Thursday, January 20, 2005

think like a squatter

A front page article in Wednesday’s New York Times (LINK) pointed out that, despite major expenditures on infrastructure in the Iraqi city of Basra, people there have yet to experience any benefits.

This makes a point I have been thinking about for months, that the people in charge of reconstruction in Iraq, or aid in any desperate region of the world need to learn to
think like a squatter

What does this mean? Here’s an example: In mid-December, as attacks on civilians and armed forces in Iraq mushroomed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made a splashy announcement: the $4.9 million renovation of Basra International Airport would be complete by July 2005. "Once the airport opens," an Army press release declared, "the tourism industry will find a welcome home in Iraq."

Talk about getting ahead of yourself. Life is a struggle in Iraq. Violence is rampant. Families are squatting in abandoned buildings. Electricity production has fallen below pre-war levels. In many neighborhoods, ponds of raw sewage cover the streets and garbage is seldom collected. Yet the U.S. is crowing about reconstruction work that the average Iraqi will never see.

The Basra airport renovation, the project to build a modern container port at Umm Qsar, the plan to refurbish railway stations in Southern Iraq: these projects may sound good to Washington’s armchair warriors, but they will likely not go over well with the general public. Despite the new, state-of-the-art stations, who in Iraq will ride the trains if they become targets for insurgents? Will any Iraqi cheer the modernization of the port of Um Qasr, or will people simply see it as proof that the U.S. wants a more efficient way of capitalizing on trade with the oil-rich country? Will the mass of Iraqis who don’t have enough dinars to feed their families feel good about the renewal of Basra airport? As the Times article suggests, shoring up water and sewage treatment plants will seem meaningless if people don't receive real benefits: cheap, easily accessible drinking water and fewer fetid pools of sewage in the streets.

The average American (and certainly the average Pentagon war planner) has no idea what it’s like to live without electricity or running water or toilets or sewers —- but the world’s squatters know. There are a billion squatters in the world today, approximately one in six people on the planet. They know how to build strong communities the hard way. The squatters carry water, food, and construction materials on their backs, sometimes over vast distances, so they can create their neighborhoods. The pool their money and invest in their communities. They do all this because they believe their work will give them a future.

Many of my friends in squatter communities across the globe are dismissive of the big ticket projects that governments and non-profits love to discuss. They know that these big ideas often have little impact on their lives -- and sometimes actually make things worse. The airports and harbors and train lines and other big projects may become important down the road. But, if the U.S. wants to cut a better figure in the world, it might want to scrap its super-sized strategy and instead concentrate on making small but crucial changes on the streets where people live.

That would be thinking like a squatter.


Our Trinitone Blast said...

Of course the renovations in Iraq aren't really helping many Iraqis, they aren't supposed to.

The only people that are going to get "helped" are the Western businesses with interests there.

rn said...

It certainly is true that corporations like Bechtel and Haliburton would not make their massive profits doing 'down on the street' projects that would benefit Iraqis. The best people to do this work would be Iraqis themselves.

Tom Young said...

I don't know a great deal about America's reconstruction plans for Iraq, but what you say about it doesn't surprise me.

I worked for a housing NGO in Bombay for half a year, and it was surprising to discover that it was only a few years ago that World Bank had started to require that compensation and resettlement be given to squatters for development projects that they were underwriting. The needs of squatters are given lip service, but little more in most situations.

Jane Jacobs had it right when she wrote in "Death and Life of Great American Cities" that the strength of a community is in its people, and not the shinyness of its buildings. Slum dwelling families in Bombay manage to get by on Rs. 3000 a month, sometimes even less than that. Survival wouldn't be possible without the support of friends and neighbours.

The destruction of slums is not just the destruction of buildings but the destruction and dispersion of incredibly cohesive and supportive social networks.

Bulldozing just moves the problem around. It's too bad that BMC doesn't realise this. I know only a little bit about the Singaporean approach that has brought them to where they are today. But I doubt that bulldozing of slums contributed greatly to that city's advancement. It got where it is today because of hard work and careful planning, which must necessarily consider and include the needs of those at the bottom of the pile.

Bombay will gain nothing from this. But it isn't surprising.

rn said...

Well said, tomyoung. Thank you. I wonder: do you think that there's any hope that organized squatter groups like Jockin's National Slum Dwellers Federation or other NGOs or people who see this clearly will get out in the streets and attempt to block further demolitions?

Tom Young said...

I really have no idea. I think it can often be difficult to get slum dwellers organised to fight something, or do something.

The NGO I worked for was involved in Bombay's Slum Rehabilitation Scheme, where permanent, titled high-rise housing would be built for them free of cost (or nearly so) in exchange for developers being able to construct market high-rises on part of the site the slum dwellers occupied. The whole process would take years of organising by the NGO and slum dwellers, and it would often be burned in the end by developers pulling out if it proved too difficult to organise or if the market made it suddenly unprofitable.

So, after a while, slum dwellers became a bit inured to offers of help or attempts to organise them.

But this is quite a different situation from demolitions. Maybe the biggest question is, even if NGOs can manage to create major protest over it, will it do any good? Will people who can do something to stop it want to do something?

My impression of the views of the average middle and upper class resident of Bombay is that slum dwellers are better off than they appear. They've got electricity, refrigerators, motor bikes. Why do they deserve our sympathy? They should find a job and get a real place to live.

It is generally a pretty conservative attitude, and ignorant of the reality. And as for those in charge in the municipal corporation, I think their interests are generally not with the slum dwellers. Stopping this sort of thing is an uphill battle.

(not directly related to this issue, check out my blog, if you are interested. A collection of reflections on the time I spent in India)

rn said...


1. Where's your blog?

2. I agree that many people disdain the squatters. My idea is not NGOs going in and assisting squatters, but organizers going in with the explicit goal of helping squatter leaders build power within their communities.

3. On that score, what do you think of Jockin and the National Slum Dweller's Federation? (I agree with their ideology--social change from below--but am troubled by the federation's tactical decision to focus on organizing through savings plans. To me, this misses the importance of building a politically sophisticated, informed, and active group of leaders within each of the squatter communities. If such savvy leaders existed it would be harder for the government to engage in a policy of mass evictions.)

Tom Young said...

The NGO I worked for in Mumbai, SRS, seemed to prefer operating in absolute isolation (SPARC, for instance, which does much of the same work as SRS, was seen as some kind of mortal enemy!), so I am not totally familiar with the details of NSDF. But I wouldn't write off their approach too quickly.

My NGO managed to get a lot more done via the savings plans and micro credit work it did than any other part of its operations. Partly, that work builds trust and creates social links between organisers and slum dwellers, and between slum dwellers as well. You cannot separate business life and personal life in India, as I am sure you already know.

The savings schemes involve regular meetings between the savings scheme organiser and savers, and I would doubt very much if there isn't a lot of ancillary political discussion and organising going on during those meetings.

Almost everything effective that happens in India happens in a way contrary to how we might approach it here. It's the social connections that enable everything else, so I suspect that may be how NSDF is approaching it. Not to mention the increased stability that savings schemes can offer to slum dwellers. Someone with a bit more financial confidence might be more likely to take part in risky organising.

(My blog:

rn said...


Yes, what you say about organizing in India is true. And I know there is a connection between savings and empowerment. Yet I saw few examples of squatters who were involved in the savings programs also getting involved in leadership development and determining strategy during the times I was with NSDF or any other group (I also hung out with folks at Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti in Kapiswadi, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and Gita Nagar and organizers with the Navjeet Community Center in Behrampada and several small Bandra squatter outposts). I know that organizing is a long term process. But, as the demolitions of the past month show, the need is urgent.

By the way, Adolf Tragler of SRS was one of the first people I spoke with when I got to Mumbai. I had set a time to go with him to a meeting with squatters who were participating in a SRS rehabilitation deal in Korba Mithagar, but the meeting kept getting pushed back, and ultimately was indefinitely postponed. So I never did get to see SRS in action.


Tom Young said...

Yes, of course you're right. Demolitions call for rapid response. Maybe NSDF and other groups will reassess their approach to organising now? I really don't know. At the time I was in Mumbai, it had been so long since the last demolitions that I don't think it was something that anyone had in the front of their minds.

Mr. Tragler is an interesting man. More Indian than Austrian now, I would have to say. His hindi is excellent and his marathi is not too shabby either, I was told. If you are ever back in Mumbai, you should make a point of meeting him. He probably knows the slum situation better than anybody in that city. He's been working in them for over 30 years now.

Unknown said...

going to interview Mr. Tragler. excited to know he studied in the same institute i am studying!:)