The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Reinventing the shack will not get the poor out of slum conditions

Vijay Govindarajan, a Professor of International Business at Dartmouth, proposes to build a $300 one-room shed to solve the world's housing problems. But a passing interest in the global housing crisis is not the same as dedicating one's intellect to solving the problem, and urban development professionals need to know the difference. Especially when the proposal is riddled with stereotypes and prejudices, as Govindarajan's is.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Mumbai, Port-au-Prince, Nairobi, Dakar, Harare

Topics: Land, Housing, Private sector governance, Informal settlements, Development

Last week the Harvard Business Review published a blog by Vijay Govindarajan, Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School at Dartmouth, written with Christian Sarkar, a marketing consultant. They proposed to reinvent the stereotypical one-room slum shack with a mass-produced variety, fitted out with such accoutrements as a solar panel, a water filter, and a tablet PC, which they believed could be delivered for a price tag of 300 USD.

I'm sorry to say that this is a design solution in search of a problem, not a response to the real issues facing slum settlements. Govindarajan and Sarkar appear to be responding to the stereotypes in their mind, and more inclined to propose new business products than understand their 'market'.

I write about this not simply to heckle at their proposal, but to use their article to illustrate some misconceptions about slum housing in developing cities.

One-room houses will always be slums

The first point to make is that by definition, reinventing the shack cannot be a solution. They describe their proposal as "a one-room shed designed around the family ecosystem". But any design that proposes to confine a family within one room is perpetuating slum conditions.

UN-HABITAT defines a slum household as any group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area who lack one or more of five conditions: durable housing, sufficient living area, access to improved water, access to sanitation, and secure tenure.

Regarding sufficient living area: any household where more than three people share the same room is deemed a slum household.

Since the vast majority of slum households consist of four, five or more people, getting one-room families out of slum conditions requires finding economically viable ways to move them into multi-room accommodation. Putting them in new one-way structures is a distraction from this task, and worse, allows politicians and entrepreneurs to pretend they are doing 'something' about the problem.

Not all slums are shack settlements

Of course, one can easily respond, well, we'll just make it two rooms then. But this is as simplistic a response as the original proposal. The next problem is the stereotypical view that slum dwellers all live in free-standing dwellings, or that they should remain in such structures. Even in the wealthiest world cities, we do not pretend that everyone should live in free-standing houses, so why should we impose such a stereotype on poorer cities?

Apart from the stereotypical shack settlements in cities like Cape Town and Nairobi, slums may consist of overcrowded multi-storey housing projects, dilapidated inner-city buildings, workers' hostels and dormitories. Think of tenements in China or South Asian labourers in the Middle East. Transforming these kinds of slums has rarely been achieved through housing product innovation, but through intense political negotiations between households, governments, and the real estate sector, each with very different ideas about inner-city development.

Not all shacks are inadequate

Even in the more stereotypical shack slums, the durability of housing is not necessarily the issue. At a recent conference, Debbie Potts, geographer at King's College London, pointed out that wealthy houses and slum shacks in Harare are often made of the same materials. The difference is that the wealthy have rendered over their mud walls a generation ago and forgotten that they existed. Govindarajan and Sarkar's desire to do away with houses of "mud or clay" masks a simple modernist prejudice against traditional materials, which are often perfectly adequate in the hands of skilled craftsmen.

There are also many slums around the world that are already far better built than the prefabricated product the two writers propose. Turkey's gecekondu settlements come to mind, where slum residents build multi-storey structures in reinforced concrete.

Not all slums are housing problems

A fourth stereotype is to see all slums as housing problems. World Bank research published last month reviewed developmental indicators of slums in Dakar, Nairobi and Johannesburg. The research notes the diversity of slum households between the three cities, concluding that:

In Dakar, slum residents have fairly decent conditions, even though they have low levels of educational attainment and high levels of income poverty. By contrast, in Nairobi slum's [sic] living conditions are appalling although most slum residents have jobs and a comparatively high level of education."

