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Over recent decades the population of rural areas in developing countries have been migrating in increasing numbers to urban areas. Motivations behind migration are varied, although three main factors stand out. Economic reasons are of highest importance, migrants often head to cities in search of paid work to improve their standard of living. Educational grounds are also significant, as many people understand the importance of schooling to a child’s upbringing. The third reason for migration is for improved security by escaping the ever present fear of the natural elements, which can destroy a year’s food supply in one day.

The constant incursion of jobless people from the countryside creates a growing housing crisis in Third World cities, which faces two main problems; firstly there are not enough rooms available to accommodate the influx into urban areas, and secondly the migrants are unemployed and therefore cannot afford to pay rent. The result has been the development of self-help housing in the form of squatter settlements. These settlements are collectives of self-built houses, hastily constructed on lands that have not been formally conveyed to the builder-occupants through legal channels and are usually to be found on the fringes of urban areas.

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At present self-help housing accommodates 924 million of the world’s population and accounts for 78% of the urban population in developing regions (Potter 1998). These figures illustrate the high demand for housing in urban areas and show the crisis occurring in Third World cities as government land and capital fails to keep up with the growing demand for shelter. It is firstly important to consider the negative aspects of self-help housing, of which there are many. The spontaneous nature of the building of favelas as they are known in Brazil, or barriadas as they are called in Peru, is that the structures are hastily constructed with no regulation from authorities and little experience from the builders.

As a result construction problems are extremely common such as bulging or cracked walls, weak foundations on the steep hillside, damp floors and walls, and infiltration of rainwater from flat concrete roofs. The building of houses without any reference to architectural plans and without the use of skilled construction labour has ensured that self-help houses do not conform to the building codes regulating construction standards and dictating norms for things such as ventilation, strength of foundations and such like. These unsafe conditions pose a threat to life, and also to less significant hazards such as ill health from exposure to damp and pollution.

Settlements generally suffer from a lack of basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity. National or municipal programmes to provide poor communities with basic services, or to support communities’ own efforts to improve environmental conditions within their settlements are inadequate as they are poorly organised, under-funded, and dependent upon foreign aid. As a result, they are overloaded and have put the needs of the urban poor low on their list of priorities. Consequently the present availability of land is not enough to provide for adequate housing, roads, water, sanitation, solid waste disposal, transport, electricity and public lighting in developing cities.

The illegality of these growing settlements is a major concern for residents and lies at the heart of the problem. Whilst many inhabitants consider their home and the land on which it is built to be their property, it is not. Insecurity of tenure is a focal value in many peoples’ lives and can be important in the improving of favelas. Awareness of the fact that any day a hut can be demolished, even if a shanty dweller has the money to invest in upgrading his dwelling. The face of a colony changes where the residents have security of tenure. It becomes cleaner. The slum dwellers themselves, often in partnership with NGOs, learn quickly how to negotiate for better facilities, with this often leading to occupational mobility. An authorised settlement can be used as collateral for a bank loan with which the informally employed can diversify and make progress in escaping the poverty trap ( Potter 1990).

The benefits of self-help housing are closely related to the problems with this type of accommodation. The illegality of settlements denies the inhabitants security of tenure however; it also ensures that they need not pay rent or taxes to the government. Similarly the costs of building their adobes are very low and construction time is short. All of these factors combine to make self-help housing an attractive option to the urban poor. It is primarily the fact that countries governments neglect the needs of the poor that calls for the self-help initiative, and on this basis favela inhabitants separate themselves from the city which they inhabit. This has led to the creation of strong communities within settlements to the extent that those who climb the economic ladder continue to live in favelas due to the sense of belonging ( Warah 2003).

From a government perspective the favelas pose a difficult dilemma. The nature of self-help housing means that residents manage their own lives and require limited state assistance for their survival. Since settlements are often sited on waste land they cause little affect on city planning or future development. They also provide a better alternative to inner city slums since they are well segregated from city residents, with their problems restrained to their own settlements. It is important to remember that the menial tasks undertaken by the urban poor in the informal work sector aid the quality of life for better off families. Without the intricate web of services provided by these people, families would not have their existing comfort level and so it is beneficial to the rich for the poor to live relatively close to the city.

The major problem with self-help housing for the government is that growth is not regulated. Settlements continue to expand and authorities have no measures to halt this. The dangers of having a high concentration of urban poor living in social and economic deprivation on city outskirts are naturally very high. Policing is therefore essential and repression tactics are used to prevent revolt. Strong social control systems along with a lack of education prevent serious revolt.

It is the practice of acquiring shelter through illegal practices that has enabled millions of the world’s urban poor to put a roof over their heads with little or no assistance from the government, but it has not provided a foundation on which they could escape their poverty. Indeed, those very illegal practices which enabled them to find housing have dictated that their housing is of a low standard, that they cannot recover the value they invest in their homes, that they have limited power to exercise their right to essential public services, and that despite living in the same area for decades, the land still does not legally belong to them and therefore may be taken from them at any time.

The constant influx of migrants to developing cities has created a massive housing crisis which authorities have been unable to cope with. Self-help housing projects are a solution to part of the problem, but they also create further problems. Squatter settlements provide an answer to the housing problem in third world cities, but they do not provide an escape from the poverty trap. Insecurity of tenure causes a number of difficulties. Firstly residents are less willing to spend money on improvements to their homes, and secondly selling their residences proves difficult since the land is not legally their possession. This makes any advancement up the property ladder a thorny process, preventing economic and social advancement. The situation remains that until such a time that governments discover a more suitable solution, it appears self-help housing may be the only answer to the housing crisis in third world cities.


Potter, R.B. & Lloyd-Evans, S. 1998. The city In the developing world. London. Longman.

Potter, R.B. & Salau, A.T. 1990. Cities and Development in the Third World. London. Mansell.

Press, I & Smith, M.E. 1980. Urban Places and Processes. New York. Macmillan.

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