Reform And Transformation

Reform and transformation
Communities of the urban dispossessed are in a conflict
too sharp to be blunted by crumbs of comfort, argues Jeremy Seabrook.

There are thousands of popular initiatives aimed at seeking improvements in the chaotic and oppressive cities of the South. But because the rapid growth of the cities is, at least in part, a consequence of globalization, most of these movements are reactive. There is a tension here between the desire to gain a more secure foothold in the urban economy and the longing for radical change, where injustice, exploitation and poverty will be transcended.

This ambiguity – the old division between reform and transformation – lends itself to much manipulation by power and privilege. The desire to reclaim a more harmonious, just and fair existence can easily be changed into a fairly small modification of the violence with which the market economy has swept up the peoples of the world into a single entity. To blur this distinction is now the objective of the powerful, and it is in the arena of popular action that these efforts are concentrated.

Some of the most vibrant contemporary movements for change are supported by governments. But for the most part they are funded by, or come to form, non-government organizations (NGOs) or charitable foundations. The most effective – and often least known – are popular mobilizations of slumdwellers, sweatshop-workers, street-vendors, domestic servants, rickshaw drivers or some other marginalized group.


Cities have the potential to combine safe, healthy and enjoyable living with relatively low levels of resource use. It is not cities, but industries, that create most pollution and waste. It is those who live in low-density suburbs, not city centres, who consume the most resources.

Birth rates are generally lower in cities than in rural communities. High population densities mean lower costs for energy, water, communications and most forms of healthcare and education. Recycling is cheaper. Less land is used for human settlement. There is more potential for limiting the use of the motorcar – by walking, cycling or using public transport.

 Gasoline use and urban density in New York's centre and its inner and outer area.
Source: An Urbanizing World: Global Report on Human Settlements 1996,
UN Centre for Human Settlements (HABITAT).

Cities are also the focus for vigorous cultures and a ‘social economy’: citizen groups, residents’ associations, street or barrio clubs and the like. These activities do not count in the profit-and-loss account that is the globalized measure of progress.

The city’s advantage is at its greatest – and most neglected – as a centre where people can get together and so have more control over their lives. This is the one means of realizing the potential benefits of city life by ensuring that they are shared by all.

The recent ‘discovery’ by the World Bank, the lMF, the United Nations agencies and the like of the importance of ‘civil society’ apparently marks a welcome recognition of the fact that no development worthy of the name can occur unless it has gained the assent and participation of those whose lives are affected by it. But we may ask whether there is not a hidden purpose beneath this celebration of popular struggle. After all, governments and authority in general have spared neither expense nor effort to suppress such movements in the past.

It would be more convincing if it did not coincide with a global program of privatizations and cuts in government spending on nutrition, health and education.

Much of the protection of the city poor is now undertaken by NGOs, most of which have become dependent upon funds from elsewhere. Some of these have come to resemble businesses, offering career structures, consultancies and expertise that generate lucrative contracts for those they employ.

This is not to deny the value of transferred expertise. But even when the most extensive and best-designed schemes have been implemented, the effect on the fabric of the city is barely detectable. Only about five per cent of the urban poor are touched by such projects. The world of NGO activity has become a closed one, in which participants sometimes see themselves as major agents of transformation. The appearance of Mumbai, Delhi, Jakarta or Manila has certainly not been radically altered by their intervention. The best that can be said is that without their efforts it would be much worse.

Such organizations are themselves often the bearers of globalization, rather than a source of resistance to it. It is one thing to celebrate the importance of the ‘local’, to work in slum communities for income-generation, literacy or improved healthcare. It is quite another when that locality is situated on marshy land, liable to stagnant floods and industrial pollution. To extol the local, when power is increasingly centralized and wealth is flowing from poor to rich, is not a formula for transformation. Areas which have been improved by foreign funding often only emphasize the dereliction of neighbouring communities which have received no such assistance.

To state this is only to enter a cautionary note to all the self-flattering, euphoric reports which fly across the world from Lima, Cairo or Dhaka to donors in Tokyo or Washington. There are numberless examples of local communities which – with or without outside help, with or without charismatic leaders – compel governments to relocate them after evictions and provide basic infrastructure. They build up networks of mutual support, help and compassion. Opposition to the existing form of development, in which none of the urban poor was ever consulted, is a natural reaction. It must become mass and organized resistance before it can even think of representing an alternative. Under the banner of socialism it proved impossible for people – having thrown off colonial or oppressive governments – to establish a more just order. They are certainly not going to transform the world under the much more benign banner of ‘civil society’.

