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October 18, 2009 | Feature Article


In 1995 the United Nations set aside the first Monday of October every year as World Habitat Day to reflect on the state of towns and cities, and the basic right to adequate shelter for all and to remind the world of its collective responsibility for the future of the human habitat. For this year the United Nations chose the theme Planning our Urban Future to raise awareness on the need to improve urban planning to deal with new major challenges of the 21st century.

The United Nations Conference on Human Settlements at its Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements in 1976 affirmed adequate shelter and services as basic human rights. The Declaration further called for prioritizing the needs of the poor, homeless and most vulnerable groups of society in upholding this right. In the not so recent past it has emerged that there is a growing army of urban poor in Ghana living in predominantly slum areas. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), the UN agency responsible for human settlements, defines a slum as a run-down area of a city characterized by sub-standard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security. A UN Expert Group has also created an operational definition of a slum to be an area exhibiting characteristics of inadequate access to safe water, sanitation and services, poor structural quality of housing, overcrowding and insecure residential status. Though some rural communities may exhibit some forms of these characteristics, the level of depravity of some of the slum communities in the urban areas calls for immediate interventions to alleviate the plight of the dwellers.

Urbanization and Decentralization – The Developmental Conundrum

Urbanization results from the physical and population growth of urban areas from rural areas with a resulting change in density. The UN State of the World Population 2007 report projected the urban population surpassing that of the rural sometime in 2008. Urbanization trends indicate higher population growth rates in Africa and Asia although developed countries like United States of America and United Kingdom have a far higher growth in urbanization levels. Urbanization, though may be challenging, presents many opportunities to cities including the development of infrastructure and communication systems thereby providing employment opportunities also leading to increased quality of life. However in Ghana, like most developing countries, increase in urban population growth rates has not been matched by the necessary infrastructure and services requirements.

Whereas Ghana has made some level of progress in decentralization, the country seems to be lacking in the area of participatory planning, which is one of the key components of decentralization. The Local Government Act 462 of 1993 and the National Development Planning (System Act) 480 of 1994 mandates MMDAs to conduct public hearing to consider the views of the people in their planning areas. However, inadequate practice of these provisions by our MMDAs has led to non-effective planning approaches that make little or no provision especially for the urban poor. This phenomenon has resulted in the proliferation of slums of different levels in our urban areas. It is therefore necessary for decentralization to be fully implemented to bring about an improvement for people of all segments of society.

Resettlement or Upgrading?
According to the UN, the proportion of urban dwellers living in slums decreased from 47 percent to 37 percent in the developing world between 1990 and 2005. However in real terms, as a result of population growth rates there is a growing increment in the number of people living in slums. Currently, it is estimated that a little over one billion people live in slums worldwide and this number is expected to top the two billion mark by the year 2030. UN-HABITAT in a report in 2006 stated that 327 million people in Commonwealth countries live in slums – making almost one in every six citizens of Commonwealth countries. The report further indicated that in 14 Commonwealth countries (11 African, 2 Asian and 1 Pacific) over two out of three urban dwellers live in slums. An ongoing survey in the Accra Metropolitan Assembly indicates there could be more than 29 slum communities or pockets, within the AMA jurisdiction alone.

With the different types of land ownership in Ghana, different types of slums exist. There are squatter slums where residents do not own the land but only the structures and slums with tenure security where residents own the land but the housing and infrastructure is seriously deteriorated. It is therefore very necessary to note that a one-size fit all approach to addressing these communities is not feasible. Different approaches of providing solutions to challenges that slum communities present should apply to different slum types. Upgrading and resettlement or relocation could be applied in different cases. Where slum communities have secure land tenure, upgrading could apply; whereas relocation or resettlement in different forms could apply to squatter settlements with clear definitions of the cost bearer(s). Relocation or resettlement should, however be even more participatory to ensure that all stakeholders take responsibility to play their roles for a successful development. It should therefore be noted that upgrading, relocation or resettlement should all be participatory.

Also, like the theme of this year's World Habitat Day celebrations indicates, “Planning our Urban Future”, it is very necessary for us to plan in a sustainable and comprehensive manner to prevent the proliferation of slums. This should reflect in our physical, developmental, economic and financial planning. Physically, our land use and transportation plans should make provision for the low and very low income. Our policies, especially for housing should make provision for this group. Welfare programs should also make provide subsidies for housing for the low and very low-income earners especially when our housing market does not make any provision for this segment of society. Innovative micro-finance programs could be expanded to ensure an improvement in the spending power of the low to very low income earners so that they can in turn pay for any innovative low-income housing that is provided for them whether ownership or rental. All micro-finance programs should also be devoid of political encumbrances to ensure repayment by all beneficiaries and the sustainability of such a program. This is critical especially because housing and employment have direct correlation.

