Challenging Slums

  • Doug Saunders (Author)
    Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. Knopf Canada
Reviewed by Daniel Harvey

In Arrival City, Doug Saunders takes up two related global issues that have garnered widespread attention in the last few decades: the growth of informal urban settlements and slums, and the increasing migration from rural to urban habitations. Eschewing the gloomy conclusions put forward in other texts dealing with these subjects, the book frames these spaces in a hopeful light. When successful, Saunders claims, these arrival cities act as the threshold between rural and urban conditions. They integrate the world’s most precarious populations into networks of national citizenship and global capital, and they create sustainable ways of living. While Saunders acknowledges the world’s slums as potential sources of economic stagnation and social disorder, he also posits them as a solution to the poverty and exclusion faced by the roughly two billion people who have moved (and will move) from the rural to the urban.

In Saunders’ vision, properly managed arrival cities function as a global panacea for a host of ecological, economic and social problems. The bottom-up model of entrepreneurial capitalism endemic in these transition zones, he suggests, offers the possibility of sustainable prosperity for a global middle-class living in a permanently sustainable world. Organized as a compendium of personal accounts from inhabitants of the urban margins, Arrival City takes the reader on a global tour, to places well known to scholars of urban poverty and others less commonly examined: it moves from the slums of Kenya, India, and South America to migrant communities in the more developed cities of Europe and North America. Saunders attempts to describe why some arrival cities succeed in incorporating migrants into middle-class economic and political systems, while others trap succeeding generations in social and economic stasis.

The book outlines many factors that influence the potential for success in specific locales. The central (if implicit) factors include individual, social, and fixed forms of capital, as well as a spirit of entrepreneurship. In Saunders’ account, gaining and maintaining personal property and credit is the final goal of people transitioning from rural poverty to the urban middle class. To attain this goal, those in arrival cities must adopt entrepreneurial forms of subjectivity and an aspirational outlook focused on incremental improvements and generational deferral of middle-class success. Networks of social capital—embedded in kinship networks within urban spaces—provide links to rural villages, which aid new migrants in their transitions and connect urban and rural communities to their mutual economic and social benefit.

Saunders’ discussion of the inception and development of these urban-to-rural networks highlights the informal economies found at the interstices of the two spaces. In describing personal and social capital, he points to the importance of free market economies for migrants transitioning into middle-class urbanism. Here the role of the state lies in developing forms of fixed capital, not only infrastructural but also human. That is, the inclusion of migrants into educational, political, and social systems remains as important to successful arrival cities as access to potable water, transportation systems, communication networks, and the like. Saunders implicitly argues that the development of urban space mirrors the development of its inhabitants’ subjectivity: successful arrival cities require the development of both subjectivity and infrastructure.

Arrival City provides an accessible introduction to the problems faced by a large section of the global populace, suitable for a general or undergraduate audience or for scholars in the early stages of research in globalization, urban studies and poverty. Saunders refuses to infantalize or demonize his subjects (a tendency that sometimes limits similar accounts) and for this he deserves praise. His optimism, however, may go too far in the other direction.
The book is short on historical discussions of the larger economic processes that generate arrival cities, especially the structural adjustment policies (SAPs) imposed by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank, and the twentieth-century’s (global and local) crises of capital. Readers of David Harvey, Samir Amin, Arturo Escobar and Kalyan Sanyal (among others) will find this gap particularly vexing, since those modes of historical critique cast doubt on one of Saunders’ basic claims: that capitalism, and the system of private property it requires and continuously reproduces, can ever function in a globally sustainable manner. As the above authors suggest, it seems more likely that such crises of accumulation and reproduction are in fact necessary to generate wealth, and that crises and inequality act as structural requirements rather than repairable flaws of capitalism.

Arrival City’s central premise, its reliance on an ideology of the bootstrap, bears a strong resemblance to the economic development theories of the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto and the founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Muhammed Yunus. All three suppose that increasing the development of capitalism, and introducing systems of property rights and credit on a wider scale, will somehow solve the very problems that such economic models have, if not created, at least exacerbated. The SAPs and other global economic pressures of the 1970s, 80s and 90s privatized national resources and industries, increased monoculture-based agribusinesses, streamlined labour forces, and reduced social aid networks. These pressures contributed to force rural populations out of the hinterlands, pulling them into urban centres where, jobless and without property, they migrated to less desirable areas to form ever-accumulating pockets of surplus labour. The global capitalist system’s inability to provide full employment, and its need for such reserves of the unemployed, have after all not disappeared. Although Arrival City presents examples of migrants who have made the transition into middle-class stability within arrival cities, it never elaborates how such levels of wealth and security could be extended to entire populations. Saunders’ examples remain ideals, which foster a too hopeful vision of entrepreneurial success. Despite these shortcomings, the book does offer an illuminating glimpse of the world’s poorest and most precarious lives, and provides valuable material for future study. Unfortunately, the conclusions Saunders draws from its case studies remain unconvincing.

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