In-depth: Tomorrow’s Crises Today: The Humanitarian Impact of Urbanisation
GLOBAL: Rasna Warah, editor of UN-HABITAT's State of the World's Cities Report 2006/7
Rasna Warah, writer, analyst and editor of numerous reports on urban risk as well as UN Habitat’s, “State of the World’s Cities 2006/7”
NAIROBI, 30 August 2007 (IRIN) - (September 2007) Nairobi-based Rasna Warah, writer, analyst and editor of numerous reports on urban risk, as well as UN-HABITAT’s “State of the World’s Cities 2006/7”, spoke to IRIN about some of her concerns over the state of debate and engagement of the international community with the issues raised by urbanisation. QUESTION: Why is it important that this year marks the shift from a predominantly rural world to a predominantly urban one?
ANSWER: Especially in the development industry, development agencies have been rural-focused agencies, because the assumption is that poverty in the developing world is rural. Now 2007 won’t make many parts of the developing world more urban -- most will still be predominantly rural -- but it’s a milestone in terms of world population. In fact, more recent UN data shows that the urban transition will now occur in 2008.
This means that development agencies will have to bear in mind that the populations they are serving are now going to be living in cities, not in villages. So it’s a very important demographic shift, which means you have to rethink your development strategies and rethink how governments address their populations. Q: Has this been a blind spot for humanitarian agencies?
A: Completely. Most agencies have a rural bias. 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. But as you’ve seen, there are also huge islands of deprivations within cities, which are totally neglected by local authorities and the development agencies. It’s a total blind spot. Q: Some people frame the debate over cities of light versus cities of darkness in very pessimistic terms and others say cities are the solution. What do you think?
A: I think cities are the solution. If you look at all the data, the most urbanised countries are also the more developed countries, so there seems to be a direct correlation between human development and urbanisation. In fact, human development indicators -- in terms of low infant mortality, high literacy, greater life expectancies -- are higher in societies that are more urbanised. So obviously urbanisation is a good thing; it leads to better health outcomes, better literacy outcomes.
In most countries, urbanisation is a consequence of economic growth and visa-versa. Economic growth leads to urbanisation, urbanisation leads to more economic growth and they sort of feed each other. In Africa, however, economic growth has not kept pace with urban growth, which means you have dysfunctional urbanisation, where countries are rapidly urbanising – Africa has the highest urban growth rates – without the commensurate growth needed to sustain those urban populations. Therefore, in the African context, it’s just led to the proliferation of slums, because the growth has not reached the whole urban population. Rapid urbanization has also led to greater inequalities and could therefore be the source of much conflict in the future. Q: Some critics say unbridled economic liberalisation has created this divide and fuelled criminalisation. Some argue that slum upgrades are just a Band-Aid for a much bigger problem. Is a new economic system necessary?
A: I don’t think economic growth is incompatible with social justice. Sweden is a perfect example of a country that’s combined economic growth with social justice, which means that the state’s resources are used to distribute the wealth among its citizens, not accumulate it within a certain elite, which is what’s happening in African countries. So of course you need economic growth because you need wealth to distribute. I’m not for zero growth, for instance. Of course you need to create the wealth in order to distribute it. The problem is, it’s not being distributed. I don’t believe that African governments, like Kenya’s, are so poor that they cannot distribute that wealth in cities more equitably. I don’t think there’s an equitable distribution of services, resources in the cities. In fact, there’s absolute total neglect of slums.
There should be more subsidies, for instance. South Africa is an example of a country that has higher economic growth that Kenya -- enormous resources. It’s much wealthier of course, but it has a water policy now where 200 litres of water is distributed for free to every household in the country. Anything above you pay for. That’s the kind of social justice system which is trying to address past inequities. The country also has a similar system for electricity.
There is an emphasis on subsidies. Unfortunately, the models that the African governments are using -- World Bank, IMF-led processes, let the market decide -- are not going to work here. There are too many past and present injustices that need to be rectified first. You cannot have a free-for-all market system in a society that is still trying to have basic needs met. Q: If not free market then what?
A: I’m saying that even the most free markets are not completely free. There are regulations; there are laws governing how money is spent; there are tax laws. Government priorities are based not on free-market principles but should be ideally based on social justice models. Countries such as Sweden and Cuba have made concerted efforts to make certain services free, like health and education, to provide services to those who can’t afford them. And yet firms in Sweden produce Volvos and Ikea furniture, at a profit: It’s not a communist country. So it’s not either/or; you can have economic growth but you can have the wealth distributed more equitably. Q: Don’t you think that free water might lead to wasting?
