Across much of the global South, urban centres are expanding as new informal suburbs are created. Those informal communities generate challenges for both their own populations and the authorities, explains Dr Jessica Roccard.
Urbanisation was one of the most substantial and revolutionary social forces of the 20th Century. It continues to transform the global South. The struggle to manage this transformation remains a major challenge to authorities. The populations who move to urban centres – mostly in search of work – have their own struggles. These include accessing housing, basic services, social connections, education, healthcare, incomes and political and social rights. A recent workshop at the University of Manchester considered which policy responses work best.
Excluded urban communities are forced to use informal political, economic and spatial strategies to access services and political rights. Informality is thus a key element of understanding expanding cities in the global South. There have been many attempts over a number of years by authorities to regulate informal activities involved in new urbanisation. But these policy responses have often been unsuitable.
It must be recognised that informal communities’ actions are often effective, as well as essential for community empowerment. This has been true in Zimbabwe. By bringing their resources together, this mobilisation created the organisational structure to engage and negotiate with the state. However, its efficacy is fragile.
The relationship between informal communities and the state evolves over time. Attempts to regulate informal communities through new or supplementary policies may have the potential to generate conflict, as has happened in Mexico. Attempts in Mexico to formalise illegal land sales within the ejidal system have sometimes led to serious disputes between local settlers, landowners and new actors such as land developers. This suggests that responses to informality must take into account newly created alliances and new actors, not least because of their impact on the formal sector.
The experience of urbanisation and the demands of new populations, in particular for land rights, have led to changes in communities’ understandings of politics and their aspirations regarding their well-being. This was the case in Karachi, where informal communities progressed from living in shacks to four-storey buildings and in Zango in Angola, where the initial resistance to be relocated transformed into co-operation. Therefore, the evolution of these communities must also be considered.
Scale is an important issue – the size of a new urban settlement affects official responses and the extent of the challenges that have to be addressed. These questions featured in research on slum upgrading and climate change in Nicaraguan cities. While in some cases, such as Karachi, the process of engaging with informal settlements was facilitated by creating opportunities to negotiate, how communities members defined themselves must be examined in support of creating resilience and developing the settlements. This led to serious examination of the role and place of the state in such measures, programmes and projects, as well as examining informality’s place in global agendas.
While informality is often associated with poverty, the higher cost for basic services the poor populations pay and the services informal communities provide is often not recognised. A comparison of water prices in African cities demonstrated that, in spite of the efforts made by governments to improve water access, its costs for the urban poor increased during the last few years. In this context, charging taxes to members of informal communities could be a way to improve the quality of the social contract that exists between urban residents and the authorities. However, taxation of the informal economy in Nigeria showed that different cities in the same country have had very different outcomes.
Besides, the question of whether the inclusion of informal enterprise in official measures and programs would lead to an empowerment of the communities is unresolved. Indeed, it is well known that informal and formal activities often overlap, as shown by the example of waste pickers in India and the transport system in Kampala; and informal livelihoods may be sources of wealth for both formal and informal employers. Hence, if informal workers’ roles are formally acknowledged, what would be the impact of this? In the context where the difference between formal and informal jobs is decreasing, this raises questions about the purpose of regulation of informal work, who benefits from it, in whose interests it is undertaken and the limits of its implementation.
Informal communities are an important part of the urban environment. Yet they are often stigmatised, particularly when engaged in low status employment activities, although they might be an integrated part of the city such as in Shanghai. They may be treated with contempt by longer-term urban residents, neglected by authorities, or made ‘invisible’ in formal governance terms. Informal communities’ vulnerability prevents them accessing the formal sector. But care must be taken not to increase vulnerability through the regularisation of informal activities.
It is only possible to understand the real character of modern urban areas by taking into account informal settlements and the often close and mutually dependent relations between informal and formal communities. Indeed, while the state can determine what is a ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ community, in many instances the formal communities can only exist through the activities of informal communities. This suggests that further investigation is required to improve understanding of the continuing relevance and dynamic nature of informal communities, and their place and role in our urbanised societies.