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On May 11 in International House's Great Hall at UCSD, urbanist, author and Professor of History at UC Irvine Mike Davis spoke to an audience of about 200 people about slums. Citing the UN-Habitat report, "The Challenge of Slums," Davis outlined the tragic facts about slums, including 1 billion current slum dwellers, an overlapping 1 billion people with no formal connection to their national or the global economy, and 2-3 billion people over the next half century most likely destined for slums. Summarizing his recent book, "Planet of Slums," Davis argued that slum expansion has reached a limit - an absence of free squatable land and the declining ability of slum dwellers to occupy survival niches has given rise to sectarian violence, child abandonment and other rational responses to desperate circumstances. He concluded with the hopeful picture of slums as incubators for burgeoning resistance movements.

Includes audio and partial transcript.

Mike Davis
Mike Davis

0-45 min Talk
45min-1hr5min Q/A
download audio here

Davis spent the first half of his talk describing the results of "The Challenge of Slums," the 2003 report by UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency concerned with human settlements, sustainable cities and shelter for everyone. The report brings together statistical data from governments and other organizations, household surveys and case studies from around the globe.

(paraphrasing Davis) The UN defined a slum as a human settlement with 10-15 to 100,000 dwelling units, absence of crucial infrastructures such as water, sanitation or energy, substandard or improvised housing and squalid health conditions. In a conservative application of this definition, the UN estimates about 1 billion slum dwellers globally and about another billion (overlapping with slum dwellers) that have no formal connection nor prospects for establishing a connection to their national or the global economy.

According to the UN report, the cause of this disconnect between 1 billion people and their economies lies in a combination of extensive migration from rural areas to cities because of competition from corporate agribusiness and structural adjustment programs imposed on countries of the South by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund during the 1980s, which forced governments to reduce investments in health, housing and other infrastructure.

The UN projects that most of the growth as human population reaches its peak a bit beyond mid-century will occur in the cities of the South, most likely slums.

In the second half of his talk, Davis described his recently published book, "Planet of Slums," for which he "sat in a library for about 6 months and read 1000 books and articles." The overriding purpose of this research was to try to detect common trends amongst the reports of researchers studying slums in diverse urban areas. He found that two optimistic, cherished assumptions of development economists, the World Bank and most NGOs about slums are patently false.

The first assumption is that slums can accommodate growth via squatters occupying free land. Davis found that, as far back as the mid-eighties, researchers were beginning to report that squatable land was disappearing. Currently, only economically worthless, dangerous landscapes such as floodplains and landslide-prone slopes are available for squatting, exposing new slum dwellers to death and injury from increasingly common disasters.

The second assumption is that slum dwellers can self-organize to create their own jobs, no matter their numbers. Davis found that researchers had documented how slums contain a limited number of niches, and that increasing slum population reduces the marginal return on labor. Before reaching zero marginal return, political bosses organize the labor market by barring workers based on ethnicity or religion. Therefore, the growth of sectarian violence in such cities as Mumbai has its origins in this rational response to declining opportunities.

As a result of the breakdown of these assumptions, Davis argued that slums have already begun undergoing a major transition, as illustrated by the tragic situation in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Kinshasa, which was once a major cultural center of Africa, was looted by the dictator Mobutu and later by the IMF's structural adjustment programs. Torn by civil war and ethnic violence for over a decade, the people of Kinshasa, with an average annual income of less than $100 and 20% of whom are HIV positive, have undergone the transition. Families unable to provide for all their children have discarded some of them to the streets of the city to fend for themselves. Spurred on by a growing pentecostal movement, families are dealing with the horror of these desperate measures by accusing the children to be abandoned of witchcraft.

Davis noted that the cold war rhetoric of hope and modernization for all people is gone and argued that those of us living in the rich countries have effectively abandoned the current and future slum dwellers to their fate.

In conclusion, Davis presented the grim hope that the slum dwellers are beginning to challenge their bleak future:

"I think what is happening in the world right now is an astonishing process of experimentation under extraordinarily complex and different local conditions of slum dwellers, of abandoned poor people, 16-17 year olds in forgotten slums in every big city in the world, contesting that abandonment, fighting for some kind of future."

