Already, more than half of the global workforce is informal and unregistered; by 2020, two-thirds will be. Although the informal economy doesn’t generate tax revenues, it does provide employment for the hundreds of millions of people whose job needs could never be met otherwise. And indirect contributions from street-food vendors, waste pickers and stall-holders selling mobile phone credits to the economy and society are often immense.
Over the next couple of decades around half of global economic growth is expected to come from developing world cities – much of that from unorthodox slum enterprise. Slums are already part of the global economy – the markets and stalls of Latin America’s shantytowns sell clothes and electronics manufactured in China, for example.
Community schemes including childcare, cooperative selling and bulk buying, microloans and share agreements for infrastructure projects often blossom in the absence of top-down state provision. Transformative innovations, like the M-Pesa mobile phone banking system first took off among the street traders of Kenyan shantytowns. When slum communities organise themselves, as many have begun to do either individually or as part of the wider Slum Dwellers International network that originated in India, they can achieve infrastructure improvements for a fraction of the cost of state provision. Residents of the Orangi slum in Karachi, Pakistan, for example, built their own sewerage system in the 1980s, slashing infant mortality. In Delhi, a bank run by and for street children since 2001, called the Children’s Development Khazana (meaning “treasure chest”), allows its 1,000 young customers to safely store and save their meagre earnings in 12 branches across the city, accumulating 5% interest.
Cooperation, whether to achieve wider policy change and improvement in working conditions or build essential infrastructure, is a slum’s biggest strength and is essential to nurture as cities “upgrade” their poorest areas.
Societies that evolve in such close and dependent proximity often achieve remarkable feats – I’ve seen neighbours pull together to fix each other’s houses after storms, women breastfeeding other women’s infants while their mothers spend the day at market for both of them, and neighbours all watching television at one person’s house.
That’s not to glorify life in these communities, which is usually hard, disease prone and crime-ridden, where residents are prey to exploitative “landlords” and left to fend for themselves at the margins of prosperous society. But the sheer size of this Anthropocene urban migration, the sophisticated tools like mobile phones – and, increasingly, smart phones – that even poor people may have at their disposal, and the globalisation of culture and commerce means that citizens of these newest urban additions are able to exert an influence like never before.
Some cities make this easier than others. While the slums of Khulna represent some of the worst examples of urban living, enlightened planners elsewhere are looking to help improve housing in-situ, rather than relocating slum dwellers to dysfunctional satellite areas. Governments are beginning to accept the social wealth of these existing communities, and realising that the best way to capitalise on that is to incorporate these dynamic, lively parts of the city into the established whole, by providing the tools for growth, integration and citizen strength. That means improving networks, infrastructure, communication and transport links between different social and geographical parts of the whole city. The result of successful intervention can be incredible.
In Medellin, Colombia, formerly the world's murder capital, the city was transformed through massive investment in infrastructure, including clever transport planning that links the poorest slums with the rich downtown areas, using an affordable metro system with metro-cable cars that ride up to the most impoverished areas. New brick and concrete housing – sensitive to the needs and lifestyles of the community – has also been built to replace the six-to-a-room timber shacks. People have been elevated from terrible conditions to light modernity with running water and electricity, but crucially within their own neighbourhoods. Canals and parks have been built, the streets are cleaned and drainage ditches maintained. Skyscrapers pierce the heavens at a faster rate than any other city in the continent. It’s booming, and the murder rate has plummeted.