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.

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