since the 1960s.

More commonly population growth has been in slum communities on the periphery of Third World cities. Essentially squatters occupy no-rent land of little value. But even peripheral land has a market value; and entrepreneurs acquire property rights on undeveloped land and sub-divide them. “Pirate urbanisation is, in effect, the privatisation of squatting.” Much of the scholarly literature concentrates on squatters and ignores renters. But large peripheral slums, especially in Africa, are made up of an elaborate network of kin networks, tenure systems, and tenant relationships. The common reality in Nairobi’s slums is tenancy and exploitation. As the slum periphery grows, urban waste and unwanted immigrants end up together, creating such infamous places as Smoky Mountain, Manila.

The Treason of the State

Why did slums grow so fast in the second half of the 20th century ? Partly because European colonial powers had denied native populations the rights of land ownership and permanent residence. Until 1954 Africans were not allowed to live permanently in Nairobi. The colonial norm was ‘white cities, black home-lands’. In Africa, India, Burma and Ceylon the British refused to provide sanitation or basic infrastructure to native neighbourhoods.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The main barriers to urban growth were removed by colonial counterinsurgency and by national independence. Partition in 1947 and its consequences drove millions into slums in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Karachi, and Dhaka. Colonial warfare in Algeria 1954-61 displaced half the rural population. In sub-Saharan Africa people from the countryside began pouring into the cities soon after independence. The slum was not the inevitable urban future. In the 1950s and 1960s Third World leaders like Nasser and Nehru and Sukarno all promised low-cost housing programmes. But, apart from Singapore and Hong Kong, most governments soon abdicated from any responsibility for combatting slums and redressing urban marginality. 

Middle-class ‘poaching’ of state-subsidised housing became an almost universal problem; in Algeria and Tunisia, in India, and Nigeria, and Mexico. And urban elites and the middle-classes in the Third World have been extraordinarily successful in evading municipal taxation.  Both poaching and fiscal bias underline the lack of political clout of the poor. With a handful of exceptions, “the post-colonial state has comprehensively betrayed its original promises to the urban poor.”

Illusions of Self-help

In the 1970s the World Bank under Robert McNamara increased its global efforts to improve [not to replace] the slums. Massive programmes were launched, e.g. in the Philippines and in India. The international aid institutions largely by-passed the national governments in order to work with NGOs [of whom there are now tens of thousands in Third World cities].  But observers are sceptical as to the effects of the World Bank/NGO approach, which produces some local success stories but leaves the vast majority of the poor behind. The poor are unable to access their notional wealth [land] because they do not possess land rights or property titles. But where land-titling is achieved, many tenants are unable to pay the additional taxes that follow. 

Pirate urbanisation led to slumlordism and to absentee landlords. Land ownership is concentrated in the hands of a small number of families. “Nairobi’s slums are vast rent plantations owned by politicians and by the upper middle class.” Illegal speculation in urban peripheral land has become a major source of corruption in China. The golden age of squatting was over. by 1990. In its place the urban fringes are being systematically developed by corporate firms, legally or illegally.

Kibera, Nairobi

Harassment of the urban poor

Many Third World governments are locked in conflict with the urban poor. There are frequent forced evictions to make way for highways and luxury compounds. In the Philippines under Imelda Marcos thousands of people were forcibly cleared from the parade routes of vanity projects and celebrity visitors. The modern Olympics have a dark history. For the 1936 Olympics the Nazis ruthlessly purged slum-dwellers from much of Berlin. For the 1988 Seoul Games tens of thousands of slum-dwellers and squatters were forcibly relocated in Seoul and Injon. 

During the 1970s it became commonplace for government everywhere to justify slum clearance as a means of fighting crime. In Egypt Sadat wanted the centre of Cairo to be replanned to allow more effective control and policing. In China large-scale slum clearance was co-ordinated with the repression of street vendors and informal workers. From the 1990s there has been an explosive growth in gated, closed suburbs in Third World cities. This ‘architecture of fear’ is commonplace in the Third World. But also apparent in South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, and the United States.

Slum Ecology

An informal settlement outside Buenos Aires is built “over a former lake, a toxic dump, a cemetery, and in a flood zone”. Squatters have settled on swamps, floodplains, volcano slopes, hillsides, and rubbish mountains. In Caracas slum housing is built on unstable hillsides and in deep gorges in a seismically active area. Mania slums are subject to frequent flooding. In the Third World slums that lack drinking water or latrines are unlikely to be covered by disaster insurance.

