The world’s illegal settlements, otherwise referred to as slums, have come to stay, and may no longer be razed down as was done frequently in past years, suggests a journal published by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
According to the new issue of peer reviewed journal Environment and Urbanization published Wednesday, May 2, 2012, this is because organisations of the ‘illegal’ urban poor have made themselves matter to city governments by mapping and documenting their informal settlements and the people and businesses in them.
The journal makes its deductions from papers published by some African, Asian and Latin American countries that host the world’s estimated one billion slum dwellers.
These are Ghana, India, Mexico, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, which show in their papers that the urban poor are often better able than government departments to produce relevant, up-to-date, detailed data about their settlements through surveys and mapping.
“This kind of activity means the poor get their voices heard and respected, and can work with governments to help solve the problems they face,” says a press statement from the IIED headlined “WHAT HAPPENS WHEN SLUM DWELLERS PUT THEMSELVES ON THE MAP” that announced the new publication.
According to the journal’s editor, Dr. David Satterthwaite, the papers show that although a billion people live in informal settlements because they lack formal addresses and identification documents, their governments do not consider them as legal citizens. “This means being denied public services such as health care, education, sanitation and even the rule of law. It makes it hard to open a bank account or protect homes and possessions,” he adds.
It is to overcome these challenges, that residents of informal settlements in Africa, Asia and Latin America have organised their own surveys to map and document their communities, which in most cases has helped the communities get official recognition and political legitimacy, says Dr. David Satterthwaite.
Furthermore, the surveys have allowed the communities to communicate their needs, in terms of basic services, and assert their rights to land on which to live.
In some cases, it has also led to positive changes in local or national policy – such as when governments agree to upgrade informal settlements in consultation with communities, rather than bulldoze them as has been the pattern in the past and still happens in many places today, the IIED press statement asserts.
Welcoming the step taken by informal settlements, Satterthwaite, who is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, said “To live in an informal settlement – a slum or a shanty town – is to be ignored and invisible, but the one billion people who call such places home are a vital part of the solutions to today’s challenges in urban environments.”
“As the papers in Environment and Urbanization reveal, around the world, the residents of such settlements have shown that by documenting their communities they can work with governments to improve conditions there,” he emphasised.
Meanwhile. the experience of the last 20 years show how community-led documentation and mapping helped them support their negotiations with governments and generate new knowledge that helps the residents think about their priorities and their own resources and capacities.
By Edmund Smith-Asante