Monday, November 26, 2007

The squatter millionaires

It ought to be great news. On Thanksgiving Day (for those of you lucky enough not to be familiar with U.S. rituals, that occurred on Nov. 22nd this year), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that they were giving $10 million to Shack/Slum Dwellers International, a major squatter organizing group in Mumbai, India.

But consider that SDI sometimes doesn't advance the interests of all squatters. In Durban, South Africa, the squatter group Abahlali baseMjondolo was threatened that it would be harassed by the government if it did not join SDI. Here's a note from a recent Abahlali press statement.

We were then told that if we wanted to be
able to meet with the government regularly and to be able to get
houses we must join SDI. The instruction was clear: stay on our own
and keep thinking and speaking for ourselves and be arrested, or join
SDI and be obedient and be rewarded. We refused to join SDI. We
announced this on the radio. Within days the arrests and beatings
started and they have not stopped since even though we are currently
suing the Minister of Safety & Security and even though we have
marched on the Sydenham Police. The money for SDI is not money for us.

Abahlali asserts that SDI has created a coalition with the South African government while the government continues evicting many shack communities. Thus SDI is implicitly condoning those evictions. This is a serious charge.

So I say: Congratulations to the Gates Foundation for, as program officer Melanie Walker told writer Neal Peirce, triumphing over the "scary" prospect of giving $10 million to "people without a bank account." This is a welcome step and will no doubt help the organization draw attention to housing issues and inequities around the globe.

But the Gates Foundation should remember that there are hundreds of millions of squatters around the world who are not represented by SDI (indeed, the majority of the billion shanty dwellers on the planet aren't represented by the group.) They deserve recognition, too, and they certainly shouldn't get the shaft simply because they haven't joined SDI.

addendum, one day later:
And SDI should note that with money and success comes responsibility to be inclusive. SDI tends to only work with groups that embrace it's own 'savings-plan' version of organizing. But there are many communities that don't see saving money as the best organizing tool, particularly if they are facing immanent eviction. SDI now has an opportunity to broaden its vision and its reach.

Where are Durban's street children?

Rounded up, yanked off the streets, and jailed by local authorities, because FIFA, the world soccer federation, met yesterday in the city, The Daily News asserts.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Three Cheers for Infrastructure

Mega Cities expert Janice Perlman makes a profound statement:

"The international funding agencies of investment institutions need to give more to urban development and less to rural development," said Perlman. "I’ve argued that the people who come to the city [and live in squatter developments] are the cream of the crop with the highest ambitions and aspirations. If given the chance, they would build middle-class communities. You can’t blame people for polluting the watershed if you don’t provide them with water infrastructure."

Perlman advocates integrating squatter developments into the surrounding neighborhoods. Rather than demolishing these self-made communities, she recommends connecting them to the city’s infrastructure by incorporating paved streets, steps, plazas and new facades as well as offering services such as clean water, sewage connections and electricity. If visually they’re more like the surrounding neighborhoods, these needy areas will be more likely to interact with the middle class nearby, she said.

Bone Hill

The Homeless Workers Movement is the urban branch of the Landless Workers Movement, the Brazilian group that has been seizing rural parcels from wealthy land barons and building new towns in rural Brazil. In Sao Paulo it has established several new communities, Le Monde Diplomatique reports. Oddly, the group has been recruiting its land invaders among people who live in some of the city's many other favelas. Still, the ideology sounds impressive:

Helena Silvestre, an MTST leader, described squats as a school for participatory democracy and a training ground for future community leaders: “We want to use a specific issue, housing, as the starting-point to help lay the foundations of real popular power.”

The Sao Paulo community chose to call itself Bone Hill because, Silvestre said, "the homeless are a bone that sticks in the authorities’ throat."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

let there be light!

I'm not usually a techno worshipping type, but here's a handy device that could transform people's abilities to get light without wasteful diesel generators or kerosene lanterns. It's called the GaiaLux Ecolight and has been entered in NASA's Create the Future design contest. Basically, it reuses discarded mobile phone chargers to get electricity to rechargeable batteries that in turn power a highly efficient LED bulb. It can be recharged on variable or low current and the batteries will run the light for 40 hours. It's a nifty idea that could reuse some of the 125 million phone chargers that are discarded every year as well as potentially providing affordable (and bright) lighting in places that need it.

A few follow-up questions for inventor John Barrie:

1. How much does the GaiaLux cost? Does the price make it within the reach of people with alarmingly low incomes? Are the materials and supplies that are necessary manufactured in the countries that might find uses for the light, or will they have to be imported?

2. How heavy is the light (because people who don't have their own electricity would likely need to carry it somewhere to recharge the batteries)?

3. Is it feasible to recharge the batteries through solar power?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Plague of Fires Takes Another Life

"The terror of shack fires is everywhere and it will stay everywhere for as long as we are forced to live 13 people in one shack with candles and a paraffin stove because it has been decided that electricity is not for us and that we are not allowed to expand our shacks or to build new ones as our families grow."

Eloquent words from Abahlali baseMjondolo.