Third Of The Worlds Urban Population Lives In A Slum
By Simon Whelan
19 February 2004
in 2003 the United Nations reported that one billion peopleapproximately
one third of the worlds urban dwellers and a sixth of all humanity,
live in slums. And it predicted that within 30 years that figure would
have doubled to two billiona third of the current world population.
of Slums argues that without active intervention by national governments,
rapid unplanned urban expansion will greatly exacerbate what is already
a human disaster.
During the 1990s
the urban population across Asia, Africa and South America grew by a
third. There are at least 550 million slum dwellers in Asia, 187 million
in Africa, 128 million in Latin America and the Caribbean and a further
54 million in the worlds 30 richest countries.
The failure of governments
to provide affordable housing has forced the bulk of the urban population
into inner city slums, peripheral shantytown slums andfor the
most desperatethe sidewalks, traffic roundabouts and every conceivable
form of shelter. Slum life consists of insecure employment, state persecution
and extreme poverty.
The biggest ever
study of international urban conditions discovered that one billion
people live in absolute squalor, without water or sanitation, public
infrastructure or security of tenure. The research was carried out by
the UN human settlement programme, UN-Habitat, based in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Kibera district of Nairobi is the largest slum in the world, containing
approximately three quarters of a million people. The Dhavari area of
Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and the Orangi district of Karachi, Pakistan,
are only slightly smaller. In West Africa the Ghanaian city of Tema
harbours the Ashaiman slum, which has grown larger than the city proper.
Poverty, once predominately
a rural issue, has become an overwhelmingly urban phenomenon now that
city dwellers are the worlds majority. The 1990s witnessed phenomenal
urban growth, with the worldwide urban population increasing by 36 percent.
The report predicts that in addition to the growth of giant cities in
all continents, up to three-quarters of future anticipated urban population
growth will occur in some of the worlds smaller cities, defined
as those with current populations between one and five million.
Africa holds 20
percent of the worlds slum dwellers, while South America has 14
percent. In Asia more than 550 million people live in slum conditions.
While the largest economies are responsible for just 2 percent of slum
dwellers, an incredible 80 percent of the urban population of the worlds
30 smallest economies live in slums.
The UN-Habitat report
blames both national government inertia and what it describes as globalisation
and neo-liberal economic policies imposed upon nations by the International
Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation over the last three decades.
The reports authors describe how rural dwellers are drawn to the
cities by factors like the privatisation of public services, loss of
rural employment or homestead, the removal of subsidies and tax breaks
from national industries.
The report details
how the emergence of globalisation over the last 25 years has exacerbated
already desperate social and urban conditions for slum dwellers, who
have seen their precipitous social position further undermined by free
market policies. The wealth created by deregulated markets has not trickled
down to slum communities, it states.
This type of critique
of globalisation is a political red herring, in that it portrays what
is the essential feature of modern capitalism as a subjective policy
of certain institutions that can be reversed, or at least its worst
effects ameliorated, by government intervention and regulation. But
such appeals invariably fall on deaf ears. Governments today represent
the interests of the giant transnational corporations that dominate
the global economy and exploit its resources and peoplesand of
the super-rich financial oligarchy that dictates political affairs throughout
Only an independent
policy articulating the social concerns of the broad masses of the worlds
population and mobilising them as a political force can offer an alternative
to the nightmarish conditions that unplanned economic development, carried
out in the interests of a privileged elite, has created.
which the UN simply identifies as a problemthe vast expansion
of the worlds urban populationcontains within it the solution
to the present catastrophe.
What the UN research
has actually revealed is that the worlds cities are swelling under
a demographic explosion of the international working class as an inevitable
result of the globalisation of capitalist production.
The urban infrastructure
across the entire planet is collapsing beneath the weight of a burgeoning
global proletariat, whereas the peasantry is a class in rapid decline,
both numerically and politically. Peasants are being transformed into
an urban working class, as across the world larger and larger cities
become home to an exploding population. It is this social force created
by global capitalism that must liberate itself and humanity from the
oppressive and exploitative social relations on which the profit system
To give an indication
of how rapidly the social weight of the urban working class is expanding,
The Times Atlas of the World predicts that by next year there will be
19 cities with populations above 10 million. Lagos on the west coast
of Nigeria and Cairo, Egypt, are the most recent to reach what is called
mega-city status. By next year Tokyo, Japan, the worlds
largest city, will be home to 27 million people while Sao Paulo, Brazil,
will reach 20 million and Mexico City just one million less.
