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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Informal settlements and ‘the housing question’?

By Colin E Marx, on 15 February 2012

There is no shortage of global, historical and national initiatives to improve the housing of poor women and men currently and predominantly living in informal settlements. Yet, as Geoff Payne (2005) calculates, these initiatives will be outstripped in terms of need and arguably, what is being constructed tends to be of inadequate quality. When the resources exist to solve the housing problems why is improving urban informal settlements not more of a national priority?

photo by Juan Camilo Maya. 2012

photo ©Juan Camilo Maya.2012. Rio de Janeiro

I argue that part of the reason that they are not more of a priority is because informal settlements are framed within a particular economic logic where improving informal settlements is fundamentally an issue of the productivity of the poor. However, the economic fortunes and growth rates of developing countries have more to do with the terms of trade and foreign exchange rates than they do with productivity gains from improved living conditions of the poor – especially if the poor are considered marginal to modern economic dynamics anyway.

Policy makers wanting to improve informal settlements face a conundrum. It is clear that informal settlements must be improved but they cannot point to spectacular productivity gains that arise from improving informal settlements. Moreover, they accept that national economies are subject to powerful international economic forces that must be managed for the benefit of the country as a whole. The conundrum emerges, I argue, following J.K Gibson-Graham, because analysing informal housing is restricted to a framework in which only the capitalist economy counts.

 In many ways, this is an intellectual and political inheritance from Engels’(1872) analysis of ‘The housing question’. Famously, Engels’ argued that it is only through the abolition of capitalist modes of production that solutions to the housing question will emerge (1975, 32); thereby establishing a relationship between poor people’s housing and capitalism. This relationship has been debated and refined in relation to informal settlements but the relationship between the housing of the poor and capitalism has remained intact (see Steinberg 1982 and 1983 and Nientied and van der Linden 1983 in IJURR). The relationship presents policy makers with a heady mixture of solving housing problems while grappling with the most powerful economic forces of the day and generates compelling stories. However, they have little to offer in terms of making the improvement of informal settlements more of a priority.

Clearly, capitalism is a powerful economic force, but it is not the only economic process ‘in town’ – so to speak. So what would happen if we analysed informal settlement improvements in relation to ordinary, diverse local economies? If the productivity improvements were conceptualised in relation to what people actually do rather than what they can’t do in relation to powerful capitalist economic dynamics? Capitalist forces would still matter but then so would other economic registers in which poor women and men’s economic activities figure in more positive ways. I believe that demonstrating these more positive stories and decentring capitalism is an important part of the challenge of making the improvement of informal settlements more of a priority.


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