The following thoughts were provoked by an article "Unleashing the Economic Potentil of African Cities" by LEDNA TEAM

The economic potential in a city can’t be realized & will remain unstable and under threat unless the poor can be included. However the focus in the paper on bringing “the poor” into the paid employment of the new urban economy ignores the evidence before our eyes around the world - the ongoing existence of poverty in even the most highly “developed” economies. This tunnel vision on development may stem from a sort of religious faith in economic development of the type which has “ended poverty” in many places and even made many populations (unsustainably) rich – that form of development which is led by the most capable and brings trickle down benefits to others in the form of jobs and welfare.

In that form of development, the unemployed poor are seen, at best, as a labour pool and a break on wage growth, and at worst as liability and an obstacle to development, just as slums (the informal housing systems of the urban landless poor) are seen as an obstacle to urban development - more attention to this later.

Two other perspectives may be identified - 1. “The urbanisation of poverty in Africa undoubtedly presents great challenges of international significance. Some external commentators have portrayed the scenario as completely bleak with no hope of improvement.” LEDNA

The wisdom of the ages tells us that the poor will always be with us. This is often used as an excuse for ignore them in our planning, but I wonder why we don’t just make plans (beyond welfare) for the reality of UNemployment. In any event, life on the ground for the poor would seem to be a much more urgent challenge than jobs growth, given the percentage of the population which is going to remain unemployed no matter what business & trade agglomeration can be achieved.

2. “A new group of authors has emerged who are deliberately less negative and judgemental about Africa’s urban poverty (Nuttall and Mbembe, 2008; Bremner, 2010; Simone, 2010). They draw particular attention to energy, ingenuity and creative spirit of informality. Poor communities are not passive victims but rather active agents with resilience and imagination to negotiate the tough environments of African cities. They are capable of adapting to their physical and economic constraints and making the most of the opportunities available through experimentation and inventiveness.” LEDNA

I too would like to focus on the poor who are “capable of adapting to their physical and economic constraints and making the most of the opportunities available through experimentation and inventiveness.” LEDNA

So mine is not a focus on bringing some of the poor into paid employment, but on those poor who will remain unemployed, whatever job creation projects we come up with for their “agglomeration”.

If proposals for “greening the suburbs” or “urban food production” immediately conjures up the creation of labouring jobs for the unemployed, this is evidence of just how pervasive is the dominant mindset which prevents us from staying with our focus group – that percentage of the population who will remain unemployed whatever job creation projects we come up with for their “agglomeration”. Slippery, isn’t it – focus on planning anything with that group in mind!

Having clarified that particular demographic who will not get paid work greening the suburbs or in urban food production etc., the mind might then slip off to the fall back provision of welfare. The assumption that it is either work or welfare for the poor/unemployed is more evidence of just how dominant and exclusive the system has become in the thinking of planners.

We should not see people as unviable if they are not employed. The vast majority in our focus group is expert at survival on even the most marginal of rural land until ‘yesterday’, and ‘today’ they are able to survive on slum land without any space or land security to speak of at all – they are highly capable, but they are just not useful to the dominant system which created their poverty.

Staying focused on this group (typically thought of as unviable/welfare material), we can dismiss the usual planning prerequisite that how they might be agglomerated has to be viable itself that it must advance their commercial viability. (They are already proven “viable” simply because they exist.) If their agglomeration (or “social inclusion”) is to be successful, the question isn’t how to make them viable.

In Australia we have a “social inclusion” agenda, but the agenda is entirely focused on getting people into paid employment. Social inclusion here involves putting people through a process of psychological assessment, medical treatment, prosthetics, re-education followed by close programming and supervision, ongoing intimidation, social condemnation and the constant threat of homelessness and starvation. It’s all euphemistically called “assistance” with the apparently noble purpose of “social inclusion”. But you can imagine how our focus group feel. In Australia welfare payments are a pacifier - graffiti and vandalism occur, but these are very mild reactions really when you think of the outright revolution which we see in other countries where people are not “integrated” and where welfare is insufficient or non existent.

In the LEDNA paper there is a curious negativity towards the viability of our focus group. It seeks to dismiss the need to even consider something new.  “Yet by focusing on the positive features of marginal communities and the coping strategies evident in ‘invisible’ urban practices on the periphery, this literature may also have failed to provide an accurate and balanced interpretation of the situation. It also appears to have missed the growing economic dynamism of many African cities, reflected in major house-building and infrastructure programmes. The economic prospects seem to be better than for many years.” LEDNA

In the slums, our focus group is “active agents with resilience and imagination to negotiate the tough environments of African cities … capable of adapting to their physical and economic constraints and making the most of the opportunities available through experimentation and inventiveness”. Planning with them in mind we should ask what would help them address their slum problems and flourish in their community? I believe a prerequisite is for them to have security over their housing.

I would like to propose that the poor should be offered the security of urban commons for food production AND housing, either the slum land on which they have built, or other viable urban housing sites. There they would be welcome to choose (or reject) voluntary community work on the commons.

With on-site training support, they could volunteer to help build suburban public housing there, involving choices from bookwork to labouring - building starting from a community room with facilities and interim accommodation for volunteers.

Food gardens should also be established as part of the traditional responsibility to the purposes of having commons.

Because this would not involve coercion but could provide food, housing security and social integration, it would be effective & attractive. It would not only provide valuable work but would lay the foundations for more sustainable urban development, with garden sanctuaries and places of creativity in the city for all its residents, rich and poor, to enjoy.

please see -

Neighbourhood That Works
Regards Chris Baulman @landrights4all

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