Today's date:
Spring 2006

Planet of the Slums

Mike Davis is the author of Planet of Slums, The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu and Ecology of Fear. He is a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant.” He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in late February.

NPQ | Apostles of globalization like Thomas Friedman in his book The World Is Flat herald the rise of a global middle class thanks to deregulation, free trade and technology. When you look out at that earth, you see a planet of slums.

How do you square these parallel views of reality?

Mike Davis | In so many cases, middle classes are being created around the world today not by broadening or deepening the wealth of the whole society, but through transfers of wealth away from the poor, for example through cutting subsidies and the privatization of public assets in Third World countries. So there is a dynamic linkage between the nouveau riche on the one hand and poverty and exclusion on the other.

There are obviously exceptions to this. In South Korea, for instance, the middle class has grown as a result of the overall expansion of income and consumer demand like America in the 1950s, not least because of a strong labor movement that translated productivity gains into higher wages. And the most successful East Asian tigers, following Japan, were able to translate export earnings abroad into relatively egalitarian mass-consumption economies at home. But this hasn’t been the case elsewhere.

China, of course, is responsible for most of the net global reduction of absolute poverty in the 1990s. Along with amazing new wealth, everyone agrees that there is also growing inequality in China. The question is whether one should see the glass as half-full or half-empty. I see the trend as half-empty.

And it is remarkable how different the 1990s would look in terms of global poverty statistics if you set China aside. It is true, as in China, that you see on a world scale the reduction of absolute poverty—people making under $1 a day. But that leaves an enormous population of urban dwellers making less than $2 a day. They are swelling the boundaries of megacities across the less-developed world, sprawling up unstable hillsides, down across flood plains and along the banks of toxic rivers downstream from dirty industry.

NPQ | What are the dimensions of the slum population on a global scale? What defines a slum? Where are they biggest and growing?

Davis | Using conservative definitions by the United Nations Habitat office, there are today 1 billion people living in slums globally. A slum is defined by substandard housing with insecurity of tenure and the absence of one or more urban services and infrastructure—sewage treatment, plumbing, clean water, electricity, paved roads and so on. While only 6 percent of the city population of developed countries live in slum conditions, the slum population constitutes a staggering 78.2 percent of the urban population in less-developed countries—fully a third of the global urban population.

The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks and scrap wood. Much of the 21st century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement and decay. Indeed, the 1 billion city dwellers who inhabit postmodern slums might well look back with envy at the ruins of the sturdy mud homes of Catal Huyuk in Anatolia, erected at the very dawn of city life 9,000 years ago.

What makes today’s slums different from the Dickensian inner-city tenements of London in the 19th century is that they are peri-urban—that is, they are largely on the far edges of established cities, neither countryside nor city, usually about 20–30 miles from the city centers. These sprawling outer zones one sees in China, Indonesia and across Latin America house not only peasants coming to the city, but people being forced out of the cities by eviction or rising rents.

Not only are today’s slums larger than in the 19th century, but they are more dense. Though they are low-rise structures, the square footage is tiny with a lot of people living in each shack. They are built haphazardly along narrow footpaths, not the broad grids of the inner city. A small fire can spread to destroy 1,000 units of housing in 15–20 minutes. Infectious diseases travel rapidly in such an environment.

Slums as contiguous swaths of settlement are largest in Latin America—the largest being on the southeastern edges of Mexico City. There are similar settlement patterns outside Bogota, Colombia, and Lima, Peru. Bombay has the largest slums in South Asia, with about a 500,000 population. But in general the pattern in the subcontinent is more fragmented and less contiguous, as we see in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a sea of poverty surrounds middle-class enclaves.

In Africa, we see megaslums in Lagos, Nigeria. Gaza in Palestine is one of the world’s largest slums. Sadr City in Baghdad is not only one of the largest, but one of the newest, filled with Shiite refugees from when Saddam drained the southern swamps. Port au Prince in Haiti is not a particularly large city, but it is surrounded by the megaslums of Bel Air and Cite Soleil.

NPQ | What is the economic dynamic behind slum creation, of surplus humanity and jobless cities?

Davis | What is staggering about the creation of slums these days, whether in South Asia, Africa or Latin America, is that the push factors—people being forced out of the countryside—work even when there is no pull of jobs in the cities. People keep coming even during stagnation, recession and depression.

The custodial function of the countryside—absorbing the surplus population of unemployed and underemployed people—no longer works. National market deregulation pushed peasant producers into global commodity markets where they found it hard to compete. The real watershed came in the 1980s with “structural adjustment” and public-sector downsizing. As a result, in huge cities or whole regions, as in Sub-Saharan Africa, virtually all employment growth is in the informal economy. Formal employment disappeared as public spending was slashed in the cities.

The idea was that, after the sacrifices of the 1980s, the 1990s would see the private-sector entrepreneurs creating new formal jobs in place of the old public sector, thanks to globalization and free trade. That is precisely what failed to happen in so many places. Obviously, there are exceptions—like southern China, which has become a huge export platform to the rest of the world.

In places like India, you see the unprecedented phenomenon of people who are neither urban nor rural. They work part of the year as casual laborers in the city and the rest of the time in the country. They don’t have stable work, but float back and forth.

