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Slum Clearance in Developing Nations Repeats Old American Mistakes

We don’t bulldoze poor neighborhoods the way we used to. But African countries are heavily into it.

Kibera, a neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya, and one of the largest slums in Africa.
As cities in developing nations grow rapidly, they face the same challenges that Western ones did during the industrial era. Informal neighborhoods pop up, with housing that is cheap but overcrowded, unsafe and without basic utilities. Those neighborhoods get demolished by government authorities, and the tenants are moved to poorly located public housing. Ethiopia, as I found during a recent visit, has become a study in such slum clearance, mirroring the mistakes once made in the U.S.

As elsewhere in Africa, Ethiopia’s mix of famine, land shortages and tribal conflicts has driven mass migration from rural areas into its capital, Addis Ababa. But Addis has its own severe economic problems, causing these migrants to live through a situation as desperate as the one they escaped. About two-thirds of residents live in slums, known colloquially as “villages.” These areas are without electricity, plumbing or clean water, and full of disease.

The Ethiopian government is addressing this problem through redevelopment. Many slum properties are publicly owned and the migrants have entered as squatters. The government’s first step has been to raze the slum dwellings, often with little notice, wiping out people’s homes and businesses overnight. The government cites laws that give the state broad powers to seize property deemed illegal, without compensation. One older man I spoke with, living in a slum that was under demolition, said that through the decades Ethiopia’s government had stolen multiple homes to which he had title.

These slum residents get relocated to large public housing projects on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, cutting them off from jobs in the city. There are lengthy waits for apartments, as even the rapid pace of construction is outstripped by demand.

The U.S. has seen this movie before. From the Progressive Era through the 1960s, various “urban renewal” programs used federal funds to destroy whole neighborhoods. Oftentimes freeways were constructed through these areas, displacing residents, warehousing them into public housing and cutting them off from opportunity — in a mirror image of what’s occurring in Addis. The older U.S. urban renewal policies are now viewed as failures, while many of the neighborhoods that were spared, such as Greenwich Village in Manhattan and Fells Point in Baltimore, have since become highly valuable.

Old-fashioned urban renewal is less common in today’s America. But the zeal for property seizure has not entirely gone away. The most notorious example was the neighborhood seized under the 2005 Kelo v. New London case. New London, Conn., established a redevelopment plan to seize property from residents and build a Pfizer manufacturing facility. The U.S. Supreme Court, taking a broad view of the Fifth Amendment's “public use” clause, found that even private enterprises like this could justify government-sanctioned eminent domain. However, the decision has not led, as critics feared, to a wave of takings throughout the U.S., because private land ownership is a staple of our system, and any attempt to uproot that faces political blowback.

The same cannot be said of African cities. Ethiopia's brand of redevelopment, for example, very much fits the Kelo prototype, with the government building business districts atop of razed slums. There is a feeling around town that this land gets transferred to politically connected developers.

Similar slum clearance is occurring elsewhere throughout Africa. In Cape Town and Johannesburg, in South Africa, the practice is a legacy of apartheid and nowadays remains just as vicious. In Nigeria, there are ongoing efforts to “sanitize” centuries-old waterfront shanties by tearing them down.

But there are key differences between African and American urban renewal. In Africa, slum neighborhoods generally have little underlying built value; they are makeshift camps. The proposed replacement uses are higher-end redevelopments (rather than the polluting roads that rationalized so much U.S. urban renewal). But most residents of African cities lack a clear property title — meaning those being displaced often don’t belong there to begin with.

The system has some good points. In Ethiopia, the national government owns all the country’s land, with the constitution holding that individuals can pay for usage rights and build on that land, then have full ownership of the property built there. But many Ethiopians aren’t on board with these laws and feel their land is just being stolen.

The broader answer is for African countries to clarify their property rights laws, so that both squatting, and the inevitable displacement of squatters, becomes less common. In the U.S., property rights means slum clearance is still hard even in a post-Kelo world. In fact, since that court case, several states have passed laws curtailing eminent domain excess. Until that mindset surfaces in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, people there will continue dealing with their own constant reshuffling.

Scott Beyer publishes Market Urbanism Report, and is currently on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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