There seem to be little success stories in urban policy implementations because of a myriad of problems. A major cause for this state of affairs includes the absence of community participation in planning and decision-making, bad governance, corruption, inappropriate regulation, dysfunctional land markets and the lack of political will. Resettlement projects have largely failed as governments have tended to ignore the key reason underpinning the choice by many to live in run-down communities – opportunity for employment. Most so-called renewed housing projects are located in the semi-rural peripheries of cities hence removing people from their sources of livelihoods which drew and/or kept them in the cities in the first place. Resettlement involves clearance and relocation and this is very expensive – conservatively estimated to be about 10 times the cost of upgrading. Further, land for low-cost housing development in cities is non-existent.

Common features of slums include the lack of basic municipal services such as water, sanitation, waste collection, storm drainage, street lighting, paved footpaths and access roads for emergency. Other features include lack of schools and clinics within reach and safe areas for children to play and the community to meet and socialize. Studies have shown that as the average age of people in cities increases, the average age of slum dwellers keep decreasing and the youth suffer most from unhealthy conditions. The unplanned growth of slums makes conventional service provision difficult. To cap it all, the visible disparities between slums and better off neighborhoods create social tensions. Unfortunately slums have been associated with crime, drug addiction and alcoholism.

Slum upgrading offers a more acceptable option as improvements are made on the occupied land without moving away from the traditional sources of livelihood. Any successful upgrading project must seek to alleviate the poor living standards of the slum dwellers. Upgrading must consist of physical, socio-economic, organizational and environmental improvements. It is important at the outset to forge a sense of partnership and solicit the commitment of all stakeholders comprising the community leaders, youth groups, community based organizations, non-governmental organizations, families, local government, national government and key financiers. The whole process should be participatory and inclusive of all stakeholders from development, planning, implementation to evaluation. It is critical that the project meets a real need for the people to want it and understand its value. It is equally important to get the institutional arrangement right, giving incentives for agencies to undertake pro-poor projects, spelling out the roles of all key stakeholders, coordinating their activities and keeping them well informed. Only one of the solutions would not address the issue so a combination of them should be applied for significant and impacting results.

Ghana, has attempted to address the issue of slums, however our focus has been on infrastructure provision. Good as it is it is necessary for us to adopt a holistic approach to slums by first understanding the social issues behind slum development, addressing the financial implications and resolving the technical challenges for affordable and sustainable solutions to this urgent issue in our country. The UN-Habitat Slum Upgrading Facility Pilot Project has led to the establishment of two finance facilities in Tema/ Ashaiman and Sekondi-Takoradi, with innovative approaches of affordable housing security for three slum communities. The Urban Environmental Sanitation Project (UESP) has addressed sanitation infrastructure challenges in many low-income communities in our urban areas. The Urban Poverty Reduction Project is also collaborating with our MMDAs to address challenges of low-income communities and NGOs including People's Dialogue on Human Settlements have mobilized many slum communities around daily savings in preparation for acquiring housing security. The Ministry of Water Resources, Works and Housing has reviewed the National Housing Policy to include some innovative solutions for slum challenges, The Building and Road Research has developed innovative building technologies and materials that would led to the development of low-income housing and some of our banks through the UN-Habitat Slum Upgrading Facility have developed an innovative product for low-income housing. There are also many other institutions who in various ways are contributing to finding a sustainable solution to the issue of slum prevention and upgrading.

Now is the time to harness all these synergies to result in a sustainable solution to slum prevention and upgrading. All stakeholders should take a keen interest in this regard to help develop a lasting solution that will benefit the whole country. We should all remember that with rights come responsibility as accountability comes with responsibility. Let us all get round the dialogue table and forge a solution to benefit from this challenge of urbanization as it presents many opportunities.

Slum upgrading and prevention, the time to act is now!

Frederick Agyarko Oduro
Director of Programs
Housing the Masses
October, 2009

Development / Ghana / Africa /

Frederick Agyarko Oduro
Frederick Agyarko Oduro

The author has authored 1 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author's column: FrederickAgyarkoOduro

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Frederick Agyarko Oduro and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

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