The disconnect between the definitions and the realities of slums

Sadaf Khan reports on the disconnect between the UN’s definition of slums, and the diverse realities of these informal settlements.

UN Habitat’s definition of slums is comprised of what are known as the “five deprivations”; lack of i) access to water, ii) access to improved sanitation, iii) sufficient living area, iv) housing durability and v) security of tenure. Raise this definition in a roomful of researchers, activists and professionals who work in slum settings – as we did at the last ARISE Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Mumbai – and you will be met with an indignant uproar about the inaccuracy and injustice of such definitions.  

Those present vehemently argued that these spaces and communities are not illegal or dirty, and that this narrative is in fact popularised by the dominant classes, the same people who equate slums with the urban poor. They pointed out that calling slums, or informal settlements, illegal is wrong from a human rights perspective. These are thriving spaces with complex governance structures, that, however informal, work most of the time. These structures ensure that, despite the noticeable absence of the state, people have access to water and sanitation, etc., albeit at exorbitant costs.

Our colleagues in Mumbai went on to speak about how people living in informal settlements make important and essential contributions to the local economy. These include waste pickers and sanitation workers, taxi drivers, and small business owners, without whom, the formal part of the city would flounder. They shared how, despite the critical roles these communities and spaces play, people living in informal settlements regularly struggle to access healthcare and social protection and face unnecessary stigmatisation when they engage with the formal structures and services of the city. They highlighted how overlapping vulnerabilities often further marginalise those already at the margins of society, and how poor planning and precarious or unclear tenure status become a catch 22, relieving service providers and the state of any responsibility to the communities living in slum or informal settings.

Shifting the focus: diverse realities in informal settlements

When people who work and live within slums and informal settings are so clear on the necessity of such spaces within cities, why do organisations like UN Habitat, WHO and the World Bank continue to use outdated framings when clearly on-ground realities are so very different?  The rationale given is that these physical indicators; access to water, sanitation, appropriate living area, etc., make it possible to measure improvement within the settlement from household to household, providing a means of assessing the impact development programmes have on the spaces and communities living within them.

Unfortunately, what happens simultaneously, as illustrated by the statements above, is that the delicate and complex socio-economic mechanisms that make these settlements work are overlooked and ignored. This is not to say that issues of service provision, tenure security and poor building materials should be disregarded entirely and that they aren’t a genuine concern. We are simply suggesting that the overwhelming value placed on them undermines more pressing challenges experienced by those living and working in slums and informal settlements. Challenges like the threat of evictions (experienced across all ARISE sites), flooding and landslides  (Freetown), fire  (Dhaka) and gender-based violence, have the power to dismantle communities, disrupt livelihoods and severely impact health and wellbeing of community members.

What we have seen through the process of working with communities across the ARISE landscape is that the needs and challenges of communities vary from site to site and context to context. For example, data from Dhaka and Freetown suggests that age of the settlement may play a role in the level of service provision within a settlement; the more mature settlements seem to be better served. The experiences of ARISE’s Indian partners show that communities find creative ways through which access to services has been gained whilst respecting the prevalent planning and quality standards within the city. These local workarounds provide access, abiding by local bylaws and standards helps evade city authorities looking to shutdown illegal utilities, and the whole process speaks to the intimate knowledge these communities have of the workings of service providers and policymakers. This highlights the ability of communities to be innovative, and to learn and adapt within a system in the hope of achieving formalisation.

Like the sites and contexts they inhabit, communities in slum and informal settings are heterogeneous with internal hierarchies. Marginalised groups dealing with multiple overlapping vulnerabilities – disability, female headed households, ethnic or religious biases – inhabit one end of the socio-spatial spectrum. Whilst those more able, better connected and in positions of power, like local chiefs, elders and community leaders, sit at the other end.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, where the state has failed to provide support and/or services, Community Based Organisations (CBOs), NGOs and Community Advisory Committees (CACs) have been able to organise and mobilise to provide homegrown solutions to service provision challenges related to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and healthcare within the settlements. These informal governance structures often connect outwards to more formal structures, like ward councillors and local politicians, to help facilitate access to basic utilities etc., showing that there are varying degrees of ability to demand accountability from policymakers, service providers and governance actors within these communities.

In essence, what our review of documents from multilateral agencies that speak to definitions for slums and informal settlements shows is a huge disconnect between how these spaces and communities are perceived to be and what they actually are, and, more importantly, are capable of. The uproar and indignation of all those in the room at the ARISE AGM in Mumbai when these definitions were shared was completely justified, as these definitions are flat, broad and focused on deficiencies rather than the heterogeneity and industriousness of the communities and networks within. Additionally, they absolve service providers and policymakers of any responsibility towards the communities within these spaces.  

Moving forward

Whilst these definitions serve a purpose in terms of assessment and impact analysis for donor organisations, they do a disservice to the communities they describe. These definitions are intrinsically linked to programme funding, capacity building within communities and organisations, and knowledge creation. The omissions and over-simplifications built into them limit the ability of funders to acknowledge and to respond to context specific needs. Moving forward, there is a need to revisit these definitions to ensure they more closely reflect the heterogenous and intersectional nature of the people, places, processes and of course problems within slums and urban informal settlements. These definitions need to be developed in an inclusive manner, bringing on board the opinions of those communities most effected, acknowledging not only the challenges but also the successful workarounds that these communities devise to exist within a system that is reluctant to acknowledge them and the overwhelming contributions they make to urban life.

Image credit: Image by Travel Wild is licensed by iStock