Contradiction, Promise, and Innovation

On June 9th, 2017, the Oxford Urbanists, together with the International Growth Centre’s Cities that Work program, held a debate titled Informal Settlements and the Role of Land Rights. Participants included Professor Stefan Dercon (Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government and Chief Economist of the UK Department for International Development), Professor Doug Gollin (Professor of Development Economics at the Oxford Department of International Development), and Dr. Andreza de Souza Santos (Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Oxford Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society [COMPAS]).  

In what follows, Dr. de Souza Santos provides abbreviated written replies to some of the questions discussed during the debate.

In what contexts are informal settlements in low-income cities best characterised as poverty traps? In what contexts are they best characterised as springboards for social and economic integration into a city? What does this mean for policy?

I’m not sure there is such a clear distinction. For example, in the construction of Brasilia, a city meant to be different from all others in Brazil through its showcasing of housing equality, construction workers were never included in the plan. They built their own houses in the outskirts, and by doing so they “disfigured” the pattern of equal housing. The builders of Brasilia created an unplanned space. But they were not trapped in poverty. By building their own houses, they were able to access the expanding labour market offered by new capital. They made their lives and that of the rich possible, as a necessary working force. The relevance of these ambiguities to policy is what needs to be discussed.

Rather than act on generalizing conclusions, we must discuss ‘traps’ and ‘springboards’ on a case-by-case basis.

When considering informal housing, we should look at the poverty patterns that precede it. We often say that where you live defines the opportunities you have in life, implying that informality is a poverty trap. However, moving people can increase rather than solve such problems. For example, relocation can affect social capital, which may be vey important for job opportunities and survival. Slums may occupy better parts of a city than development housing projects, which are often far removed from city centres. We need to thoughtfully consider such complexities. Rather than act on generalizing conclusions, we must discuss “traps” and “springboards” on a case-by-case basis.


What are the barriers to effective policy implementation when it comes to addressing the problems associated with informal settlements? Examples could include a lack of data, illegal land tenure preventing utility companies from delivering infrastructure, and the presence of powerful rent-seeking landlords.

I will focus on the lack of data, which is a problem. There is a lot of uncertainty about how informal settlements work. Understanding who lives in these spaces, what their incomes are, how they access education, as well as knowing something about the experiences and the expectations they associate with their environments, are necessary steps in mapping out good policies. Such information sheds light on the best ways to increase access to public services, create pathways for house ownership, or negotiate removal.

Data on informal settlements can also minimize stigmas associated with poor areas. For example, most of these places are considered violent despite residents perceiving them as safe. When poverty is associated with crime, as is in places like Brazil, this stigma further increases inequality. This begs the question: how to collect data when people may shy away from any interviewer asking about their housing situation, because they fear removal? The solution may rest in the involvement of the community itself. When residents become involved in data collection, neighbours may not have the usual skepticism.

For data collection to improve, collectors must share their data with policymakers, who should then ensure that the objectives underlying the research, such as better access to public services, are actually provided. This may make people more willing to cooperate in future studies.


In order to ensure future urban growth occurs in a more planned and orderly manner, how can policymakers most effectively enable low-cost provision of housing to poor urban residents? Discussion could focus on the costs and benefits of a “sites and services” approach.

From what I’ve observed, the “urban poor” always strive for legal recognition. They accumulate documents regarding their houses, including water bills and any postage sent to them at that address (when they do have an address). For the urban poor, houses are like their “biography,” as James Holston puts it. They improve their homes as they improve their lives. All they want is to pay their taxes and live legally. Making this affordable is a good pathway.

For the urban poor, houses are like their ‘biography,’ as James Holston puts it. They improve their homes as they improve their lives. All they want is to pay their taxes and live legally.

However, it is difficult when residents arrive before any infrastructure exists. In such situations, they build using methods and in locations that make improvements difficult. It is hard to deliver public services when streets are too narrow, houses too close together to permit public space, or land too unstable. Removal is sometimes necessary.

But concepts such as architectural acupuncture demonstrate how small interventions can be applied with high precision in ways that make a big difference. Projects such as local banks, wherein residents in poor areas develop their own currency and lending institutions to boost local business and insulate themselves from the competition of bigger companies, have also worked well. This creates stronger communities and oftentimes provides the capital necessary to finance home ownership. Other initiatives, such as cheap credit in specific situations, can come from the state.

Dr. de Souza Santos is a Post-doctoral Research Associate for the Urban Transformations portfolio. Her activities include linking Newton-funded ESRC cities research projects in Brazil, China, South Africa and India. She has lived, studied and worked in Brazil, South Africa and India, interacting with universities, international organizations, municipal governments, and grassroots associations along the way. She obtained her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews, an MA in Social Sciences at the University of Freiburg, University of KwaZulu Natal and Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a BA in Political Science at the University of Brasilia.