Saturday, January 20, 2007

Slums of Addis

In Ethiopia, where a recent study suggested that 80 percent of the urban population lives in shantytowns without basic sanitation, squatter communities are unrelentingly awful, this Agence France Presse dispatch opines. But what's the solution? An Addis Ababa government official notes that around one-quarter of all units are owned by local authorities and rented out at rates that have been frozen since July 1975, vastly reducing the potential for income that can be pumped back into housing improvements. "The government also believes in privatization of public houses," said the official. "Through such projects, we can alleviate slums and informal settlements," he added.

But let's parse this.

--Three-quarters of the units are not owned by local authorities and are not rented out at subsidized rates. Yet those units, too, have apparently not improved.

So what's the benefit of privatization?


Anonymous said...


You have dismissed property titles as being important, although anti eviction rights are. Can you please comment on the Argentina barrio study that showed remarkably different changes over time in the favela when by a quirk of law when one set of people got property titles and the other didn't? Health, education and the building structures were vastly improved.

rn said...


Thanks for the question. I don't dismiss property titles. I think they're one strategy that offers a way forward for some communities.

To me, though, organizing is more important. Infrastructure, garbage pick-up, sewers, electricity: these are things that communities can win irrespective of who owns the land.

Indeed, in particularly impoverished areas like Addis Ababa, private titles can lead to problems. For instance, the costs to owners can wind up being more than they can afford. Evidence from Peru seems to show that giving squatters title deeds has not liberated the 'dead capital' that Hernando de Soto speaks so eloquently about.

As for the Argentina study, I've only read the Wall Street Journal article about it, so I don't have detailed knowledge. But, in general, there are all sorts of factors that influence whether people invest in and improve their homes. For instance, if people in the half of the neighborhood that didn't get private titles still feel that they can be summarily evicted at any time, this will restrict the amount of money they put into their homes.

I have seen first-hand how much people invest without any title to their land once the threat of eviction is gone. It's political and social recognition and rights that are key here, not the legal instrument governing control of land.

LeiselB said...

I'm confused how you can extricate rights from the legal instruments used to enforce them?

You write: "It's political and social recognition and rights that are key here, not the legal instrument governing control of land."

So by what means will squatters have their rights recognized and justified if they are violated? I hear where you are coming from....but your conceptualization of this seems somewhat nebulous. If you could elaborate on how these rights may be secured and maintained without legal systems to interpret, maintain and enforce them, I would appreciate it. Thanks!

rn said...


Good question. I am talking here about legal property titles, which I have seen first-hand are not necessary for squatters to develop staying power and improve their communities.

But, moving beyond property rights, it doesn't take a law to get a health clinic or a school built. It takes organized pressure on the political structure. Similarly, no law will guarantee that squatters have drinkable water and decent sewage and sanitation in their communities. But public pressure can force the government to spend the money to make these things happen.

To me, squatter organizing is the key. If after organizing, squatters choose to push for laws that may, if well enforced, protect them -- for instance a ban on evictions -- that's fine. But the first thing is for squatters to organize.

nina said...

Dear Robert,

Your Blog sounds very interesting to us, especially concerning what we are doing now. We are two italian film makers with our own small independent production company. Our current project is to shoot 6 different documentaries in 6 of the biggest "Megacities" worldwide, both eastern and western; Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Cairo, Karachi, Shenzhen and Tokyo. One of the issues we would like to talk about are slums and squatter(s), even if we have not yet decided in which city to show / shoot them. Since you are very experienced with this we are sure you would be able to give us useful suggestions or, even better!, contacts that could make the development of our project easier. If you are interested in our work and would like to help us please write at the following address: Thank you SOOO much in advance for your cooperation!!!


e-tat said...

This in today's Guardian - looks like it covers territory familiar to you:,,1997609,00.html

New Delhi dispatch: Out of sight, out of home

Randeep Ramesh sees city chiefs trying to bulldoze the poor out of the picture in the Indian capital's latest makeover

rn said...

Many thanks, e-tat. I was just reading the article when your comment popped up in my inbox. I hope you don't mind if I create a separate post about it (with appropriate credit to you, of course)

e-tat said...

Thanks, though credit isn't mine to take. I did think you'd see this regardless, and it's nice to see my hunch confirmed.

AM said...

To add, the city government has started on an ambitious plan to build "low-cost" housing in massive numbers, allocating about a quarter of the City budget for public housing. I was in Addis in 2004, and saw one of the completed pilot projects (designed/built by KFW/GTZ). Not surprisingly, the smallest (1-BR) units are too small for the poor families (which are typically larger than the average), and even their price is beyond the reach of the lower 65 percentile of the population. So, while the housing being proposed may be "low-cost", it is certainly not meant for the "low-income" group.
These housing projects are going to be built in various locations within the city -- in an effort to "beautify" it. Government officials proudly call them Ubran Renewal projects, which will "include upgrading". But at the subward level, this "upgrading" is essentially demolition and "cleaning-up" of the existing fabric, and building new structures (mixed use: commercial and residential), some of which will offered on sale to the current residents...although it is far from likely any of them will be able to afford them! what then happens to the current residents is the million-dollar question that no one seems to know the answer to.