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 Wednesday 03 October 2007
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GLOBAL: Hostages to governance: life for the city-bound poor

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
In the absence of urban planning by governments, the residents of this slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh, have taken the initiative to provide their own housing
NAIROBI, 1 October 2007 (IRIN In-Depth) - “Near my house, the water we use for bathing, household cleaning, food preparation, dishwashing and sewage ends up in a pond of stagnant water. This is where my children play and swim. It is their playground,” says a woman living in an informal settlement in Bangkok.

In many fast-growing cities, informal settlements and slums rarely see the benefits of government. For the urban poor, governance manifests itself through inadequate and insufficient delivery of services. Solid waste collection and disposal is just one of the many things the urban poor lack. Many also need access to safe water and sanitation, healthcare, education, jobs, shelter and housing.

In addition to being deprived of the basic necessities, the urban poor are often excluded from municipal decision making and planning, living in the blind spot of government authorities and at the mercy of informal gangs and militia who step in to fill the void. When these informal authorities take over, the urban poor are subjected to higher incidence of crime and violence. In essence, their rights disappear.

As the wealthy hide behind increased security such as gated communities, the urban poor become more socially isolated. The informal economy offers little or no protection for workers.

Photo: Chris Horwood/IRIN
When infrastructure is not provided, or not affordable, the urban poor find their own way around the problem, as in Delhi, India, where electricity is tapped
Islands of deprivation

“It’s assumed that citizens of cities will take care of themselves, that cities are islands of prosperity and therefore you don’t need to bother with city residents,” said Rasna Warah,editor of the UN report State of the World’s Cities 2006/7. “But as you’ve seen, there are also huge islands of deprivation within cities, which are totally neglected by local authorities and the development agencies.”

Cities are extremely complex networks of human activity, and their governance – through public and private means - is not simple. Running a city can often be as complicated as running an entire country. Now that more than half of the world’s population is living in large towns and cities, the success or failure of cities to serve their populations well can have a critical impact on billions of people.

Almost all aspects of urban development and poverty reduction are connected to issues of governance. While good governance contributes to sustainable human development, poor governance can shatter the lives of those who are most vulnerable and need it most: the urban poor.

Disproportionately, they are the ones who suffer harassment and marginalisation. According to UN-HABITAT, a survey of 60 countries found that a staggering 6.7 million people were forcibly evicted from their homes between 2000 and 2002 compared to 4.2 million between 1998 and 2000. Reports suggest that most of today’s evictions occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

Governance requires policies.. Experts agree that good governance is a necessary condition for dealing with the challenges of urbanisation. Cities, urban analysts say, should aim toward more openness, participation, legitimacy, accountability, effectiveness, equity, coherence and efficiency. But better planning and policies need active and accountable local and national governments.

The role of local and national government

Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
Nairobi’s slum-dwellers protesting after the water company reported that less than 1 percent of the connections in Mathare were legal and cut off all supplies
According to UN-HABITAT’s State of the World’s Cities, 2006/7, some progress in local governance over the last decade has been made through decentralisation and participatory decision making. This is particularly the case for some Latin American and Asian countries. Porto Alegre in Brazil, one of the fastest growing cities in the world over the last 50 years, is a good example: good governance has turned its rapid economic growth into a very strong benefit for most of its citizens.
In sub-Saharan Africa, on the whole, decentralisation initiatives are “too recent and have been poorly implemented due to resource constraints and weak institutional capacity,” according to UN-HABITAT. Since it can take decades for decentralisation to have an impact, the process can worsen conditions for the urban poor.
Policymakers are recognising that the urban poor are in the best position to both advocate for their rights vis-à-vis local governments, and design and implement slum upgrading schemes.

Grassroots action

Federations of slum dwellers are some of the most innovative actors within grassroots movements. Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) is a network of squatter groups on three continents. Active in more than 20 countries, they have been successful in developing low-cost housing projects, water and sanitation schemes and mapping their settlements. Many of these federations have the support of the national government – for instance in Malawi and South Africa – and have been resourceful in developing partnerships with local governments.

At present, urban development actors are struggling to define their roles and to establish a more cohesive, more proactive approach to urbanisation. According to Helene Gayle, CEO of CARE International, “Neither the NGO community nor the donor community has co-evolved in the direction of facing urban poverty as rapidly as urban poverty has occurred.” This has left many wondering to what extent, if any, the NGO and humanitarian aid communities should intervene in what is typically thought of as government territory. Some are reaching out to grassroots organisations like SDI to assist in developing their ability to engage and make governments accountable to them.

The recognition of, and willingness to work with, slum and squatter populations by government and civil society actors alike is the foundation upon which services, infrastructure and housing can then be provided. Since the urban poor are routinely subjected to evictions, coping strategies are needed. At its most basic level good governance involves recognising slum and squatter residents’ rights, and formalising them through land tenure, ownership, city zoning regulations, etc.


Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
With few official sources of water and sanitation facilities, most urban poor resort to any available supply for their needs, as seen in Dhaka, Bangladesh
In some cities, one of the biggest challenges when it comes to housing and land use is how to deal with squatters who occupy dangerous areas such as riverbanks, railroad tracks, garbage dumps, shorelines, waterways and public places such as sidewalks and parks. Should cities recognise settlements in such areas and provide them with basic services when this is not in the best interest of the inhabitants? What happens when the area is flooded? Who will be responsible for the deaths, damages and survivors?

This issue becomes even more problematic where squatter and slum areas disrupt urban planning schemes, waterways or sewage systems. It can also be complicated by the absence of comprehensive demographic data and land for relocation, the refusal of squatters to move farther from their place of work, and major costs. In reality, the tension between these two sides runs deep: A city can have legitimate reasons for not recognising a settlement; and the urban poor have legitimate demands when they ask for basic services.

A study in Marikina City in Metro Manila provides a better solution: persuade families they are in danger and relocate them. According to Humphrey Otieno, chairman of the Kenya’s People’s Settlement Network, “What we need from the government is just for them to come and sit with us and have a conversation. Let us first have a dialogue. Let us see the importance of why you are pursuing the [relocation]. Why are you relocating us? Is it for the community or for the government? People will not refuse to move if you sell the idea to them.”

Urban risk and opportunity

But such solutions and dialogue require resources and, most importantly, political will to help the poor – who are often seen as an unnecessary burden on the system.. The risk of governments not addressing these needs may have more dangerous consequences than increased suffering of the urban poor. According to David Satterthwaite, chief researcher for the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, “If national governments don’t start planning better for urban growth, we are looking at a scenario in which half of urban populations have infant and child mortality rates 20 times what they should be, with at least half of the urban populations housed in squatter settlements. We would obviously begin to see strong resistance movements creating civil unrest and possibly civil war. What we have now is a perfect example of what the future scenario is if we continue failing to change governments’ and international organisations’ response to urbanisation.”

Good governance is the critical force in any city that defines it services and environment. People in rural areas have much more independence to search for solutions to problems of shelter, water, health and work, but when they move to town, they are hostage to the power of the municipalities – and, if that isn’t apparent, to the power of alternative authorities. UN-HABITAT’s director Anna Tibaijuka frequently asserts that the main locus of poverty has now moved to towns and cities and it is there, vastly dependent on the quality of governance, that the battle to secure the Millennium Development Goals and other basic improvements will be fought.

Theme(s): (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Urban Risk


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Republication is subject to terms and conditions as set out in the IRIN copyright page.