THE SHELTER PROBLEMS IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

Housing, shelter, human settlements and urban development in the third world are themes often dealt with by scholars in order to establish a theoretical framework based on available, if not always reliable, data to derive guidelines for possible solutions.

Most authors, however address the problem from an academic point of view and consider it a sectoral problem with potential solutions within the limits of financial, technical or political frameworks.

This approach has not, up to now, produced any substantial results and it seems to me important to elaborate on some of the reasons for this failure. Additionally it is also important to prove that even partial solutions cannot be found through academic research or economic speculation alone but, instead, can only be found in the ongoing battle of the politico-administrative decision making process and within the shifting and generally unstable field of power in the Third World power game.
Furthermore it is essential to state that I do not think that shelter problems in the Third World have solutions that are in any way different to the one that will solve the hunger problem. By this I mean that I consider it a problem of development in the global sense, and therefore, dependent on the general raising of the cultural and material levels-of Third World societies.

Solutions to the housing and urban development problem have been sought, as I have already stated, within the limits of financial and technical options. Very little has been written about the need and ways to coordinate housing and urban development strategies with the agrarian, industrial, educational, sanitary and cultural development strategies.

It is quite common to find proposals, projects and financial schemes designed to improve the shelter situation of target social groups to whom that problem is not the most important problem in their lives.

It is also quite common to find proposals based on the assumption that all is possible if done with “popular participation”.

In the first instance it is obvious that not enough consultation has been done with the social group concerned; secondly it is clear that not enough is known about the difficulties of organizing participation.

These two strategies can and have had very positive results but can, lead to lost time and resources if mechanically applied or generalized.

In this paper I will try to illustrate some points which are not normally taken into consideration in academic and theoretical work but that are fundamental to the definition of any intervention in this field. I will also try to point out and prove, that a different attitude is needed in the ..” cooperative” relationship between the developed nations and the Third World, specially in the case of the sub-Saharan nations, if solutions are to be reached to stop the decline and reverse the present trend of negative development.
Let us then start by re-defining the problem. For this we have to first of all make clear that no valid global definition or generalization exists. The housing and urban development problem - which we join in a more integral concept as the shelter problem - assumes different aspects and importance in the rural or urban areas, in the different climates of the region in the different economic, social or cultural situations considered.

For the purpose of this paper we are concerned with the shelter problems of the population of the sub-Saharan region and we make reference to an experience gained through eighteen years of operating in the south-eastern part of the continent.
Responsibility for the generalization of the referred experiences is left to the reader according to his or her knowledge of other countries or situations, but I hope to be able to prove that any generalization is dangerous and there is no such thing as a shelter or human settlements “science”.

Within the limits of the proposed area this paper concerns itself and focuses more specifically on the sector of the population which has the greatest difficulty in obtaining any form of shelter from the elements, be secure in the possession of their belongings and be assured of a minimum of privacy.

Some very broad indicators are needed to situate the problem and its limits for the area considered. Among the many factors and all the statistical data some aspects seem more relevant to highlight the difficulties that face the people of the region in their “struggle for shelter”.

We are considering in the sub-Saharan region, a group of countries with a widely diverse set of characteristics. Their surfaces vary from 2,000 square kilometers in Mauritius to 2,506,000 sq. km in Sudan; from a population of 700,000 in Swaziland and Gambia to a population of 93,600,000 in Nigeria; from average G.N.P. per capita of U.S. $110 in Chad to U.S.$3,950 in Gabon; from a life expectancy of 36 years in Gambia to 67 years in Mauritius; from an infant mortality rate of 32 per thousand in Mauritius to 200 per thousand in Gambia.

We are speaking of a region where the food growth rate per capita decreaed 1.2% from 1971 to 1979 and 2% from 1980 to 1984!!!!

We are analyzing a region with an everage density of 18 persons per square kilometer; a region which will see an increase of some 312 million people from 1980 to the year 2000 (which is roughly equivalent to the present population of all the E.E.C. countries together); in this region it is common to find a yearly rate of population increase of more than 3% (and up to 4,4% in Kenya) - which means a twenty fold increase in a century; where the yearly rate of urban population growth is commonly 6% and, in some cases, up to 8% and more (Mozambique, Tanzania), which means a doubling of the urban population in ten years.

