Do we have to learn to live with slums?


Do we have to learn to live with slums? Watch Paul Mason's film from the Philippines in full

Manila, Philippines: The rich elite in cities across the world want to clear the slums which are now home to a billion people. But many of those who live in shanty towns like that which lines the banks of the San Miguel canal, do not want to leave. Why?

I had come to the Philippines to explore a theory but, as always, reality got in the way.

I was standing on the bridge over the Estero de San Miguel, a slum in the capital Manila.

My host was architect Felino Palafox and he had spread his blueprints across the parapet of the bridge and we were poring over them, with some street kids clambering around us. Palafox was making a big splash with the locals his Star Trek-style traditional Philippines shirt.

Find out more

At the Estero de San Miguel slum
  • Slums 101 will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 16 August 2011 at 20:00 BST
  • You can watch Paul's film for Newsnight in full on BBC Two that evening at 22:30 BST

The sweep of the slum was pretty horrible - a curve of water, shacks on both sides, multicoloured plastic rubbish inches deep in the water, and now and then the sound of something hitting the water as somebody used the "wrap and throw" method of sewage disposal into the Estero itself.

I needed the bathroom myself, so somebody guided me into a shop - a kiosk really - on the bridge. I clambered down a ladder and then, suddenly, I was in a place whose existence had not really occurred to me. Because if the slum is built right up to the waterway, on stilts, how do you get through it?

The answer was a tunnel. Four feet (1.2m) wide, about 5ft 7in (170cm) high (I learned this painfully as I am 5ft 7.5in (171.4cm)) and 600m (1968ft) long.

Twelve hundred families live off that tunnel - about 6,000 people. Such is the population density that I realised immediately what the women cradling their kids and swaying absentmindedly in the half light were doing - the same as me, waiting for the toilet.

Lack of hope

When I came out I was, as Dennis Murphy said to me afterwards, "stoked". Dennis is an ex-Jesuit priest who runs an NGO in Estero de San Miguel that has helped the slum-dwellers organise themselves.

"You were hyper, manic," he told me later.

That was because whenever you enter a slum your spirits do not so much droop as plummet. A fall, with a long "aargh" such as that emitted by the Wily Coyote when The Road Runner gets him to go over a cliff.

Balderas family The Balderas family live in a single 8ft square room

You suddenly become aware physically - even though you have seen this stuff many times before - of that thing no modern human being wants, limitation, boundedness, a lack of hope.

After two minutes down the tunnel I stormed up the ladder and told my crew to stop filming Palafox. Nice though his scheme development plan was, it was on paper. Down in the tunnel was a reality that, despite being in Manila's slums for days, we had not properly seen.

Mena Cinco, the barangay captain - a kind of local councillor with the authority of a tribal chieftain - led me down again.

We met Rotsi and her family - mum, dad "a driver for a Chinese family", an unspecified family guest, a daughter doing her homework and a toddler. Five people in one-and-a-half rooms.

"We've been here 20 years," Rotsi told me.

Population explosion

Next door Oliver Balderas was snoozing with his kids, who were eating ice cream. There was a cartoon on the television and mum was also having a nap - it was about 32C and heavy with humidity.

Why Philippines slum clearance is creating new problems

They came to the door. Mr Balderas is a construction worker earning about $3.50 (£2.13) a day. The family moved to Estero de San Miguel from a conflict area 10 years ago.

The room - about 8ft (2.4m) square, and like all of the Estero, built of wood and floored with lino - is their entire dwelling space.

Manila is undergoing a population explosion. Of the around 60 people-an-hour estimated to be arriving here, about half are coming as migrants from the collapsing agriculture sector, and half are born here - so there are kids everywhere.

These kids sing a song about the inevitability of poverty and their determination to overcome it.

Total rethink

With the sky glowering when I got out of the tunnel, I was no longer in any mood to go on giving the theory the benefit of the doubt.

My instant reaction was this: "There's a theory that says basically slums are here to stay, that they're cohesive, sustainable - green even.

"I can see the social cohesion bit, but as for green, well, (my nostrils flare at the river smell).

"And I can't help thinking the whole theory is a bit of a cop out because why - when in the 19th Century they cleared out places like this in one generation do we, in an era of globalisation, tolerate them?"

Mena Cinco Mena Cinco is one of the slums' official leaders

If I came out of the Estero de San Miguel "stoked", it was because it challenged my trendy notions, learned from the 2003 UN Habitat report and interviews with various experts, and re-awakened the inner Edwardian-era social reform nostrums my grandparents taught me about slums, which is that they have to be cleared.

But then I went back into the San Miguel by night, with Mena still trying to educate me about the social cohesion, and I was forced to rethink it all again.

I met business graduates, found an internet cafe, met the volunteer police force and got offered the chance to eat a boiled egg with a chicken embryo. I said I would rather jump in the canal naked, and the local women invite me to do just that.

Then, over a beer with ex-Father Dennis, discussing our mutual experiences with the Salesians and the Jesuits, I discovered what one billion people on the planet have discovered - slums are not so bad.

They have changed from the Dickensian hell holes of our imagination. Through education and communications technology people are making life bearable for themselves - and of course providing the modern mega-city with an indispensable workforce of cheap labour.