"Whether that is some radical new form of avante garde form of modernity, or whether it is to abolish modernity. Whether it is the nihilist attack on the rich in the center and all the symbols of the city from which people are excluded, or it is extraordinary new attempts to find a citizenship that will encompass everyone."

"It takes all kinds of forms, but it is the beginning of some kind of rebellion of people we have otherwise consigned to oblivion."

Following the 45 minute talk and 20 minute Q/A, Davis signed books and chatted at length with individual audience members, having rich and interesting discussions that were fun to eavesdrop on.

Davis' appearance was sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Library at UCSD.

UN Habitat Report (2003) The Challenge of Slums, $40.
Mike Davis (2006) Planet of Slums, Verso $24

See also
UN-Habitat (2003) The Challenge of Slums, Global Report on Human Settlements.
Understanding Slums: Case Studies for the Global Report 2003 (CD)
Mike Davis (2004) Planet of Slums, New Left Review 26, March-April.

Partial Transcript:

Let's talk about this book, the Challenge of Slums. This was published three years ago by the United Nations Habitat., the United Nations agency for cities and their social problems. And believe it or not, until the United Nations published this study, we knew very little, and some people might even argue almost nothing really of value at all, about urban poverty or slum dwelling on a global scale.

This is an enormously important report, it is one of the few reports, I would add to it maybe something like the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change and global warming report, one of the few reports that you could call genuinely epical in some sense, something that increases our knowledge in an extraordinarily important way, warns us that humanity is crossing an enormously important threshold, a threshold which our existing political and economical systems might not be able to deal with...

For the first time we have some parameters to be able to talk about how people live in cities around the planet...

There is some horrible euphemism that has been created for slums, something like spontaneously generated hopeful survival unit dedicated to micro-entrepreneurship.

The United Nations is straightforward, the slum by its definition is a human settlement ranging in size from 10-15 dwelling units to 100,000 dwelling units characterized by the absence of one or more crucial infrastructures, water, sanitation or energy, characterized by substandard or informal improvised housing, characterized by insecurity of tenure, perhaps the right to ownership, but not the full right to sell the property or use it as a basis of a loan. And finally by what we would call squalid health conditions...

In the application of its definition, the United Nations is extremely conservative...

United Nations finds that no less than 1 billion people live in slums according to its formal criteria. It estimates that some 2 billion people are poor by the very very minimalist standards, conservative standards normally used where poverty can generally be construed in most poor countries as less than $2 per day, less than the price of a cappuccino across the way.

The United Nations researchers finds that there are about another billion people, mainly young people or one half the number of the world's urban poor and a majority of the people living in slums but this is a separate overlapping set, who live in cities and have no formal relationship to the national economies, to the branded world economy that we live in and produce for and consume the products of. Nor are these billion workers ever to have such a relationship.

They live in survival niches that they create largely by their own efforts, its street vendors, laborers, subsistence criminals, nannies, and other domestic servants and so on. Probably most importantly, the United Nations in this path-breaking study, warns us that from this point on, from this very moment on, all the additional build-out of the human race, and those of you who are considerably younger than Steve and I will live to see an extraordinary event, the human race attain its maximum population, level off and decline, probably sometime around 2050 or 2060. Indeed, the people who live to see this will be quite extraordinarily lucky because they will not only see the final build-out of humanity, they'll also live to see irreversible climate change totally alter the conditions of human life on this planet all within your lifetimes and the lifetimes of your children.

The United Nations tells us that of this final build-out of humanity, all the increase will accrue to cities, The global countryside has stopped growing and will actually begin to slowly shrink. The next 2-3 billion people will all live in cities. 95% of them will live in cities of the South, the so called underdeveloped or third world.

The majority of these people will live in the slums of third world cities, the majority of them will probably subsist as informal workers. Perhaps, but there are big question marks because nobody understands the limits or conditions of the reproduction and sustainability of extraordinarily large, very poor cities.