We are speaking of a region with wide disparities in its statistical indicators but that can be considered uniformly depressed with a fast economic and social degradation trend.
This is a region where food production per capita decreased steadily in the last 20 years - from 180 kg of cereal per capita per annum in 1967 to 120kg in 1984 - a region where - more than 40% of all Africans live in countries where grain yields per hectare are lower today than they were a generation ago (World Watch Paper No. 65. June 1985).

This is a region where most countries were not independent 25 years ago; where colonial exploitation lasted longer; where neo-colonial forces are still present and with hopes to regain all the lost advantages; where political instability is highest and where racism is still a constitutionally established principle; a region where there are still colonial situations.

It is in this region that we find the most fragile of the continental ecosystems and where environment degradation is progressing at a faster rate; a region where tribal-laws overlap with codified constitutional principles; where national boundaries systematically divide people of the same ethnic group.

Above all, this is the region in the world where the hopes of the majority of the people are more disproportionate with the existing potential for development of the natural and material resources; a region where the population explosion coupled with the “expections explosion” creates the highest degree of dissatisfaction that humanity has ever suffered.

In this paper I am considering shelter as the most basic function of the habitat complex of functions. The protective or sheltering functions do not resolve all the multiple social facets of the human habitat. It is necessary to enlarge the focus and to consider the links between the different families shelters, the social dimensions of the human settlements. It is then irrelevant to try to solve the problems of shelter - as a basic human need - without simultaneously considering and finding solutions for the urban problems created by the fast social tranformations that the people of the sub-Saharan societies are undergoing.

Shelter, in this sense, means a basic system of physical realisation that assures protection from the natural elements and from intruders for the family and for its belongings, integrating a system of basic services and assuring the necessary infrastructure for the social relationships

The basic services mentioned should include the provision of clean water and access to energy sources, social services like education, sanitary facilities, communications, commercial facilities, public administration, security services and recreation.

The degree of sophistication and differentiation of the infrastructure and services can be discussed and its standards and availability higher or lower but it is futile to find a solution for one of the different aspects if any of the others are not considered or solved simultaneously.

This proposition, which seems evident, is not however, always taken as such or considered mandatory, within the powers of the decision makers, with consequences that can, in many cases, result in an aggravation of the overall problem of the cities in the region.

The main characteristic of the shelter problem in sub-Saharan Africa is the quantity of dwellings needed. There is a great number of statistical data and projections available and many authors have already written well informed works on this aspect, which is not as simple or as direct as it could seem given the difficulty of defining dwelling needs in such a diverse social complex.

In any case one thing seems to emerge clearly : no matter what yardstick is used for the computation of shelter needs in the region, - the needs are so great that no country in the region can hope to answer them within this century and no country can honestly set a date for the solution of this problem. No policy has yet been divised to cover, with the present resources, all the families without basic shelter and services.

Recent research and published documents from the United Nations organizations and the World Bank confirm the statements made above and point to the need of selecting target social groups for priority intervention.

This makes clear that any strategy for the housing and urban development problems must start by a political choice:

- Who shall benefit first from the state intervention, or alternatively - what policies benefit more families?
- What strategies can achieve better results?
- What is the role of the technicians, the economic planners, the architects, the urban planners?

There is no direct or single answer to these question. There is no open sesami, no brilliant discovery no magical philosophy which will bring about a quick solution.
The solutions are all dependent on the solution to the problem of under development of the human potential and of the natural resources (which is mainly a consequence of the under development of the human potential). The solutions are dependent on the solutions of the problems of urban land availability, building materials, transportation and communications, credit facilities, and above all availability of work. Other obstacles to overcome are the lack of skills to design and build houses, control and administer urban land and manage construction activities. Availability of financial resources is essential to establish an initial capacity. Allocation of public funds to the housing and urban development sectors is a continuous battleground for the political interests at play.

All these problems have already induced a great number of academic and theoretical work and led to the establishment of well thought methodologies and research lines of scientific work.

There are now specialists on land issues, on cadastral systems, many works are published and many more researchers are working on technological subjects with great emphasis on the “appropriate technologies” and on “popular participation”.

