The Global Slums – A Permanent Poverty Pandemic

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Specialist in communicable diseases at the Department of Public Health Ernst K. Rødland recently described the conditions in the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos as follows: “Very many people are gathered in a small area where there is a general lack of health services, poor water and sanitation conditions, many cases of various diseases, poor nutrition and total absence of opportunities for isolation and quarantine ”. Conditions in Moria exist in refugee camps around the world, but according to the UN, they also exist for 1.8 billion people living in inadequate housing conditions and homelessness in slums. A common feature of refugee camps and slums is that they are neglected by international development co-operation and humanitarian superpowers like Norway. With Covid-19 this could have apocalyptic consequences
According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the slum population in the world is growing by 250,000 residents a day. Mega-slums such as Cono Sur in Lima, Sadr City in Baghdad and Cape Flats in Cape Town are creating a radically unequal and unstable world. Poverty is urbanized and feminized without industrialization, economic growth and planning. Population density makes pandemics a ticking bomb. Social isolation is impossible. This century’s urban world emerges fastest in the so called peri-urban areas; in the borderland between city and countryside. Here national and local authorities are cutting off refugees and migrants from their democratic rights and social services. In such shadow lands there are no global health programs and vaccination campaigns, educational efforts for girls and employment programs for youth. Norwegian Development Minister Dag Inge Ulstein (Christian Democrats), who took up the position in early 2019, stated when he took office that there are two areas he will not prioritize: social urban development and the water and sanitation sector. Let’s hope he has second thoughts on this. That very little Norwegian aid goes to social development in cities – to the poorest of the poor – reflects an international trend. During the period 1970–2015, an average of four (4) percent of state aid went to social, urban purposes.  The concerns are not primarily about development aid. The key is to understand the many causes of urban and rural poverty and the connection between them. With few exceptions, Norwegian donors do not. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ latest policy document on urban development and international cooperation dates from 2007. The technical agency NORAD’s action plan is from 2002. Is it not time for an update? This also applies to voluntary actors such as Norwegian Church Aid and CARE. They have little focus on the increasingly strong link between rural marginalization and urban poverty. Or on migration caused by climate deterioration, natural disasters, war and conflict, and failed agricultural policies. The urban poor movements are not seated at the table during World Bank or UN consultations, contrary to the superstar network’s of megacities. The development of technologically advanced, socially exclusive and reality-removed smart cities is the frequent mantra of such deliberations. It is overlooked that epidemics such as Ebola, Sars and Covid-19 are about the connections between the urban, the peri-urban and the rural in areas that are barely on the map. The world’s leading development bureaucrats and politicians do not perceive the challenges and opportunities in this perspective. The informal and often illegal status of many slums dwellers weakens the ability to collect data and implement policies that can improve conditions. How to predict the spread of an infection when data is missing? Local groups like Slum Dwellers International (SDI) collect their own data as a basis for influencing local and national authorities. But SDI no longer receives Norwegian support for its work in nearly 1,000 slums in 35 countries. Surveys from Sierra Leone show that residents rely on informal services, especially when it comes to fever and cough. Such local “suppliers” are the key to detecting the early cases. Vulnerable groups must also be consulted. Today large groups of chronically ill people lack treatment. Childless elderly people, especially women and widows, are neglected. It is crucial for future planning that the epidemics and conditions under which they develop are interpreted correctly and by the right people. Covid-19 is described as a pandemic that happens once every century. However, a growing number of slum dwellers worldwide are living in a permanent pandemic: poverty. Problems with water, sanitary conditions, sewage and drains, air pollution and garbage are increasing. Accidents such as house fire, cholera, floods and landslides persist. Rising food and energy prices are constant threats to people’s safety and security. “Food and fuel riots” have led to political chaos in several countries. The Norwegian Government’s “Sustainability Whitepaper” (2017) states: “Urbanization and the fact that the majority of the world’s population will live in cities requires a different approach to development and poverty, including efforts for climate and environment. It also impacts how prevention and response to humanitarian crises is formulated”. There is, however, no discussion or any follow-up on this “different approach”. If the battle is to be won against the permanent pandemic that are slums it will be necessary, among other things, to restructure Norwegian and international development policy. Are your taking up the challenge Minister Ulstein?

Author Erik Berg, Retired Norwegian Diplomat and Development worker Email:

Printed with permission from Klassekampen Original story printed on 30 March, 2020   

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