24 November 2010

In praise of slums

"As the fastest urbanising continent in the world, Africa is not only confronted with the challenge of improving the lives of slum dwellers but also the challenge of preventing the formation of new slums," said Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat.
Really Joan? What's your counterfactual? An imaginary nice clean yuppie living in a nice clean neighbourhood? An imaginary happy-clappy rural farmer?

Slums are created when people leave their rural village to go in search of a better life/more money in the city. Slums aren't some kind of alien cancerous growth, they are the result of natural economic forces (*cough* WDR 2009 *cough*), of people becoming more productive when they are closer together, and can more easily exchange their ideas, their labour and their services. Africa may be the fastest urbanising continent in the world but that's probably because it was the least urbanised to begin with. Urbanisation is a good thing.
The breakneck transformation of a rural population into a predominantly urban one is neither good nor bad on its own, says UN-Habitat. 
They are already inundated with slums and a tripling of urban populations could spell disaster, unless urgent action is initiated today. This situation threatens stability and also entire nations," it said.
Enough with the alarmist nonsense please. For a look at some of the life and vitality and optimism of urban Africa, check out the BBC documentary Welcome to Lagos.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I just read this in a paper on African urbanization:

"Yet, an optimistic view of urbanization in developing countries could be contradicted
by empirical evidence on Africa. "Explosive urbanization", "overurbanization"
or "urbanization without growth" are expressions frequently read in the
literature on African cities (Bairoch 1988, Fay and Opal 2000). They imply that
Africa has urbanized without it being fully explained by economic development,
unlike developed countries. This excessive urbanization is attributed to pull and
push factors feeding rural exodus. First, cities are associated to a parasital public
sector, that feeds itself on the (over-)taxation of rural farmers (Bates 1981,
Bairoch 1988). An extreme version of the urban bias story is primacy, when the
largest city is oversized compared to the rest of the urban population (Davis and
Henderson 2003). Henderson (2003) and Duranton (2008) show that primacy is
detrimental to growth. Second, land scarcity and natural catastrophes can make
rural living more di cult, this encouraging rural exodus (Barrios, Bertinelli and
Strobl 2006). Lastly, manufacturing was the main sector behind the industrial
revolutions in developed countries (Bairoch 1988, Williamson 1990, Kim 2007). It
is the main contributor to Chinese growth, while India has based its development
strategy on tradable services (Satterwhaite 2007, Bosworth and Collins 2008). But
manufacturing and tradable services are under-represented in African cities today,
which asks two questions: (1) Where do African cities come from? (2) Given their
economic composition, could African cities be powerful engines of growth"

I'm not sure where I stand on this, but there is some evidence urban growth is not always a symptom of good things.

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