When “aid” means evictions

Submitted by AWL on 22 November, 2007 - 1:08 Author: Richard Whittle

Even with Labour and the Conservatives outdoing each other to be the party of big business and wealth, some poor people are still popular at Westminster — that is poor people in other countries. Laments for the scale of global poverty and a stern faced insistence on the need to do something about it are becoming the favoured recourse of every politician, most obviously Gordon Brown.

Soundbites like “when conscience is joined to conscience, moral force to moral force, think how much our power to do good can achieve” (Brown on his recent trip to America) are lapped up by the press as testimony to the ethical fibre of this vicar’s son. Brown is able to back up his words with the recent announcement that Britain has become the world’s second largest overseas aid donor, thanks to a 12% increase in spending (an £808 million rise to £7.5 billion) in the past year.

That’s a lot of money, and it is money that, in contrast to other government spending (on, say, the health service) is assumed to be going to the right places and people. To an extent not enjoyed by any other ministry, the Department for International Development (DFiD) avoids any serious critical scrutiny.

This is unfortunate. The DFiD’s actions and policies have far reaching consequences and they come from the same sheet as the rest of New Labour’s policies. However, shrouded as they are by the cod profundity which spews out of politicians, businessmen, celebrities and other sometime baby-kissers, a web of multilateral institutions like the World Bank, northern government departments like our own Department for International Development and a range of NGOs, companies and consultancies for the most part escape censure. Reports such as those by War on Want and Action Aid showing how much of UK aid money is given to corporate consultancies may get the third slot on Newsnight, but this information rarely influences future reporting on the subject.

DFiD both runs projects itself and funds those of other development organisations such as the World Bank Group and NGOs. It therefore makes sense to look, not just at what DFiD itself is doing, but also where its money is going.

The NGOs chosen to benefit from the development largesse have to conform to a certain way of doing things. If you cite, say, colonialism and ongoing resource extraction by multinationals as cause of poverty and a hindrance in the fight against it, you’re unlikely to receive much from a department like DFiD.

If however, you encourage “market” solutions to problems and call people who live in slums “frustrated entrepreneurs and consumers”, the funds are more likely to flow in your direction. The consequences of the schemes that result from this kind of thinking are predictably contemptuous of the “beneficiaries” they purport to help, and the results would be familiar in type to anybody who has experienced the Conservative and New Labour reforms in England.

Take the attitude of DFiD and the rest of the development industry to housing issues. Lack of secure housing, or even any housing, is one of the main problems faced by the world’s poor, especially in cities. As the American urbanist Mike Davis says in his book Planet of Slums:

“...everywhere in the Third World, housing choice is a hard calculus of confusing trade-offs… The urban poor have to solve a complex equation as they try to optimize housing cost, tenure security, quality of shelter, journey to work, and sometimes, personal safety. For some people, including many pavement dwellers, a location near a job — say, in a produce market or train station — is even more important than a roof. For others, free or nearly free land is worth epic commutes from the edge to the centre. And for everyone the worst situation is a bad, expensive location without municipal services or security of tenure.”

The development industry’s favoured method to sort this out is to bring in the ubiquitous panacea: the public-private partnership. Sometimes given the evocative title “land sharing”, this essentially involves handing over at least half of the land area of a slum to a private builder who can use it for commercial purposes in exchange for constructing group housing.

Land sharing is currently being presented, by the national and state government, as the solution to slum housing problems in Bangalore, where I’ve just been living. Two local activists, Issac Amrutharaj and Eshwarappa M, were wary of the benefits that were being promised by their politicians and bureaucrats for the city’s slums — and living in a slum in a city striving to make itself more amenable for the purposes of multinationals would make you somewhat sceptical about supposedly visionary schemes involving land — so they went to Mumbai to find out what had gone in the five years since land sharing had become government policy.

What they found was that, for the most part, land sharing’s success had not been in ameliorating the lives of people in slums but in filling the pockets of the real estate developers who got the gig as the “private” side of the partnership. Indeed, the former Chief Secretary of Maharastra, who headed a state level committee to review the land sharing experiment in Mumbai, summed up his 900 page report in nine words: “for the builder, of the builder, by the builder”.

