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Planet of Slums: Illusions of Self-Help

Mike Davis18 January 2017

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Here we present an extract from
Planet of Slums, Davis' best-selling account of the rise of the world’s slums, where, according to the United Nations, one billion people now live.

It would be foolish to pass from one distortion – that the slums are places of crime, disease and despair – to the opposite: that they can be safely left to look after themselves. - Jeremy Seabrook 

As Third World governments abdicated the battle against the slum in the 1970s, the Bretton Woods institutions – with the IMF as “bad cop” and the World Bank as “good cop” – assumed increasingly commanding roles in setting the parameters of urban housing policy. Lending for urban development by the World Bank increased from a mere 10 million dollars in 1972 to more than 2 billion dollars in 1988. And between 1972 and 1990 the Bank helped finance a total of 116 sites-and-services and/or slum-upgrading schemes in 55 nations. In terms of need, of course, this was a mere drop in the bucket, but it gave the Bank tremendous leverage over national urban policies, as well as direct patronage relationships to local slum communities and NGOs; it also allowed the Bank to impose its own theories as worldwide urban policy orthodoxy.

Improving rather than replacing slums became the less ambitious goal of public and private intervention. Instead of the top-down structural reform of urban poverty, as undertaken by postwar social democracy in Europe and advocated by revolutionary-nationalist leaders of the 1950s generation, the new wisdom of the late 1970s and early 1980s mandated that the state ally with international donors and, then, NGOs, to become an “enabler” of the poor. In its first iteration, the new World Bank philosophy, which was influenced by the ideas of the English architect John Turner, stressed a “sites-and-services” (provision of basic “wet” infrastructure and civil engineering) approach to help rationalize and upgrade self-help housing. By the late 1980s, however, the World Bank was championing privatization of housing supply across the board and soon became the most powerful institutional megaphone for the schemas of Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist who advocates micro-entrepreneurial solutions to urban poverty.

The Friends of the Poor

The intellectual marriage in the 1970s between World Bank President Robert McNamara and architect John Turner was supremely odd. The former, of course, had been chief planner of the war in Vietnam, while the latter had once been a leading contributor to the English anarchist paper Freedom. Turner left England in 1957 to work in Peru, where he was mesmerized by the creative genius he discerned at work in squatter housing. He was not the first architect to enthuse about poor people’s capacities for communal self-organization and clever construction: French colonial architects and planners, like the Groupe CIAM Alger, had praised the spontaneous order of the bidonville for the “‘organic’ relationship between the buildings and the site (reminiscent of the casbah), the flexibility of spaces to accommodate diverse functions, and the changing needs of the users.” Turner, however, in collaboration with sociologist William Mangin, was a singularly effective popularizer and propagandist who proclaimed that slums were less the problem than the solution. Despite its radical provenance, Turner’s core program of self-help, incremental construction, and legalization of spontaneous urbanization was exactly the kind of pragmatic, cost-effective approach to the urban crisis that McNamara favored.

By 1976, the year of the first UN-HABITAT conference as well as the publication of Turner’s Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments, this amalgam of anarchism and neoliberalism had become a new orthodoxy that “formulated a radical departure from public housing, favoring sites and services projects and in situ slum upgrading.” The World Bank’s new Urban Development Department was to be the chief sponsor of this strategy. “The intention,” continues Cedric Pugh, “was to make housing affordable to low-income households without the payment of subsidies, in contrast to the heavily subsidized public-housing approach.”5 Amidst great ballyhoo about “helping the poor help themselves,” little notice was taken publicly of the momentous downsizing of entitlement implicit in the World Bank’s canonization of slum housing. Praising the praxis of the poor became a smokescreen for reneging upon historic state commitments to relieve poverty and homelessness. “By demonstrating the ability, the courage, and the capacity for self-help of slum people,” Jeremy Seabrook writes, “the way [was] prepared for a withdrawal of state and local government intervention and support.”

