First–time visitors to slums are often shocked by their economic vibrancy. Outsiders expect helplessness, but what they find is promise. To understand this, we need only look at why people came to slums in the first place.
Most residents of slums – estimated in the tens of millions in Africa – have migrated to cities from rural areas. They leave their families and homes in search of opportunity.
For these newcomers, cities provide hope that with hard work they might free themselves from the dead end of rural poverty.
These migrants don't want to live in slums, but that is where they find affordable housing. So they decide that settling in a slum – at least for the time being – is better than where they came from. And they know that if they want to seize the city's opportunities then they must work hard.
That helps explain why the main roads in slums are lined with bustling businesses. Slum residents are tailors, carpenters, hair stylists, and food vendors. They repair mobile phones, collect and resell scrap metal, and run movie theaters and maternity wards.
Community savings groups are behind some of this economic activity. One such group in Ghana's Ashaiman slum, Together We Build, has 800 members and $7,000 in savings, a respectable sum for a country with a per capita income of about $400.
Members have personal log books in which they record their savings, which could be as little as 10 cents a day. Fifty-dollar loans are granted to members to jump-start small businesses. The debtors form four-person solidarity teams to ensure that they repay their loans, usually over a three-month period.
But all is not rosy in slums, as the cliché images of destitution and squalor attest. The biggest problem – and what strikes the heart of any visitor – is the tragic state of their basic infrastructure.
Seldom is garbage formally collected, and mounds of rubbish grow into seas on their outskirts.
Devoid of drainage systems, waste–water cuts across dirt roads and accumulates around houses, attracting mosquitoes and emitting stench. If it rains hard, communities are flooded up to ankle-height or higher.
But there are signs that this infrastructure can and is being improved by the residents themselves. Take clean water. Some innovative residents of Ghana's Old Fadama slum have paid for connections to the city's piped water system. These entrepreneurs have built shower and toilet facilities and sell the clean water by the bucket for profit.
In that same slum, another group pooled members' money to install a drainage system along the main road near their homes and businesses. On the opposite side of the community, a man built a wooden bridge over a canal that separates residents from a scrap metal market where many find employment. He charges 5 cents to cross.
People in slums – like people elsewhere – want to, and will, better their lives and their communities when given the opportunity. With this in mind, the developing world should look less to the United Nations and international experts for solutions to their slum problems. Instead, leaders should identify the weaknesses in their own legal and governing systems that have thwarted people's natural instincts to help themselves and others – and then make corrections.
One glaring problem is the issue of secure tenure. Why would a person invest in his house or surroundings if he could be evicted at any time without recourse or warning? The Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions estimates that 6 million people around the world are forced from their homes every year. Many of these victims, mostly in informal communities and slums, paid rent to government officials or to de facto landowners.
The UN has declared Oct. 1 World Habitat Day, a time for us to reflect on the state of human settlements around the globe. This year's theme is safety, drawing particular attention to the threats of eviction and insecurity of tenure. The UN cites the growing number of forced evictions around the world, often done with bulldozers protected by heavily armed policemen.
Government-sponsored demolition of slum homes is not only violent, but foolish. Instead of leaving the city – as government officials hope – the newly homeless put up camp elsewhere in the city once they can muster the funds.
That's because the city is a place of hope, and no bulldozer can squash that.
• Justin Moresco is a freelance journalist based in Ghana. Birte Scholz is a program manager there for the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.