Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Do we have to learn to live with slums?

Do we have to learn to live with slums? Watch Paul Mason's film from the Philippines in full
Manila, Philippines: The rich elite in cities across the world want to clear the slums which are now home to a billion people. But many of those who live in shanty towns like that which lines the banks of the San Miguel canal, do not want to leave. Why?

I had come to the Philippines to explore a theory but, as always, reality got in the way.

I was standing on the bridge over the Estero de San Miguel, a slum in the capital Manila.

My host was architect Felino Palafox and he had spread his blueprints across the parapet of the bridge and we were poring over them, with some street kids clambering around us. Palafox was making a big splash with the locals his Star Trek-style traditional Philippines shirt.

Find out more

Slums 101 will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 16 August 2011 at 20:00 BST
You can watch Paul's film for Newsnight in full on BBC Two that evening at 22:30 BST
More about Slums 101
More from Newsnight
The sweep of the slum was pretty horrible - a curve of water, shacks on both sides, multicoloured plastic rubbish inches deep in the water, and now and then the sound of something hitting the water as somebody used the "wrap and throw" method of sewage disposal into the Estero itself.

I needed the bathroom myself, so somebody guided me into a shop - a kiosk really - on the bridge. I clambered down a ladder and then, suddenly, I was in a place whose existence had not really occurred to me. Because if the slum is built right up to the waterway, on stilts, how do you get through it?

The answer was a tunnel. Four feet (1.2m) wide, about 5ft 7in (170cm) high (I learned this painfully as I am 5ft 7.5in (171.4cm)) and 600m (1968ft) long.

Twelve hundred families live off that tunnel - about 6,000 people. Such is the population density that I realised immediately what the women cradling their kids and swaying absentmindedly in the half light were doing - the same as me, waiting for the toilet.

Lack of hope
When I came out I was, as Dennis Murphy said to me afterwards, "stoked". Dennis is an ex-Jesuit priest who runs an NGO in Estero de San Miguel that has helped the slum-dwellers organise themselves.

"You were hyper, manic," he told me later.

That was because whenever you enter a slum your spirits do not so much droop as plummet. A fall, with a long "aargh" such as that emitted by the Wily Coyote when The Road Runner gets him to go over a cliff.

The Balderas family live in a single 8ft square room
You suddenly become aware physically - even though you have seen this stuff many times before - of that thing no modern human being wants, limitation, boundedness, a lack of hope.

After two minutes down the tunnel I stormed up the ladder and told my crew to stop filming Palafox. Nice though his scheme development plan was, it was on paper. Down in the tunnel was a reality that, despite being in Manila's slums for days, we had not properly seen.

Mena Cinco, the barangay captain - a kind of local councillor with the authority of a tribal chieftain - led me down again.

We met Rotsi and her family - mum, dad "a driver for a Chinese family", an unspecified family guest, a daughter doing her homework and a toddler. Five people in one-and-a-half rooms.

"We've been here 20 years," Rotsi told me.

Population explosion
Next door Oliver Balderas was snoozing with his kids, who were eating ice cream. There was a cartoon on the television and mum was also having a nap - it was about 32C and heavy with humidity.

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Why Philippines slum clearance is creating new problems
They came to the door. Mr Balderas is a construction worker earning about $3.50 (£2.13) a day. The family moved to Estero de San Miguel from a conflict area 10 years ago.

The room - about 8ft (2.4m) square, and like all of the Estero, built of wood and floored with lino - is their entire dwelling space.

Manila is undergoing a population explosion. Of the around 60 people-an-hour estimated to be arriving here, about half are coming as migrants from the collapsing agriculture sector, and half are born here - so there are kids everywhere.

These kids sing a song about the inevitability of poverty and their determination to overcome it.

Total rethink
With the sky glowering when I got out of the tunnel, I was no longer in any mood to go on giving the theory the benefit of the doubt.

My instant reaction was this: "There's a theory that says basically slums are here to stay, that they're cohesive, sustainable - green even.

"I can see the social cohesion bit, but as for green, well, (my nostrils flare at the river smell).

"And I can't help thinking the whole theory is a bit of a cop out because why - when in the 19th Century they cleared out places like this in one generation do we, in an era of globalisation, tolerate them?"

Mena Cinco is one of the slums' official leaders
If I came out of the Estero de San Miguel "stoked", it was because it challenged my trendy notions, learned from the 2003 UN Habitat report and interviews with various experts, and re-awakened the inner Edwardian-era social reform nostrums my grandparents taught me about slums, which is that they have to be cleared.

But then I went back into the San Miguel by night, with Mena still trying to educate me about the social cohesion, and I was forced to rethink it all again.

I met business graduates, found an internet cafe, met the volunteer police force and got offered the chance to eat a boiled egg with a chicken embryo. I said I would rather jump in the canal naked, and the local women invite me to do just that.

Then, over a beer with ex-Father Dennis, discussing our mutual experiences with the Salesians and the Jesuits, I discovered what one billion people on the planet have discovered - slums are not so bad.

They have changed from the Dickensian hell holes of our imagination. Through education and communications technology people are making life bearable for themselves - and of course providing the modern mega-city with an indispensable workforce of cheap labour.

The result is we have to confront a question that would have appalled the 19th Century pioneers of city design - do we have to live with slums forever?

I do not know the answer to that question - but I now understand the question.

Somewhere between the theories of the architects and NGOs and the rigid clearance doctrines of Prada-clad Filipino millionaires, and the night on the streets with the local cops and the day in the countryside with people whose main ambition in life is to live in a Manila slum… I have gone beyond the theory and experienced the reality.

Join Paul Mason on Tuesday 16 August at 20:00 BST on BBC Radio Four, on Newsnight at 22:30BST on BBC Two, and on BBC World TV's Our World slot on 26/27 August, and on the BBC World Service's One Planet on 19 and 26 August to experience it for yourself.

And for more background read Paul's New Statesman article here

Want to know what to do about slum dwellers? Try listening to them

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.

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