A: Siphoning it off? You know 200 litres is not a lot of water. I think the South African government has a way of regulating it. Perhaps the households are now part of the formal economy. There’s probably a meter in every household which gauges how much is used, and if you use more than 200 litres you are charged for it. So you have to pay eventually.
Now if there’s corruption in the system, that is another matter. But you are talking about people who are paying 10 times more than what I’m paying. So what’s fair? A slum-dweller is paying much more for water than I am. Why should the poor pay more for water? I should be charged more to subsidise them. I pay very little for water, but they are probably paying one-fifth of their salary for water every month. Q: In an interview, Mike Davis underscored the contrast between the absence of any focus on the problems of urbanisation in the Bush administration and the almost-obsession with issues of slum proliferation amongst Pentagon war planners. Do you think this is a good thing or not?
A: I don’t think it’s good or bad. That’s the reality. It’s interesting that the Pentagon is interested, because the Bush administration has basically destroyed so many cities in the Middle East and in Iraq, just destroying infrastructure. I think the reason why it concerns the Pentagon is that previously, many wars in Africa and Latin America were guerrilla wars conducted in rural areas. But what’s happening now, because of the dynamics of urbanisation and inequality, wars are becoming urban and much more dangerous, more anonymous. Before, wars were fought for specific goals, such as toppling the government in power. Now they are based on things that are more intangible, and are therefore harder to monitor and control, especially in urban slums. .Q: What are slums wars about if not toppling the government? The Mungiki cult/gang in Kenya, for example?
A: The Mungiki are a result of past policies that totally neglected displaced communities. They are a product of the ethnic clashes in the 1990s, which displaced people from the Rift Valley and who were ignored by the Moi government, and who basically sought refuge in this cult in Kenya’s Central Province. The Mungiki are a product of politicised ethnic violence, where the state was responsible for engineered ethnic clashes. The displaced people were disaffected and disillusioned, then joined a cult thinking this would either get them their rights to land or give them a sense of belonging. Eventually the cult transformed into a criminal organisation.Q: It no longer wants land?
A: It wants resources, that’s why there’s extortion, racketeering and all that ... It’s become an income-generating project. People in the slums are recruited by the Mungiki to extort money from others. If you don’t address the needs of the dispossessed, of the marginalised, you are going to create more and more Mungiki. You will never get rid of them. There will always be a force that feels disaffected enough to turn to crime or to some cult for answers.Q: So it’s a problem of governance? But how can problems of governance be solved by a bad government?
A: They can’t. You have to create the institutions that can outlast any government. You can’t be at the mercy of individual governments. You need governments that will create institutions that will outlive their tenure and which are hopefully more just. For instance, in the UK, even though many governments have tried to kill off the National Health Service, it survives because it’s considered a core value of the British people to have free healthcare. It’s a value system that no government could destroy. So it’s not at the mercy of any individual government. A country like Kenya should have certain value systems … One positive approach was free primary-school education, which is a huge subsidy, but it will take years before the country sees any benefits. Of course, primary education is not enough; to be valuable and have a proper job you need secondary education. If Kenyans see free primary education as their birthright then the next government will not be able to stop that programme.Q: Do you think security sector reform is a key issue in other countries?
A: Judicial systems are archaic, they are not in tune with 21st century urban systems. I don’t think you need more brute force, I just think you need better intelligence. You need to beef up your intelligence systems, because killing people is not going to solve anything, it’s not the answer. It would be much more effective if they found out how these organisations are formed, what the root causes are for their formation, how they can be addressed, how people get co-opted and transformed, how to have some kind of rehabilitation. Justice must be seen to be working, because for most people, going to court, if you don’t have a lawyer or don’t have the money, could mean you could languish there for years.Q: Is there anything donor countries and humanitarian actors can do?
A: The solution does not lie outside. Donor assistance has so many minuses that the pluses are not worth it. When the money runs out, what happens to the programme? I really think the country should use domestic resources to fund any kind of reform or initiative … which is based on local reality, not on donors’ dreams.Q: So there is nothing external actors can do to help governments help themselves?
A: No government can be asked to help itself if it doesn’t have the political will. I don’t think [the Kenyan] government has the political will to address the slum issue. It’s been talking about it for seven years but I have yet to see any one slum upgraded. Slums are a very difficult issue. It’s not like dealing with child immunisation or refugees. It’s very complicated; there are so many actors involved. It’s not simply a question of throwing food at somebody or giving them a blanket. It’s too complicated to have one approach.
There are two schools of thought: the Chinese model - the state comes in, builds 2,000 units, gives everybody a shelter and leaves. In a democracy, it’s harder to reconcile the varying interests. In countries that are very centrally governed, it’s much easier to deal with slum problems because the government has the resources and the mandate to walk into a slum, demolish it, build a million units overnight, and nobody will ask any questions.