The most effective alternatives emerge where local communities have control of their own resources. This does not mean simply a sum of money, granted by governments, foreign charities, benevolent nationals or any other form of philanthropy. It involves not just the capacity for pooling human resources, for looking after each other, tending the old, nursing the sick, protecting the young, bearing up the weak with tenderness and affection – that is already there in abundance. They must also be able to answer basic material needs: grow food, make their own clothes, provide shelter on land where they have security of tenure. There are very few such places, for this is a freedom that authority can scarcely tolerate. Security and autonomy for poor communities are not on the agenda of governments anywhere, and ‘civil society’ is but a poor shadow of such emancipation. True anti-globalists are everywhere in a state of sharp – not to say implacable – opposition to the thrust of the global economy.

Of course people know what they need for a life of dignity and sufficiency; and they will do what they can to get it. Where this modest demand turns into conflict with authority (and it does almost everywhere, for sufficiency is not the object of economic development) some will accept what is available under the circumstances, while others will struggle for something better, something closer to their ambitions for their family, their neighbourhood, their country. For this they often pay a heavy price. How many times have troublesome slums been simply razed to the ground by ‘accidental’ outbreaks of fire? How many times have the urban poor been fired on by the military? How often have popular leaders been framed and persecuted, like trade union leader Muchtar Pakpahan in Indonesia, or simply shot by contract killers, like Shankar Guha Niyogi, leader of a movement of wretched iron-ore workers in India?

The cheerful image of civil society organizing to claim from government the amenities promised to them by a constitution framed at the time of liberation from colonialism is scarcely credible. To achieve this would mean a reversal of globalization. This is implicitly recognized even by official agencies, which seek to resolve the contradiction. The UNDP document Asia-Pacific 2000, for example, speaks of the need for ‘a people-centred economics’, elsewhere described as ‘economics with a human face’. This means ‘making a paradigm shift in what economics should mean’.

The notion that monstrous social injustice, extravagant and unaccountable concentrations of power and wealth, enclosure of the global commons and increasing pressure on the poor, can all be resolved by a reduced role for governments, enhanced inputs from the private sector, and goodwill, is either disingenuous or dishonest.

Those who are on the receiving end know better. They struggle, resist and oppose as best they can. The efforts required should not be minimized, least of all by NGOs, charities or popular movements. Too often their leaders permit them to be bought off, colonized and incorporated. Sometimes their heroic efforts show only the smallest gains, and the protagonists exhaust and use themselves up in the process. Some small victories carry a high price, while others disappear into the silence and darkness of a system that has no intention of divesting itself of one iota of its privilege. This is, as it always was, the terrain on which the potential for change must be tested.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book, In the Cities of the South, was published by Verso in 1996. With Wolfgang Sachs and Martin Khor he will be running a course on ‘Economy, Ecology and Globalization’, 8-27 February 1998 at Schumacher College (UK), tel: (+44) 1803 865 934.

In Jakarta the SBSI (Workers’ Prosperity Union), banned by the government, continues to organize workers in the plastics, electronics, garments and toy-making industries. Most of the workers are young migrants from Central and East Java, and they know that they risk livelihood – and even life itself – by their actions.

In Bangalore, South India, a group of women domestic workers form a union. They join together to protest outside the homes of any employers who abuse, exploit or threaten domestic workers.

In Manila, the Eddie Guazon Foundation, named after a murdered worker for the urban poor, struggles for security and land rights for slumdwellers in a city where fires break out regularly in areas occupied by the poor and coveted by developers and builders of grandiose infrastructural projects.

In Nova lguaçu, a satellite of Rio de Janeiro and itself the seventh-largest city in Brazil – much of it a sprawl of crumbling concrete and desolate shanties – people combine to resist the law of the gun and the drug-lords who operate a parallel and more powerful government than the official administration.

In Mumbai, the Ration Card Dharam Samak is a people’s movement in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, monitoring prices and the quality of goods in government ration-shops. The adulteration of rice, sugar and flour has made buying subsidized goods an unattractive proposition: this serves the purpose of a government which is under pressure from the international financial institutions to cut subsidies, and which can point out that people are not using the system. The Samak is working to make sure that good-quality produce is not diverted to the open market, but reaches those for whom it can make the difference between sufficiency and malnutrition.

[image, unknown] Contents