Ali’s blog

Mostly quant stuff with occasional digressions

Slumdogs helping themelves

Posted by alifinmath on February 24, 2009

Most of the world’s population growth has been occurring — and will continue to do so — in the “Third World.” Much of this population will drift to the mega slum cities of Sao Paolo, Rio, Mexico City, Cairo, Karachi, Mumbai, Lagos, and a host of others. What are now towns will become cities; what are now cities will become mega cities; and what are now mega-cities, well …. These places are not cities in any European or North American sense. They are vast sprawls of people in “informal housing” made of cardboard, hardboard, mud, and corrugated iron. There is no infrastructure — roads, water, electricity, plumbing, schools, or medical care. The inhabitants scratch out a living in the euphemistically-labeled “informal sector”: recycling waste, repairing shoes and clothes, hawking fruits and veggies, and so on. As for so many other things, lack of times precludes my saying more on the subject. The causes for the growth of these cities is population growth, lack of redistributive land policies, and the chill winds of globalisation which have caused peasants and small farmers to lose their land or be unable to to make a living based on prices determined in the rigged global marketplace. A book I recommend in this connection is Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums; in fact anything by Mike Davis is worth reading.

I’ve had my own reservations about the film, “Slumdog Millionaire.” It’s designed to appeal to the sensibilities and hypocrisy of Western audiences who “feel the pain” of the world’s poor — but do precious little else. And because it shows individual salvation and not — and now I speak as the socialist I am — collective salvation, which cannot be won by winning some TV contest. It is what has been termed poverty porn (indeed, to extend the analogy a bit further, just as there is sex tourism to poor countries, there is now a niche market for poverty tourism, where affluent Westerners can visit slum cities and vicariously enjoy the suffering of slum denizens). Here is one good (albeit brief) review of the film.

In today’s FT, there’s an interesting piece by the director of the Rockefeller Foundation, from which I have drawn the following excerpt:

It is hard to structure aid so that equitable growth is achieved, especially in poor societies suffering from HIV infections or civil strife. But HIV infections do not kill children at anything like the rate that a lack of clean water and sanitation does – a rate equivalent to having a jumbo jet full of kids crash every four hours. Nor are wars as dangerous as the lack of sanitation. As a recent United Nations report put it: “No act of terrorism generates economic devastation on the scale of the crisis in water and sanitation.”

As a socialist, I don’t agree with the tenor of the piece. I’ve heard the cliche of “empowering the poor” one too many times. That is not really the issue. The issue is probably an entrenched class system with concomitant political corruption and a ruling elite that serves as compradors to the twin demons of global finance capital and imperial control (which on closer examination turn out to be two sides of the same coin).

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