In 1950 only New
York City had a population of 10 million. By the mid-1970s the number
of mega-cities had increased fivefold and five years from now is expected
to exceed 20.
Asia is leading
this international growth of the working class, already containing 10
mega-cities, compared to North Americas twoLos Angeles and
New York. By 2015, Dhaka, Mumbai and Delhi will be among the top five
largest world cities and Asia will account for 12 of the worlds
Asia is becoming
overwhelmingly urban in a half the time it took Europe and North America.
Rome was the first city to reach a population of one million in the
year 5 B.C. It was not until 1800 that London became the second. In
1950 just one third of the worlds population lived in cities.
By 2015, Asia alone
will contain 267 cities with one million or more inhabitants. It is
estimated that these cities, locations of vast commodity production
for a world market, will contribute at least 70 percent of East Asias
growth over the next 20 years.
Asian cities are
growing at the rate of 3 percent a year and African ones at 4 percent.
Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, groans under the weight of 1,300 new
arrivals every day.
Today city dwellers
account for 75-85 percent of the populations of Europe and the United
States. Should the rest of the world display similar patterns, then
African cities will become home to a further 100 million people while
Asia will recruit a further 340 million residents before 2010the
equivalent of a new city the current size of Bangkok every two months.
the vast majority of these vast urban populations are condemned to the
most degrading conditions.
At the end of 1998
the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that in African and
Asian cities up to 1 billion people experience severe malnutrition and
food shortageswith workers spending anything up to 80 percent
of their income on food. Urban food prices in Africa and Asia are rising
faster than the cost of living and wages. What food is available is
frequently contaminated because of pollution and unhygienic conditions.
Dilapidated infrastructure renders 30 percent of all merchandise inedible.
A mega-city with
a population of 10 million requires approximately 6,000 tonnes of food
every day. Such a grand operation requires massive investment in infrastructure
as well as an unprecedented degree of cooperation and planning. The
capitalist free market is incapable of fulfilling this most essential
Similarly, as cities
have expanded transport infrastructure has virtually collapsed. Cities
require more sophisticated and affordable transport networks, necessitating
investment in trains, trams, metro systems and buses. Poor public transport
increases reliance upon cars and taxis, bringing the road system to
a virtual halt for hours every day and poisoning the cities inhabitants.
For some living in the most peripheral slums the journey to work into
Sao Paulo, Brazil, starts at 3.30 a.m. and takes four hours in either
direction. The cost of workers commuting to Harare, Zimbabwe, is anywhere
from 22 to 45 percent of their total income.
In Nairobi, Kenya,
approximately 60 percent of its two and a half million inhabitants live
in slums. In the gargantuan Kibera, the streets are unpaved, rubbish
strewn and potholed. Hundreds of people might share one small toilet
block and a couple of water outlets. When it rains storm water washes
the accumulated waste into the water sources. While the population of
the city grows by 5 percent per year, municipal waste collection rates
fell from 90 percent in 1978 to 33 percent in 1998.
6,000 people every day die from preventable water-borne diseases.
In mid-January a
huge fire in a Philippine slum highlighted the dangers of unplanned
housing. The blaze in the Manila slum of Tondo injured scores of people,
razed 2, 500 homes and rendered an estimated 25,030 residents homeless.
It raged for seven hours before it was extinguished, burning down 18
hectares of the 53 hectares of the former shipyard site where the slum
During the 1990s
the growth of social inequality was unprecedented in human history.
Access to decent, affordable housing is a basic requirement for human
well-being, yet across the world millions live under the most inhumane
conditions. Even in Europe, formerly the home of the welfare state,
6.2 percent of the population eke out their lives in slums and more
than one in twenty families live in slum conditions.
The lack of media
coverage concerning the UNs revelations is indicative of an international
elite mired in self-satisfaction and concerned only with the immediate
pursuit of material gain. Just how blinkered the ruling class has become
is epitomised by the response of the Economist magazine, which offered
as its prescription for the rise of slum cities giving slum dwellers
title deeds to their shacks. They blithely argued that awarding
a title to slum dwellers can be seen as a fair way to establish property
rights, the bedrock of any prosperous society.
The growing international
prevalence of slum communities and the neglected human potential they
symbolise is a grotesque expression of the failure of a system driven
by the profit motive, rather than by the requirement to satisfy elemental
human needs. It points to the necessity to replace the anarchy of the
capitalist free market with a rational system of socialist planning.