Every year there are many conferences, seminars and every now and then there are “international years”; committees are formed and dissolved; national and international structures and institutions are created to care for any one of those aspects; universities have researchers researching and courses training students on any one of those subjects.

The problem, however, increases in importance, in extension in gravity; more people every year are left without shelter; more people every year live further away from their work places; more people every year live without clean water, easily available fuel and energy, removed from sanitary or administrative services in dwellings that every year are more delapidated in less and less safe neighbourhoods; there are fewer seats in buses and in schools, fewer newspapers per 1000 people, fewer cinema seats, telephones, and less job opportunities.

How much has the research filtered through to the decision makers?

How many policy decisions are made on the basis of sound information and using the research and academic elaborations being done?

How many decisions and recommendations taken and issued at conferences and seminars are accepted and followed through at policy levels?

In general the form and composition of the political apparatus and of the levels of decision in the governments in the sub-Saharan region precludes those contacts and, if they exist, they do not necessarily influence or determine policy decisions.

The meagre resources that can be or are allocated, to housing and urban development are, usually quickly consumed by the political clientele, the families of the powerful, the vocal middle class with access to information and to the decision centers.
The need to present to the rest of the world a “civilised” face forces the investment in sumptuous “modern” constructions in urban environments comparable, at least as an image, to the environments of the industrialized world. Sophisticated airports, new capital cities, congress complexes and sports palaces are some of the other “normal” consumers of the feeble material and technical resources, without a rational relationship to the economic and social reality of the countries in the region.

External pressures impose inadequate technology and equipment, unrealistic projects and theoretical programmes, mostly to satisfy the economic greed of industrial groups and producers, big construction companies or influential design offices. They penetrate normally through the “cooperation” channels but it is not uncommon the use of material corruption as a very persuasive means. It is also common to find inadequate or inappropriate technologies being sold to the sub-Saharan countries in good faith. In this case the fault lies in the ignorance of local conditions and the “technological authority” that the consultants from industrialized countries have vis-a-vis the decision makers of the region.

Often the local technicians are not sufficiently vocal or are afraid of voicing them opinions, for fear of being considered backward or primitive or, not uncommonly, they are afraid of interfering with the good business of some powerful person or group.

Heavy prefabrication, the myth of import substitution industries, sophisticated and highly mechanized systems of production and control, technologies that depend on steady flows of raw material, energy, transport systems and spare parts, that were designed for a continuous supply of well known markets; contracts based on local supplies impossible to secure and maintain and that penalise the state or the contracting partner, all these are unfortunate common instances of wasted opportunities and resources, of new exploitative mechanisms which every sub-Saharan country has suffered and is still suffering in greater or lesser degree.

Most of the problems or failed opportunities mentioned above, and many others of a different sort, were failures because they were cases of sectorial intervention without regard for the necessary integration with complementary economic or social sectors.

Experience has proved that the solution for the shelter problem cannot be reached by isolated investments or actions.

In this sense for instance, a large input of capital into the credit mechanism of the country, or a concentrated effort in the construction sector, or the passing of new land regulations, or a revision and a restructuration of municipal administration, or a major specialist training program, or a well established system of organising popular participation, will not, per se, assure a solution or even a real contribution to the solution of the problems of housing and urban development.

Anyone of the interventions mentioned is important and could contribute to the solution but it is more important to integrate the actions on all those fronts simultaneously and also with others not mentioned above.
Anyone of the aspects mentioned is, however, dependent on the decision of different authorities, with different levels of responsibility and authonomy and different sensitivity to the shelter problem.

It would be unrealistic to think that a system tending to substitute itself to the government machinery or parallel to it, or even complementary, could be created to coordinate all those aspects and many others not mentioned.

The solution, nevertheless, is dependent on the success of the integration of those different aspects into a coherent strategy.
The lack of this capacity has been one of the major constraints in the development of a sound policy for the housing and urban development problems in the sub-Saharan region.

By extension, and obvious generalization, to other sectors, it would be easy to prove that the shelter problems are intimately connected and dependent on the overall problems of development.

Anyone of the aspects previously mentioned is, in different forms, dependent on policies and achievements of many other sectors - training, for instance, is dependent on the availability and quality of graduates for the technical courses, the availability and quality of the teaching staff, the physical facilities for their education and living, the salary policy to induce them into the technical courses, the opportunities offered at the end of the training period.

