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Sep 13, 2009 | News

Sharing the City: the case for Sodom and Gomorrah

Sharing the City: the case for Sodom and Gomorrah

The discourse of informal settlements and the strategies of intervention have generated an inexhaustible contestation. Not only the strategies of intervention are highly contested but also the terms 'Slum' and 'Informal settlement' leads to different understanding of the challenges of informal settlements and formulation of policies to address it. This article subscribes to the school of thought against the use of the word “slum” to define Informal settlements. This is because; the use of the word `slum' recreates many of the myths about informal settlers that years of careful research have discredited. The word, slum, is also dangerous because it confuses the physical problem of poor quality housing with the characteristics of the people living there. Demagogic governments have always shown a willingness to demolish slums despite the fact that experience has shown that policy to be ineffective (Gilbert, 2007).

The Eviction of Sodom and Gomorrah (S&G) has once again taken the centre stage of the social and political discourse of Accra. In the ensuing discourse of S&G the question that eludes many commentators is, why now? - For decades our city authorities, urban planners/managers and political leaders have failed to muster the courage to keep pace with Accra's urban dynamics. They have allowed informal settlements (slums) like Sodom and Gomorrah (S&G) to build up and because they finally have to do something about it, they desperately resort to the ingenious solution of forced eviction. Even though in sub Saharan Africa nearly 70% of urban dwellers lives in informal settlements. Instead of policy makers and urban managers taking into account the number of people affected by their policies and develop policies and programmes that will enhance inclusive sustainable urban development, they largely ignore informal settlers, rarely supported them and most often than not actively discourage their existence through force evictions. Government policies and urban planners' strategies contain few elements of support for informal settlers but many elements of inactions, restrictions and harassment (Gilbert 1997)

Forced evictions are carried out in all regions of the world. They are usually directed at the poor, living in informal settlements. The effect on the lives of those evicted is catastrophic, leaving them homeless and subject to deeper poverty, discrimination and social exclusion. Such communities are invariably evicted against their will, in most cases without any compensation or alternative housing. (COHRE, 2006)

Although international law has repeatedly declared the practice of forced eviction to be a gross and systematic violation of human rights, many governments including Ghana continue to use it as a tool of demographic control and social exclusion. Part of the struggle against this widespread practice is clearly a need to change the mindset of such leadership. It is crucially important to convince governments that forced evictions are unjust, illegal and invariably counterproductive to genuine human development; and that alternatives to eviction therefore urgently need to be developed, implemented and promoted. In a context of unprecedented growth in informal settlements and a global tenure security crisis, a dramatic paradigm shift is required in the areas of urban governance and development.

In the ensuing discourse and its contestations as to how to convert the challenges of informal settlements like S&G to opportunities, a major key player is always left out- the household of Informal settlements. Nevertheless, the question of integration and transformation of informal settlements in sub-Sahara African cities is the question of participation. In dynamically growing cities of developing countries, sub-Saharan Africa inclusive, urban informality is caused and fuelled by high population growth, social and economical inequality and the incapacity of urban managers and political decision makers to keep pace with the urban dynamics (Mac Donald et al, 2000). Informal settlements serve a 'buffer function' in developing countries where the development of urbanisation and urban growth are fast out-pacing the speed to which urban planners and urban managers responds to urban dynamics. Informal settlements strive where formal strategies fail and where formal housing and infrastructure are over stretched. 'It provides possibilities for integration in cities with high migration rates and large endogenous population growth' (Mac Donald et al, 2000). It represents survival strategies and creative response to urban crisis.

Whilst a section of the public wants to see S&G vanished from the landscape of Accra, other human rights and advocates of social justice call for “Human face “eviction. This article subscribes to none of the above school of thoughts, but rather advocates for upgrading and integrating S&G in the map of Accra. In the course of integration, any eviction that might be necessary should be voluntary and not forced.

Infrastructure Development: Massive construction will not be the panacea to bring about inclusive and sustainable regeneration of informal settlements. More important than investment and upgrading informal settlements is the social and institutional development for achieving the integration of formal and informal urban life. (Mac Donald et al. 2000)

Projects which are designed to tackle urban informality should either improve the working and living conditions of dwellers of informal settlement. Projects are considered worthwhile when they are sustainable and replicable.

Legal System: Property rights and security of tenure are critical to sustainable approaches to upgrading and integration of S&G. Most residents of urban slums live without any form of secure tenure, under constant threat of eviction, which vitiates their ability to access credit and constrains their motivation to improve their homes and neighbourhoods (Cities without Slum, 1999).

Social Framework – community participation in the conception, development, financing, upgrading and maintenance of infrastructure and services in informal settlements is a critical element of sustainable programs. Experience has shown that the most successful programs address community priorities. Communities must be enfranchised through knowledge-sharing and security of their civil rights (Cities without Slum, 1999).

Sustainable informal settlement interventions generate a gradual process of improving the living conditions which the community carry out without additional support requirements. The conditions for sustainability are affordable solutions and incremental processes which cater for the needs of the target group and allow improvements according to their financial means.

Adamu Abdallah Awudu
(MA. Planning and Urban Design)
Email: [email protected]

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