Published September 2007

Mike Davis is an American writer, political activist, urban theorist, and historian. He is a professor at the University of California and defines himself as a socialist and Marxist- environmentalist. His publications convey ideas on urban theory and developmental studies. Planet of Slums was originally a journal in 2004 which was converted into a book and published in 2006. In his book, Davis provides a refreshing angle on slums in favour of slum dwellers, and offers much in terms of empirical evidence and original arguments, which intrigues us to investigate how slums have evolved since the publication of the book.

Davis begins by introducing the development of slums and its significance in the world. He states that one third of the world’s urban population lives in slums and how this number is growing. To support his argument, he gives examples of the formation of slums in different countries and through different methods. Davis concludes this section by claiming that the nation-states of developing countries have ceased to address the problem of the slums which leads into the following chapter on NGOs who have taken on this responsibility.

Davis explores how neoliberalism has contributed to the development of slums. The overall premise of this book emphasises the disparity between the aims of neoliberal policies imposed and the realities they produce in Third world countries. It considers the contributions of urbanisation, colonisation and demographic changes to the formation and continuation of the slums. Davis believes that national governments have given up responsibility for slum populations and as a result, ineffective Western NGOs with limited local experience have been charged with the task of alleviating the social problems associated with slums.

He states that the security of slum dwellers is compromised by the demolition of slums and forceful eviction of slum dwellers, describing this process as “a ceaseless social war in which the state intervenes regularly in the name of ‘progress,’ ‘beautification,’ and even ‘social justice for the poor’” (p98), emphasising the disregard of the slum dwellers’ in the pursuit of benefiting the wealthy.

This work describes how the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), whilst attempting to resolve Third World social problems, exacerbated existing poverty and contributed to a regression in development and the expansion of the slum populations. The growth of the informal economy produced a substantial population of marginalised labour which cannot be reintegrated in to the formal labour force.

Davis cites multiple examples to illustrate the negative impacts of SAPs on Third world countries and presents the disparity between what they aimed to achieve and the realities imposed in a section entitled ‘The Utopian Decade?’ He presents the ‘success stories’ of China and India, highlighting the extent of inequality created as a by-product of ‘success’.

Davis outlines the disparity between the aims of neoliberal policies and the realities imposed: “If the informal sector, then, is not the brave new world envisioned by its neoliberal enthusiasts, it is most certainly a living museum of human exploitation” (p186). He outlines how extreme poverty and helplessness has caused the growth of the black market, an increase in “primitive forms of exploitation” and a “rise in insurgency” (p204). Fear of slum populations has caused them to be demonised by the West, who view themselves as the “civilised” homeland which must be ’defended’ from the ‘dark forces’: the slum populations.

Davis provides a controversial view on the involvement of the West in the creation, maintenance and subsequent issues raised by the slums. His arguments are frequently supported by empirical evidence, which makes his points difficult to disagree with. However, at times his argument appears biased; his account of NGOs is entirely negative and fails to recognise any positive contributions. Davis displays a political pessimism throughout his book, and he is not political neutral. This gives the book a rather one-sided point of view which one must bear in mind while reading. Whilst frequent examples support his argument, they detract from the clarity of the text, which makes it difficult to read. The absence of an introduction means that Davis’s main aims remain unrevealed until the epilogue and makes it more difficult to follow the structure of the book.

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