The result is we have to confront a question that would have appalled the 19th Century pioneers of city design - do we have to live with slums forever?

I do not know the answer to that question - but I now understand the question.

Somewhere between the theories of the architects and NGOs and the rigid clearance doctrines of Prada-clad Filipino millionaires, and the night on the streets with the local cops and the day in the countryside with people whose main ambition in life is to live in a Manila slum… I have gone beyond the theory and experienced the reality.

Join Paul Mason on Tuesday 16 August at 20:00 BST on BBC Radio Four, on Newsnight at 22:30BST on BBC Two, and on BBC World TV's Our World slot on 26/27 August, and on the BBC World Service's One Planet on 19 and 26 August to experience it for yourself.

And for more background read Paul's New Statesman article here.

Paul Mason Article written by Paul Mason Paul Mason Former economics editor, Newsnight

End of an era

After 12 years on Newsnight, Economics editor Paul Mason has moved on to pastures new and this blog is now closed.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Resourceful, hard working, and even educated. It's not a problem of the people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Of course, if they could, they would want to live in better conditions. However the question isn't whether slums should exist or not. The better question is that as a nation can you provide a better alternative for a big part of your population? If you cannot promise a sustainable living better than slum living, then that's when as a country you have to really look hard at your plans again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    We should take the best elements of the pejorative slum ie organic development and bolt it onto the front of the mountains/houses we have created to hidein/house those unable to accept that this world is a preparatory transit camp on a journey to eternity.

    The scope of permitted development should embrace building above the roofline and grilling extending to pavement to restore comunity life

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    One of the tragedies of the Philippines is the way that the rest of the world almost ignores it. They are amazingly resilient and have found ways to cope with little external assistance. It is the most naturally disaster prone country in the world - typhoons, eathquakes etc. That said, without some real help with rural poverty they potentially face a tragedy on an horrendous scale.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    This is more of a thank you to Paul Mason for braving the slums in Manila and for giving a great balance and insight of the people living in the slums. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!

    Paul - just in case when you are in Manila again, I will take you to the slum of Ulingan in Manila; some people call it Manila's inferno but yes, children and families there are relatively happy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Perhaps the experience of slums illustrates a basic principle about the appeal of cities- that density and social interaction can create economic capital. Though that should be an excuse for tolerating them- they are ultimately inhumane things

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    BBC wrs thn suprmkts, jst as I was gt usd t 400 chrtr lmt thy chg it all agn & i feel lst.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I see the previous comments have been 'disappeared' but on the plus side the 400 character limit has been consigned to the dustbin of history so Hooray!

    I made a couple of points before, the first was that 'slums' are what our children will have to look forward to in this country. Its a point I've made before. Not slums like this obviously, but whole families living in 1 room of a rented house, Mum and Dad sleeping in the bed, the kids on mattresses on the floor, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with 3 or 4 other families. We've already seen cases of people who rent out their garden sheds to tenants so we're not that far off it now.
    Its what happens when you remove the social safety net, when you move from a concept of Social Security to Welfare.
    Social Security meant what it said on the tin, but Welfare is just a way to keep you on the debt treadmill for your entire life with the taxpayer stepping into cover your debts if you fall temporarily ill or unemployed.

    The second point was that Paul was surprised to find people in the slums were happy.
    Well people can find happiness in the bleakest of circumstances.
    This is why first Blair and now Cameron are keen to introduce their 'Happiness Index', it will be used to mask any criticism of falling living standards for working people.
    The simple fact is most of us are happy most of the time and that can and will be spun to excuse everything from poor housing to longer working lives.
    'Look' they will say 'those people live 20 to a house and are all working into their 70s, they have no benefits, can find themselves destitute at a moments notice and they live from hand to mouth but are they unhappy? No, they're not! So there you go then'.
    You'll find plenty of 'happy' poor people in Dickens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Is not the slum the logical corollary of the globalised market economy. We flatter ourselves that this is a world away from our materially comfortable existence in UK. But really it's not so far away, I toured the last vestiges of Victorian Manchester (Little Ireland etc) with Mike Rose back in 1980. Your experience shows the strength of human spirit in building community in the harshest of conditions, wherever. Is this so different from the poverty you encountered in Margate and Stoke?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I watched the program... very interesting.

    What fills me with dread though is the implication that slums are ok and something we have to live with. There are always examples of the triumph of the human spirit, whether it is a slum in Manilla or no doubt in the Jewish ghettos in Poland in 1944. People will always adapt to whatever conditions they live in but that is no reason to find those conditions acceptable. It's a small step from 'acceptable' to 'right-and-proper' or 'just the way it is'.

    The problem, as usual, is the vast and increasing difference between rich and poor which our economic system and it's accompanying morality both justifies and encourages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    You do get around and not always in the best of places. Another insight into the haves and have nots where the haves have all the space they want and the have nots live together in circumstances the RSPCA would deem as not fit for animals.

    This is globalisation where so many humans are surplus to requirements around the world and are left to sink or swim as long as they don't come into view and show they exist.

    I see I am first to comment but is that because this is a scene most of modern society just cannot cope with?



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.