Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Mike Davis – Planet of Slums
I suspect that most of the people who read this book (or indeed this review), will never have seen a slum. I don’t mean the run down bits housing estates that blight the cities of northern England; I mean a slum on a truly different scale. Mike Davis describes in terrifying detail just what sort of world it is, that huge numbers of people live in.
He starts of with the growth of the city, quoting UN reports he says
“In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with a population of more than one million; today there are 400, and by 2015 there will be at least 550”
This explosion of growth for cities doesn’t bring with it prosperity or jobs. While the “world’s urban labo[u]r force has more than doubled since 1980, and the present urban population – 3.2 billion – is larger than the total population of the world when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated”, huge numbers of these people have no meaningful income from work. According to a CIA report in 2002, by the late 1990s, a third of the world’s labour force, a “staggering” one billion people, had no work, or were underemployed.
The figures for the growth of slums are similarly shocking. People flocking to the cities in the search of employment, or because they have been pushed off the land, form giant illegal or semi-legal areas of housing. 60% of Mexico’s growth is due to people building their own homes on “un-serviced peripheral land”, similarly in the Amazon, “80 percent of growth has been in shantytowns”.
The word un-serviced is important here. These are huge areas of human population with little or no running water, sewerage systems or electricity.
Davis documents two facts that flow from this – how governments and the state ignore or give lip service to the people living in such poverty, and how often the role of NGOs is limited to trying to make the slums slightly better, rather than look at the root cause of the problem.
But Davis’ real fire is reserved for international financial policies that have helped create the slums in the first place and limited the ability of the state and government to provide services to help the poorest of the poor. The neo-liberal policies of the World Bank and the IMF have, since the 1970s, caused unemployment through the destruction of industry and public services and have meant that services that are offered to the poor (such as water provision) are often privatised. It’s an irony, that privatised water companies end up charging the poor huge amounts of money for what should be a basic human right.
“The situation in Luanda is even worse: there the poorest households are forced to spend 15 percent of their income on water that private companies simply pump from the nearby, sewage-polluted Bengo River.”
What's true for drinking water is also true for sewage:
In “India – where an estimated 700 million people are forced to defecate in the open – only 17 of 3700 cities and large towns have any kind of primary sewage treatment before final disposal”.
Mike Davis paints a picture of billions of people living in squalor, poverty and unemployment, unable to find work and ignored by governments more interested in making a few people richer. However he finishes on an interesting point. Military thinkers around the world already plan how they might intervene in such slums. Fearful of insurrection and “anarchy” they worry about how the chaotic unplanned slums could be controlled – But “If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side”, Davis concludes.
Davis - The Monster at our Door