Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The theory and reality of urban slums: Pathways-out-of-poverty or cul-de-sacs?

Ivan Turok (HSRC, South Africa) and Jackie Borel-Saladin (African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town)


About one in three urban residents (over 900 million people) in the global South live in informal settlements. These ‘slums’ generally consist of makeshift dwellings and they lack basic services such as water and sanitation. Local residents have no security of tenure, so they can be evicted at short notice.

Informal settlement near Kliptown, Soweto
Photo: Tanya Zack

Informal settlements are likely to absorb most of the world’s population growth over the next three decades. So the difference these places make to people’s chances in life is crucial to the future well-being of a large section of global humanity. Put simply, will they help to lift people out of poverty because they provide affordable entry points to access urban assets, services and livelihoods? Or will they confine people to enduring hardship and vulnerability in squalid and unsafe environments with little prospect of upward mobility?

Considering the magnitude of the issues at stake, the dynamics of urban slums are surprisingly under-researched and over-sensationalised. A better understanding of the relationship between slum characteristics and personal trajectories is important, set in the context of local labour market conditions. The interactions between these three phenomena - place, people and economy - are bound to exercise a decisive influence on whether informal settlements help or hinder human progress by linking people to the opportunities concentrated in cities. 

Without this understanding of how shack areas affect human development, all kinds of implicit assumptions and misperceptions flourish. A common stereotype is that they are ‘no-go areas’ formed in hazardous places by squatters who are anti-social, uneducated and desperate. Stigma really matters when held by powerful elites who target slums for eviction because they are blamed for crime and pollution. The opposite view is that slums are sites of remarkable self-sacrifice, high hopes and resourcefulness in the face of adversity. Their social vibrancy and energy make them worthy of special policy attention.

Neither of these polarised notions recognises that the prospects of slum dwellers are intimately bound up with the labour market context of the city, especially the rate of jobs growth. There are also contrasting perspectives on how informal settlements evolve over time. One is that slums are part of the growth pains of societies in transition that gradually disappear as living standards rise. The other is slums are permanent poverty traps that keep mushrooming inexorably.

 This paper explores which of these processes are more prevalent in practice. Do informal settlements enable people to move out of rural poverty, or confine them to insecurity and misery?

Informal settlement near Kliptown, Soweto
Photo: Tanya Zack

The focus is on South Africa, which is interesting for at least three reasons: the stark social and spatial inequalities, policy ambivalence towards informal settlements, and rising social unrest. Evidence that these places help people to get ahead could shift attitudes and prompt recognition that they warrant more investment in public services. 

The paper draws on data from the Labour Force Survey. It provides clear evidence that households are better-off in informal urban areas than in rural areas, but worse-off than in formal urban areas. Hence shack settlements may be a step up for former rural households in that a fair proportion of adults are able to access urban jobs. However, most are confined to lower-paid, manual and precarious occupations.

The prospects for stronger upward mobility are hampered by sluggish economic conditions and a segmented labour market. The contrasting conditions of shack dwellers and formal urban residents are also among the reasons for increasing frustration and violent protests in these communities.

Further research using longitudinal data is necessary to test these provisional findings and assess the extent and timescales of economic progression accompanying migration between rural and urban areas.

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