I caught this article on Forbes a couple of days ago. A couple of excerpts:
This year, the world will pass a milestone so profoundly significant that 2007 will become a touchstone for future historians. For the first time, more people will be living in cities than in the country.
By 2030, an estimated 5 billion of the world’s 8.1 billion people will live in cities. About 2 billion of them will live in slums, primarily in Africa and Asia, lacking access to clean drinking water and working toilets, surrounded by desperation and crime.
The article brings to mind the work of Hernando de Soto (the contemporary economist, not the 16th century explorer). Despite minimal economic knowledge i read part of his book, The Mystery of Capital, before lending it to someone for reference (note to self: locate book). His essential thesis, that somewhere along the way developed countries forgot that property rights played a major role in their economic development through enabling people to invest more than they owned by leveraging their assets, rings very true. (he claims the value of this property across the developing world is some 20 times that of all FDIs in the same countries.) Reading through the cited article, it’s clear that the ownership of real estate is a significant issue in slums across the globe. De Soto’s claim is that in many third world countries (his field research targeted 5 cities over 10 years, including Cairo), there are enormous legal and bureaucratic obstacles that face the claiming and transferring of property rights. But all hope is not lost. As the article points out:
Turkey offers some lessons to governments serious about grappling with urban poverty. As Robert Neuwirth documents in his book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World, Turkey has two laws giving squatters legal and political rights, which encourages them to invest in their homes and neighborhoods. Neuwirth, who lived in the squatter communities of Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul, writes that a legal system like Turkey’s could benefit squatters all over the world. Of course, that kind of legal reform presupposes a measure of democracy and good government, something much of the developing world doesn’t have.
Well, maybe there isnt much hope of good governance in Egypt, but we can dream. Perhaps Egypt actually does one better, it burns down squatter communities that stand in the way of national development plans. Isnt that better than leaving them to fester?
In any case, i would venture that any realistic reform of property law and process in Egypt will be driven by big business and the quest to lure FDIs. Maybe we can take a queue from Dubai. An article in the Arab Reform Bulletin this month tackles the unique circumstance of Dubai (and other gulf countries, if to a lesser degree) in which immense economic and social progress has delayed the need (or even interest among residents) for meaningful political reform – while they may get good governance, they have little share in its formulation.
UPDATE: Wish i had caught this article yesterday. Ahmed Kanna insists that the world is not flat and that Dubai’s warts (read invisible slums) shouldn’t be ignored. The trade history he recounts is interesting. And he draws a perceptive parallel between the absolute freedom of capital and the complete control of labor.
The Gulf states […] have long been places where the powerful have forgotten about history’s vexing tendency to bind them into an ethical and political relationship with the less powerful. This tendency to forget history—the legacies of power, of territories cut up into nation-states and of unsentimental economic calculations—lives on in contemporary accounts of the Gulf’s staggering prosperity.
The most visible (or superficial) aspects of Dubai have become the focus of so much polemic that the political economy has become invisible. Globalization has made all that is solid, such as national borders and the constraints they impose, melt into air.
Capital enters Dubai and disappears—or, in what amounts to the same thing, it is reborn in phantasmagorical form. Those who possess capital can expect non-interference from the state. They enter the city as lords of a frontier where the rules are checked at the border. Capital and its owners become, in the term of political scientist James Scott, “illegible,” where legibility is the necessary condition for centralized control.
If capital is illegible in Dubai, other migrants to the city—the ones who build the visible city—are all too “legible” and all too manipulated.
The sad state of migrant workers may be common knowledge for anyone who is familiar with the GCC countries (and increasingly others such as Jordan). But i think it is indeed something that is all too often hidden in the backs of minds too dazzled by the lights or distracted by epic issues of the region.
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