The African Executive: In Defence of Slums

A critique of the Slums Act from a right wing Pan-African business magazine….

The African Executive 31 October – 7 November

In Defence of Slums

The poor live in SLUMS. How do African governments deal with these “eye-sores”? Nkrumah built walls around them in Osu, Accra, to shield the eyes of visitors to the capital. They were declared “illegal settlements” in Ivory Coast. In June 2005 in Harare, Zimbabwe, policemen mounted the campaign “Operation Murambatsvina,” which in Shona, meant “Operation Drive Out the Rubbish.”

Now, South Africa has entered the fray with legislation: “Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act by the Provincial Government of KwaZulu-Natal. Since the launch of United Nations Millennium Development Project which includes as Goal 7 Target 11 to improve the lives of 100,000,000 slum dwellers by 2020, president Mbeki has mandated the national Department of Housing to work towards achieving “shack-free cities.” The aim is to eradicate informal settlements by 2014. So, bulldozers will be rolled out.

Are lives of slum dwellers improved by eradicating slums? If there are no slums, there won’t be slum dwellers whose lives need improvement. What a primitive logic! It was the same macabre logic that led to Rwanda’s genocide. Asked to share power with the minority Tutsi, the Hutu-dominated government of the late Juvenal Habryimana decided to slaughter them. If there are no Tutsis, then there won’t be anyone for us to share power with. Now, this is being applied to the poor in Africa.

Stuffy and pompous African elites are part of the problem. They see slums as an “eye-sore.” They won’t step in the slums. When they pass by the slums on their way to plush government offices, they roll up the windows in their air-conditioned Mercedes Benzes, to spare them the stench wafting from the slums. When the stench and over-crowding become unbearable, they will just relocate the capital city. You see, African governments and elites have the whole notion of development turned completely upside-down.

Development means improving the lives of the people – the poor, living in slums. You don’t do so by destroying their settlements or razing the informal sector. In fact, the informal sector is where real wealth is to be made in Africa. Development means improving upon existing ways of doing things to become more efficient and more productive. If a farmer, with his hoe and cutlass can produce 30 bushels of corn (maize) in a year, development means improving upon the existing ways of doing things so that the same farmer can produce 4, 000 bushels of corn. But the African elite, having studied in France, Russia, China and Jupiter rejects the existing ways of doing things. He is not improving upon the existing ways of doing things. He wants to destroy the existing ways because they are “backward.” No, it is not the slum dwellers who are backward but rather the government officials and the elites who are intellectually backward.

There were slums in Britain, U.S., Germany and other advanced countries in the past, but enterprising individuals saw problems in the slum as business opportunities. Poor sanitation, for example, was a business opportunity. Products and services were created to address problems afflicting the poor.These products and services are constantly being refined and improved. A marketing slogan which one often hears is “New and Improved.” The refrigerator, for example, has gone through over 100 cycles of renovation and refinement. This is what characterizes the rich countries: The constant innovation and improvement. This is what “development” is about.

The functionally-illiterate elites of Africa, however, have it backward: “Development means rejecting, not improving, the existing ways of doing things. In fact, to many elites, “development” means developing their pockets and investing their loot in a foreign country! Lord save us.

My message to African elites is this: Go to the informal and traditional sectors. That’s where the vast majority of the African people (the poor) are. Every social problem or need in the informal sector is a business opportunity. Create a product or a service to fulfill that need and you will make a fortune. That is how real wealth is created and real development takes place. If you make your money in the informal sector, nobody will haul you before a Commission of Enquiry, come change of government, to ask you how you made your money as a government minister.

Professor Muhammad Yunus went into the informal/traditional sector in Bangladesh and saw a need from “small loans.” He set up the Grameen Bank, which has been the champion of micro-credit. Now he is a wealthy man and a Nobel laureate. Nobody has hauled him before a commission of enquiry.

This is the message I am currently giving out to the “Cheetah generation”. They must take the “Ayittey vow” – never to take up any government position and to make their wealth in the private/informal sector. Bill Gates didn’t make his $64 billion fortune in government or politics and nobody became a millionaire working for a salary.

The poor and the slum-dwellers are not the problem; government officials and elites are the problem. Said one Lesotho chief: “Here in Lesotho, we have two problems – rats and the government.” And here is what a Congolese peasant housewife, Amina Ramadou, suggested: “We send three sacks of angry bees to the governor and the president. And some ants which really bite. Maybe they eat the government and solve our problems.”

Now, you know why some of us carry CUTLASSES.

By George Ayittey
Distinguished Economist at American University and President of the Free Africa Foundation.