Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Analysis of Resourceful Africa Living in Slums
By Ravinder Rena
Middle East Times
Published September 27, 2006
Africa is a vast and exotic continent of about 900 million people in 54 independent countries. It has a total area of over 30 million square kilometers, about three-and-a-half times the size of the United States and 10 times the size of India. It is the second largest continent in the world after Asia. It stretches from the shores of the Mediterranean in the north to the Cape of Good Hope in the south.
Africa is rich in mineral and natural resources with large parts of its terrain teeming with wild life and magnificent plant life.
It possesses 99 percent of the world's chrome resources, 85 percent of its platinum, 70 percent of its tantalite, 68 percent of its cobalt, and 54 percent of its gold, among others. It has significant oil and gas reserves. Nigeria and Libya are two of the leading oil producing countries in the world.
Africa's enormous agricultural potential is vastly untapped. Africa's vast mineral wealth and strategic significance have encouraged foreign powers to intervene in African affairs. During the Cold War era, 1945-1990, there was increasing superpower intervention in Africa. The United States and the Soviet Union were major players on the African scene.
Africa is one of the fastest urbanizing continents in the world. If the South African example works, and is replicated elsewhere in Africa, it might present a way out of the dilemma facing many governments. They feel that the state does not have the capacity to deliver housing for the poor and they know that the private sector feels no sense of commitment to do this either despite having the resources. As a result, their cities are caught in the slum spiral - no solution for existing slums and no way to stop new slums in the continent.
According to the forecast in 2007, the world's urban population will outnumber the rural population for the first time, while those living in slums will exceed 1 billion. The UN predicts that the numbers of slum-dwellers will double in the next 30 years - meaning that the developing world slum will become the primary habitat of mankind.
Urban poverty is one of the biggest stories happening on the planet.
"Slums are the emerging human settlements of the twenty-first century," says the "State of the World's Cities 2006/7" report released by UN-Habitat at Vancouver. By next year, one of every two people in the world will be a city dweller. Of these, a substantial number will be slum dwellers.
In fact, the report focuses largely on the issue of urban poverty and slums. It notes that in the last 15 years, the growth of slums has been unprecedented, the number of slum dwellers in the world rose from 715 million in 1990 to about 998 million in mid 2006. It estimates that at the present rate of growth, there will 1.4 billion slum dwellers by 2020, comprising a significant percent of the world's population.
Needless to say that the majority of the world's urban poor are in Asia (581 million) followed by sub-Saharan Africa (199 million), and Latin America and the Caribbean (134 million).
India alone has 170 million slum dwellers. But it is sub-Saharan Africa that is witnessing the fastest growth of its slum population that has doubled in 15 years. At present, 71.8 percent of its urban population lives in slums.
Slums are the result not just of rural poverty but also conflict leading to large-scale displacement. This is particularly evident in Africa. They can also be the site of much greater disease and deprivation for poor populations than rural areas. This again is more applicable to countries in Africa than to a country like India.
The UN-Habitat report holds that urban health indicators and nutrition levels of the young are as bad or even worse in slums than in rural areas. However, Indian data clearly shows that mortality among under-fives remains higher in rural areas. Also literacy levels are higher in Indian slums than in the villages and even accessibility to healthcare is better.
Most slum dwellers in India find some kind of work and earn money while their equivalents in rural areas are often left for months without any work or any prospect of money. Levels of acute malnutrition are relatively rare in urban poor settlements in India even though every now and then such instances do arise.
What is indisputable, however, is that even if income poverty is not so acute in urban slums as in some rural areas, everyone living in a slum suffers acute deprivation of basic services of water and sanitation apart from the insecurity of living in a place from where they could be forced to move at any time.
In fact, it is the absence of security of tenure that is central to dealing with the problem of slums. Yet, many countries continue to follow the path of demolishing slums, hoping that such action will deter further slum formation.
The UN-Habitat report quotes a global survey of 60 countries that noted that 6.7 million people faced eviction between 2000 and 2002 in cities compared to 4.2 million in the previous two years.
Often these demolitions took place without adequate notice being given to the evictees thereby violating their basic rights as citizens. Protests and interventions, even by the UN, have made little difference to governments determined to pursue this policy.
It is to be observed that Eritrea's capital city, Asmara, is considered to be one of the beautiful cities in Africa built by the Italians about 100 years ago. It has a patch of land admeasuring of about two square kilometers on the southwestern side, Mai-Habashawl and Medebber, which are the homes to hundreds of people.
Most of them live in one-room mud-built wattle huts, and wooden or basic stone houses, often windowless. These are Asmara's biggest slums. They are massive ditches of mud and filth.
I visited people and spent some time in the area and found them honest. The slum-dwellers know they are poor, of course, but that's not their focus and they don't want to be seen by the outside world as desperate people.
In fact, most have incredible energy. It is interesting to note that very few people sit around doing nothing: people either work in Asmara or have a small business in the slums.
There are vibrant communities there with such diverse experiences. Indeed, the unique culture of Eritreans is that the person who has Nacfa 15,000 (equivalent to $1,000) and the person who has 10 cents cannot be identified surprisingly; both behave in the same fashion.
Although they may be poor, they never manifest their poverty. They would invite others for a meal even though they have not eaten properly themselves, indicating wholehearted love and an altruistic attitude toward guests. They would pretend to be full even when starving.
The slums are growing in every part of the globe particularly in Africa. The future we have been told is urban, and that the cities of the future will be largely populated by the poor. Even if steps are taken today, this reality will not change.
If facts could shift policy, such facts should. Unfortunately, the process of setting priorities in many countries around the globe is based on external factors rather than objective realities.
Dr. Ravinder Rena is an Assistant Professor of Economics, Dept. of Business and Economics, Eritrea Institute of Technology (Under Ministry of Education), Mai Nefhi, Eritrea