Slums: Failing or Flourishing Communities?

Jan 20, 2015

Poverty is often said to destroy communities and the ties of mutual trust that hold them together, thereby isolating and estranging people from one another. Isolation, however, is not exactly what characterizes the average slum settlement. On the contrary: slums are vibrant localities bustling with collective activity. Places where people live out their everyday struggles in close proximity to one another. The absence of real walls makes isolation virtually impossible and living in perpetual distrust of one’s neighbors is not really an option when a lack of space and amenities compels people to share and cooperate on a daily basis. The question thus arises whether it is fair to assume that poor communities are per definition failing communities. Hence, it seems worthwhile to take a closer look at some of the assumptions that underpin the idea that slums represent an ultimately undesirable manifestation of collective life.

Selfish Communities?

The assumptions we make about the functioning of communities often boil down to tacit conceptions about ‘human nature’. One such an assumption that colours our perceptions about communities is that people are inherently selfish. This idea builds on the economistic belief that members of a community will never naturally be inclined to help each other out if they cannot expect an immediate reward. In her book ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’ Rebecca Solnit(1) summarizes this line of argumentation as follows: “we are essentially selfish […] I will not feed you because I must hoard against starvation, since I too cannot count on others”. This selfishness, moreover, is expected to intensify under adversary circumstances such as poverty or disaster. For who will care to look after another human being when they can barely safeguard their own survival?

Yet is this pessimistic view of human behavior necessarily right? Is solidarity some kind of luxury condition which only occurs when all basic needs are met? Rebecca Solnit, an expert on post-disaster communities, does not think so. For although disasters can certainly contribute to a breaking down of solidarities, they also often give rise to new patterns of association and affiliation. For “[w]hen all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up—not all, but the great preponderance—to become their brothers’ keepers(2)”. Thus, forces that in themselves are very much destructive, such as natural disasters or poverty, may in fact trigger positive forms of human behavior that thrive on inventiveness and collaboration.

The work of Boris Braun and Timothy Aßheuer(3) on flood coping strategies in Dhaka slum settlements hints at a similar trend. The authors demonstrate that structures of mutual support between neighbors, established through acts such as lending each other money, are indispensable for countering calamities. These informal support networks intensify at times of disaster, yet do not arise altogether spontaneously. Rather, flood coping mechanisms draw on longstanding forms of mutual trust. Or in other words: "[s]lum dwellers seem to dispose of a relatively strong base of social resources, which they are able to convert into social capital when in need(4)". So what we witness here are not merely spontaneous sparks of collaboration emerging in times of crisis, but the workings of a fairly solid social safety net.

Building Legitimate Communities

So far we have seen that poor and struggling communities are by no means necessarily poor in terms of social capital. However, although slum communities may very well be characterized by strong internal linkages, they often do lack strong connections to the rest of the city. For, informal and volatile tenure arrangements make it so that squatter settlements are often not recognized as a legitimate or permanent part of the city. This makes it difficult for slum dwellers to claim access to public goods and services, as they lack the legal grounds for doing so. The question therefore arises whether the social capital within communities can also be utilized as a political resource for negotiating greater inclusivity and legitimacy.

Much of the work of UPPR aims at doing exactly this. Starting from the household level onwards, UPPR helps to build communities by fostering social capital and developing vital structures for local governance5For example, through establishing Community Development Committees (CDCs). CDCs gather on a regular basis to identify problems within the community and to formulate and plan out solutions which are then implemented in partnership with local authorities. Within five towns these grassroots organizations have successfully clustered into town-wide CDC Federations aimed at articulating the voices and choices of the urban poor. The elaborate scope of these networks as well as their solid, democratic, structure makes it difficult for city authorities to simply discard these voices as somehow illegitimate.

Thus the work of UPPR shows that slum communities are by all means fully functioning communities which, when granted due recognition, can provide a fruitful breeding ground for participatory governance and citizenship.


1 Rebecca Solnit wrote the book ‘A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster’ (2010)

2 This quote is by Rebecca Solnit.

3 Boris Braun and Timothy Aßheuer have written an article titled ‘Floods in Megacity Environments: Vulnerability and Coping Strategies of Slum Dwellers in Dhaka/Bangladesh (2011). For access see:

4 This quote is by Boris Braun and Timothy Aßheuer.

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