Informal settlements: Swept under the carpet?

On the anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit Egypt in 1992, leaving hundreds of families homeless and with little option but to settle in informal areas, Mada Masr publishes this article about a recent government decision on such neighborhoods.

Egypt’s new prime minister has closed the Ministry of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements (MURIS). Established in July 2014, the ministry was aborted after a mere 14 months and its work in informal areas moved to the portfolio of the Ministry of Housing. The decision to establish the ministry was a leap forward and the decision to cancel it and shift its work to the Ministry of Housing could be a grave mistake.  These are the reasons why.

  1. Housing and infrastructure are only one set of problems in existing informal areas. The main problems relate to living standards and lack of basic services, especially relating to the quantity and quality of schools and health facilities, limited transport, limited availability of decent jobs, no public space or facilities for children to play, and limited poverty alleviation schemes, youth facilities and cultural activities. These problems are overwhelmingly due a lack of interventions from various ministries, such as education, health, transport, social solidarity, youth and culture, as well as limited budgets allocated to these deprived neighborhoods.

 

  1. Existing informal areas need a multifaceted approach that takes the quality of life of individuals living in these neighborhoods as its central concern. This approach should include, but not be limited to, housing and infrastructure. It must do two things: firstly address individual neighborhoods and assess where interventions must be made, and secondly look at general policies that affect all or some informal areas. Addressing these multidimensional needs involves working with all governorates and most ministries.

 

  1. To address these long-neglected informal areas, a senior government official is needed to champion the cause within government and disrupt the status quo. This champion must be at the ministerial level so that he or she can support the rights of people living in these areas at the most senior governmental levels. Pushing for larger budgets be allocated to these neighborhoods, as well as for more and improved schools, transport, facilities and services for young people, will motivate various ministries with non-existent, limited or poor quality presence in informal areas to better consider them in their plans. If doing its work correctly, this would be a troublesome ministry because it would change failing policies and approaches that are decades old.  

 

  1. A ministry for informal areas would focus on existing informal areas. Preventing new informal areas is the responsibility of the Ministry of Housing, through mechanisms that ensure affordable housing is available to Egyptians who otherwise resort to living in substandard informal areas due to lack of choice. This is already plenty of work the Ministry of Housing needs to do, and work that it has so far failed to adequately address – it should focus on this rather than take on additional responsibilities. Instead of focusing on the fancy and the flashy, the Ministry of Housing needs to put citizens with average and below-average incomes at the center of its concerns.

 

  1. The Ministry of Housing has, so far, failed to provide adequate affordable housing, whether by building sufficient amounts in accessible locations, or by creating mechanisms for people to create their own affordable housing within planned neighborhoods. This is one of the main reasons behind the growth of informal areas and why they have become the dominant form of urbanization in many Egyptian cities. People have to resort to informal areas for affordable housing. A separate ministry is thus needed to work with the Ministry of Housing to change its approach so that adequate affordable housing become part of its central goals.

 

  1. Egypt’s informal areas are a massive phenomenon and their scale and the range of problems related to them are huge. There are over 1000 informal areas in Egypt, and they house tens of millions of Egyptians. They thus need a focused entity within government, one that always has them and their residents at the center of its concerns, otherwise the status quo will endure.

 

  1. Canceling MURIS has a symbolic value. It signals to the public that the government has decided informal settlements are not a priority and not worth having a ministry to focus on. In contrast, the government has created a new ministry for Egyptians abroad, signalling that they are important and that their concerns will be addressed. Creating this new ministry is at odds with statements that MURIS was cancelled because the government had to reduce the number of ministries.

 

Bringing back the ministry of urban renewal and informal settlements would be the first step back on the right track. Of equal importance is continuing the inclusive discourse the ministry adopted in its first year of life, a discourse that placed people at the center of its concerns, not just housing and infrastructure. If Egypt wants to create better, more inclusive cities, a unit within the ministry of housing is not going to be the answer.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Shorouk newspaper.

 
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