Moreover, Turner and his World Bank admirers considerably romanticized the costs and results of squatter-type incremental housing. As the research of Kavita Datta and Gareth Jones has shown, the loss of economy of scale in housing construction dictates either very high unit prices for construction materials (purchased in small quantities from nearby retailers) or the substitution of secondhand, poor-quality materials. Datta and Jones argue, moreover, that “self-housing” is partly a myth: “Most self-help is actually constructed with the paid assistance of artisans, and for specialist tasks, skilled labour.”

Most importantly, the cost-recovery provisions of World Bank lending, part of a hardening neoliberal dogma, effectively priced the poorest of the poor out of the market for self-help loans. Lisa Peattie, one of the World Bank’s most trenchant critics, estimated in 1987 that the bottom 30 to 60 percent of the population, depending on the specific country, were unable to meet the financial obligations of sites-and-services provision or loans for upgrading. Moreover, even the World Bank’s most ambitious and touted projects tended to be poached by the middle classes or non-needy in the same way as had public housing.

The Philippines, a pilot country for the World Bank’s new global strategy, was a notorious case in point. Working with the Marcos dictatorship, the Bank staff identified 253 blighted “areas for priority development,” beginning with the vast section of slum housing along the Tondo foreshore of metropolitan Manila. But “the investments,” claims Erhard Berner, simply “trickled straight up to the land developers and the construction industry.” St. Joseph’s Village in Pasig, for example, was widely heralded as a model project for poor families, and Imelda Marcos even recruited Pope Paul VI as an official sponsor. Yet within five years, according to Berner, “all the original dwellers had left because their lots had been sold to wealthy families.” The failures were so embarrassing that the World Bank retooled the program to focus instead on sites-and-services provision in resettlement areas outside metro Manila. These remote locations discouraged gentrification, but at the same time were hated by the poor because of their distance from jobs and services. At the end of the day, Berner says, the World Bank’s heroic exertions in Manila left most of the targeted slums “as congested and dilapidated as ever.”

In Mumbai, another highly acclaimed World Bank laboratory, slum upgrading on a massive scale (affecting 3 million people) was promised, but the results were again nugatory. The sanitation program, for example, had aimed to provide 1 toilet seat for every 20 residents, but the achieved ratio was only 1 per 100, and sporadic maintenance of the facilities nullified any public-health advantage. Meanwhile, “by 1989,” according to an expert review, “the scheme for slum upgrading had fallen well short of expectation and only 9 percent of recipients belonged to low-income groups.”

The balance sheet of first-generation World Bank urban projects in Africa reveals equally bleak or perverse results. In Dar-es-Salaam after the end of an ambitious World Bank intervention (1974–81), a study found that “a majority of squatters allocated plots in the sites and service program have sold their plots and gone back to squat on virgin land on the periphery of the urban areas.” Most of the site-and-service lots ended up in the hands of state employees and the middle class. Planning expert Charles Choguill says this is unsurprising because the minimum savings required by the World Bank to qualify for a construction loan was so high that it automatically excluded most of the squatters. Likewise, in another site-and-service scheme in Lusaka, only one fifth went to the target group, and roughly the same dismal result obtained in Dakar.

Writing in 1993, the ILO’s A. Oberai concluded that World Bank slum-upgrading and sites-and-services projects had largely failed to have visible impact on the housing crisis in the Third World: “Despite efforts to make projects replicable, the project approach ties up excessive resources and institutional effort in a few locations and has not been able to achieve the desired level of housing stock. The project approach is therefore unlikely to have a significant impact on solving the problem of shelter in most developing countries.” Other critics pointed to the programmatic disassociation of housing provision from employment creation, and the inevitable tendency for sites-and-services schemes to be located in peripheries poorly served, if at all, by public transport.

Yet the Bank continued to press its incrementalist approach – now refurbished and renamed “whole-sector housing development” – as the best strategy to ameliorate slum conditions.

