Just over half the world’s population live in cities, and one in three of these people live in informal urban settlements, also known as ‘slums’. These areas face challenges, including rapid social, economic and demographic transitions; health risks and vulnerabilities; and fluid governance, often characterised by longstanding neglect from the state and residents’ limited voice and power. Cities illustrate the world’s starkest disparities in income, health and wellbeing.
The conditions in many informal urban settlements fuel socio-economic inequities and violence, including political and gender-based violence. Without targeted interventions to improve state-citizen accountability, aimed at empowering people to demand their rights and boosting government responsiveness, marginalised people living in informal urban settlements face an increasingly unhealthy, violent and unstable future.
Definitions, data and visibility
Around the world, informal urban settlements and their governance are poorly understood. National governments often dismiss them as temporary irregularities. The term ‘slum’ or ‘informal settlement’ can be shorthand to denote urban poverty and deprivation, crowding and exposure to environmental hazards. Definitions differ by country, state and even city. A basic description refers to households lacking at least one of the following: security of housing tenure (to prevent forced evictions), access to water or sanitation, sufficient living space or durability of housing. Informal settlements vary considerably in terms of state recognition, how long they have been established, land ownership and geographic features. Many are extremely dynamic. The constant movement of people intensifies social fluidity, including shifting gender relations and identities.
Government data rarely cover informal settlements and are usually insufficiently disaggregated. This means that vulnerabilities and inequities are often invisible in urban planning, health and welfare information systems and inadequately addressed in the delivery of formal services. In India, for example, ‘notification’ as a slum settlement is central to the government recognising slums and providing drinking water and sanitation. Lack of government recognition can create barriers to legal rights. Many settlements that appear ‘slum-like’ are never notified, thereby denying citizens access to basic services such as water, sanitation and security of tenure.
Governance, health and inequities
The daily conditions of life and work, and a lack of access to formal services and mechanisms for representation are shaped by and maintain unequal power relations that exclude and discriminate against people living in informal urban settlements. The absence of formal government institutions creates multiple systems of informal governance, including community-based arrangements, NGO initiatives, the private sector and criminal organisations.
Many residents experience ill-health, including infectious and non-communicable diseases and mental health problems. These are driven by insecure housing and livelihoods, political neglect, lack of social protection and environmental risk factors, such as pollution. Vulnerabilities are fuelled by social marginalisation, stigma, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and fragmented social structures. Risks and vulnerabilities, resilience and the capacity to respond to these challenges are not evenly distributed: they are influenced by overlapping, deep-rooted and unequal power relations, shaped by factors such as socio-economic status, gender, age, religion, disability, sexuality, ethnicity, location, employment and citizenship.
Voice and accountability
The diverse, fluid and informal nature of these areas generates opportunities for change. They can be sites for vibrant innovation by residents themselves who act to secure their livelihood and health, build social cohesion, fight discrimination, claim their rights and demand accountability.
Currently, there is insufficient knowledge of the conditions that promote effective accountability strategies, especially for the most marginalised populations, in contexts with complex governance systems. It is this reality that the ARISE Hub seeks to understand and address in Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Sierra Leone.