Why the World Needs to Get Ready for the Next Generation of Slums

People who live in slums don't have easy lives to begin with. Lately, though, politicians have been doing their best to make matters even more complicated. A few weeks ago the Venezuelan government started evicting Caracas's infamous 45-story slum, the "Tower of David," relocating residents to government housing outside the city. In early July, a few weeks earlier, a thousand slum dwellers in Islamabad found themselves confronting riot police as they tried to protest the Pakistani government's plans to evict them from their homes ("katchi adabi" settlements). Around the same time, a local government in India approved plans to build the first of 10,000 new "transit accommodations" for displaced slum dwellers. That followed Bombay's brutal anti-slum drive in May, when authorities bulldozed more than 100 family homes, forcing over 600 residents onto the streets.

If it seems like conflict over slums is mounting, that's because it is: The urbanization of the world is accelerating. In 1950, just 29 percent of the world's population lived in cities; back then, that was roughly 742 million people. Today, more than half of the world's people -- more than 3.5 billion -- are citydwellers. That may sound like a dramatic shift, but you ain't seen nothing yet. Roughly 70 million people move into cities every year, and the vast majority of them usually end up in illegal or informal urban settlements. According to U.N. estimates, by 2050, a third of the world's population will live not just in cities, but in slums.

The growth of slums is a bit like climate change: We know it's happening. We know it's important. But no one, so far, seems to have much of a response.

Policymakers tend to view slums as a necessary evil, a problem best contained through coercion or ad hoc responses. Experts point out, however, that there is a rational way to deal with the coming surge of urbanization: Plan for it. If cities are prepared to anticipate and acknowledge the inevitable influx of urban migrants, slums might not be slums.

Slums are characterized by shoddy construction, inadequate plumbing, and a severe dearth of public services. "Slum" itself is, in some people's eyes, a dirty word -- or at least one with such negative connotations that the stigma of being a "slum dweller" can diminish residents' prospects, pushing them to the margins of society. City authorities usually allow slums to grow, unmanaged and underserved, and then react to the resulting problems by evicting or displacing residents or bulldozing their homes. (The photo above shows a mother and daughter who were evicted from their home in a Rio de Janeiro favela in advance of the World Cup.) Thanks to the misguided belief that slum migrants will move into better housing once they've set down roots, cities tend to neglect public or affordable housing initiatives that could help poor newcomers. "The problem of acceptance of slums is that it's discouraged forward planning," says Larry English, a leading expert on urban development at the humanitarian organization Homeless International. "The idea that people transition out of slums -- this is lazy thinking." (I spoke to him and the other experts cited in this post at a recent conference in Dubai hosted by the philanthropic group Geneva Global and the Legatum Foundation.)

English explains that the laissez-faire attitude toward slums arose in the 1970s and 80s, when city planners began to "embrace slums as a grassroots alternative to formally planned settlements -- a solution rather than a problem." This caused many governments to recognize slums as legal settlements -- in itself a significant improvement over previous approaches -- but permitted them to let development issues take a back seat until community political movements demand they "upgrade" public services and infrastructure. It's a solution that makes little economic sense, says English, noting that upgrading an existing slum costs five times more than if it were planned before settlement occurred.

Some countries, like South Africa, have been proactive in improving existing slums and planning for future migrants. But others, like India, are struggling to do the same. According to Pramod Nigudkar of the Committed Communities Development Trust in India, 52.5 percent of the people in Mumbai live in slums that take up just 9 percent of the city's land. Though migration to the city has abated slightly, the city has still failed to prepare for the estimated 60,000 people moving in each year. In 2000, the Maharashtra State Government recognized existing slums as "legal," but have yet to do so for newer ones. The current approach favors contracting private builders to "redevelop" the land -- which often involves evicting or relocating slum dwellers, and, according to Nigudkar, the city has done little in the way of planning for future urban migration.