Soft Imperialism

Since the mid-1990s the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, and other aid institutions have increasingly bypassed or short-circuited governments to work directly with regional and neighborhood non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Indeed, the NGO revolution – there are now tens of thousands in Third World cities – has reshaped the landscape of urban development aid in much the same way that the War on Poverty in the 1960s transformed relations between Washington, big city political machines, and insurgent inner-city constituencies. As the intermediary role of the state has declined, the big international institutions have acquired their own grassroots presence through dependent NGOs in thousands of slums and poor urban communities. Typically, an international lender-donor like the World Bank, the UK Department for International Development, the Ford Foundation, or the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation will work through a major NGO which, in turn, provides expertise to a local NGO or indigenous recipient. This tiered system of coordination and funding is usually portrayed as the last word in “empowerment,” “synergy,” and “participatory governance.”

On the World Bank side, the increased role of NGOs corresponded to the reorientation of Bank objectives under the presidency of James Wolfensohn, the Australian-born financier and philanthropist whose decade in office began in June 1995. Wolfensohn, according to biographer Sebastian Mallaby, arrived in Washington as a self-proclaimed world-fixer, “seeking to revive the messianic energy of McNamara’s Bank” by making poverty reduction and “partnership” the new center-pieces of his agenda. Third World governments were required to involve NGOs and advocacy groups in the preparation of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) that the Bank now required as proof that aid would actually reach target groups. In a cooptive McNamaran vein, Wolfenshohn also sought to incorporate the upper levels of the NGO world into the Bank’s functional networks – and despite the emergence of an anti-globalization movement, he largely succeeded, as Mallaby points out, in “turning the enemies of the [1994] Madrid summit into dinner companions.”

Although some former critics have hailed this “participatory turn” at the World Bank, the true beneficiaries seem to be big NGOs rather than local people. In a review of recent studies, including a major report by the London-based Panos Institute, Rita Abrahamsen concludes that “rather than empowering ‘civil society,’ the PRSP process has entrenched the position of a small, homogeneous ‘iron triangle’ of transnational professionals based in key government ministries (especially Finance), multilateral and bilateral development agencies and international NGOs.” What Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz in his brief tenure as chief economist for the Bank described as an emerging “post-Washington Consensus” might be better characterized as “soft imperialism,” with the major NGOs captive to the agenda of the international donors, and grassroots groups similarly dependent upon the international NGOs.

For all the glowing rhetoric about democratization, self-help, social capital, and the strengthening of civil society, the actual power relations in this new NGO universe resemble nothing so much as traditional clientelism. Moreover, like the community organizations patronized by the War on Poverty in the 1960s, Third World NGOs have proven brilliant at coopting local leadership as well as hegemonizing the social space traditionally occupied by the Left. Even if there are some celebrated exceptions – such as the militant NGOs so instrumental in creating the World Social Forums – the broad impact of the NGO/ “civil society revolution,” as even some World Bank researchers acknowledge, has been to bureaucratize and deradicalize urban social movements.

Thus development economist Diana Mitlin, writing about Latin America, describes how, on one hand, NGOs “preempt community-level capacity-building as they take over decision-making and negotiating roles,” while, on the other hand, they are constrained by “the difficulties of managing donor finance, with its emphasis on shortterm project funds, on financial accountabilities and on tangible outputs.” Similarly in the case of urban Argentina, architect Rubén Gazzoli complains that NGOs monopolize expert knowledge and middleman roles in the same way as traditional political machines. Lea Jellinek, a social historian who has spent more than a quarter-century studying the poor in Jakarta, in turn, recounts how one famed NGO, a neighborhood microbank, “beginning as a small grassroots project driven by needs and capacities of local women,” grew Frankenstein-like into a “large, complex, top–down, technically oriented bureaucracy” that was “less accountable to and supportive of” its low-income base.

From a Middle Eastern perspective, Asef Bayat deplores the hyperbole about NGOs, pointing out that “their potential for independent and democratic organization has generally been overestimated. [The] professionalization of NGOs tends to diminish the mobilizational feature of grassroots activism, while it establishes a new form of clientelism.” Frederic Thomas, writing about Kolkata, argues that “NGOs, moreover, are inherently conservative. They are staffed by retired civil servants and businessmen at the top and, lower down, by social workers, from among the educated unemployed and by housewives and others without roots in the slums.”