The dynamics of land sharing and how it was implemented, like so many other public-private partnerships, soon became dictated by the private side of the partnership: the real estate lobby. The slums chosen in Mumbai were mostly those in plum real estate locations in the centre of the city. After the land was “shared”, its original residents were nowhere to be seen.

This land was so plum that often it made more sense for the builders to move the people out of the area altogether and relocate them to the outskirts of town, leaving the developers with all the land for whatever commercial purposes they fancied (they showed a fetish for malls and kitsch apartment blocks).

The people who used to live in the slums were supposed to be given secure, modern, developed housing, but when the original residents of these areas have been provided houses by the building companies it has been on the outskirts of the city, on land to which they are not given tenure rights, in mostly multi-storey flats. Regardless of the quality of the flats this has stripped many people of their livelihoods: many people living in slums make their living as, for example, cobblers or as vendors outside their front doors. It’s difficult to make a living like this if your front door is ten flights of stairs up.

To make things more difficult, although the builders may have sometimes provided these multi-storey flats, they rarely maintained services for them. As it was often the weaker members of the slums who were consigned to the upper floors, one of the consequences was elderly widows having to walk down eleven flights of stairs and out of the building to get water (as there was no working water supply in the building), walk a mile back to the building and then walk up eleven flights of stairs again with a full pot, as the lift was not working due to lack of electricity.

It’s difficult to call schemes like this voluntary or participatory, in contrast to the claims made for it being participatory and “people led”. The builders showed themselves remarkably adept at securing the services of local thugs, who phrased the question a little more forcefully. “If you don’t choose to move we’ll break your legs” was the choice offered to residents of the Kandivali area.

They had lived there since 1992 but as they did not have records proving they had lived on the land before 1995 they were not even given any new housing. Some of the residents had their legs broken for having the temerity to say they’d like to stay where they had lived for their whole lives, and they are now left to fend for themselves on the streets.

This has become the Indian central government’s main policy on housing and, with DFiD chipping in funds along with other northern government development departments, this model is spreading around the country. All the slums in Bangalore that have been chosen as pilot projects in the city are in prime areas. They have all been there for many years. People have been told by government officials that to benefit from this land sharing they will have to move from these areas to the outskirts of the city.

The proposals are being glossed up of course: residents of the Anandapuram slum in the west of the city have been promised (but not guaranteed) a swimming pool in their multi-storey apartments.

Issac Amrutharaj, who is a resident of the LR Nagar slum in the centre of Bangalore, where residents are mounting protests against the sharing proposed for the land they have lived on their whole lives, summarised the reasons for scepticism:

“First, we will not get land rights through this ‘land sharing’. If we live in one of these multi-storey buildings even for fifty years we will not get the rights to the land.

“Second, if we have to move from our homes, in which we have lived our whole lives, we lose part of our history and our present livelihood. If we choose this, fine, but we don’t want to be forced to do this.

“Third, at the same time as the government is saying it does not have enough land to provide space for individual, ground level houses, it gives 800 acres of land to Infosys [an Indian IT services multinational]. Seventy-five families from slums can live in one acre so don’t say there is not enough land for the people from slums.

“Fourth, we don’t want a swimming pool, we don’t want high-rise housing. Give us a 10x10 foot plot of land and we’ll manage. We know how to construct a house; we know how to maintain a house. People from slums have built much of the city and people from slums continue to maintain it. We can build our own houses”.

It seems a little odd that experiments such as that of Mumbai are being taken as “best practice models” by the development industry, to be exported around the world. At the forefront of this is “Cities Alliance” which, according to its website, is a “global coalition of cities and their development partners committed to scaling up successful approaches to poverty reduction.” These partners include the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, USAid, DFID and various other northern governments. Funded in part by money from DFiD, it is bringing its dubious expertise to help governments to encourage public-private partnerships, not just in land but basic amenities such as water provision.

Such schemes, which are making the lives of people in poverty more difficult and less secure than they already were, gain legitimacy and insulation from criticism so easily because they function under the banner of development, garlanded by talk of conscience and moral force. There’s a lot of political capital to be made out of bemoaning the problems of the world’s poor and, with the public-private ideology holding sway, there’s a lot of money to be made out of addressing them. That’s a leg breaking combination.

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