What this comes down to is systematic neglect of slum dwellers, who continue to be treated by cities as outsiders. At the Dubai conference, participants outlined the many opportunities that slum dwellers offer to the cities they join. They offer new markets for products and services. Many are themselves necessarily entrepreneurial, and, en masse, they contribute to "agglomeration economics," bringing down costs, easing infrastructure needs, and providing labor. But regardless of what they bring, slum dwellers are, first and foremost, human beings entitled to basic human rights and a modicum of respect from governments.

As Janice Perlman, scholar and author of Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro, explained, the essential problem is that cities are failing to treat new urban migrants as people with equal rights. "I think the real issue is that they don't have the same choices as everyone else in where they live," she explains. "It's all about legitimizing the community as working class people with equal protection, equal rights, and then they can live however they choose to."

Ready or not, urban migrants are coming. And once they arrive, doesn't it make sense to treat them like human beings with all the attendant rights and responsibilities -- just like the citydwellers who arrived before them?


Democracy Lab

The Good News from Indonesia's Election Stalemate

We don't know who the winner is yet, but the presidential election in Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, is already proving to be the most exciting in recent memory: messy, polarized, and full of drama. Both candidates -- Djoko Widodo (known as Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto -- are claiming victory, each citing unofficial results produced by several private polling agencies. Indonesia's official news agencies have now withdrawn their initial vote projections in order to calm the waters before the official results are released.

The Indonesian Election Commission is expected to complete counting the votes on July 21. According to the English-language Jakarta Post, cases of foul play are spreading "like a rash during the vote tabulation phase." Most of the complaints are coming from Jokowi's supporters.

Whoever wins, his margin of victory will be small. Both candidates have already made it clear that they will not accept defeat on the basis of the vote count determined by the Indonesian Election Commission (KPU). That means that the second-place candidate will probably take matters to the Constitutional Court, which will delay the official announcement of the results by a month, complicate the country's already chaotic post-electoral politics, and test the (so far admirable) discipline of each camp's supporters. On the positive side, an appeal will further institutionalize these procedures and establish a road map for future contingencies. Indonesia has approximately three months to complete the electoral process before a new president takes the charge by mid-October 2014.

Over the past three months, the election has opened up a sharp political divide between the traditional political elite and groups that are demanding greater political change. The former camp has coalesced around Prabowo, an ex-general who played a leading role in Suharto's security apparatus. The latter, consisting mainly of civil society groups and ordinary citizens, have supported Jokowi, who has used his position as mayor of Jakarta to buttress his reputation as a reformer. These two sides of the Indonesian electorate have found themselves at odds over the question of how much democracy is good for Indonesia and how much political space is needed for Indonesian citizens.

The Prabowo-led coalition of forces from the established political elite has been dueling with a Jokowi-led movement that is demanding more democratic reforms, clean government, and greater political accountability. While Jokowi is widely viewed as a champion of good governance, Prabowo has been linked with large-scale human rights violations during the riots of May 1998, when the businesses and homes of Indonesians of ethnic Chinese origin were attacked around the country.

Jokowi, the man of the masses, represents the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the largest political party in the Indonesian parliament. Prabowo, a former military general and son-in-law of Indonesia's former dictator, Suharto, is the leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the third-largest political party in parliament.

You might think that Jokowi would have the edge simply because of his populist reputation as a man who represents the aspirations of ordinary Indonesians -- and you wouldn't be far off, since he has indeed been the national favorite ever since the campaign first got under way. Yet Prabowo has gone from single-digit approval ratings at the beginning of this year to his current status as a challenger on almost equal terms with the front-runner. Why has his candidacy taken off so dramatically? What is the source of his appeal?