Veteran Mumbai housing activist P.K. Das offers an even harsher critique of slum-oriented NGOs:

Their constant effort is to subvert, dis-inform and de-idealize people so as to keep them away from class struggles. They adopt and propagate the practice of begging favours on sympathetic and humane grounds rather than making the oppressed conscious of their rights. As a matter of fact these agencies and organizations systematically intervene to oppose the agitational path people take to win their demands. Their effort is constantly to divert people’s attention from the larger political evils of imperialism to merely local issues and so confuse people in differentiating enemies from friends.


Das’s complaints are amplified in detail in Gita Verma’s controversial 2002 book Slumming India, a fierce, almost Swiftian attack on the celebrity cult of urban NGOs. A rebel planner and exile from what she calls “The System,” Verma characterizes NGOs as “new class” middle-men who, with the benediction of foreign philanthropies, are usurping the authentic voices of the poor. She rails against the World Bank paradigm of slum upgrading that accepts slums as eternal realities, as well as anti-eviction movements that refuse to raise more radical demands. The “right to stay,” she says, “is no great privilege. ... It may stop the occasional bulldozer but, for the rest, it does little beyond change the label from ‘problem’ to ‘solution’ with some creative jargon in fine print.” “Saving the slum,” she adds, specifically referring to Delhi, “translates into endorsing the inequity of one-fifth to one-fourth of the city’s population living on just 5 percent of the city’s land.”

Verma’s account includes a devastating debunking of two of the most celebrated recent slum improvement projects in India. The UK-sponsored Indore scheme, which won awards at the Istanbul Habitat II conference in 1996 and from the Aga Khan in 1998, supposedly provided the city’s slum households with individual water and sewer connections, but Verma says it was “faking success out of a civic disaster.” Although neighborhoods now had sewers, residents didn’t have enough water to drink, much less to flush waste, so sewage consequently backed up into homes and streets; malaria and cholera spread, and residents began to die from contaminated water. Each summer, Verma writes, “brought project beneficiaries (or, perhaps, Project Affected Persons) more water shortages, more choked drains, more diseases, more monsoon mess, and more cause to complain about the shoddy project infrastructure and poor quality ...”

Verma is equally scalding about the award-winning Aranya resettlement project: one of a species of projects that rehouse only a small number of evictees or squatters but confer international celebrity on their “slum saviors.” In this case, however, most of the project’s achievements were literally on paper.


The truth about Aranya, however, is that its winning elements simply do not exist on the ground. There is no town centre, no flowing pedestrian greens, and no 40,000 poor people living there. These exist only in the literature on Aranya and for more than a decade we have been celebrating a drawing, a design idea, that we are not sure will work because it has not yet been tested.


Even observers less harsh than Verma agree that while the World Bank/NGO approach to slum upgrading may produce local success stories, it leaves the vast majority of the poor behind. NGOs, observes activist and writer Arundhati Roy, “end up functioning like the whistle on a pressure cooker. They divert and sublimate political rage, and make sure it does not build to a head.” Syrupy official assurances about “enablement” and “good governance” sidestep core issues of global inequality and debt, and ultimately they are just language games that cloak the absence of any macro-strategy for alleviating urban poverty. Perhaps this guilty awareness of the gap between promise and need explains some of the fervor with which international lending institutions and NGOs have embraced the ideas of Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian businessman who has become the global guru of neo-liberal populism.

A John Turner for the 1990s, de Soto asserts that Third World cities are not so much starved of investment and jobs as suffering an artificial shortage of property rights. By waving the magic wand of land-titling, de Soto claims, his Institute for Liberty and Democracy could conjure vast pools of capital out of the slums themselves. The poor, he argues, are actually rich, but they are unable to access their wealth (improved real estate in the informal sector) or turn it into liquid capital because they do not possess formal deeds or property titles. Titling, he claims, would instantly create massive equity with little or no cost to government; part of this new wealth, in turn, would supply capital to credit-starved microentrepreneurs to create new jobs in the slums, and shantytowns would then become “acres of diamonds.” He speaks of “trillions of dollars, all ready to put to use if only we can unravel the mystery of how assets are transformed into live capital.”