Nigerian slum

Human excrement is a universal problem. This was the major source of cholera and typhoid  outbreaks in Victorian England. “Constant intimacy with other people’s waste is one of the most profound of social divides.” Post-colonial regimes inherited enormous sanitation deficits which very few have been prepared to confront or remedy. In Kibera and other slums the residents rely on ‘flying toilets’, plastic bags thrown onto the nearest roof or pathway. Jakarta, despite its glitzy skyscrapers, depends on open ditches to dispose of its wastewater. Exercising bodily functions in public is a humiliation for anyone, but in particular it is a feminist issue. Pay toilets are a growth industry throughout the Third World but the [relatively low] user costs are prohibitive. 

Every day around the world, writes Eileen Stillwagon, “illnessses related to water supply, waste disposal, and garbage kill 30,000 people and constitute 75% of the illnesses that afflict humanity.” The ubiquitous contamination of drinking water by sewage and waste defeats the  desperate efforts of slum-dwellers to practise basic hygiene. Water sales have become a growth industry in poor cities. The people of KIbera pay five times more for their water than American citizens. 

SAPing the Third World

SAPs [Structural Adjustment Programmes] were the ‘big solution’ of IMF and the World Bank. As the IMF turned its attention to the problems of Third World countries, it imposed conditions [i.e. structural adjustments] `in return for its lending. These SAPs amounted to a poisoned chalice of devaluation, privatisation, the removal of import controls and food subsidies, enforced cost-recovery in health and education, and a ruthless downsizing of the public sector. 

In Africa the cost of structural adjustments was the collapse of manufacturing, drastic cuts in urban public services, soaring prices, and a steep decline in real wages. Globally indices of inequality reached record heights in the 1980s. In Africa and Asia urban families tried to send dependent members back to the countryside where subsistence was cheaper; thus creating divided families and increased marital breakdown.. And ruthless competition has become the norm in the informal economy for market women and street vendors. Rather than see their families destroyed, slum-dwellers in the late 1970s and 1980s  resurrected the classic protest of food riots.

A Surplus Humanity

Davis concludes:“instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity, the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade.” Informal work accounts for the majority of jobs in Third World cities. In most of sub-Saharan Africa formal job creation has virtually ceased to exist. Child labour and other forms of exploitation have become the norm in Third World cities. In Dhaka nearly half the boys and girls aged 10 to 14 were in informal work. One of the biggest employers of child labour is the Indian city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, where the carpet factories employ 200,000 children under the age of 14. Another major employer is the city of Firozbad, also in Uttar Pradesh, where tens of thousands of children work in glass factories in dreadful conditions.

The most ghoulish part of the informal economy is the surging world demand for human organs, After breakthroughs in transplant surgery in the 1980s, the impoverished periphery of Chennai [Madras] has become world renowned for its ‘kidney farms’. Slum-dweller families sold their kidneys for local transplants or for export to Malaysia. In ore recent years the Cairo slums have been mined for human body parts. Most of the clients are wealthy Gulf Arabs.

Kinshasa has become a vast broken city; wrecked like the rest of Congo-Zaire by kleptocracy, Cold War geopolitics, structural adjustments, and chronic civil war. The Mobutu dictatorship was a monster created and sustained by Washington, the IMF, and the World Bank.. “The child witches of Kinshasa, like the organ-exporting slums of India and Egypt, seem to take us to an existential ground zero beyond which there are only death camps, famine, and Kurtzian horror.”


So, the book makes for uncomfortable reading. It is a wide-ranging, pessimistic survey of the world’s slums, set within a Marxist framework. I suppose that a criticism of the book is that, for all the plethora of statistics and academic studies, there is little empirical data here. The slum-dwellers themselves are largely silent. And the book does not explore where hope might lie. 

To put it differently, what is missing is a Christian perspective. But there are some signs that many slum communities are aware of the possibility of a better life, and are working and praying to that end. It may be indicative that in Kibera there are more churches than there are toilets. 

Patmos Fellowship, Kibera, 2007

In his book Seeking a City with Foundations [pub. IVP, 2011], David Smith surveys a broad swathe of literature that treats the birth and growth of the city. He traces the evolution of the city, and of the idea of the city,  from the primitive urban culture of pre-patriarchal Mesopotamia, by way of the Industrial Revolution in 19th century Glasgow, and by way of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities and Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse, to today’s impoverished slums of the global south. The underlying question is the search for meaning.

In the second part of the book, David Smith notes the extraordinary growth of [mainly Pentecostal] churches across the global south; and he calls for a prophetic theology which will demand both deep repentance from the wealthy and privileged world [i.e. us], and justice and dignity for the people trapped in Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums.

Since big things have small beginnings, I know it’s time to send another cheque to TEAR Fund.

TEAR Fund publicity

February 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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