In slums such as those in Kenya, there are people and institutions with widely differing interests. There’s the local government, the central government, the structure owner, the landlord, the tenant, the slum dweller himself, the chief of the area, all these are people with a vested interest in the status quo. To change the status quo, you either have to use brute force or wait for a very long time. There are slum dwellers who do not want better housing, because they feel they won’t be able to afford to live in the new houses once they are upgraded. They’ve seen it before on other estates, where houses end up being built, but when it is time to occupy the houses, they find out they cannot afford the mortgage or the higher rent. So the middle class buys them out, moves in, and the slum dweller moves to another slum that is probably worse than the one he left behind. The government also cannot afford to give away houses; this is not a rich country. There are landlords, some of them very rich, who would rather keep the slums the way they are because they earn a lot of money from them. And then there are the slum dwellers who would rather use the money on things other than housing. To reconcile all these different interests is very, very complicated.
In Paris and London in the 1950s and earlier the governments instituted slum upgrading policies. They built council housing, demolished the slums. But that requires a very wealthy city. So they could afford to remove slums completely. Some people argue that the quality of the housing is so poor that they’re just vertical slums, housing estates with low quality building materials. But these are countries that had slums but made a decision to get rid of them, not by killing off the slum dwellers but by giving them an alternative - subsidised housing.Q: Why bother if the Kenyan government cannot afford this and if slum dwellers do not want change anyway?
A: I think there are other ways. For instance, if you give incentives to the slum dwellers, in terms of some kind of communal property ownership, if you identified the people who could own a piece of land and either be in charge of their own upgrading or provide them with a title that cannot be traded in, which they cannot sell off, where the community decides how they are going to be upgraded.
There are many examples. In Thailand, for instance, government institutions fund community-based organisations, under the umbrella of a bigger NGO, which then works with the communities, who decide what kind of houses they want to build, what kind of neighbourhood it should be, whether they should have a nursery, school or playground. It sort of puts the onus of decision-making on how to improve your dwelling on the communities themselves. But the government provides the money; it doesn’t actually build the housing, although it does provide architects and engineers. But it requires a government willing to do that. I just don’t see this government doing that. Even though it allocates money to slum-upgrading every year, I’m not sure it’s actually doing anything.
I don’t think slums should be a permanent feature in any city. As cities grow and become more prosperous, slums will disappear. But they will not disappear automatically – there needs to be some intervention on the part of local and national governments.Q: So you’re optimistic then?
A: I hope I am not being too optimistic but I do sincerely,hope that there will not be a single slum left in the world in my lifetime! But I doubt it. There will always be poor people in this world, there will always be people who are less wealthy than other people. But there are certain basic needs and rights that every human being should be entitled to. So, for instance, everyone should have access to water, sanitation and a decent shelter. It could be one bedroom with a toilet and a kitchen, it doesn’t matter, as long as you are not living next to a sewer and defecating into a plastic bag. There are poor people in every country. However, the level of dehumanising living conditions in Nairobi slums is not acceptable. No human being should live like that. That level of deprivation is totally unacceptable, even worse than in rural areas. In the village you don’t share your toilet with 200 people. You’re not living next to a factory or a river that floods. You have a level of dignity that you don’t have in an urban slum. You may be poor, you may have very little income, but the level of dehumanisation is higher in the city.Q: Is your optimism wishful thinking or do you really think it’s possible?
A: I’ve seen it happen in other countries. If you read the State of the World’s Cities report, there was a global scorecard of countries that had performed well on the slum target of the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals]. Most of those countries were in North Africa. Now why is North Africa different from sub-Saharan Africa? They are both on the same continent. But North Africa has the least number of slums; slum-upgrading is a very high priority of the governments. Many of them are socialist-type, or monarchies, or run with a very strong central government. But it just goes to show that if you’re committed to eradicating slums, you’ll do it. I don’t think it’s an impossible dream. I don’t think slums are here forever. I’m optimistic because it’s happened in other countries, in Thailand, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt …Q: What’s different about those countries?
A: They had two things in common: very good leadership, focused on slum upgrading - at least sensitive to the issue of urban poverty. These are governments which then used their own resources, domestic revenue, to come up with programmes to either upgrade slums or rebuild housing or some kind of intervention that got rid of the slums. They were probably very centrally managed, which means it was not the local authorities’ responsibility to upgrade but the central government’s. So it became a central government project, not a local authority project. Once central government is involved, you have more money, more resources. Of course North Africa is much more urbanised that sub-Saharan Africa, so they were probably more conscious of the poverty levels in cities.