In slums people are better off
‘We are back in the days of Dickens’, Mike Davis considers. What is happening today in the Third World, Charles Dickens encountered in the slums of 19th century London. For a West-erner, familiar with stories about Olivier Twist and David Copperfield, it is tempting to look at the slums of Dhaka, Kinshasa or Lima from Dickens’ perspective. But this perspective is outdated. In the slums of ancient Europe, life was far more dramatic than today’s life in the slums of Asia and Africa. The mortality rate among children and their mothers in the 19th century was so massive, that the population of the cities could only be sustained by constant immigration from the villages. For example, life expectancy in the rural areas of the district of Surrey was 45 years. But in industrial Manchester, life expectancy was not higher than 25 years.
In present-day developing countries, the situation is reversed. In large African cities, child mortality is up to 16 percentage points lower than in African villages. Life expectancy in the cities is also significantly higher than in the countryside. Tens of millions of children are alive due to the simple fact that their mothers decided to live in town. Furthermore, these mothers have fewer children than mothers in the rural areas. City women in Ethiopia on average give birth to 2,6 children, while Ethiopian village women give birth to 5,5. Urbanisation dampens population growth.
Children who grow up in slums, more often go to school. Slum dwellers are less poor than villagers. In Brazil, five percent of the population of Favela’s is extremely poor, compared with 25 percent of the population in the Brazilian countryside. The percentage of extremely poor people in the slums of Lagos is about half of the percentage of that in the Nigerian villages. The slums of the Indian Kolkata are generally considered as miserable. But the percentage of extremely poor in Kolkata is 11 percent, while the proportion of people in extreme poverty in surrounding West Bengal is around 24 percent.
African cities do not just grow because of migrating farmers. They also grow fast because their inhabitants are getting older and because fewer children die. Urbanisation is, in short, one of the main forces behind the decrease of poverty. Slums are an engine for achieving the development goals. For poor people it is simply better to live in a city. Even if it is in a slum.
Slums don’t make people poor or poorer. It’s rather the other way around: poor people mi-grate to slums because they expect to be richer, states economist and advocate of the mod-ern city, Ed Glaeser. ‘'Brazil, China, and India are likely to become far wealthier over the next fifty years, and that wealth will be created in cities that are connected to the rest of the world, not in isolated rural areas. It is natural to see the very real problems of poorer mega-cities and think that the people should go back to their rural villages. But cities, not farms, will save the developing world.'
© Ralf Bodelier, Schoolfeeding, Ndirande, Malawi. 2006
© Ralf Bodelier Shop owner, Mtakataka, Malawi 2015