The kind of innovation that Dakar's slums need are very different to Nairobi's. If business leaders wanted to help Dakar's slum residents, they would focus on literacy, education and enterprise development, not on importing housing concepts conceived for less adequately built cities.

When Western business leaders make forays into international development, they have a choice. They can focus on specific problems and analyse them intensively. Jacqueline Novogratz' Acumen Fund working with Nairobi company Ecotact to build pay-per-use toilet blocks is a good example. Or they can attempt to tackle international problems at scale, and adapt their activities to the structure of those problems, as does Cameron Sinclair's Architecture for Humanity, or, increasingly, the Clinton Foundation.

It would be fine if Govindarajan and Sarkar were thinking like an Acumen Fund, and declaring a focus on shack settlements. But they don't demonstrate much awareness of the problems within that focus. They also claim that their product can serve a market of 2.5 billion people, suggesting that they believe it is a solution for the entire global housing crisis. But in that case, they need to demonstrate some awareness of the structure of that crisis, as Architecture for Humanity does.

What is not acceptable, and offensive to the millions of poor living in better housing conditions, is to pick and choose so narrow a housing typology as the one-room shack, repackage it for mass production under the banner of 'reverse innovation' and claim it can serve the whole "bottom of the pyramid". The napkin sketch and the cheap claims to "serve the unserved" betray a very superficial interest and commitment to the problems of global housing, and we need more than that from a thought leader such as a Dartmouth Professor of International Business.

The real problem is land

What academics and more committed practitioners have been telling us for decades is that the underlying factor for so many of the world's shack settlements is access to urban land. Poor residents live in one-room shacks not because they cannot afford better materials, but because they cannot afford to buy larger parcels of land, or are politically denied the right to do so. In Mumbai it is often cited that slum dwellers comprise fifty per cent of the population yet occupy only 6 per cent of the land.

As Rahul Mehrotra discussed earlier this year, rehousing the poor of such a city requires a "regional approach". While he admires the efforts by SPARC (Mumbai's famous slum dweller support network) to rehouse residents in-situ, no permanent solution can be found without replanning the city-region to allot vastly more urban land to affordable residential development for those six million slum dwellers.

And in Haiti, the deadlock currently frustrating attempts to rehouse earthquake victims occurs because wealthy landowners, who control most of the free space in the Port-au-Prince region, refuse to make unoccupied land available for transitional housing.

In both cases, dreaming up new housing designs as many do in vain cannot address the fact that the poor have nowhere to build such structures.

The poor are not welfare-dependent!

Finally, business leaders, especially Western leaders with an anti-welfare bent, may have to ditch a few myths about the 'laziness' of the poor. Govindarajan and Sarkar write that, "to move beyond charity, the poor must become owners of their homes, responsible for their care and upkeep."

There are two prejudices bound up in this statement. "To move beyond charity" suggests that slum dwellers are living off charity in the same way that unemployed Westerners may live off state welfare payments. Yet slum communities exist largely because they are left to their own devices by governments and tolerated or ignored by their surrounding wealthier compatriots. There is little systematic charity that matches the scale of deprivation in many slums, and both international and local charities often make little inroads into any but the most visible slum settlements.

The other is that to demand that "the poor must become … responsible for their care and upkeep", is to deny the obvious fact that only the poor have taken responsibility for the care and upkeep of their self-built homes. It is offensive to say to residents who have built their own houses with whatever means and without any outside help that, 'we shall sell you this product, but now, you must become responsible homeowners.' Residents of slum settlements are just as house-proud as wealthy families, and many will readily invite you to their homes as guests, however minimal these may be.

Interest, commitment and knowledge

We may be inclined to thank Govindarajan and Sarkar for taking an interest in the problems of the poor. But as professionals in the field of international urban development, we must also be prepared to demand commitment, and a demonstration of knowledge. Throwaway ideas like the $300 one-room-shed come thick and fast these days; what matters is the dedication and intellect required to turn a passing interest in a problem into a real-world solution.

Of all people, Govindarajan should have known this. He's about to release a book making that very argument, entitled The Other Side of Innovation: solving the execution challenge.


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