Social Studies November 22, 2017
The Tavares Bastos favela, Rio de Janeiro, 2014
© Pilar Olivares/Reuters



In August, a British family on holiday 90 miles from Rio de Janeiro drove into a favela attached to the popular coastal resort of Angra dos Reis. They were ordered to stop by men with guns, but there was some confusion and the men fired into the car. Eloise Maxwell, travelling with her husband and three children, was shot in the abdomen, her life saved by an emergency operation. It all apparently arose from a mistaken translation: they had asked where they could buy water but, “Police chief Bruno Gilaberte said they ended up in a slum called Agua Santa – Holy Water in Portuguese”. Less than a week later, police entered the favela and shot dead two men linked to the attack.

Around a billion people – a sixth of humanity – now live in what Gilaberte reportedly characterized as a “slum”. It is a powerful and emotive word, laden with stereotypical images of lawlessness, filth and disorder, and implicitly calling for only one remedy – wholesale destruction. Slums: The history of a global injustice is a powerful critique of the way “slum” has been deployed against the world’s poor to make their lives immensely more difficult than they should be.

Some 150 years in the making, the origins of the word lie buried in the obscurity of early nineteenth-century London slang, at first to mean a poor room, later developing into a synonym for rookery or a low disorderly neighbourhood. From the beginning, to identify an area as a slum was to invite its destruction. So the St Giles rookery was cleared for New Oxford Street, the Devil’s Acre for Victoria Street, Rose Lane for Commercial Street – all in London in the 1830s and 40s. Later, in 1875, public health would provide a new way to demolish the homes of the poor by defining them as “unhealthy areas”, a statutory framework of houses “unfit for human habitation” that has changed little over time in UK housing law. Until 1930, almost no one evicted from the destroyed areas received an alternative home by way of compensation, and even in the 1970s many tenants would be “winkled” out by landlords in advance of demolition in redevelopment schemes (where slums were combined with housing that was not unfit but demolished for “housing gain”) so that they could eventually get more money from the council for their properties. I can certainly vouch for one element of what Alan Mayne calls the “slum deceit”: when I was a public health inspector responsible for a small part of Islington’s demolition programme in the early 1970s, for “slum” I would automatically read “clearance”, until public opinion in the borough and elsewhere veered decisively away from demolition around 1973–4.

For Mayne, though, who has been writing about the representation of slums for some thirty years, the term deceives in more ways than one. The slum is an imagined space that “misrepresents poor neighbourhoods and their residents as being deficient, disordered and unchanging”; slums and slum-dwellers are cast as parasitic and greedy in the resources they consume, while never recognized for the labour they contribute to the city’s wellbeing; they are cast as “other”, often stereotyped as ethnically or racially set apart from the city around them; worst of all, “slum” justifies harsh and vindictive treatment, whether repressive police tactics or extensive destruction, without providing anywhere for those displaced to move to.

These and other “slum deceits” were carried fully formed across the English-speaking world by the end of the nineteenth century, enshrined in the United States and in Britain’s Imperial dominions (like Mayne’s native Australia). Though slum clearance in Britain had been deployed essentially against old housing – hundreds of thousands of Victorian homes were cleared in giant tracts between 1930 and 1970 across the cities of industrial Britain, notoriously in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow – slum clearance in the developing world turned its attention to recent housing on the urban edge, the suburban “shanty-towns” or informal settlements of “the global south” (Africa, the Indian subcontinent, South Asia and, of course, South America, where the favela has taken on an almost demonic reputation).

In this most recent and vigorous iteration of slum ideology, now some seventy years old, it is the experience of post-independence India that has been of defining importance. Here, in contrast to the United Kingdom, the term “slum” became defined in law and built into the urban statutory framework, and it is where the ideology of the slum, despite many positive advances, has proven hardest to shake off. The United Nations defined “slum” in 1951 as an overcrowded or insanitary area that endangered “the health, safety or morals of its inhabitants or the community”. The UN’s officials and organizations were especially active in the subcontinent, where the work of the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis – who stressed the separateness of what seemed to be a self-regenerating “culture of poverty” misaligned to mainstream society – also proved influential. Combined with the state socialism of the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s government, this meant that national five-year plans foregrounded slum clearance in India in the 1950s and 60s.

As the social, political and financial costs of demolition became stridently apparent, however, more humane alternatives began to emerge, focusing less on clearance and more on providing basic necessities, such as shared water supplies, latrines and better drainage. Even so, the poor were buffeted from one policy pillar to another as community development gave way to an authoritarian regime of clearance – in Bombay, as it then was, some 72,000 were evicted between 1975 and 1977 (a mere blip compared to instances worldwide, with 720,000 said to have been evicted to make way for the Olympic Games site in Seoul in 1988) – and then returned to an ostensibly kinder regime under the influence of neoliberalism.

A relish for entrepreneurism among the poor, and a distaste for a large state and extravagant public finances, tended to knock wholesale clearance off the agenda, except when it fitted with the needs of private developers or was required for infrastructure (roads, airports, energy plants, for example) that facilitated the flow of capital. In the past few years, in the context of global initiatives such as Cities Without Slums, inaugurated in 1999 and enshrined in various UN declarations since, the old slum labelling continues to have an effect: Mayne tells us that 30,000 homes were demolished in Mumbai in a single “government slum clearance sweep” in 2005, and every day, one imagines, something like that is being planned or implemented somewhere in the developing world.

Mayne’s reach is impressively wide, ranging confidently over the policies and initiatives of not only the global south (as well as India, he cites evidence from Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria and Brazil) but the contemporary developed world too, where the clearance of areas condemned as obsolete or substandard has returned from time to time to disrupt and scarify the lives of the poor. At the heart of the disruption, is the use of the word “slum” to anathematize the poor and their urban spaces and to justify every sort of intervention, with violence not far beneath the surface.

In a book which, given its focus, is substantially about the interpretation of words, “community” in Mayne’s hands comes close to being a term as sanctified as slum is cursed. Yet “community” is as potentially deceitful as “slum”, obscuring oppressions and terrors (intercommunal violence, gang warfare, sexual and other abuse within the family, pernicious codes of honour, exclusion of outsiders), most especially in the past thirty years when hard drugs have wreaked catastrophic effects on the lives of the poor worldwide. We are left wondering, in that context, just what sort of neighbourhoods might be made to work out of the places that authority castigates as slums.

Inevitably Slums is about failure. Mayne is candid about offering no solution to the problem he so comprehensively dissects. It is the dissection itself, laying bare the history of the slum label and exposing its malevolence, that he hopes will assist the world’s policy-makers to take a fresh look at the potential for environmentally sustainable informal housing areas, built as they have been, in the developing world at least, by the initiative and sheer hard graft of generations of the planet’s poorest.