The UN researchers ... are not reluctant to talk about causes, to talk about the genealogy of this slum planet. In their view, the decisive turning point was the decade of the 1980s, when economic liberalization and structural adjustment, the competition of commercial agriculture from the rich countries, produced massive exodus from the countrysides of the South, exactly at the same time that most of the governments in the southern hemisphere and the undeveloped countries stopped investing in new urban social or physical infrastructures and indeed at the very same time when across Africa and many parts of Latin America there was net disinvestment, actual net dismantling of things like public health systems. The full scale retreat of governments from the provision of housing.

So as cities were growing explosively by virtue of so-called push factors, expelling people from the countryside at exactly the moment when their governments lost the capacity and the political will to create the minimal physical and social conditions for the people who were coming to the cities...

Added to this has been the world's largest urban industrial revolution in China... China in a single decade added more urban dwellers than did all of Europe including Russia in the entire 19th century.

This Chinese miracle has taken away most of the kind of the niches and opportunities for other countries to follow that same model. And what's happened in the handful of traditional large industrial cities across the third world truly startling deindustrialization. In Mumbai, in Sao Paulo, in Buenos Aires, in Johannesburg, you've seen declines of manufacturing workforces of 20-30%...

The United Nations report also argues that this era of the Washington consensus that began in the late 1970s has also seen dramatic loss or erosion of state capacity to intervene in a positive way in the lives of urban dwellers, the state capacity to address underlying problems of poverty...

The majority or urban dwellers around the world have never been able to elect their governments... One of the optimistic things you can say about the last 20 years has been that across the world there has been a movement to enfranchise city dwellers, to make mayors and top administrators, formerly appointed, as in for example the case of Mexico City, now elected officials.

The problem that this groundswell of local democratization across the world has occurred across a background of declining capacity of those local governments to actually implement substantial social change...

I sat in a library for about 6 months and I read 1000 books and articles...
I wanted to see over the last 20-25 years, whether people who were experts on housing, on local economic development, on public health in third world cities, to see what kinds of conclusions they were coming to, see what kinds of consensus were emerging...

I discovered with little difficulty that in fact two huge conclusions jumped out at you.

And they directly challenge, and I'm sorry to say this, most of the optimism that the World Bank and many large international NGOs still offer about urban development through the third world.

What you will hear from the World Bank and what you would hear from most NGOs that poor people in cities are capable of incredible creative feats. They come to cities with hardly anything more than the clothes on their back and they are able to find land, free land or land that is not being used or land that has been abandoned, and they squat on that land. and they put up little shacks. Over time those shacks turn to proper houses, over time their illegal occupations get some kind of recognition. Over time these slums of hope turn into durable communities. Squatters are the real heroes of the urban world, they build the city by bootstrap efforts...

[They also say that] the poor are able to bootstrap neighborhoods in cities because they create their own employment. They go out into the city and they find goods and services that are not being supplied, and they supply those. They don't work for a wage, they don't appear on the national income accounts, they don't appear on the tax roles, but they are out there working and surviving, but they're creating new niches. This is the informal economy. Poor people the ordinary heroes of the urban world, creating jobs and they are creating wealth for society as a whole...

What I've just said is the optimistic belief of the World Bank, many economists, many NGOs. And there is of course an absolute grain of truth in it. In the 70s and 80s people did accomplish miracles.

You can just drive 16 miles away and find whole neighborhoods in Tijuana that were once cardboard boxes or little shacks. You see the equity, the sweat equity that families poured into these and they have become solid working class neighborhoods.

This did happen. The problem is that it hasn't been happening in many places for quite a long time...

If you read the housing experts, as far back as the late 80s they were saying that squatting doesn't exist anymore. Squatters only exist [now] where people are wagering their family's lives against inevitable disaster...

The only place you can actually squat or occupy land is land that nobody in their right mind would consider economically marketable or valuable, the very steepest hillsides, the most dangerous floodplains, right next to toxic waste or dumps.

People are still squatting, but they are doing it under desperate circumstances that every year magnify hazard and increase the number of people who will lose their lives or suffer irreparable injuries in disasters that are scarcely natural in any sense...

Squatting has now been privatized... All the flat land on the periphery of cities.. is owned by somebody... The periphery of Karachi is all public land - no matter, political bosses control every bit of it...

