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Planet of Slums Mike Davis Verso: 228 pp., $24

July 02, 2006|Stephanie Giry | Stephanie Giry is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs magazine.

PROVIDED you have the stomach for a lot of grim news and a bit of wonkery, Mike Davis' "Planet of Slums" is a surprisingly elegant read, despite the squalor and scale of the topic. Best known for his studies of Los Angeles, Davis turns here to patterns of urbanization worldwide. "Planet of Slums" manages to be at once concise and chock-full of references to fascinating academic studies that would otherwise be little known to the public.

Some of the information is staggering, and Davis' analysis of it is often counterintuitive and shrewd. In 2005, 1 billion people lived in slums -- the result of extraordinary urbanization over the last few decades. Part of that growth has occurred in mega-metropolises such as Mexico City; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Lagos, Nigeria. But most of it has bloated smaller cities with limited resources for handling the boom. As they have swollen to accommodate migrants looking for jobs, these cities have gobbled up the adjacent countryside, each creating an expanding ring of crowded, foul and often dangerous slums on its periphery.

Worse, Davis argues, in much of the developing world, urban sprawl hasn't correlated with economic growth. As a result, he says, the slums have become vast "human dump[s]." Kinshasa, the capital of the Congo, and Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, today resemble immiserated Victorian Dublin more than they do industrializing Manchester a century ago: " 'Overurbanization,' in other words, is driven by the reproduction of poverty, not by the supply of jobs."

In the face of such conditions, squatters and the homeless often prove remarkably resourceful, erecting parasitic structures on rooftops and in air shafts and building elaborate, informal economies. Yet Davis warns against romanticizing self-help; the economics of slums are too perverse and the inequities too great. Backed by lax tax regimes and corrupt local officials, the middle classes often "poach" state-subsidized housing, reinforcing inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. Lucrative land speculation breeds slumlords. In Cairo, the best off among the poor buy land on a real estate black market and the worst off rent from the squatters.

Another asset of "Planet of Slums" is Davis' indignation, which energizes the material. He rails against local governments for doing too little to curb injustices and "economic predators" from abroad for exacerbating them. Cronyism and patronage endure even when regimes change, and international sponsors quickly co-opt the agendas of nongovernmental organizations once devoted to grass-roots causes.

Davis is especially down on the economic policies dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He slams neoliberal measures, which have opened up labor markets in many developing countries, for decimating those nations' public sectors without replacing the jobs lost in the process. The slogans of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, a leading champion of micro-loans to impoverished entrepreneurs, have little systemic impact on poverty, Davis claims. They "simply grease the skids to a Hobbesian hell."

Although most of these accusations are compelling, some smack of the reflexive. And "Planet of Slums" doesn't consider enough whether urban impoverishment could have been avoided or reined in. Davis says "the slum was not the inevitable urban future" and mentions a few attempts by the governments of China, Cuba and Peru to provide cheap mass housing over the last half-century. That's about it, though, and he's quick to discredit even those efforts by arguing that they fell far short of needs. In much of the Third World, he concludes, "the idea of an interventionist state strongly committed to social housing and job development seems either a hallucination or a bad joke."

Davis seems to wish this weren't so, but he also sounds fatalistic. It's hard to imagine how things could have panned out differently if, as he implies, international lenders, local governments, nongovernmental organizations and other key actors always play exactly to type. The book's disposition is so bleak in parts that you wonder how much, in Davis' view, even competent and well-intentioned authorities could have done to avoid housing crises in the face of population booms and economic crunches.

This apparent determinism might explain why Davis is silent about what remedial policies should be considered. He regrets the "abdication of urban reform" by many governments, which suggests that he thinks reform is possible. Yet he presents no specific proposals. Curiously, one of the few authorities he credits with having any clarity of vision today is the Pentagon, and that's for its understanding that global urban poverty also means the so-called urbanization of insurgency and warfare.

Nor does Davis make a prediction. Will the poor revolt? "There is no monolithic subject or unilateral trend in the global slum," he writes. But "there are ... myriad acts of resistance," and so "the future of human solidarity depends upon the militant refusal of the new urban poor to accept their terminal marginality within global capitalism."

Perhaps it's a measure of the complexity of Davis' diagnosis that he offers no easy cure for these ills. And he should be commended for avoiding the doomsday histrionics of "The Coming Anarchy," Robert Kaplan's terrifying forecast about Third World urbanization, and the apocalyptic tendencies of some of his own previous work.

Still, his thoughtful -- sometimes brilliant -- exposition of the problems of global urbanization leaves you wishing Davis had applied his talents to sketching something of a solution. *

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