Above all, Prabowo has tapped into growing popular frustration with what many see as Indonesia's chaotic democratic process. His vote-winning strategy has relied on a highly effective media campaign organized around themes of economic nationalism and xenophobia. He has built a strong electoral alliance, mobilized lucrative support from business elites, embraced religious hardliners, and cast himself as a strong leader who will vigorously defend the country's national interests and natural resources. It was the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the PDI-P, that allowed international companies to start mining in protected forests in 2004. Prabowo's economic nationalism has proven so popular during the campaign that Jokowi was forced to include similar planks in his agenda several months ago.

In order to win over the support of Indonesia's majority Muslims, Prabowo has openly embraced the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a religious militia that has launched several attacks not only on religious minorities but also on non-Sunni Muslims.

Prabowo has also proven to be a skilled coalition-builder, ultimately putting together a broad alliance of seven conservative parties. The coalition's members, who include four Islamist groups as well as Suharto's own Golkar party, potentially command more than two-thirds of total votes as well as a parliamentary majority. The coalition not only drew in supporters and sympathizers but also extended Prabowo's political and social appeal.

Shortly after the election, Prabowo announced plans to transform this electoral alliance into a five-year permanent coalition -- one that will stand for unapologetically majoritarian rule, policies closely tied to moneyed interests, and resistance to further democratic reforms. (In reality, Prabowo's "permanent" coalition may not last very long if he loses; Golkar, in particular, has a long history of opportunism, switching sides whenever it sees fit.)

Prabowo's most effective (and polarizing) campaign tactic, however, has been his smear campaign against Jokowi. In a significant departure from past presidential campaigns in the democratic era, Prabowo launched a frontal attack on his rival, charging him with insufficient Islamic piety, Chinese origins, and communist sympathies. This is, essentially, a reprise of the approach favored by Suharto, who used the same three accusations as the basis for eliminating a large number of Indonesian citizens during his three decades of authoritarian rule. Prabowo's apparent success at reviving the old formula has raised uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the legacy of Suharto-style authoritarianism remains alive and well. Indonesia's dark past, as Australian journalist Hamish Macdonald noted, "is proving uncomfortably persistent."

Yet there is actually quite a lot of good news amid the darkness. The same very ingredients that Prabowo has used to his advantage -- the politics of exclusion, fear, and intimidation -- have mobilized common citizens and civil society against his candidacy. Indonesians began to worry that his victory could mean an end to democracy. On July 4, The Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia's most influential daily papers, broke a 30-year policy of neutrality and officially endorsed Jokowi as a presidential candidate. The paper's editorial staff defended their decision by arguing that the stakes were too high in this election, and that the fate of Jokowi's candidacy would also decide the fate of Indonesian democracy.

Even though this contest has sorely tested Indonesian democracy, it has also demonstrated once again the strength of popular participation and of respect for democratic norms. Turnout in this election has broken all previous records, proving that Indonesians are determined to see that their votes count.

Equally importantly, this election has been almost completely free of violence. Indonesians have adhered to the democratic norm of expressing their political differences by peaceful means. The Indonesian security forces have remained neutral, successfully maintaining law and order throughout the country. Meanwhile, electoral authorities, civil activists, and party volunteers have been keeping a close watch on ballot boxes and vote tabulation processes in order to prevent tampering.

In this respect, Indonesia's presidential election is reinforcing the broader positive trend among Asian democracies. As in many other countries, the burgeoning Indonesian middle class is pushing for corruption-free, reform-oriented, distributive politics. This class, which now includes around 75 million people, and which is growing by some 10 percent per year, is demanding transparency and accountability.

The likelihood of Jokowi's victory (in the absence of mass-scale electoral fraud) implies that the majority of Indonesians reject Prabowo's revival of Suharto-style authoritarianism. For now, the idea of inclusive, progressive, and good governance-driven democracy seems to have trumped the exclusivist, conservative, and elite-driven politics of the few.

Vibhanshu Shekhar is a Scholar-in-Residence at ASEAN Studies Center, American University. He is also a Visiting Fellow at New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He can be reached at

Agung Parameswara/Getty Images