Are Slums Part of the Transition from Rural Poor to Urban Middle Class?

Successive waves of immigrants have arrived in East London over the 400-plus years since the Huguenots arrived following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Like their successors, they arrived impoverished, found work and moved on to a better life elsewhere. East London stayed the same, but the inhabitants progressed.

Nearly one billion people live in informal settlements or slums worldwide. Are these people in transition from rags to riches, or are they stuck in a poverty trap? Sadly, the evidence suggests that the second scenario is closer to reality. Poorly nourished, inadequately educated, chronically unwell and exploited by “slumlords”, they tend to sink, rather than rise, according to a recent review.[1] Work carried out by my collaborations at the Africa Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) in Nairobi confirms that net emigration from slums is a slow and uncertain business. Sojourn times are prolonged, often encompassing more than one generation.[2]

Various solutions have been proposed for this problem over the last 50 years – more or less sequentially:

  1. Slum clearance – hardly gets to the underlying cause.
  2. Benign neglect to halt immigration from the country – they still come.
  3. Investment in slums – may be the best option, but benefits often prove ephemeral, as in Jakarta.
  4. Land titling – often makes matters worse because “slumlords”, now with title deeds in their files, evict residents or raise rents.

The only thing that really works is a rising per capita GDP, as in China and India, but “trickle down” can take a long time.

Like many social phenomenon, the solutions are not straightforward. We would be grateful for further contributions to this debate. However, early education (and I mean really early) and improved sanitation/healthcare may be the best bet for now. Small effects are likely to be cost-effective, I would suggest.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Marx B, Stoker T, Suri T. The Economics of Slums in the Developing World. J Econ Perspect. 2013; 27(4):187-210.
  2. African Population & Health Research Center – APHRC. KENYA – NUHDSS – Residency Table for all DSS Residents. 2014. [Online].

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