Africa : Focus on Housing the Urban Poor

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FACT : 62% of sub-Saharan Africa's Urban Population live in Slums.


Millions of people move to Africa's cities every year, swelling the numbers of urban poor. "We cannot chase people away from slums," says Kelvin Mmangisa, chief executive of the Lilongwe City Assembly. "But we can improve the conditions there to make their lives better."

Mmangisa made this call for investment in affordable housing for the poor in an interview with IPS on Jun. 10 in Nairobi, where he was among 200 delegates at a conference addressing challenges of urbanisation and poverty reduction for slum dwellers in developing nations.

The conference was organised jointly by the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group of Countries (ACP), European Commission and UN-HABITAT - the United nations human settlement agency.

His remark resonated with a key highlight of the Jun. 8-10 meeting - financing the upgrading of informal settlements in order to provide necessary basic services.

There are a billion people living in poverty in slums and squatter settlements worldwide; with predictions that about two billion more will be living there by 2025, the question of upgrading housing for the urban poor is an urgent one.

"If adequate financial resources are not allocated to the development of better shelter and requisite services, this additional population will be trapped in urban poverty, poor health and sanitation, further compounding the enormous slum challenge prevalent today," said Anna Tibaijuka, U.N. Under-Secretary General and executive director of UN-HABITAT.

Sixty-two percent of the population living in sub-Saharan Africa's cities live in slums where basic services are poor or non-existent. Access to safe drinking water is a challenge, and the situation as regards sanitation even more severe.

Finding resources to build houses and water and sanitation infrastructure for these billions is a massive challenge. One approach being adopted by several governments involves resources belonging to slum dwellers themselves.

One such project is the Moratuwa Slum Upgrading Project in Sri Lanka, a joint initiative by UN-HABITAT and the Sri Lankan government, which seeks to construct new housing units for slum dwellers in the capital Colombo. About 60 percent of the city's 2.3 million population lives in slums, according to UN-HABITAT.

The project operates a fund supported by the Women Development Bank Federation, a nationwide network of over 1,000 savings and credit groups operating across Sri Lanka. The government and UN-HABITAT also contribute to the fund, which acts as a guarantor to enable groups of slum dwellers to access credit from financial institutions with which to pay for new homes.

A similar initiative in Malawi came into focus for its success in not only in providing the poor, particularly women, with decent housing but also engaging them in other income-generating and poverty reduction activities.

The programme, by the Centre for Community Organisation and Development has used community-managed savings and credit schemes to provide loans to women for decent housing. The income-generating projects have helped them in repayment of the loans.

"With government and donor support, many poor people have been able to build better houses with facilities like water, toilets and generally good sanitation through the initiative. These houses are in the periphery of the city - Lilongwe - and they do not look like slums. They are well-organised and are now planned settlements," Mmangisa said.

The success of the initiative is said to be largely because of its promotion of participation of poor people in seeking to address housing problems.

Sustainability of housing projects for the poor has emerged as a key concern, with some blaming governments for failing to prioritise urbanisation.

"So many times we have seen in the national and regional development strategy plans that the issue of urbanisation does not feature. We have to do advocacy - to ensure that urbanisation is at the centre of these plans because only through that process, then funding will be allocated for urbanisation issues," Andrew Bradley, assistant Secretary General of the ACP group told the meeting.

Burundi is a case in point. With the government allocating only four percent of its budget to housing, it's little wonder Sebastian Ntirampeba, advisor to the urban planning department within the ministry of water, wnvironment and urbanisation is outraged.

"This amount is negligible. How can we prevent slums if we do not invest in housing," he said in an interview with IPS. "[The] majority of the population are poor".

Jose Maria Veiga, Cape Verde's minister for environment, rural development and maritime resources argues that a critical step is to prevent people from migrating to urban centres in the first place.

"This can be done by decentralising services to rural areas to guarantee that people access services where they are, as well as creating infrastructure in rural areas. These could be electricity, roads, markets, telecommunication among others," said Veiga.

Still, equalising access to job opportunities and services between urban and rural areas would slow the explosive growth of urban Africa.

A 2008 UN report focusing on population distribution and urbanisation concedes that the growth of the urban population is fuelled by rural-urban migration, but found that with the exceptions of Indonesia and China, natural increase - births to urban residents - accounted for two-thirds of urban growth.


By Joyce Mulama UN-HABITAT / IPS