February 16, 2006

Planet of Slums

It's not a big secret that the developing world suffered a major slowdown in growth starting around 1980, right about the time that the IMF began leveraging Third World debt to force poor countries into adopting its preferred mix of neoliberal policies: devaluation, "free" trade, privatization, deregulation. Among developing countries, per capita income growth plummeted from 3 percent annually in the "bad" old protectionist days of 1960-1980 down to 1.5 percent in 1980-2000. (For the poorest group of countries, things were even worse—per capita GDP growth plummeted from 1.9 percent annually in 1960-1980 to negative 0.5 percent in the heady globalization decades.)

As I say, that's all well known—at least among critics of globalization. What's less well known is what this all means for a more obscure aspect of the world over the past few decades: namely, the breathtaking rise of urban poverty. The "structural adjustment programs" forced on scores of countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia during the 1980s had a number of very specific effects: Agricultural subsidies were slashed, causing the rural poor to flee to the cities, while public sector firms were privatized, increasing unemployment. That plus the combination of a collapse in manufacturing, a drop in real wages, and cuts in social services and infrastructure spending all pointed in the same direction: Urban populations expanded rapidly, and urban slums proliferated without end.

In a nutshell, all of that is the context for Mike Davis' new and much-recommended book, Planet of Slums, which examines the rise in urban poverty across the world. Davis looks at the numbers in a hundred different ways, and they're all equally stark. The urban population in the Third World is growing rapidly, and will double to nearly 4 billion within the next generation. Most of this growth will occur not in the biggest cities, but in medium-sized cities, which are ill-equipped to deal with this sort of a population explosion. Among other things, the developing world is inevitably going to see the rise of new "megacities," with populations over 8 million, and "hypercities," with more than 20 million people. Projections have Jakarta, Dhaka, and Karachi all reaching over 25 million by 2025, and no one really knows if this is anywhere close to sustainable.

The swelling ranks of the urban poor in these new megacities will increasingly be consigned to slums—already, there were 921 million slum-dwellers in 2001, a number equal to the entire world population back when Engels started poking around Manchester in the 1840s. There are 250,000 slums around the world today, and by 2030 or 2040 there will be around two billion slum-dwellers living on this earth, people who live in areas with few, if any, utilities—in Nairobi the poor rely on "flying toilets" (crapping in a plastic bag)—people who are barely subsisting in the "informal" economy, breeding disease and dying at an alarming rate, plagued by crime, and often forced into quasi-feudal dependencies by local officials. (Local officials will often threaten to raze an entire district if bribes aren't paid.)

So that's the world in 2030 or 2040. Davis cites a major report on slums by the Global Urban Observatory, "Slums of the World," which, atypically for a UN report, places the blame squarely on decades of neoliberalism, rather than "bad governance" by the poor countries in question:
The primary direction of both national and international interventions during the last twenty years has actually increased urban poverty and slums… [I]nstead of being a focus for growth and prosperity, the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade…. The rise of [this] informal sector is… a direct result of liberalization.
Davis estimates that a billion people worldwide work in the "informal sector"—a group that doesn't match up exactly with the slum-dwelling population, but overlaps heavily. Judging from his description, these workers certainly aren't the mini-entrepreneurs described by right-leaning economists like Hernando de Soto, ready to break out if only they lived in a society with property rights. (For another critique of de Soto, see here.) Most of these workers are what Davis calls the "active unemployed," those without jobs who must somehow find a way to subsist—or starve—in a ruthless slum environment, prone to exploitation at every turn.

So what's the upshot of all of this? Davis is describing, first and foremost, an unparalleled human catastrophe. Few cities in the developing world are at all prepared for this sort of urban population explosion, and as Davis says, "who can imagine any plausible scenario, under neoliberal auspices, that would reintegrate [those in the slums and informal sectors] as productive workers and mass consumers?" The 2 billion slum-dweller scenario is on its way; there doesn't seem to be much anyone can do about it.

Back during the industrial revolution, European cities were able to handle the influx of city-dwellers moderately well because mass immigration to America, Oceania, and Siberia "prevented the rise of mega-Dublins" and alleviated some of the pressure on the urban populations there. But today, with immigration increasingly restricted in the rich world, that's not really an option for countries in sub-Saharan Africa or Central Asia. (Most of today's "First World" countries also didn't have to liberalize anywhere near as fast as developing countries are forced to today.)

Nor is it very likely that the billions ejected from the formal economy will ever organize themselves as a class, demanding justice. Self-consuming communal violence, rather than solidarity, tends to be the major trend in most slums. At least today, urban problems in the developing world are most often addressed—when they are addressed—from above, by populist leaders like Hugo Chavez, who can often count on support for the urban poor. With the explosion of slums in the next few decades, we can expect the rise of more populist leaders around the world; many of them far less benign than Chavez—for instance, the fascist Shiv Sena movement in Mumbai.

Davis thinks that, in the absence of a Left (if there even is one anymore) in Third World urban areas, the slum class will eventually turn in increasing numbers to populist Islam and Pentecostalism. In the past, according to religious scholar Hugh McLeod, increasing urbanization has usually come alongside working-class detachment from the church (Glasgow and New York are two major exceptions). That trend will almost certainly change with the rise of a two-billion strong global slum-dwelling class in the decades ahead, as the urban poor increasingly turn to mass religion, and against "Western civilization," such as it is. Really worthwhile book, I'd say.
-- Brad Plumer 9:28 PM || ||