Ironically, de Soto, the Messiah of people’s capitalism, proposes little more in practice than what the Latin American Left or the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kolkata had long fought for: security of tenure for informal settlers. But titling, as land-tenure expert Geoffrey Payne points out, is a double-edged sword. “For owners it represents their formal incorporation into the official city, and the chance to realize what may be a dramatically increased asset. For tenants, or those unable to pay the additional taxes that usually follow, it may push them off the housing ladder altogether.” Titling, in other words, accelerates social differentiation in the slum and does nothing to aid renters, the actual majority of the poor in many cities. Payne warns that it even risks “the creation of a large underclass that is denied access to any form of affordable or acceptable housing.”

Peter Ward confirms that titling – or rather, “regularization” – in Mexico City has been a mixed blessing for colonos. “It is not simply a means of extending full property titles to the poor, but increasingly a means of incorporating them into the tax base.” The benefits of being able to use homes as legal collateral are counterbalanced by a new visibility to tax collectors and municipal utilities. Regularization also undermines solidarity within the colonias by individualizing the struggle for housing and by giving titled homeowners interests that differ from those of other slum residents. “Renters, harassed squatters, displaced downtown tenants,” argues Ward, “are likely to be more radical and disposed to anti-government demonstrations than are those who have, in effect, been bought-off by the government through successive housing policies.”

This has even been the case in São Paulo, where Workers’ Party (PT) administrations, starting in 1989, have tried to regularize and upgrade the “huge illegal city” of the poor. Although the PT’s reforms have produced some admirable results, Suzana Taschner, who has carefully studied the local impact, points to negative repercussions as well: “Unfortunately, with the upgrading, the real estate submarket consolidates in the favela. Both land and houses become consumption goods and the price soars.” One result is the emergence of what Taschner calls the “slum within the favela,” as squatters’ homes are replaced by shoddy cortiços (tenements) renting single rooms to the poorest of the poor. Without decisive public intervention in real-estate markets, in other words, titling by itself is hardly an Archimedean lever to raise the fortunes of the great mass of poor urban dwellers.

However, de Sotoan panaceas remain immensely popular for obvious reasons: the titling strategy promises big social gains with a mere act of the pen and, thus, pumps life back into the World Bank’s tired self-help paradigms; it accords perfectly with dominant neoliberal, anti-state ideology, including the Bank’s current emphasis on government facilitation of private housing markets and the promotion of broad home ownership; and it is equally attractive to governments because it promises them something – stability, votes, and taxes – for virtually nothing. “The acceptance of unauthorized settlements,” Philip Amis points out, “is a relatively painless, and potentially profitable, way to appease the urban poor in the Third World.” And, as geographers Alan Gilbert and Ann Varley emphasize in the case of Latin America, it is also a classical conservative reform: “The very nature of the self- help housing process has ... contributed to political placidity.

Widespread home ownership has individualized what might otherwise have constituted a more community-wide struggle.”

In the same vein, Erhard Berner provides some dismal examples from Manila of how land purchase and title formalization have produced vertical social differentiation and bitter competition within once militant squatter movements. He writes:

The task of fixing the social value of the land, getting it accepted by the members and, eventually, expelling those who are unable or unwilling to pay for it it is an ordeal for every local association. The times when the K-B [squatter association] could be mistaken for a part of an antisystemic “social movement” are definitely over. Now that they have become landowners K-B leaders regard their alliance with other squatter organizations as obsolete and emphasize their relation to government institutions.

Even as NGOs and development lenders tinker with “good governance” and incremental slum improvement, incomparably more powerful market forces are pushing the majority of the poor further to the margins of urban life. The positive achievements of international philanthropy and residual state intervention are entirely dwarfed by the negative impacts of land inflation and property speculation. Real-estate markets, as we have seen in the case of pirate urbanization, have returned to the slums with a vengeance, and despite the enduring mythology of heroic squatters and free land, the urban poor are increasingly the vassals of landlords and developers.

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