Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Save the Slums!

Yesterday evening, I read an interview with Stewart Brand called “Save the Slums”. Some of you that are my age or a little older (from the hippie era :) may remember him as the person who put out the Whole Earth Catalogue (and its sequel, the Whole Earth Epilogue). Anyway, he had some interesting things to say about slums and squatter areas around many Third World cities. Living in a city like that and knowing people who live in these squatter areas, I was intrigued by his comments.

He says that the United Nations, following extensive research, has come to see slums as the world’s greatest solution to poverty! Brand gives several reasons. One is that slums are hotbeds of creativity. They contain millions of people trying desperately to get out of poverty, a situation that leads to collaboration and innovative ideas for getting ahead. Another reason is that slums are a valuable transition route from a rural lifestyle and economy to the urban economy, something that would be impossible for most people to do directly since they have neither the income or skills necessary to do this. When they first come in from the countryside, they work for almost nothing in the informal economy. But gradually, they move up into the formal economy and make their way out of the slums.

A third reason is that slums empower women! In the villages, women are generally part of a hierarchical society where they have little say, work hard all day, and have lots and lots of kids. But when women move to town, even the squatter areas, the hierarchical village social structure tends to break down, they tend to have fewer kids (thus defusing the population bomb), and work to get those kids some education. Women become important and even powerful in the slums. They’re often the ones running the community organizations and are considered the most reliable recipients for microfinance loans.

Finally, as a bonus, slums are good for the environment. Subsistence farming is generally ecologically devastating, so people moving from the villages to the cities is a good thing.

Does this mean that slums and squatter areas are great places to live? No. They’re full of suffering and crime. But rather than bulldozing them, Brand sees them as an invaluable transition stage for improving people’s lives and recommends that more be done to supply them with electricity, clean running water, and police to control crime.

Hmmm... an interesting perspective alright. I’ll have to run it by our friends and acquaintances in the squatter areas here and see what they think...

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