NPQ | What are the political consequences of slums? In your book, you talk about “the urbanization of insurgency” and, noting that Gaza is one of the world’s biggest slums, you say that “the slums respond with suicide bombs.” Hamas has risen to power now in Gaza.

Davis | So many of these movements, whether narcotraficantes in Colombia or Islamists in the Middle East, provide subsistence economies for young men who are excluded from the formal economy. The dearth of employment in the shrunken formal sectors makes competition fierce for a job. So young men jump at any opportunity they can get, whether joining a crime gang or militia.

NPQ | So “informal survivalism” goes along with political radicalization? There are other correlations in Latin America, such as Hugo Chavez and the slum dwellers of Caracas he champions. There is Evo Morales in Bolivia, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, whose political base is the urban poor. Moqtada al-Sadr, the militant Shiite cleric in Iraq, has his base in the Sadr City slum.

Davis | Yes, but it is not unilateral. You can’t make a Communist Manifesto type of generalization about the informal working class. In the same city, you will find very different pathways to survival. In Gaza, they may turn to Hamas, but in the slums of Nairobi, they may turn to Pentecostalism, especially the women. In Caracas, some may turn to crime, others to Hugo Chavez.

What I’m claiming is that this very large fraction of humanity that is excluded from a viable human future is experimenting in a variety of ways how to survive. And they are doing it at a time when not only formal development strategies, including microcredit, are less effective, but also strategies of the poor themselves, such as squatting, because of property titling that leads to ownership and thus increasing competition and rents the poorest of the poor can’t afford.

The alarming message is that not only is the state gone and the market not filling the gap, but the urban poor can no longer generate their own solutions with a minimum of resources.

NPQ | Every time we turn on the TV we see poor slum dwellers from Venezuela or the Philippines or Pakistan victimized by some natural disaster—a mudslide, a flood or an earthquake. Why is that?

Davis | Once you could move to Mexico City from the countryside and squat on the edge of flat land. Within 10 or 15 years, the government would ultimately have to recognize you and bring in services. Now, because of intense competition for space, such land has been apportioned by the process of “pirate urbanization” in which squatting is privatized. To live there, you have to pay for a title and buy the land.

So, people survive by settling on the only free, untitled land that is left. By definition the land nobody wants and which has no market value—on a steep, unstable hillside, along a polluted river or in a dangerous flood plain. It is only a matter of time for natural disaster to strike.

After the deadly flash floods around Caracas in 1999 where 32,000 people were killed, rescue workers came back incredulous at how people managed to build housing that creeps higher and higher up the nearly vertical hillsides.

NPQ | What about disease? Aren’t close-quartered slums with poor sanitation a breeding ground for Avian flu and other threatening pandemics?

Davis | Already 15 years ago, bioscientists like David Baltimore, the former president of Caltech, recognized that globalization was changing the ecology of infectious disease. One of the ways that ecology has changed is, with slum conditions, food sources are concentrated in unsanitary conditions in higher numbers and greater density than at any time in human history. Sanitation is a huge—perhaps the biggest issue—in the slums, where clean water and toilets must be shared by thousands. Ninety percent of Latin America’s sewage flows untreated into streams and rivers.

And it is a feminist issue. In Bombay (Mumbai), women band together to go to the public toilets between 2 and 5 in the morning for privacy and to avoid sexual assault. Nairobi is a sanitation nightmare.

In Kinshasa (Congo), the only way people have been able to survive the collapse of the state and the economy is by bringing agriculture into the city. There are chickens and other animals roaming everywhere. These kinds of conditions transform the whole ecology of disease, speeding up transmission among animals and enabling the leap to humans. They create linkages and causal chains that weren’t there before.

One example: Urbanization in West Africa has increased demand for protein in diets. At the same time, European companies have driven West African fishermen out of their traditional fishing zones, which provided most of their protein. Without fish for protein, people turned to the bush meat trade in the big logging countries like Gabon. That demand for bush meat, for example from monkeys or chimps, has broken down all the biological species barriers for disease. People are eating wild mammals that carry exotic diseases like the Ebola virus or HIV. Recent studies have shown that what HIV required to obtain the critical mass to become a world pandemic was Kinshasa—a hot breeding ground. People out in the bush had been getting HIV from chimpanzees for a long time, but it quickly died out before it could be widely transmitted.

Through connections of migration, travel and transport, diseases incubated in such hot conditions then go global.

NPQ | What is the answer to this challenge of the slums?

Davis | The failure of the old strategies of development has a silver lining: the recognition that development from below is the better approach because the people directly affected are more efficient administering resources to themselves. The problem is that resources are radically insufficient for addressing the scale of the problem.

That means the answer is radical redistribution of wealth, especially when a country has a national resource like oil or a strong export sector. I’m not a great fan of the person of Hugo Chavez, but his experiment in Venezuela today is very interesting: encouraging self-help among the poor, but providing massive resources to that end thanks to oil revenues that before only went to the elite.

His is a “soft redistribution” because it does not involve expropriating from the middle class, but rechanneling the national resource of oil money to the poor.

The big challenge at the end of the day, more than anything else, is jobs, jobs, jobs. Until you can create formal employment in the cities, you can’t deal with the slums. Only the state can mobilize resources on a big enough scale to make a difference.

Truly, urban unemployment is equal to climate change as a fundamental challenge for our future.