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Slums and bridging technologies

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Why do slums exist?

Only the poorest of the poor live there. To say that it’s a hard life is an understatement. Recently, I was visiting the slums in Nairobi. I can’t say it was a pleasant experience. There was a positive though, as I spent some time talking to those in the slums, and got an idea of how they got there and why.

Firstly, for example, in Nairobi, there are anywhere between 500,000 to 3 million people living in the surrounding slums. And even if they wanted to leave, they couldn’t, as they can barely afford to live there. Many were born in the slums and knew no other life, but others had migrated from villages to the slums. Personally, I viewed village life as being better, but as an outsider, it’s like an extended camping trip. The problems and uncertainty of village life are only a temporary state for me. And, ironically, I appreciated the slow pace of life, even though it was a bit frustrating at times.

But speaking to the youth, they want more to life than the uncertainty of waiting for the rains to come. With their hard-earned education, they envision that the grass is greener on the other side. Whether they would be driving a taxi or working in a cybercafe, they envision city-life as better than village. And so the families save what they have and send one of their own to the city. Some eek out a living, some go back to the villages, and others become statistics. The lure of the city is like bait to a fish. The promise of an easier life is rarely fulfilled. But everyday, youth try to make the transition. And going from a village to a city is a transition indeed, a difficult one at that.

There are many reasons from moving to the city other than hope for a better life. In the villages, families are living on the edge of poverty. If the crops aren’t as plentiful, maybe one son will go into a town to try to find work. If there’s a death in the family, the funerals cost quite a bit and also can cause a migration. Although it’s difficult to find work as there is plenty of labor available in urban areas, it does offset the uncertainty of for families with the potential extra sources of income. Sometimes there isn’t enough land for a family in a village, so the younger members search out the cities to find work. In any case, other than hope for an easier life, forced migrations occur due to some type of shortfall in the villages.

But going back from the city slums to the villages is also a difficult transition. Why? Because life is easier in the slums! The economics of the city require cheap labor which in turn requires cheap housing. But there is work to be had. Or if necessary, you can hustle or steal to get by. The situation in the villages is more stark where there are no such options. The proverbial rock and hard place applies here.

The village to city transition is a modern one. It is only possible through industrialization and technology transfer. Slums are created because of the lack of intermediate states between village and city. Historically, a country did not develop from rural farmers to having computers. Through the surplus of food, trade, and specialization, towns developed, and from towns to cities, and from cities to metropolis. What is a slum, but an underdeveloped town on the outskirt of a city? Though there is poverty and lack of work in cities, slums this size are not possible without interference from aid to help development. Indeed, slums are only possible because of rapid, unsustainable development, which has only hurt those that it intended to help.[i]

This development also gives rise to a great dependence on goods that are not found in the country itself. It becomes a double penalty. Opening the markets is helpful in the short-term, but to support the technology, there needs to be continual import, and due to the situation in these countries, this means that there needs to be continual export of either debt or resources to keep the balance. It is no surprise that successfully developed economies were closed and protectionist. Both China and Russia kept their markets mostly closed, slowly developed internally through the process of education, specialization, and industrialization. Protectionism is necessary for a developing nation or even for a country to develop technology and I’ve touched upon it here

Japan’s automotive industry is a classical example of developing a local economy. American car companies were establishing themselves in Japan post WWI, but the Japanese government passed a law in 1936 to promote local industry. This with a focus on quality, ironically, with training given from the American counterparts, gave Japan time to develop more fuel efficient cars. With the oil embargo in the 1970’s, the export of cars from Japan to America boomed.[ii] None of this would have been possible without allowing the local technology to develop over time.[iii]

Development efforts and free markets have become a system to extract resources.[iv]. The elite of a country have much different goals and desires than the subsistence farmers. Taking loans and acquiring the best technology is in their best interest. But the unintended consequences of this are costly. Driving the people from their land and subsidized industrial farming forcing farmers to leave their land to the cities are among the effects. Naturally, this creates slums as there is no infrastructure to handle the migration from rural to city. There is a large gap between what is beneficial for those in the villages and those in the cities. The villages have been neglected greatly as has been the land to the benefit of the urban and industrial.

To get rid of the slums, there must be a bridge built between villages and cities. Not the best technologies, but the technologies that would provide a stepping stone in natural development. Rome wasn’t built in a day and countries cannot be industrialized via external forces without consequences. Technologies that are simple and can be used in villages and allow the transition to towns need to be used. Hand pumps that help with irrigation, not massive pipe systems. Manual brick making machines to build better housing rather than technology to build skyscrapers. Techniques to make barrels rather than importing plastics for storage. Plows and bulls instead of tractors. Technology must be introduced at the correct stages for villages to be able to transition into towns, as close to as to what would have naturally taken place over time. Natural development would be more effective than the current types of aid. Maybe the lure and hope of the cities is still too much, but making life easier in the villages is the place to start building infrastructure. A more secure and wealthy rural population is the next evolution in development steps.

Slums are created as city infrastructure cannot handle the population growth. Many people move the cities to find work as opportunities are unavailable in rural regions. Some move because they believe they will have better lives and others are forced to migrate. Economically, cities begin to depend on the slum population to provide cheap labor. The root cause of slum creation is the migration from the rural to the city which may also be related to population increases and the fertility of the land. Just as people migrated and live in the slums because they think that life is easier in there, if life was easier in the villages, they would move back. The development and aid effort is actually counterproductive to the needs of the many. Bridging technologies that help directly in the villages would alleviate the pressures of rural life and prevent migrations. Rather than focusing on the most advanced technologies, development should focus on the best technologies that are possible internally to bridge the gap between rural and urban.

tl;dr – Life is harder in villages than slums. Make life easier in villages through simple technology and natural development, people will migrate back to the villages.

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  1. This is a simplification of slum creation as there are other forces to consider as population growth and city policies. But I’m trying to keep this under 1500 words. []
  2. []
  3. Examining the philosophies of colonization between the West and East is of interest also. Consider Britain and India vs. Japan and Korea. Britain was interested in opening markets for their goods while Japan allowed Korea to develop. []
  4. There is much to be said about this and much already has been said. South America and Africa have numerous examples []
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