Photograph — Quartz Africa

The United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat) and Habitat for Humanity, an international charity fighting global poverty housing, have joined forces towards reducing slums in Africa. The collaboration will cover policy formation, awareness creation and project implementation.

In a statement issued by Steven Weir, vice president global housing innovation at Habitat for Humanity, he explained that the thrust of the partnership was to ensure “cities become free of slums.”

Weir, who is one of more than 3,000 delegates attending the UN-Habitat Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya pointedly observed the universality of urban challenges like unemployment, pollution and decent housing. He called on governments to seek partnerships that will sponsor innovative alternatives to informal housing.

It’s an interesting partnership because both organizations claim to work in seventy countries. Assuming these seventy countries are not all the same, it comes to at least an overlap of 100 countries benefiting from the mammoth joint effort.

Africa contributes a staggering 1.1 million to the top 5.7 million slum dwellers in the world. And that’s just data from two countries, Kenya’s Kibera, with an estimated population of 700,000, and South Africa’s Khayelitsha, with an estimated population of 400,000.

These numbers are expected to worsen by 2030, and Africa, with its growing poverty and decisively poor policies, could see its slum numbers balloon disastrously. It currently has a population slightly above 1 billion, forecasted to double by 2050.

In recent times, African governments have been working towards slum eradication. In 2011, housing ministers converged in Rabat, Morocco, for the African Ministers Conference on Housing and Urban Development (AMCHUD). At the conference, they decided on policies for housing and urban development, aligning with the “cities without slums” initiative.

Since then, there have been systematic and governmental attempts to resettle slum dwellers in Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa. But the poor results recorded from these efforts, in some cases outright pushbacks by the inhabitants of these slums, have led analysts to rethink the solutions being offered.

Olumuyiwa Adegun, a lecturer in the department of Architecture, Federal University of Technology, Akure, thinks slums represent an “intertwining of the socio-economic and environmental problems of urbanization.”

In a study published on The Conversations, Adegun noted that “many government attempts to upgrade slums in Africa focus largely on the environmental issues and ignore the social and economic dynamics.”

He found, from research into operations in Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa, that merely rehousing people without taking their economic and social worries into account is not an effective strategy. Because they have spent most of their lives elsewhere, resettled slum dwellers are slow social re-adjusters. They feel cut off from the communities they have built.

Not to mention, the considerable increase in household expenses once a family is rehoused. In one instance, residents returned to markets in the slums they’d been resettled from, to buy groceries. He concludes that poverty alleviation programs are needed in conjunction with resettlement plans, in order for the government’s rehousing goals to become reality.

A good example of how African governments can better marshal slum depopulation is in the context of this proposal by two academics at the University of Cape Town. Harald Winkler, professor and director of the Energy Research Center, and Andrew Marquard, Senior Researcher on energy and climate change, suggest that the South African government could redeploy profit from the new carbon tax in helping the poor.

According to them, tax profits could be reinvested in reducing energy poverty among the poorest households, or in national electrification. Households in their thousands could be given 5kg of liquefied petroleum gas each month, or the country could subsidize “at least 100,000” rooftop solar systems for poor households.

This is a fantastic idea, given that all slums share basic challenges of absent electricity, dangerous cooking facilities, poor sanitation and waste management, as well as unclean water sources. At least if governments find a way to take care of the electricity and poverty problems in the slums, more residents will be willing to negotiate resettlement.

At the Rabat conference of Africa’s housing ministers, the consensus had been that all the challenges associated with achieving slum-less cities can be overcome by “effective collaboration and support from international partners.” This might just prove to be the next big step towards making that happen.

By Caleb Ajinomoh

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