What is a slum?

slum definition what is a slum third world
Our own neighborhood from the side, showing its diversity of households and factories

Most folk don’t want to hear me talk about slums.

I once thought that slum life would make this blog unique. The internet is saturated with almost everything, but there aren’t many English-speaking slum bloggers. Maybe people wouldn’t want to hear what I had to say about money, power, or nonviolence, but at least they’d tune in to learn about life in the slum and I’d slip in other agendas on the down-low.

Was I ever wrong.

It turned out that issues of money and power in the West ARE the things people want to read about. My most popular posts deal with Facebook, American recycling programs, corporate baby formula, usury, property rights, etc. A couple personal posts about myself and Peregrine sneak up near the top.1 Meanwhile, the write-ups dealing with actual slum life turn out to be far less interesting (nonviolence is the only topic that’s read even less).2

But I still want to talk about slums.

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
    for the rights of all the destitute.
 Speak out, judge righteously,
    defend the rights of the poor and needy. – Proverbs 31:8-93

I feel a duty to speak out for the people who are living in our slums. You have heard “nearly one billion people live in slums today”,4 and I know of hundreds of thousands of such people just in our little city. There were millions in the slums in other cities were we have lived.

what is a slum slum housing in the developing world
Slums in our city are often placed on canals, railroad byways, or other liminal spaces

How do we tolerate that happening in our world?

Part of the issue is that most of us don’t even know what is going on for the people on the other side. More importantly, we don’t know how our lives are connected to theirs. We don’t realize that our lives would be different if those slums didn’t exist, that our worship should be different because those slums do exist.

To paraphrase the Australian aboriginal activists, we don’t know that our liberation is bound up with theirs.5

Entering into the lives of the slum may not only be for “helping” those people who live there, but for freeing us from our own traps.

So I want to spend a few weeks sharing the broader picture. The many stories I’ve already shared6 have given glimpses of the slum, but now we’ll back up and paint the fuller scene.


For starters, what is a slum?

The UN Habitat project defines a slum as:

an urban area which lacks one or more of the following:

1. Durable housing of a permanent nature that protects against extreme climate conditions.

2. Sufficient living space which means not more than three people sharing the same room.

3. Easy access to safe water in sufficient amounts at an affordable price.

4. Access to adequate sanitation in the form of a private or public toilet shared by a reasonable number of people.

5. Security of tenure that prevents forced evictions.

Those guidelines are fair and meaningful. But the Affordable Housing Institute adds 12 different definitions of a slum, all of which capture some further aspect of the experience. There are meaningful discussions here and here over whether we should be using the word “slum” at all.

what is a slum slum housing in the developing world
“Not a slum” according to one government

How a country defines a slum does matter. When we first looked for a place to live seven years ago, we worked from a map given to us by a local NGO that had identified 680 slums in the city. Their survey came in response to a government assertion that our city had no slums, a ridiculous claim when tarp-based settlements without water or toilets abut major roads. The photos used in this post show just a few of our city’s many “non-slums”.

My initial six-week experience living in a slum was quite positive. Not to paint over the obvious difficulties – homes that were far too small and substandard in construction; too many pests and not enough food. But the camaraderie and community experience felt wonderful in a small dose, and I came to think that perhaps living in a slum wasn’t so bad. So long as utilities and housing could be improved and the threat of demolition was taken away, maybe it would make a nice long-term community.

In the thirteen years since then my views have evolved. There are aspects of a quality human life that slum conditions will always oppose. That doesn’t mean that suburban life or urban condos don’t have problems as well. But while all of our slums should be improved, their basic character will remain at odds with the life that God wishes for His children. The ultimate hope as the Kingdom of God moves through this world is not just that people in the slums see their lives improved, but that no one will have to live in a slum at all.

Of course, the way we go about making that a reality may be different than what others have in mind. Our current government now acknowledges the existence of slums. However, whether any particular slum is officially recognized or unrecognized, whether each of the families living within it are registered or unregistered, is an ongoing battle. Demolition is the fad, the judgment on people desperate enough to live in tiny, insufficient housing on land others claim they have no right to. As if trying to support a family from the very bottom of society was somehow an evil act.

Which is the greater sin, to live in a slum home or to demolish a slum home?

It is strange, isn’t it, that a person can be declared “illegal” for lack of an approved home, yet a government can’t be declared “illegal” for destroying the lives of people without homes?

Thus sits the interesting dilemma. Both we and the government claim to wish that slums didn’t exist. Yet we have such different means of working towards that goal.

I believe that it is possible to build a society where slums are not necessary AND where the lives of those people living in slums is improved AND where the lives of all those not living in slums is improved as well. That may seem like a pipe dream to many, especially those who feel that the slums are a necessary byproduct of their own desires (cheap labor, corporate agriculture, larger landholdings, etc.)

Those people fail to realize that we’re all injured by the existence of slums in both direct and indirect ways. Over the next few weeks I hope to show you why this is true, and what we could do to make a better world a reality.



[1] In 2017 when I started the blog the most popular posts were “Property Rights, Property Wrongs” and “The Moment that Changed my Life“, with “There is Always Someone Poorer” being the most-read post about our lives in the slums. 

In 2018 my personal post “What I’m Thinking in the Night” and Peregrine’s personal post “God Moves Towards Life” were two of the three most-read entries, bracketing “There are Two Ways,” the post on corporations and baby formula. The “British Play Program” is sort of about the slum but more about ignorant Brits, “How We Worship in the Holiday Season” was about Westerners and Christmas…you really have to go all the way down to the 10th-most read post, “A Day in the Life of a Child Laborer“, to find a post explicitly about slum life.

So far in 2019 my post on Facebook called “Antisocial Media” has already become my most-read blog post ever, while “Recycling is not the answer” is a distant all-time #2. The personal post “Things that Bring Me Joy” is third so far this year with “Usury and the Church” behind it, then at #5 you finally have “School Teacher” as the most read slum-related post so far this year, with only 1/8th of the eyeballs that the anti-Facebook post got.

[2] The highest-ranked nonviolence post this year is all the way in 17th, “Mental“, and doesn’t have meaningfully more views than the least-read post of the year. The only nonviolence posts from 2017/18 with more than background-level readership were “Hit It If It Hurts You“, “Loving My Enemy“, and “Defining Nonviolence“. Interesting that none of those three are about actual nonviolent interventions.

[3] My friend Troy Anderson named his NGO, Speak Up, from this passage.

[4] The rough number appears to come from a study by UN Habitat.

[5] The quote “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” is usually attributed to Lilla Watson. She prefers that it be attributed to the entire community as it was born of a collective process.

[6] See https://poorwithus.com/category/rule-like-gentiles/stranger-stories/ for all the slum-related stories.

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