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Feature Article of Monday, 6 February 2012

Columnist: Adom-Mensah, Yaw

Re: A third of Greater Accra residents live in slums

A reply to GNA’s publication




To many of us casual readers it is a shock to read that 33% [or so] of residents in the nation’s capital live in slums. By slums I mean informal run-down settlements with no legal rights to land ownership and or limited access to other basic social necessities. As ‘shocking’ as this may appear to some of us, imagine reading a related headline such as: “crime rate in Accra is increasing at 7% annually” or perhaps one that reads: “crime rate in Accra has doubled over last 10 years. Are you likely to react to these two headlines differently? In order words, which of the headlines is likely to create that characteristic negated euphoria about the city been unsafe? Well if you’re like me, you may pay more attention to the later than the former. Granted you’re with me and this very short article is for you.
The case of Greater Accra as a slum prone zone is true and only true because one-third of residents or close to it lives in slums - at any given time -. While I’m cautious to propound this, let me emphasize that, this supposition only considers a period of 15 years. More importantly, this is does coincide but synchronizes with an important period in humanity’s existence where we observe an unparalleled growth in urban densities especially in developing countries. As a result, we have since 2007 surpassed that momentous threshold mark with more than 50 percent of the world’s population now living in cities or more broadly, and in its least form, many [50%+]reside and or work in second-level urban centers relative to their native lower-level homes. The phrase, ‘at any given time’ is not meant to be obliterated in any way. In order words it is not merely symbolic. Is it in fact the sole filter between ambiguity and elucidation and helps clarify the subtle role of slums in organic city evolution in the era of the urbanization mantra. By removing the phrase at ‘any given time’, we are shredding facts and increasing the chances of data misinterpretation. More succinctly, we are susceptible to superimpose perceptions and loose ideas.
Notice that the headline did not imply 33% of Accra is made up of slum settlements. By our intuition we know that there can never be a one to one relationship between people living in slums in Accra and geographical density occupied by such people compared to those that do not live in slums. Again we also know from intuition we cannot infer a one to many relationships and be 100% confident that we made the correct assumptions because in reality, the number people living in a square mile in a slum neighborhood have no upper bounds and thus do not following conventional recommendations. Yet again, we also know that infinite people [in a literal sense] cannot live in a finite spatial region. I am reemphasizing this point made earlier but in a different context to buttress increasing the probability of data misinterpretation.
In a said report carried by GNA, a reference was made to the phrase: “Urbanization of Poverty” which was coined by UNFPA. Urbanization of Poverty in its simplest form does not mean more people in the urban centres or cities are becoming poorer. Instead it should be taken to mean there are a lot more people poorer in our cities [than there were 15 – 20 years ago]. Understand that by the emerging conventions of urbanization, there is no such thing as a rich rural region neither is there any such thing as a poor urbanized region. Given this analogy and the ubiquitous presence of Information and Communication Technologies, we find that humans are converging at places where they perceive they are more likely to succeed – because of the existence of man-made opportunities non-existent in their native homes. With each passing day, fewer and fewer people remain in the bucolic areas to continue the farming and nomadic activities yet the decreasing population is not decreasing world food per unit tons – off course unless everyone seizes to cultivate a particular food crop. Again by intuition, we can infer that such a result is possible because of advancement in different production techniques. I use adjective different instead of modern because, anything deemed “modern” will be obsolete in the next development cycle when different products are produced to replace it. In order words, humans have used the word modern, since the ancient days so something is only modern taken what exists in its class at a particular point in time.
If you follow this treatise well, you will notice that my hypothesis stems from a simple logic. And that is: at any given point in time, people will reside in slums if and only if the city a city permits organic growth. Luckily, many cities in the world allows that and not only Accra. Typical examples in Africa include Kenya, Khartoum and Lagos to name a few. Thus it becomes imperative for us to understand the role of slums and the true meaning to our ‘a third of Accra’s residents living in slums headline’ before we can conclude on the implications herein. First we need to understand why and how they form and will continue to form. By the urbanization convention, slums will form in all urban clusters that evolve through at least semi-rational and logical sequences given a city’s history and predicted evolution compared to the interacting cities. Put in another way, slum settlements are relative physical constructs whose functional and physical characteristics attract mostly people in transition as part of their perceived belief their new environments. We know from empirical research that cities generally offer better prospects for people to ascend the social ladder and so it is also rational for humans to move to where they are more likely to be successful than stay where their success is less deterministic. A supposition that proves why there has been a surge the absolute numbers of people living in slums in Accra. That is more people are moving into our highest order city from our interacting peripheries national than there are people moving out to exogenous / international cities.
However, while we observe this movement is disproportionate, it is also true that this is a variable movement that depends on many other factors – some rational, others irrational. For instance, the ability of people living in slums to move up the social ladder is a rational assumption and does not imply emptying of the slums but instead paving way for others to replace them. Or for instance our assumption that everyone living in the slums is poor although some live there by choice, a condition that is difficult to access yet easy to imagine.
In our future suppositions therefore we should only study rational implications of slums and how we can use any such discoveries to estimate the questions of particularly national economic interest. It begins by asking the most fundamental question of how long it takes the average slum dweller to succeed in moving out of the slum and not by providing the numbers living in slums.
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Yaw Adom-Mensah
School of Systems and Enterprises
Stevens Institute of Technology
yawadom@gmail.com

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