One of the major survival strategies of poor people and deindustrialized former working classes of the South is to become a micro-landlord... The poor exploiting the poor... And maybe in some textbook this looks like it's creating huge heroic amounts of new housing, but what;s really happening is housing costs, the cost of buying land, the cost of renting are taking larger proportions of income that maybe 20-30 years ago people could apply to other purposes.

So that is one of two conclusions... squatable free land is largely disappearing...

Some developmental economists... act like the informal sector is infinitely elastic, people come to the city, people will somehow create their own jobs.... The informal sector consists actually of a surprisingly small number of niches. Its a bit like Darwin's famous metaphor about competition in a forest or jungle He talks about driving the wedge in, and then driving wedges tighter, and species trying to crowd their way into a limited number of ecological or survival niches. Poor cities work the same way...

What tends to happen is before you reach a point where everyone's marginal return on labor is zero, somebody intervenes to organize that labor market. That intervention usually takes the form of some kind of political boss or patron, usually on the basis of some ethnic or ethno-religious exclusion. Only mormons work in this community, no no no no swedish street vendors... It rations these survival spaces in cities...

It's a major source i think of sectarian violence across the world... It's not just irrational religious belief, it's not just human willingness to hate your neighbor for some trivial reason, its rooted in the fact that conditions of life have become materially more desperate, there is more competition. And religious sectarianism, ethic identity and racial exclusionism are all ways to regulate this.

So the second conclusion is that the informal economy is not capable of absorbing the ever increasing demand of new urban dwellers for jobs. Instead it produces a counter-reaction, which often can take the form of socially centrifugal violence, ethic exclusionism or whatever in the city.

The two major safety valves that international lenders, neo-liberal visionaries and local politicians have relied on, this ability of the poor to fend for themselves, find jobs and build neighborhoods, both those processes are profoundly in question. They have reached the limits...

What lies beyond the limits?...

Unfortunately we possess a number of examples of this. In my book the example I cite Kinshasa, a city of at least 7 million, a city renowned for the vibrancy of its culture, for self-organization of its people, a city where when everything broke down, the women took charge of the city and began to plant corn in the streets, people revived the skills they had brought from the countryside to try to survive.

[But] finally the city has descended to the point where there was almost nothing left for people to do to survive...

In Kinshasa people who were no longer able to feed or raise all of their children evicted some of their children into the street... Kinshasa has tens of thousands of child witches...

What is this about, what is this epidemic of 5-6 year old witches in Kinshasa?... It's about the breakdown of the family, a society where the family unit is all important...

Kinshasa has crossed that boundary. How may other cities will come to this point in the near future.

This is what the UN report THe Challenge of Slums challenges us to think about.

It also challenges us to think about a world where our leaders represent as a struggle between civilizations... Maybe the ultimate reality has to do with the structural contradictions of a world economy where increasingly large number of young urban people have already been triaged, have lost any entitlement to any future in the world system.

When I was growing up in San Diego... we were all incredibly idealistic... The cold war took the form of a universal competition of ideas guaranteeing some kind of modernization to everybody. That discourse disappeared with the cold war.

There is no recipe, there is no utopia, there is no future that will include the people in this UN report. And I mean that at the level of political rhetoric. Nobody is promising that anymore.

We accept with sublime indifference that tens of millions of Africans will die of HIV/AIDS, maybe tens of millions of bird flu when it comes around.

The rich countries already made a separation, we're already in the lifeboat, we left the others behind in the water and we're waving goodbye at them. Except that they refuse to go quietly...

I think what is happening in the world right now is an astonishing process of experimentation under extraordinarily complex and different local conditions of slum dwellers, of abandoned poor people, 16-17 year olds in forgotten slums in every big city in the world, contesting that abandonment, fighting for some kind of future.

Whether that is some radical new form of avante garde for of modernity, or whether its to abolish modernity. Whether its the nihilist attack on the rich in the center and all the symbols of the city from which people are excluded, or its extraordinary new attempts to find a citizenship that will encompass everyone.

It takes all kinds of forms, but it is the beginning of some kind of rebellion of people we have otherwise consigned to oblivion.

- e-mail:: queer-j-brad@riseup.net

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thank you so much!

29.05.2006 13:23

i'm so glad you posted this, it must've taken so much work and its amazing!

i really wanted to go, but i missed it. thank you!


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