When most people think of shanty towns they picture the desolate lives of malnourished children or urban squalor and congestion, or a movie they saw about a millionaire from India. In real life, slums can also embody dynamic informal economic hubs and touchstones to a different future–for better or for worse. In Morocco, rural migration to urban centers has led to a growing number of shanty residents (now estimated at over a million). If unsanitary conditions weren’t enough to goad past governments into action, the realization that Morocco’s slums have provided fertile ground for recruiting terrorists has sparked a new initiative—Villes sans Bidonvilles (VSB) (towns without shanties).
Although the royal initiative to eradicate Morocco’s shanties that dot the outskirts of most cities is laudable, failing to take into consideration the agency of the slum dweller or the complex social dynamics of bidonvilles has plagued VSB.
For starters, in-depth field research to ascertain the concerns and dynamics of these neighborhoods has largely been inadequate. Instead, public policy has focused on constructing new apartments, assigning them to bidonville residents, demolishing slums, taking a photo, writing a report and calling it a day. Nowhere within this equation does the slum resident emerge as a member of a community with economic interests or social networks worth preserving. As anthropologist and former World Bank consultant, Thomas Dichter, points out: when the imperative becomes spending donor money, making cities more attractive and pleasing the king, there is no room for responding to the daily realities of shanty residents.
One of the most glaring consequences that have surfaced during the project – not counting the daily clashes between angry and slighted residents and the police – has been the inconsideration of informal businesses within the bidonvilles. How is someone whose livelihood depends on ground-level interaction with customers, clients and patrons supposed to work out of a fifth floor apartment? Instead of reserving the first floor of new apartment complexes for shanty businesses, this highly coveted space is sold to outside business owners leaving residents without recourse or space to carry out essential daily exchanges.
Failing to take internal dynamics of the bidonvilles into planning has been counter-productive. Shanties are reservoirs of electoral support whose residents are often closely entwined in the patron-client networks of municipal counselors, so that local politicians have much to gain through the maintenance of shanties and local speculators have much to profit in the construction and sale of more shanties. As Dichter found in his work on VSB projects, after reducing the number of shanty houses from 12,000 to 6,000 in the southern city of Agadir, surveys showed a total of 13,000 shanty houses just several years after.
Families with little money would borrow…to buy a 350-square-foot shack that had no legal existence. These sales were done in cash, without any paper or title being transferred. The local authority would take a cut and look the other way, the move would often take place at midnight, and the new ‘resident’ would then claim to be in line for whatever ‘rehousing’ program the government had in the works, so strong is the urge for legitimacy on the part of residents.
To be fair, this is the first time Morocco has undergone this fairly ambitious project and one can only hope that it will learn from its mistakes. A recent announcement that the Interior Ministry will reassert control over the shanties and oversight over the VSB project could be a positive step in that it could lead to greater accountability of corrupt local officials seeking to profit from the VSB project. As other developing countries, like Burkina Faso, look to follow Morocco’s example, one can only hope that “international development experts” and local technocrats move beyond the simplistic view that helping the poor is as easy as giving somebody a better home. Questions of governance, transparency, and respect and understanding of the local social economy are just as important.