No easy, quick solutions to improving life in the "slums"

BBC journalist Paul Mason’s “Our World,” shown on the 26th August 2011, relies once more on professionalized solutions to offer hope to those living in Manila, the capital of the Philippines – and the most densely populated city on earth. But they’re not a viable solution for the 900 million people living in informal settlements and other forms of inadequate accommodation such as crowded inner city dwellings.

The programme highlights the urgent need to address the problem of informal settlements in towns and cities of the Global South (the so-called “slums”). Hundreds of millions live at risk of eviction.

In the Philippines, government incapacity together with uncertain land ownership and buildings that don’t comply with regulations mean that state services are either not provided, or are under-provided. In these neighbourhoods (which may include thousands of households), water is provided by limited numbers of standpipes or water kiosks, sewers are not installed or are few and far between, inadequate drainage means that houses are at risk of flooding and there may be stagnant water with associated health problems, and there are limited health and education services. An estimated 30% of Manila’s population lives in informal settlements with any one or more of these problems.

As the programme shows, there have been many attempts to remove people from these areas, especially those in the inner city which are located close to job opportunities. These attempts often stem either from real concern for their welfare (the heiress who asks “how can anyone want to live next to a sewer?”) or from a self-interested desire to secure their land for development opportunities (although this is often claimed to be for the “greater good”). Because residents have no legal title to the land, they are vulnerable to being forced from the homes they have built.

No easy answers

Paul Mason shows how those families that have been evicted and resettled four hours away from the city struggle to find work. The programme suggested that building new houses within the existing settlement is a viable alternative for the community of 6,000 households in Manila at risk of eviction. While this might work in this case, it isn’t going to be a strategy for all of the 900 million people around the world living in informal settlements. Given these numbers and the scale of required resources, incremental upgrading – or gradual home improvements – is the major solution.

Building new homes is generally the preferred solution of professionals, (such as the architect in the programme). Given that the Philippine government offers subsidized loans but not capital subsidies for new building to the urban poor, it will likely be an expensive solution adopted by only a few of the wealthier families or those receiving scarce grant finance. Without major state resources, it will always be a prohibitively expensive option for the majority of the residents. As a consequence, most will continue to live in inadequate shelter.

Collective solutions

As Paul Mason recognized, conditions are appalling and local residents do much to improve their situation. But they do not only have the kinds of individual or family strategies described in the programme; they also have collective ones.

Organized communities are providing themselves with water and sanitation, negotiating tenure security, and building – bit by bit – to upgrade their homes. These solutions need to be recognized, legitimated and supported – this is likely to be the most successful route to inclusive cities with citizenship for all, irrespective of income.

These are networks in the Global South that IIED is working with to advance strategies that address needs at a larger scale:
Asian Coalition for Community Action
Shack/ Slum dwellers International

Written by Diana Mitlin, Acting Head of IIED's Human Settlements Group