Thursday, June 4, 2009

Meeting Africa’s Housing Needs

When Amnesty International released its 2009 State of the World’s Human Rights report recently, one issue surfaced that Amnesty obviously takes seriously, but which many others might not have thought about previously: the lack of housing in Africa.

The United Nations Population Fund two years ago projected that Africa’s urban population would more than double from 294 million persons in 2000 to nearly 750 million by 2030. Last year, UN-Habitat projected that a dozen African cities would be among the world’s largest by 2025, with Kinshasa of the Democratic Republic of Congo expected to have a population of 17 million persons.

UN-Habitat states that Africa has the highest proportion of people classified as slum dweller at 71.9%. The region with the second largest percentage of slum dwellers is South-Central Asia at 58%. The agency defines a slum household as “a group of individuals living under the same roof that lack one or more of the following conditions: access to safe water, access to sanitation, secure tenure, durability of housing and sufficient living area.”

I have seen slums in African countries ranging from Zimbabwe to Kenya. In Zimbabwe, I was present during what the government called “Operation Murambatsvina” (Take Out the Trash in Shona). The operation was ostensibly to clean up unlicensed houses and get rids of slums. However, hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless in a matter of days. My colleagues and I saw a baby that had been born outside without shelter during the southern African winter and others left guarding their belongings in now-open fields. This was not thoughtful urban renewal; it was official cruelty, capped by the government’s intervention to prevent assistance to those who had been displaced.

In the Kibera slums in Nairobi, Kenya, people live in horrible conditions, but the government has not moved to destroy their dwellings as in Zimbabwe, and there is an effort underway to upgrade dwelings and improve sanitation. The people I met when I went into the slums lived a hard life, and many worked long hours just to hold onto the meager housing they could find and afford.

Karol Boudreaux, a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, last year wrote a paper in which she listed regulatory burdens, high costs associated with regulatory compliance, high interest rates on home loans, land tenure problems and administrative barriers as factors limiting the ability of the poor in Africa to obtain acceptable housing. As waves of new rural people move to the cities seeking work, this situation will only worsen.

Amnesty International has started a new global “Demand Dignity" campaign to fight human rights abuses that drive and deepen poverty, and number one on their list of focus areas is slums and forced evictions. All those who care about Africa’s people – inside and outside government – are going to have to take more seriously the growing lack of housing for Africa’s people. It is not only a socio-economic issue, but also a security issue and a human rights issue.

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