About a billion people live in precarious conditions in slum areas around the world – about a third of the urban population of the developing world, and a number that’s forecast to treble by 2030. Increasing urbanisation in developing countries is putting pressure on the provision of basic services and housing, a challenge that governments around the world cannot afford to ignore.
The Development Progress team at the Overseas Development Institute has carried out three case studies – in India, Peru and Thailand – which looked at improvements in the living conditions of the urban poor over the past 20 years. The lessons from these case studies can prove useful when it comes to addressing the serious challenges facing the world’s growing number of slum dwellers.
Firstly – it might sound obvious but it remains true – leadership and political will go a long way in delivering change. In Thailand, Baan Mankong, an innovative housing programme that gives communities a large say in upgrading activities in slum areas was created thanks, in large part, to the determination of one exceptional individual – Somsook Boonyabancha.
Somsook (you can see her speaking at an ODI event here) has worked in the housing sector for over 30 years. It was her vision to put people’s needs at the heart of it, that drove the implementation of a community-driven slum programme that has national reach.
Secondly, slum communities themselves are pivotal to improving their own living conditions. Given that slums are inherently informal, and in most contexts slum dwellers are marginalised, it comes as no surprise that they have to rely heavily on their own efforts to make change happen and push hard for recognition from the authorities.
In the case of Peru, the expansion of public services to marginalised urban settlements has happened, more often than not, because communities have put pressure on government and have demanded these services.
Of course we need to have some nuance when we talk about community participation, and to beware of “romanticism”. Communities are always diverse, and there can be disagreement within them; there can be good and bad community leaders; participation can be time-consuming and slow down the pace of change.
And, of course, communities cannot do everything by themselves. Government presence is vital – without it critical infrastructure (roads, hospitals, and schools) cannot be built. And this government presence must also extend to planning for future urban expansion.
Thirdly, and finally, while it is critical to improve living conditions in existing settlements, this needs to go hand in hand with efforts to ensure that additional and affordable land and housing are available for growing low-income communities.
Unfortunately, not many governments are particularly good at this, for a number of reasons. They may lack the political incentives to do so, with their short-term electoral cycles not necessarily aligned with the long-term timeframes required to plan for urban expansion and infrastructure delivery. They may lack economic incentives, prioritising land for profitable developments over the provision of affordable housing (an issue facing many cities around the world, not just those seeing fast growth in the developing world). Or they may simply lack the technical capacity and financial resources to plan for future demand.
But, unless governments prioritise land and housing for the urban poor, there can be no sustainable solution to the housing challenges faced by a growing number of people in cities across the developing world.
Paula Lucci is a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute.