Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Cost of Going to Court

Poor people who want to sue Zimbabwe's government over the demolition of their homes face a major impediment, The Standard reports: they have to pay for private assessors to put a value on their former holdings. Many of those evicted in Operation Murambatsvina actually had leases from local authorites -- and the demolition plan violated the terms of those leases. Still, without money for valuation, they may not be able to get their day in court.

Even teachers are homeless in Zimbabwe

Shantytowns in the developing world are diverse communities -- home not only to the poor but to professionals and civil servants. In Kenya, I knew social workers, successful entrepreneurs, and even government functionaries who lived in squatter areas. In India, I knew successful merchants and policemen who were squatters. This article from the Zimbabwe Standard (via allAfrica.com) points out that teachers were among those who lived in Zimbabwe's shantytowns and were made homeless by Operation Murambatsvina.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Now Zimbabwe's blocking aid

The government of Zimbabwe won't let the UN move forward with a fund raising drive to help squatters who were evicted during Operation Murambatsvina, IRIN News reports. "It's hard to understand why we can't help these people. The government disagrees with the wording of the flash appeal, or with our working with certain NGO's, and it disagrees with the numbers [of people affected]," UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland told the independent news agency.

Alongside this, check out this disspiriting fact: The average Zimbabwean can now expect to live to the ripe old age of 33. Back in the 80s, life expectancy in Zimbabwe was 62. The country's 81-year-old president might ponder this as he continues to prevent poor people from having a home in the cities.

More Radio

The BBC profiles an endangered squatter community in South London, then talks to me. It's all on the BBC show Outlook.

A Haitian Slum's Anger

The United Nations raided Cité Soleil, a squatter community in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, seeking to kill a local gang leader. They succeeded, but locals claim the peacekeeping troops also killed innocent bystanders, some execution-style, The New York Times reports. Of course, even the UN's top official in the country concedes that stabilizing the country through the barrel of a gun is not viable. ""Force is not a solution for the security problems in Haiti," said Juan Gabriel Valdes. "You have to provide water, food, support in health, in education. We have not been able to do that."

It's a vicious circle. The UN fears violence, so it refuses to go into Cité Soleil. People have no services, and therefore are more apt to turn to violence. The key is to come up with a strategy to bring improvements to Cité Soleil. How about bringing water, electricity, and other services to the edges of the community, and offering to extend these services into Cité Soleil if residents renounce violence and gang leaders turn themselves in, along with their guns?

I know it's easier to be an armchair aidworker than to operate on the ground. But something has to be done to defuse the violence. Invading and killing people simple isn't the answer.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Radio, radio

Worldview, Chicago Public Radio's broadminded international issues and analysis show, devoted its August 24th broadcast to the world's squatter cities. You can find a real media file here.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


A new report from the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (download adobe acrobat version here) details the extent of evictions in Africa and Asia over the past five years. The numbers are terrifying: 1.3 million people in the Congo, 10,000 Ethiopians, more than 1 million people in Nigeria, perhaps 300,000 Sudanese. All in addition to the 700,000 Zimbabweans forced from their homes this year. And these are just the evictions executed by governments. It's an eye-opening document. Look for the incredible numbers from China, where 400,000 Beijing residents have been ejected to make way for the 2008 Olympics. Clearly, the situation on the ground is rough. But squatters and others threatened with eviction continue to speak out and to resist. Through groups like COHRE, we can support their efforts.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

'Ghost Houses'

Message to Detroit: the UK is giving a new tool to cities that have huge numbers of vacant buildings. Now governments can use 'empty dwelling management orders' to fill them up. Essentially, after a building has been empty for six months, the city automatically becomes the property manager and moves tenants in. It's an interesting attempt to make an end run around the red tape and legal wrangling involved in foreclosure or compulsory purchase.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Violence in Rio

A gunbattle between cops and dealers claimed five lives in a Zona Norte favela. Among the dead, a 15-year-old. Police said they recovered a grenade, other weapons, and drugs, according to this Reuters dispatch in The New Zealand Herald. The report notes that human rights groups (and some favela residents) "accuse police of excessive violence and summary executions of unarmed suspects, who are later registered as criminals offering resistance." As one city official told me when I was in Rio, he'd rather work with the drug traffickers because they are more honest and honorable than the cops.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Donations needed in Kibera

I hate making pitches for money, but I just found out that my friends at Kibera's Christ the King Church are in a desperate state. A dozen men raided the church last week. They beat the night watchman (he's OK, but he's probably going to have a limp for quite some time), stole anything of value, including all the computers, and ransacked the church compound, including the rectory. Christ the King is honestly trying to deal with human rights issues in the mud hut neighborhood. And the late, great Nicodemus K. Mutemi, a member of Christ the King parish, was my best buddy in Kibera, and I could not have done my work in the community without him. Like many parishes in poor neighborhoods, Christ the King has no endowment. So please join me in supporting the people of Christ the King in this time of need.

If you want to help, checks can be made out to the Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful. Christine Bodewes is an American lawyer working as a lay missionary on human rights issues in Kibera, so put her name on the memo line of the check. Send it to:

Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful
P. O. Box 307
Maryknoll, New York, 10545


Kuba, a gecekondu community in Istanbul

Turkish-born artist Kutlug Ataman's latest video installation: 40 televisions featuring 40 stories from Kuba, a small gecekondu, or squatter community, near Istanbul's airport. This article from Britain's Guardian Unlimited gives a description. I missed the work last year. I'd like to see it now. Istanbul is 40 percent squatter-built, and it's important for artists to seek out the history and stories of these communities, as they are key components of the modern city.

Dumped in Zimbabwe's poor villages

More on the social engineering implicit in Zimbabwe's drive against squatters, from the BBC.

The Plight of Squatters

We live in a world where hundreds of thousands of people can be violently pushed from their homes and it's just a local story. I tried to rectify that a bit in this article on the demolition drives in Mumbai and Zimbabwe, just published as an Op-Ed in The Washington Post.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Living Well? What a joke.

The UN's IRIN News Service reports that Zimbabwe's Operation Live Well, the government's program to erect new housing for the squatters it drove out of Harare and other major cities, is suspect. In one area, government workers have only started 97 out of the promised 10,000 homes--and these were already allocated to civil servants, not to those displaced in the anti-squatter pogrom. In another neighborhood, the government not only destroyed all the homes, but a World Bank-sponsored water system. So if and when a new community emerges, it will no longer have running water.

Zimbabwe: Picking Up the Pieces

One squatter family's disspiriting odyssey, courtesy of Robert Mugabe's 'cleanup' plan, as reported by Irin news, via allAfrica.com. Fifty-five year old Mthulisi Ndiweni and his family of five lived in a squatter community on the outskirts of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city. After being pushed from their home, they lived the open for two weeks, then relocated to a church, from which they were forcibly removed to a holding camp. Now they have been trucked out to the rural town of Tshitatshawa, where they were unceremoniously deposited at a shopping center. "The police," Ndiweni told a reporter, "threatened to kill us if we ever returned to the city."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

First Zimbabwe, now Malawi

It's contagious. First one country gets away with violently evicting squatters and crushing their homes and livelihoods. Then another says, essentially, 'Hey: those guys got away with it. So can we.'

That seems to be what's happening in Malawi, where squatters in the capital, Lilongwe, have been given two weeks to move, according to this dispatch from the South African channel news 24.

"As government we will use what is provided in the law and if we have to move them by force then the government will use that channel," Felix Tukula, a senior Housing Ministry official, said.

The squatter communities under the gun so far are small, and bear names like Baghdad and Dubai.

Police in Sao Paulo clash with apartment squatters

The Associated Press, via CNN.com reports that Brazilian police got violent in an effort to evict squatters who had entrenched themselves in a large city-owned building for the past two years. The squatters apparently occupied the building to press the city for more affordable housing and to prod the federal government to speed-up land redistribution.

Squatters = Commerce

Squatters -- even those who are desperately poor -- are among the most entrepreneurial and hard-working people around. As this article, from allAfrica.com, points out, the Nigerian government and a road contractor want to stop commercial squatters from taking over most of a local highway. The squatters have apparently taken over several lanes of Onitsha Road and have also invaded the shoulders and drainage areas to erect shops and kiosks.

Architect Emeka O. Ejikeme, the Anambra State Commissioner of Works, said that squatters have refused to accept a state promise to build an ultra-modern alternative market for them. Because of this, he added, the government was considering setting up a security task force to rid the road of the squatters.

It's nice that the government has proposed relocating the squatters. But where? And how much will stalls at this 'ultra-modern' establishment cost. I haven't seen the intersection in person, but it sounds similar to much of the bustle and hubbub I saw alongside Kenyan roads. Certainly squatters should not be encouraged to block highways with their kiosks. But can't this thriving marketplace (it's obviously doing well if people keep building more stalls) simply be given space adjacent to the road? Why evict the squatters when you can work with them?

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Horror and Hope in Zimbabwe

Two reports from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting offer contrary views of the plight of squatters in Zimbabwe, one offering a bleak sense of horror as evictions continue while the other points to the continuing demolitions as a 'great mistake' that is catalyzing the opposition and giving a sense of hope that President Robert Mugabe's hold on the country may be slipping.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Criminalizing Poverty

Sorry for this slightly tangential post on a squatter blog, but, I guess it's now against the law to be poor. In Atlanta, lawmakers have endorsed a proposal to ban panhandling from the tourist area downtown. The legislation passed the City Council 12-3 and the Mayor intends to sign it, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Even the dead don't know Detroit

Attention squatters: Detroit has 12,000 abandoned homes and 36 square miles of vacant land. What's more, in a shocking tidbit, the dean of the University of Detroit's school of architecture asserts that families are exhuming 400 to 500 bodies a year from local graveyards and reburying them in suburban cemeteries. All because of the fear of crime when coming to visit a relative's grave.

One thing local politicians ought to consider: a local version of the Homestead Act, one that would turn vacant houses over to squatters. This would fix and repopulate the city faster than a program that locals are pushing. They want to create a land bank to demolish the buildings, erase prior property lines, and get supersized parcels into the hands of developers.

Detroit doesn't need more profit hungry developers--who actually extract money from the city. Detroit needs residents and committed builders of its neighborhoods. The quickest and most effective way to do this is to harness the will of squatters.

Detroit can learn from the developing world.

See this Agence France Press ariticle via Yahoo! News.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Making Bombay into Shanghai just means driving the poor out of the city.

The Voice of America offers a sensible and sensitive take on Mumbai's slum demolitions. As the article suggests, when authorities demolish a shanty, they seldom realize that they are wiping out a major investment. "A demolished slum dwelling ... might only represent a $2,000 investment, but that is a huge amount to a working-class family that cannot afford housing elsewhere," the article notes.

As one squatter busy rebuilding a kindergarten that had been wiped out in the monsoon said: "Have you ever heard of the government trying to take over the property of the rich? It's only ever the poor who have been evicted, whose houses have been demolished."

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Big debt, little debt

The Big debt: Forgive debt in order to make more loans. That's what the World Bank seems to be contemplating in a memo leaked to the press, Inter Press Service reports. "Most countries receiving 100 percent debt cancellation would be classified as 'green light' and therefore become eligible for new borrowing," Geoff Lamb, the Bank's vice president for concessional finance, asserted in the memo that surfaced a few days ago. Another leaked document shows that the International Monetary Fund has been trying to make behind-the-scenes changes that could derail the debt cancellation deal.

The small: Another IPS article notes that some new studies question whether microfinance truly offers a way out of poverty. It seems that the small-scale loan programs help only the creme de la creme of the poor. ”We're really reaching primarily the upper half of those who are in poverty,” the leader of a microcredit program in Haiti said.

South Africa may be planning its own Murambatsvina

With the football World Cup coming to South Africa in 2010, (see: http://www.swc2010.com/ Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has vowed to eradicate the country's 1,000 plus squatter communities Inter Press Service reports. While the country has made notable attempts to foster construction of truly affordable housing, activists worry that the drive to remove the self-built communities and prettify the cities where the world cup matches will be held could have a severe impact on the poor. Alrelady, Johannesburg and other cities have been brutally evicting illegal residents--some of whom have lived in their informal homes for years--without providing any alternative housing.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Is Anyone Surprised?

Big Shock: The Zimbabwe Standard "has established" that most of the 700,000 people evicted in Zimbabwe's massive squatter demolition drive have not benefitted from new homes the government claims to be building. There is some housing being built, but properties are being allocated to government supporters, civil servants, and even members of the media. That's one way to keep the press compliant.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

More violence as squatters resist removal

The Red Ants are coming! The Red Ants are coming! These are the guards in red overalls who are employed by the Johannesburg sheriff to enforce evictions. South Africa's Mail & Guardian reports on more violence between squatters who have occupied 16 factory buildings and the authorities.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Kenyan Housing Minister Supported Zimbabwe Demolitions

“However painful, evictions are necessary," Kenyan Housing Minister Amos Kimunya said last month at a meeting in South Africa, according to the Business Day newspaper. Zambian Housing and Public Works Minister Sylvia Masebo also expressed sympathy with the Mugabe government, saying that the rights of squatters had to be balanced with the rights of those settled in decent homes who were faced with declining property values.

I guess the idea of working with squatters to improve their commuities is just too, too radical for these bureaucrats. I missed this story a month ago. Kimunya's comment doesn't bode well for the 1.5 million or 2 million Nairobi residents who live in the city's vast mud and scrap steel neighborhoods.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Knee high water? Bring it on!

Dilip D'Souza reports on the amazing resilience of squatters. This is the kind of attitude squatters must have: Knee-high water? no problem, bring it on!

As Dilip explains, when people first came to the Mumbai community called Mandala twenty years ago, it was a large marsh. They set up little homes and brought in truckloads of mud to fill the land over the years. Their homes began with plastic and tarp shacks, moved up to tin. Eventually many homes were made of brick. All in all, Dilip reports, Mohammed Umar, a typical resident, spent Rs 80,000 on his house--about $1,400.

Early this year, the Mumbai authorities demolished the community and posted guards on the site to prevent people returning. And where did the guards come from? "From right here in Mandala, in those huts over there", says Mohammed, pointing to a section of his neighborhood which remains intact.

Now, despite the record-setting deadly monsoon rains, Mohammed is building again, on the rubble on which he once lived. He expects to spend about Rs 5000 (or about $100) to make a minimally livable abode from bamboo poles and plastic sheeting.

He has not given up hope.

Protesting 'favelizaçao'

Environmentalists in Rio de Janeiro's Niteroi neighborhood say unrestricted real estate development and the growth of favelas are destroying the city's fragile ecology, according to this article, in Portuguese, from the Jornal do Brasil.)

Here's a summary, courtesy of the good folks at americas.org:

The growth of favelas threatens Niteroi: Governing bodies denounce irregular occupation and real estate speculation in nature reserves.” Increasingly worried by the degradation of ecological reserves in Niteroi, environmentalists have begun to denounce the transformation of these protected areas into slum neighborhoods. Environmentalist Gerhard Sardo, the regional coordinator of the Permanent Assembly of Entities in Defense of the Environment of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Apedema), blaims both the real estate business and the spread of favelas for the growing environmental destruction. He points out that, whereas virtually nothing can stop the spread of slums, environmental abuse on the part of real estate projects can be controlled by fines and punishments.

Iraq: more than 450,000 homeless across the country

Two years of instability and war have created a massive number of squatters in Iraq, the UN News Agency IRIN (the Integrated Regional Information Network -- homepage at http://www.irinnews.org) reports.

The facts are severe: More than 450,000 people homeless (almost 2 percent of the country's population), 54,000 in Baghdad alone.

Thanks to Annia Ciezadlo, who's stationed in the Middle East and Iraq doing stories for various news outlets, for sending this piece my way. I couldn't find it on the IRIN site, so I reproduce it in full here:

IRAQ: Housing problems increase as conflict hits hearth and home

BAGHDAD, 3 August (IRIN) - Adel Abdel Sada is not proud of his home. Cobbled together from the wreckage of old buildings, cartons and bits of scrap, the ramshackle, jerry-built dwelling is all the 39-year-old unemployed security guard can afford.

"I've lived here for four years since I lost my job," he said. "I built two rooms, a bath, a kitchen and a fence. I know no-one would like to live in a house like this, but what can I do? I need a home for my family."

Sada is not alone, and many of Iraq's low-income or unemployed families are struggling to find adequate housing countrywide.

The main reason for terrible living conditions for thousands of Iraqis is that many houses have been destroyed over years of conflict in the country.

The number, officials say, has been increasing daily and very little investment has gone into the sector.

Ahmed D'lemi, a senior official at the Ministry of Construction and Housing, said that according to its records, more than 450,000 families were homeless countrywide. Most were living in what he described as "very deteriorated or miserable conditions".

"This number may shock the international humanitarian organisations but it's the reality of Iraq now," D'lemi said. "Our government is working hard to reverse this statistic, but we need very large investment."

He added that the number could be much higher than their records suggest, since many homeless people have not been registered due to the prevailing insecurity in Iraq.

At a conference held in Jordan in November 2004 by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, known as UN-Habitat, and Iraqi government officials it was stated that Iraq needed 1.5 million new homes to cover needs, confirming the vast scale of the problem, but lack of funds has delayed the process.

In Baghdad alone, more than 54,000 people have been identified as homeless, according to local government officials.

Recent conflict in the country, especially in the western province of Anbar, where US forces are flushing out insurgents, has caused thousands of residents to flee and become homeless, according to the Ministry of Construction and Housing.

US forces justify say their operations are needed to ensure security in the long term.

"Our military operations in the country are to defend the future of Iraq and bring safety to Iraqi people, even if houses have been destroyed," Lt-Col Steven Boylan, spokesperson for the US forces in the country said.

"We will rebuild them in time, and they will be better housing than before the fighting."

However, he did not give any specific details on how and when construction would start.

Homeless families are not optimistic.

"My house was totally destroyed in Fallujah in the last conflict and, until now, I'm living with my family in an abandoned school just outside the city, awaiting a solution from the government," said Muhammad Kubaissy, a father of five.

"They are fighting insurgents and the result is more homeless people every day in the country," he added.

The country's housing problem dates back to previous conflicts, but has been exacerbated by the war, insurgency and instability in the recent past.

After the Iraq-Iran war, in the 1980s, the government of former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, announced the need for more than three million new homes in Baghdad and surrounding districts.

"A plan was established at that time to solve the housing crisis but, with Iraq's entry into the [first] Gulf War in 1991, this plan was completely halted," said Bassim al-Ansary, general director of planning at the ministry.

"The private sector declined as well because of weak funding, which made matters worse - as did the sanctions imposed by the United Nations in Iraq."

The only project that was developed in Iraq between then 2003 was by UN-Habitat, official said. Since 1997, it has helped to provide over 20,000 houses, 475 primary schools, 220 secondary schools, 130 health centres between other projects.

UN-Habitat stopped its work in the country after the terrorist attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, having to scale back staff temporarily, but is working from the Jordanian capital, Amman.

According to al-Ansary, more than 1,000 houses have been built since 2003, mainly for teachers at universities and government workers in central Iraq who were in drastically living situation conditions.

In order to address the problem, the ministry has proposed five projects in different places around the country, including several new lower-income housing tracts to cover emergency needs.

However, only three, at a cost of US$ 40 million, have been undertaken due to funding shortages.

"We have already started three new housing projects, one in [the northern city of] Kirkuk with 600 homes, in Baghdad with 284, and in [the southern city of] Karbala with 483 housing units," al-Ansary said. They should be completed in 2006, he added.

The two projects pending, costed at US $12 million, are for housing needs in the northern city of Mosul and for Missan in the south.

But locals claim that progress is slow and that they continue to suffer.

"For two years we had no home and I lived with my family in abandoned buildings without water or electricity," said Suad Mohammed from Sadr City, a vast low-income neighbourhood in Baghdad dominated by Shi'ites.

"Then, together with some other families, we moved into a small house with two rooms and a kitchen. There are around 11 people living with us waiting for a solution through the government housing project."

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Jo'burg squatters vow to fight eviction

Squatters occupying an abandoned factory in Johannesburg have set up burning barricades to defy police and remain in their homes, the Mail & Guardian reports. The squatters are prepared to pay rent. Indeed, they are paying rent now, to the South African National Civics Organization, a group allied with the ruling African National Congress.

So where is SANCO during this dispute? Why isn't it mobilizing to protect the squatters? Taking the money and running, I'd guess. Can anyone say poverty pimps?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

TEDGlobal conference

Here's a French language report on the TED Global conference I spoke at last month, from the Swiss news magazineL'Hebdo.

I'll try my hand at a loose translation (corrections gladly accepted) of the short note about my speech: New York journalist Robert Neuwirth shocked the auditorium while projecting an image of a shantytown under the title 'the city of tomorrow.' According to him, in 2050, 3 billion people on earth will live in these favelas. Far from complaining, the author showed with fervor how their communities organize themselves and create jobs. Amazement among the assembled.