Slum Growth
By 2015 there wlll be at least 550 cities with a population of more than one million. Already this aggregate population is growing "by a million babies and migrants each week."

The peak will come in 2050, when ten billion people, by then the great majority of humankind, will be living in cities: "95 per cent of this final build-out of humanity will occur in the urban areas of developing countries, whose populations will double to nearly four billion over the next generation." Even more striking than these huge projected increases and the assertion that they are "final" is the accelerating rate at which they're taking place --- nowhere faster than in China. Davis refers to cities with a population of eight million and rising as "megacities."

There are more than 20 megacities in the developing world. Two of these --- Mexico City and Seoul --- were "hypercities" (with 20 million inhabitants) at the time he published this book. Since then São Paulo and Mumbai must also have hit the 20 million mark, with Delhi fast approaching it.

The World Bank and the IMF, Davis argues, have been the driving force behind the creation of modern slums. And Structural Adjustment Programmes --- drastic mechanisms of conditionality imposed on borrowers or debtors negotiating repayment --- have been the means. This is true especially since the 1980s, when both the World Bank and the IMF began carpet-bombing debtors with SAPs.

Structural Adjustment required borrowers to cut back on public expenditure and taxation. It encouraged privatisation, public sector lay-offs and the end of price subsidies. Millions were driven into the informal sector. A few got rich, some got a living, but most found themselves reduced to petty barter, minor service or the Third World equivalent of the dole queue, lining up daily outside construction sites in the hope of a couple of hours' work.

Meanwhile, agricultural project funding was severely reduced and SAP-signatories were more or less obliged to fall back on primary agriculture --- sugar, cocoa, coffee --- in an international market where prices could go through the floor, as they did in the early 1980s. More and more livelihoods on the land, not least among subsistence farmers who had been forced to grow cash crops, failed as a consequence.

About a billion people worldwide operate in the informal sector. Davis tells us they constitute "the fastest-growing ... social class on earth."

In the neoliberal model they are "the heroic self-employed," operating in a paradise of deregulation where initiative and entrepreneurialism will eventually triumph to the benefit of all.

In practice, the growth of the informal sector has not even brought about the satisfaction of rudimentary needs --- clean water, medical care, a stab at education --- for most people living in the 21st-century slum. "Informal survivalism" is Davis's expression for the economic regime under which they live.

Even though there are sweatshop sectors and other labour-intensive niches in this informal economy, there simply aren't enough jobs to go around. Far from becoming active participants in a virtuous cycle of wealth creation, the huge numbers of people at the lower end of the slum --- the petty traders and service-providers --- find their specialities endlessly replicated by others and their takings diminished.

"The informal sector," Davis explains, "generates jobs not by elaborating new divisions of labour, but by fragmenting existing work, and thus subdividing incomes." This holds as well for the platoons of barbers and shoeshine boys as it does for the gaggles of "parking attendants" --- usually children --- who pile out of their homes every morning and beg for the right to watch over cars outside UN compounds and downtown hotels for a couple of dollars.

--- From Planet of Slums
Mike David
Reviewed by Jeremy Harding
London Review of Books
8 March 2007
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH