Slum-dwellers show that revolutions are not built in a day

The recent news from Egypt is devastating but surely not that surprising. Despite the excitement arising from social mobilisation in 2011 and the hope and optimism that greeted the fall of President Mubarak and his allies, democracy has not been secured.

Diana Mitlin's picture
Insight by 
Diana Mitlin
22 August 2013

There have been elections, a new constitution, and a democratically elected president – but Egypt’s citizens have now seen these followed by a military takeover, rising violence, and increasing political contestation. Today they fear the return of an authoritarian state and must wait to see what happens next. And the situation elsewhere for the 'Arab Spring' is also not looking good.

Meanwhile democracy in Brazil continues to mature, but with evident flaws. In June and July a frustrated population took to the streets to complain about government priorities and the massive and likely corrupt investment in sports facilities for the 2014 World Cup, despite neglect of essential basic services including transport.

The Brazilian government responded with the promise of a massive investment, over US$20 billion, to improve transport facilities – and this may help to alleviate the most acute problems. But the underlying model of urban politics remains unquestioned – people protest, and the state responds with programmes designed and implemented by individuals and agencies that have persistently failed to address problems in the past.

As the Brazilian example shows, this is true even in a state in which there has been massive investment in participatory processes and where a radical government has committed to help the urban poor. Even in these circumstances, there is a demonstrated incapacity of government to address some of the more intractable social costs that modern forms of capitalist development bring.

In the global North, considerable advances have been made in establishing rights, affirming an inclusive citizenship and addressing disadvantage. These advances reflect decades of pressure that social movements have exerted as they fought for and secured the democratic franchise, welfare states and accountable government.

But as the on-going economic crisis illustrates, social justice remains elusive. Rising inequalities, the withdrawal of essential safety nets and rapidly declining opportunities for young people across Europe all suggest that issues of poverty and social exclusion are very much on the political agenda in the 21st century.

Meanwhile in the global South, more than 900 million people, close to one in seven in the world’s population, continue to live in appalling and life-threatening conditions of over-crowded shack neighbourhoods that lack even the most basic facilities. These people want justice – they want to be treated with respect, to live their lives with dignity and to secure their basic needs.

A new approach

While the attention of the media, social commentators and would-be revolutionaries have focused on the models of contentious politics that resulted in social transformation in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and North America, new, quieter forms of urban transformation have also been in the making. They are led by some of the most disadvantaged people on our planet.

Our new book, Reducing Urban Poverty in the Global South, reports on the approach that slum dwellers across Africa and Asia have used to achieve social justice and urban rights. This approach recognises the limitations of protest politics. It has emerged from those who have witnessed the struggles for independence in former colonial states. It also builds in the lessons of democratisation in countries such as Cambodia, the Philippines and South Africa. As such, it has at its heart scepticism towards efforts to contest power and gain control over the state.

While its leaders are sympathetic to the cause and are committed to the struggles for social justice and freedom, they doubt the effectiveness of such strategies. They recognise that, as difficult as it is to build a movement powerful enough to bring thousands onto the streets night after night to demand change, it is even harder to make progress stick.

Faced with government promises that are broken, public expenditures whose benefits are captured by the wealthy, and with revolutions that welcomes new elites who rapidly become inculcated into the behaviour of the old elite, they have refined an alternative practice.

In Reducing Urban Poverty in the Global South we highlight five interventions, each of which follows a broadly similar approach. They invest in building up neighbourhood groups able to improve the lives of people in informal settlements — places where people lack secure tenure, running water, sanitation and waste collection. And these neighbourhood groups are led by women, doubly disadvantaged by gender as well as where they live.

Partnership not protest

These groups develop their own solutions to previously intractable problems of urban development. They design new sanitation systems, build houses and document their communities. For the most part, women play a leadership role – gaining a new confidence as they demonstrate how they can improve local conditions. They network these groups so that they influence city politics.

They come together in networks to challenge local politicians who first favour a 'divide and rule' strategy – and persuade these politicians to negotiate as they realise that communities across the city are now working together. As solutions emerge they work with their local authorities to make sure the government is on board and then they negotiate additional resources to scale up their efforts. To date, millions of people in the world’s poorest informal settlements have seen the benefits.

Other strategies have failed, in part because of the violence, political manipulation and neglect that are dominant in many urban centres. We show that while development professionals and in some cases politicians are well-meaning, they are not powerful enough to negotiate alternatives in these contexts, in which speculative profit-making creates and controls markets for every single basic need — determining that these are commodities that only go to those who can pay.

Decades of political campaigning and formal urban improvement programmes have brought them little. Reducing Poverty in the Global South shows how squatters and tenants —and the networks and federations they form— have defined their own strategies and solutions and can negotiate their own fates as they struggle for equity and justice in the towns and cities of the future.

See also: More patience, less protest: the new politics of the urban poor

More information on Reducing Urban Poverty in the Global South on this site

More information on Reducing Urban Poverty in the Global South from the publisher (for review copies, email