From Resistance to Disruption: From “What if” to “As if” in Urban Slums

by Michael Cohen

Leaders of slum organizations are changing their modus operandi. No longer are they waiting for sympathetic government actions and promises not to bulldoze them or bring them needed infrastructure. Rather they are working with a new assertiveness and confidence that solutions lie within communities and cannot be imported from distant shores through the projects of international institutions. They refuse to be the “objects” of enlightened intervention by international players, but instead insist on being “subjects” who will define and decide their own futures.

I participated in a two-day discussion of these issues organized by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Policy. The encounter was noteworthy because community leaders presented the successes of many NGOs from places as diverse as San Juan, Puerto Rico, Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and Rio de Janeiro. Impressive community led efforts have produced significant improvements in living conditions and security from the bulldozers of municipal and national governments. Their critique of governmental efforts was coupled with alerts about the “predatory” character of private developers seeking to obtain well-located land by displacing poor people. An effective response was presented by Lyvia Rodriguez speaking about San Juan’s Cano 7 project where residents created a community land trust that made it impossible to sell the land, thereby stabilizing the community and reducing the likelihood of gentrification. Households could sell their “surface rights”, but the community retained control of property ownership.

In the face of severe pollution from the oil industry, a community group organized by Michael Uwemedimo in Port Harcourt created the Chicoco radio station to “give voice” to the community and to share information about what was happening over an area lacking infrastructure. This process changed the political dynamic with the powerful oil companies and the Nigerian Federal and State governments. An open-air structure was built for the Chicoco radio station that became a 24-hour city hall for the affected communities. The group stood up to official repression and, despite jailing and violence, became recognized and now receives support from the Cities Alliance and international foundations. The attitude of the group was shifted from saying “what if” to acting “as if”, generating a positive, can do profile in an environment with few effective public institutions. Group members had been referred to as “scalded cats”, wary and afraid of the predatory state and the oil company, as “objects”, but now they had become “subjects” and protagonists in their own struggle.

Catalytic Communities, an NGO in Rio de Janeiro led by Theresa Williamson, had been working in various favelas for the last 18 years, supporting community efforts to assert their identities, obtain services, and built their organizational and cultural capital. The organization has deliberately remained small, arguing that it can never replace the local expertise of favela dwellers as they develop processes of self-governance and survival. The heavy weight of public and private efforts to reduce favelas prior to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics had strongly threatened the persistence of favelas, but in the post-mega event circumstances of Brazil and the discrediting of politics and public institutions through the investigation of corruption, the political organization of favelas has continued to consolidate.

The presentations of these people, among others, led me to question an observation I had heard in the World Bank in the 1970s: “you can’t do a good project in a bad policy context”, meaning that a project could not be sustainable if it contradicted the existing policy environment. If the government was bulldozing slums, don’t try to upgrade a slum, because sooner or later the slum would follow the same fate of those before it. And for that reason, without security of tenure, slum residents would not improve their infrastructure and homes if they had no guarantee of security for a long-term future. I had believed for 40 years that this made good operational sense.

But the speakers demonstrated to me that this assertion was exactly wrong. If a project had to be consistent with existing public policy, it was inherently, by definition, supporting the status quo. In contrast, projects had to include first a strong element of “resistance” to the status quo of biased housing and infrastructure policies, inequality of opportunity, and violation of human rights which had been heavily responsible for creating the slum in the first place. The successful projects we learned about at this event were not successful because they conformed to existing policy. To the contrary, they had to disrupt policy and established patterns of urban governance in order to build political support and develop sustainable solutions for their communities.

I had been asked to speak about the historical record of slum upgrading programs in developing countries. I used the example of the Senegal Sites and Services project supported by the World Bank from 1972 to 1982, a project deemed a “failure” by both the Government of Senegal and The World Bank because it had not attracted the intended low-income households to the project site. By 2006, when I sent eight female students from the New School’s Graduate Program in International Affairs to Dakar for two months see what had happened on the site, there were 350,000 people living in high sand medium rise housing units, with vibrant markets, mosques, mosque schools, and other social services. The initial project had catalyzed a local neighborhood-building process. This example showed that the criteria used to characterize the project as a failure needed to be revisited. It wasn’t the “outputs” in the project calendar which mattered but rather the “outcomes” of local processes.

The Harvard discussion was rich and had brought together about 30 urban specialists from various countries and disciplines to discuss the history of past responses to slums, current slum upgrading programs from around the world, and policy and operational approaches for the future. The event was attended by about 100 people.

Rather than focusing on market inefficiencies and establishing higher expectations for public institutions, participants explored the spaces of hope within inequitable, deprived, and insecure environments that were struggling to transform themselves against great odds. Participants emphasized the need for local power, not hegemonic structures of intervention that asserted one size fits all approaches. This helped communities to adjust to the shifting definition of power through time, as political leadership changed and reversed previous policies and approaches, even in highly successful places such as Medellin, Colombia. Staying “under the radar” of public policy was often a more sustainable approach in the medium term.

Resistance and disruption were shown to be important instruments for a more effective urban practice.

Professor Cohen spoke on a panel entitled “Assessing Past Responses to Slums: a History of Failure?”. He spoke alongside Enrique Silva, Fellow and Associate Director, Program on Latin America and the Caribbean, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (moderator), Jake Wegmann, Assistant Professor, School of Architecture, University of Texas, and Austin Sheela Patel, Founding Director, Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres & Chair, Shack Dwellers International.