How can we improve living conditions in slums? Lessons from Bangkok, Lima and Ahmedabad

How can we make this work better? Mumbai's Dharavi slum in 2009. Image: Getty.

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 IndiaPeru 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.

For more on this research, visit the ODI’s website, where you can view to see an animation on urban poverty and a film on Lima’s slums.


The future is here: Register now for Barcelona’s New Economy Week

Barcelona New Economy Week (BNEW) starts this Tuesday with the goal of turning the Catalan city into the "global capital of the new economy".

BNEW runs from 6 to 9 October, with registration remaining open throughout the event, offering insight from 350 speakers on how businesses can bounce back from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It will feature top speakers from the business sectors of real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones.

The hybrid, business-to-business event – which is taking place in physical and virtual forms – is organised by Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB) and will showcase the way in which Barcelona is preparing for the post-Covid world and the "new economy". It is the city’s first big business event of the year and aims to help revitalise and restart the local economy.

“BNEW will be the first great event for the economy’s global recovery that will allow the redesigning of the productive fabric,” says Pere Navarro, state special delegate at CZFB. “It is an honour to have the participation of renowned professionals and attendees from all around the world.

“As we are not in a position to do a proper ‘in person’ fair, we decided to adapt by creating a disruptive and useful event in this way to relaunch the economy.”

The conference will encompass five interconnected events incorporating real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones. More than 8,000 professionals from 91 countries from all over the globe will take part virtually. A further 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the five events in person. Over 200 speakers will take part physically, while the rest will give their talks via a digital platform especially created for the unique event. An advanced digital networking platform – using artificial intelligence – will cross-reference the data of all those registered to offer a large number of contacts and directly connect supply with demand.

The conference will also be simultaneously broadcast in high-quality streaming on six channels, one for each of the five interconnected events and an additional stream showcasing Barcelona’s culture and gastronomy.

BNEW will take place in three venues in the city: Estació de França, Casa Seat and Movistar Centre. All are open, digital spaces committed to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. Estació de França will host the BNEW Logistics, BNEW E-commerce and BNEW Real Estate events, while Casa Seat will be home to the BNEW Economic Zones event, and the Movistar Centre will host the BNEW Digital Industry.

Some 36 companies are sponsoring BNEW, and 52 start-up companies will take part and present their highly innovative products and services. A further 128 firms will participate in BVillage, a kind of virtual stand where they can show their products and schedule meetings with potential clients.

Highlight sessions will include: "the era of humankind toward the fifth industrial revolution," by Marc Vidal, a digital transformation expert; "rational optimism," by Luca Lazzarini, a commercial communications specialist; and "future smart cities’ challenges and opportunities," by Alicia Asín, a leading voice on artificial intelligence. Sandra Pina will also talk about how sustainability is transforming us, Jorge Alonso on the humane future of cities and Pilar Jericó on how to face changes in the post-Covid era.

BNEW is described as a new way of developing your know-how, expanding your networks and promoting innovation and talent.

“Networking is always one of the main attractions of the events, so to carry it out in this innovative way at BNEW – with the high international profile it boasts – is a great opportunity for companies,” says Blanca Sorigué, managing director of CZFB.

Readers can register for BNEW for free via this link using the discount code BNEWFREE.