Poverty Matters Blog
The Filipino government wants to move half a million Manila slum dwellers back to the countryside. Yet they left for a reason
The Filipino government claims it would cost about a third of the national budget to rehouse Manila's slum dwellers. Photograph: Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images
If you have access to BBC output, I strongly recommend a programme and article about slums, aired on radio and television last week. You will be taken on a tour of a slum in Manila, learn about some of the people who live there, and hear what experts think about the future of slums.
Slums are without doubt a huge development issue. According to the programme, as many as a billion people live in them today, a number set to double by 2050. Manila is growing by 60 people an hour, making it the fastest growing city on the planet. In comparison, Indian cities are growing by about 40 people an hour, while London's rate is seven people an hour.
Anyone who has worked with people living in slums will recognise the vivacity and can-do attitude that pervades the programme (which is not to romanticise very difficult, dirty and often violent conditions).
Their programme offered many lessons, but I particularly heeded the one my colleague Claire Melamed constantly highlights – the importance of listening to poor people about what they want. It is unusual to get such a long look at the lives of slum dwellers from their own perspective.
The main issue is the insecurity of land – they have no right to be where they are. The Filipino government wants to move half a million slum dwellers back to the countryside.
But there are good reasons people have left the land they have lived on for generations to seek a better life in precarious wooden shacks next to rubbish tips. A combination of conflict, climate change (slum dwellers claim there are more typhoons and floods in rural areas) and chronic poverty makes life in the countryside unbearable. There are no jobs. Meanwhile, in the slum, we hear of people graduating from university and seeing real prospects for the next generation.
The only sustainable way to repopulate the countryside is to provide opportunities there. In the programme, we hear of guards being placed around evicted slums to prevent previous occupants returning. Rather than move people on, the slums can be slowly formalised, with public goods provided. This has happened in many cities. In others, the slums were just demolished.
There are always reasons to move people off their land, and usually "development", that most treacherous of terms, is one of them. But there is a rule I apply to these kinds of actions: if the solution prescribed by a politician or "philanthropist" also happens to be in their own private interest, be sceptical. (Which does not mean some solutions are not win-win, especially in the long term.)
Housing aside, it is the intangibles associated with a life built up over decades that are lost when people leave their land, whether in cities or countryside. Remove them to another part of the country and they are dependent on others, with no political voice or organisation.
The Filipino government estimates the cost of rehousing slum dwellers in Manila at about a third of the national budget; it is cheaper to ship them off to the countryside. This coming from a government that, the UNDP suggested in 2007, loses $2 billion of its budget to corruption annually. Those creaming off this money are the same hypocrites claiming it is too expensive to house poor people better.
Slum dwellers are organising themselves to defend against government aggression and what they believe is the threat of arson. "We will barricade, we will fight for our freedom and security of tenures," says one community leader.
Their fight has strong precedents. All over the world, as urbanisation has gathered pace, country people have arrived in cities. They have set up their shacks (black plastic bags strung up on sticks) and slowly converted them into more acceptable living quarters, buying a few bricks every month, volunteering at the school, pressuring the local council to provide running water. With the international media spotlight on them, they have a greater chance of success. Governments can get away with less than they used to now.
It is a hopeful story, but one curious aspect of humanity seems to be its ability to pull together in a crisis, only to fall apart when things become more comfortable. I remember a visit I made to families in the south of Bogota who had lived through the process of urbanisation. They looked back on that period of coping and difficulty with nostalgia. That was when there was a community, they said – not like now. Today, all the kids are out for themselves and drugs have become a problem. It was the struggle for better living conditions that brought them together.
Paul Mason, the reporter on the BBC programme, ended on a more optimistic note. Citing British slum history as a precedent, he suggested that the generation of kids sloshing around the wet slum may one day take what they have learned about organisation and cohesion into the wider world.