Life in Slums. Realising the Potential of the People Living in Slums

Posted: 2017-06-22
Written by: EU Network
Category: Battle of ideas
Tagged: youth world slums potential future

Urbanization is one of the most significant trends of the past and present century taking the lead to address many of the global challenges of the 21st century, including poverty, inequality, unemployment, environmental degradation and climate change. Cities have become a center  for driving innovation, consumption and investment in both developed and developing countries.

Urban growth takes place primarily in developing countries in which populations move from rural to urban regions at a very fast pace. The  existence of slums worldwide has become  a sign of contemporary urbanisation. 70% of the world’s slum dwellers live in Sub‐ Saharan Africa around 200 million, South Asia and East Asia around 190 million. Slum  population is youngest and growing fastest in Sub‐Saharan Africa.

Globally one in eight people live in slums, it is around a quarter of the world’s urban population or  around a billion people live in slum conditions, according to the United Nations World Cities Report 2016.


Africa’s largest slum Kibera, Nairobi in Kenya is just 5km from city center. 56 % of Kenya’s urban population lives in slums.

The United Nations Habitat program defines slums as informal settlements that lack one or more of the following five conditions: access to clean water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area that is not overcrowded, durable housing and secure tenure.


India’s largest slum Dharavi in Mumbai where ‘’Slumdog Millionaire’’ was filmed. The slum has an informal economy with an estimated $1 billion annual turnover.

In developing countries around 881 million urban residents live in slums conditions. In 1990 this figure was 689 million. This represents an increase of 28 %  in slum dwellers’ absolute numbers over the past  years, even though the proportion of the urban population in developing countries living in slums has declined from 39 % to 30 % during the same period. Absolute numbers continue to grow and the slum challenge remains a critical factor for the persistence of poverty in the world.

Biggest slums in the world:

● Orangi Town, Karachi, Pakistan, population: 2.4 million
● Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mexico, population: 1.2 million
● Dharavi, Mumbai, India, population: 1 million
● Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya, population: 700 000
● Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, population: 400 000

The number of people who live in slums are especially high in India where more than 17 % of urban Indian households live in slums.  Around 55 %  of Mumbai’s total population live in slums. After Mumbai, Delhi has the second largest slum population in India.  Nearly half of Mumbai’s slums are non-notified, meaning they have no security of land tenure and are not entitled to access city services like connections to the water supply and sanitation.

Slums are spontaneously emerging as a dominant and distinct type of settlement in the cities of the developing world where an estimated 70 million new residents are added to their urban areas each year. Over the next two decades, the urban population of the world’s two poorest regions – South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa – is expected to double and informal settlement dwellers in these regions will dramatically grow.


Asia’s largest slum Orangi Town, Karachi in Pakistan with population around 2.4 million,  although no-one knows the exact figure.

In Asia and the 28 %  of the urban population resides in slums. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 59 %  of the urban population lives in slums and by 2050  Africa’s urban dwellers are projected to have increased to 1.2 billion.  In Latin America and the Caribbean region informal settlements continue to be a significant feature of urban areas with at least 21 %  the region’s urban population still residing in slums, in spite of a 17 %  decrease in this proportion over the last decade. Since 2000 the global slum population grew on average by 6 million a year. This means an increase of 16 500 persons daily.

Providing adequate infrastructure and basic services is central to the economic performance of fast-growing cities especially in Asia and Africa. Urban areas of developed regions are also not immune to urban disparities among the living conditions of their citizens. Europe, for example, has experienced a rise of urban dwellers who cannot afford to pay rent.  This is especially the case for the Southern and Eastern parts of the region.

Many cities today fail to make sustainable space for all, not just physically, but also in the civic, socioeconomic and cultural dimensions attached to collective space. It is timely and necessary to further upgrade slums and regularise informal settlements for the full recognition of the urban poor as rightful citizens, for realising their potential and for enhancing their prosperity and thus the prosperity of the whole city.
The lives of the people living in slums are also conditioned by other challenges, in addition to those referred to their housing situation. Related issues of health, education, livelihood and climate change and natural hazards impacts must be also made central to broader local, regional and national social development agenda.

Achieving sustainable urban development is likely to prove impossible if the urban divide is allowed not only to persist, but to continue growing, opening up an enormous gap, even in some cities a gulf, an open wound, which can produce social instability or at least generate high social and economic costs not only for the urban poor, but for society at large.


26 %  of Indonesia’s urban population lives in slums, with more than 5 million slum dwellers in Jakarta alone.

Slum economies support the day‐to‐day product, service and livelihood needs of the 881 million slum dwellers in developing countries. Slum economies will be an increasingly important source of urban employment, employing up to 630 million slum dwellers by 2020, according to the United Nations forecasts. For example, in 2011 Nairobi’s informal sector created six times more jobs than the formal sector. The composition of a slum economy is also affected by slum characteristics, including size, location, and permanence of settlement. With viable internal markets, up to 40% of residents in large slums can find employment serving other slum dwellers’ needs. However, most slum dwellers residing in smaller slums rely on outward‐facing activity.

Slum‐based enterprises are important suppliers of goods and services to slum populations. Slum‐based kiranas (small grocery stores) in India provide slum dwellers not only with convenience, but often interest‐free credit and smaller, more affordable packages of goods. For example,  in Dharavi, unpackaged lentils and rice are available for half the price charged in other parts of Mumbai.

Slum economies also make contributions to broader urban economies, representing a large share of the informal labor force, providing urban services (e.g., waste collection), also making important contributions to the growing urban economies in developing countries. While the economic value of slum economies is typically small in the context of cities’ total output – for example, Dharavi’s estimated $600M‐ $1B in annual output represents less than 0.5% of Mumbai’s Gross domestic product.
Social enterprises are also increasingly entering slum markets to provide water, sanitation, and other basic services. However, slum‐based businesses often face barriers, including limited access to finance, markets, and information, that constrain their ability to expand reach and to offer even lower prices.


Khayelitsha slum in  Cape Town (South Africa). Just 7 % of Khayelitsha’s population is above the age of 50. More than 40 % of its residents are below age 19. It contributes to the high statistics of young adults living in poverty in South Africa.

Nearly all slum dwellers are engaged in informal employment, sustaining poverty and reducing resilience among poor slum households. While many slum dwellers are poor, some non‐poor live in slums and are active participants in slum economies. As a result, it may be difficult to target the poor or vulnerable as primary beneficiaries of interventions. Incomes in slums, particularly in Latin America, are slowly beginning to rise, attracting the attention of private sector retailers in major developing country cities. In some cases, slums are also becoming safer and thus less risky and more attractive to outside investors. For example, Nestlé’s “My Own Business” model trains and employs local entrepreneurs to sell Nescafé products on the street in slums and other urban areas in Africa.

Experts emphasize that successful slum economy development will require a holistic approach that acknowledges the inter‐related nature of slum dweller challenges. For example, initiatives specifically targeting improved economic activity may only be successful in tandem with improvements in infrastructure or health.

Improving the lives of the people living in slums brings fundamental socio-cultural changes towards a rights-based society. Slum upgrading should consist  of physical, social, economic, organizational and environmental improvements undertaken cooperatively and locally among citizens, community groups, businesses and national governments and city authorities.

Sintija Bernava,
Chairwoman of the Board of Non Governmental Organisation "Donum Animus" (Latvia). "Donum Animus" is the only  Non Governmental Organisation from Latvia holding Special Consultative Status of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nation


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