Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Return of the Slum: Does Language Matter?

by Alan Gilbert, 2007

The ‘cities without slums’ initiative has resuscitated an old and dangerous term from the habitat vocabulary. Use of the word ‘slum’ will recreate many of the myths about poor people that years of careful research have discredited. The UN has employed the word in order to publicize the seriousness of urban problems and to improve its ability to attract funding with which to tackle the issue. But in using such an emotive word the UN risks opening a Pandora’s box. The campaign implies that cities can actually rid themselves of slums, an idea that is wholly unachievable. The word is also dangerous because it confuses the physical problem of poor quality housing with the characteristics of the people living there. The UN knows that earlier research has rehabilitated most ‘slum dwellers’ but ignores the danger of conjuring up all of the old images. In the process, the campaign also offers an oblique invitation to governments to look for instant solutions to insoluble problems. Demagogic governments have always shown a willingness to demolish slums despite the fact that experience has shown that policy to be ineffective. I fear that the new campaign will encourage more to employ this foolish policy. Words need to be employed carefully.

Click here to download this paper in pdf.