After giving a preliminary report in my last blogpost about my fieldwork in Dhaka, I would like to provide, herewith, an impression of my findings after my fieldwork is finished. Slums are characterized by informality and mostly people regard them as self-organised. And having a look at the initial phases of squatter communities, rightly so. Occupying vacant land, staking their claims and providing the most basic services is organised by the occupants themselves and usually does not follow a greater plan. Even though, it is evident in slums, in my eyes literature about this type of settlement is too obsessed with self-organisation, leaving out issues of hierarchy. My hypothesis is that hierarchy plays a crucial role during a slum’s development. certain formerly self-organised things are hierarchically made more effective, and hierarchy gets important when there are attempts to build up certain degrees of resilience.
This is what I tried to find out when I was in Bangladesh to research the “shadow of hierarchy” in Bhola Bosti, a slum in the north of Dhaka. On the one hand, I focused on the everyday life of the slum dwellers, because this can be considered as a collective practices constituting self-organisation (Cleaver 2007). On the other hand, I also spent time observing the power relations, because I see hierarchies as some sort of manifestations where distribution of power occurs. I consider the risks the slum dwellers face and their responses as a reflection of the above. Hence resilience, considered as mere resistance against the risks, can be used as an analytical frame that shows how well self-organisation, respectively hierarchy in certain harmful situations work. To gather valuable data I used an unstructured approach as already stated in my previous blogpost. This way I conducted around 20 interviews with slum dwellers, two focus group discussions and countless observations along the way.
Slum Leadership and Self-Organization
At an early stage, I noticed a very evident hierarchy in which community leaders have been playing a crucial role. By dismantling the structures, which put the leaders in charge and grant them the power, the importance of linkages to external actors became visible. There is a political affiliation with governing local political forces. This connection of the slum leaders with the political sphere is a common phenomenon for the slums of Dhaka (according to expert interviews). Through this connection the slum leaders have the possibility to influence local politicians, for example, not to permit evictions of the land. As consideration the leader promises the votes of all the inhabitants to the politician, which usually is a lot. The ability to protect the people from being evicted is one of the most powerful sources connected to the slum leaders. The other source of power is coming from NGOs. In Bhola Bosti all NGOs work exclusively with the leaders, pursuing the plan of the benefits distributed and passed on among the slum dwellers. Thus the benefits from outside, be they tangible or intangible (like security from eviction), reach the slum dwellers only through the filter of the slum leader, who gains power through the process. The reward for these external actors comes from inside the slum as a whole: votes for the politician on the one hand, and the narrative and pictures of a developing slum for the NGO on the other.
The living conditions in Bhola Bosti improved tremendously in recent years. If we look closely at these improvements, most of them are externally induced.. For example, most of the basic services were improved by the NGOs using the community leaders as contact persons. Legal water, electricity and gas connections were established and are now used collectively. The leaders decided where to build the collective taps, and they also collect the money for paying the respective bills. The gas supply minimized the high risk of fire blazes in the very narrow slum, deriving from the practice of cooking with wood fire. The slum dwellers highly appreciate the “road” made by concrete plates covering a concrete canal for the sewerage. Together with proper toilets and washrooms, also financed by NGOs, the sanitary situation improved substantially. But also intangible changes like adult education, a collective saving system or microcredits are initially provided by the NGOs for the slum but usually only accessible through the leaders. In summary, these changes within the slum are controlled or claimed by the leaders, hence hierarchically organised since the leader decides what is crucial for the slum to have.
These top-down induced structural changes in Bhola Bosti should not mislead over the importance of self-organisation. In the beginning, the pioneers occupying the embankment of the river, which used to be at the location of the slum, built their houses on their own and organised their basic services with no real plan or investnment scheme all bytheir own means. Gradually the slum grew and the dwellers started to fill the river with sand. Basically, the place where we find the Bhola Bosti now is itself a result of self-organisation. Even though, nowadays infrastructure and basic services are organised by external steering forces, the everyday access to this services is still self-organised. For example, there is some kind of unwritten rule that first the garment workers get water in the morning, since they have to start their day earliest, and then the rest of the community. Also their livelihood and especially the social security through relatives, kin and neighbours are self-organised. For this, a strong horizontal reciprocal network within the slum is needed and in Bhola Bosti one can see such a network.