Most of those conditions depend on different government structures which, normally do not feel they have anything to do with the shelter problem.
Availability of financial resources for direct investment or to establish any form of credit policy is another aspect that depends on a choice at central government level and is of a political nature. Capital is needed on all fronts of development and housing and urban development are not yet generally taken as reproductive investments.

An integrated and long term development plan if desired, it not yet possible in most countries within the aleatory conditions of economic performance, the weakness of the technical structure to produce the necessary statistical elements and monitor the results, the impossibility of establishing planning offices with the necessary, capable and sufficient staff; the pressures of economic groups more interested in quick profits than in solving basic needs and eliminating any of the major obstacles to development, the fragile conditions of security still prevalent in most of sub-Saharan countries and finally the resistance of the different sectors for whom, even if not explicitly, a plan is a limitation to the exercise of power.

The listing of dependencies and conditioning factors of the shelter problems in sub-Saharan Africa is extensive and probably impossible to elaborate with any form or degree of precision. It is also very different from country to country and even from region to region within national boundaries.

The equation in which land, building materials, finance, transport and institutional capacity are the principal terms is far from complete and it is a gross mistake to suppose that a satisfactory solution can be approached through a major effort on any one of those aspects alone as already stated. However., those have been, up to now the only ones considered in most situations.

Control of population growth, ecological measures to save the dangerously degraded and fast deteriorating African environment, in particular around cities, provision of clean water and sources of energy are other terms of this equation of many unknowns.

If we compare the situation in this region to other critical situations like the one which Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan, Korea or China faced after the World War II, with a massive need for housing, reconstruction and development of infrastructures, hunger and political tensions, it is tempting to establish some parallels and even to try to learn some lessons. It is, however, easy to recognise the opposing sense of the development trends - in the sub-Saharan countries the trend is still on a downward sense. Europe and the other regions mentioned reached in 1945 the bottom of their critical situation and could not but improve the material conditions and develop, once the major cause for the destruction and degradation disappeared.

It is obvious that the possible similarities are only apparent; the differences in the human potential and in the existing infrastructure and facilities make the two cases very different.

However, many strategies, particularly in the field of housing have been advocated for the sub-Saharan countries having as models the european or asiatic systems of reconstruction.

Western and socialist countries alike advised or imposed systems, technologies, methods or solutions totally inadaptable and inadequate to sub-Saharan conditions. As a consequence precious capital resources and time were lost, government credibility sunk, political authority became more and more imposed, less and less freely recognised.

It is easy to understand that in societies much less specialised and differentiated, like the sub-Saharan ones, the political meaning and consequences of the technical choices, the performance and success or failure of an investment or of a project is much more immediately felt and responsibilities more easily and directly attributed.

The margin for error is much smaller. The political responsibility for a technical mistake much more evident and inescapable.

“The greatest risk in Africa is that there will be a loss of hope. However bleak the deteriorating situation may appear, it is of human origin and can yield to human remedy. How leaders and the international community respond to the challenge will reveal much about the human prospect over the remainder of this century and the beginning of the next one.”
(World Watch Paper 65”-Revising Africa’s Decline” - June 85)

It is not only a different technical preparation, different course syllabuses and different research objectives that are needed - it is, above all, a radically different concept of the social function of the architect and planner.

The intellectual preparation for this professional cannot be done with just a more or less competent transmission of scientific knowledge or technical capacity but must conduct to and be based on a deep understanding of the field and conditions of application of that knowledge and capacity.

All this seems obvious and evident and has been many times repeated and recognised at academic and even at official levels. The mechanisms to transform this recognition into operational procedures have, alas, not been found yet.

This reflection will not finalise with an operative hipothesis or some solution or idealistic proposal, as stated at the beginning.

This reflection was intended to bring together aspects that are, many times, left out and that I consider fundamental in the shelter problems; it was intended as an appeal and a contribution to a better understanding of those problems and as a basis for an open debate about a subject still far from the preoccupations of most european intellectuals.

I hope I have achieved at least some of these objectives.

 

JOSÉ FORJAZ

© JOSÉ FORJAZ ARQUITECTOS 2004