The shadow hierarchies of self-organization
The previous two paragraphs show a selection of the examples I found for the vertical as well as for the horizontal networks in Bhola Bosti. These findings have yet to be analysed in depth, but I personally think that the structures show characteristics of the “shadow of hierarchy” which Scharpf (1994) describes. Using my analytical frame resilience, the importance of hierarchy became very visible. Flood, fire and eviction used to be the big risks threatening the slum. The first two seem to be no danger anymore because of the infrastructural changes (i.e. drain, gas). Eviction is still in the air, but the slum leaders’ connection to the political sphere provides the slum dwellers a feeling of security. It is now evident that the initially self-organised slum used more and more hierarchical structures to reach its current stage of development. Even the external forces (NOGs) who have been in charge of the current state of the slum made use of existing hierarchies in the slum by reproducing the internal power relations between the leaders and the dwellers.
The reproductions of power relations, which were perhaps not what the NGOs intended to achieve, occur in what I call “shady” sides of hierarchy. By talking only to the community leaders and affiliated persons, NGO workers as well as researchers created a selective bias towards and excluded families who are not from Bhola Island. The excluded families are from Faridpur and claim to live on that place even before the first migrants from Bhola settled in. The people from the island soon outnumbered the Faridpur, and discrimination began. Today this discrimination manifests in Faridpur being pushed spatially aside and most significantly, in their exclusion of all the improvements offered by the NGOs. These people, for example, bring their names or the names of their children to the slum leaders to be put on the list for free medical check-ups, scholarships or other services, but their names disappear from the lists. Furthermore, they are excluded by the infrastructural development of gas and electricity, since the Bhola people managed to literally push them constructional aside where none of the pipes reaches. They even have to use the collective water supply at night when everybody sleeps, in order not to be chased away. If these people turned with their woe to the NGOs or politicians, they usually remain unheard and face violence when they try to solve the problems within the slum.
Hierarchies, self-organization and power relations
Discrimination against a minority within a community is nothing new. But in my eyes it is special that discrimination is based on spatial origin, and not any ethnical or religious reasons. Furthermore, I find it very disturbing that external forces, with the wish of helping slum dwellers somehow, unintendedly reproduce and intensify the segregation. I personally think there are two reasons why the Faridpur people have not been covered by research or receive NGO help. The first and most important might be that it is common procedure when approaching a slum to first engage with the slum leaders (see Neuwirth 2006: 245ff). Since monetary resources are limited, the exploration of a slum often stops at that level, and one is satisfied with the picture drawn by the leaders. In Bhola Bosti a second reason also plays a role. All research and the narratives of the NGOs working there focus on the climate migrant story of the slum dwellers (see last Blogpost ), because this is something special about this slum. Since mitigating climate change impact is a topic which high relevance, development workers are very interested in such stories and might not be that much interested in the economically driven migrants from Faridpur.
Finding out about the precarious situation of the Faridpur people and the structural factors behind it leaves a sour taste to my otherwise great experience. I hope I can help these people by informing the persons from the NGOs I met. Perhaps by publishing an article in the Dhaka Tribune with the help of Dr. Saleemul Huq, and at least by giving the Faridpur people a voice through this blogpost. A future researcher of Bhola Bosti will now hopefully find their tale of woe, when he or she prepares for the research.
I have to thank all the people at ICCCAD for their friendly hospitality and Adnan Ibne Abdul Qader for his great help during the whole research process. You all made this extraordinary experience and the valuable findings of the research possible.
Cleaver, F. (2007): Understanding Agency in Collective Action. In: Journal of Human Development 8 (2), 223–244.
Neuwirth, R. (2006): Shadow cities. A billion squatters, a new urban world. New York.
Scharpf, F. W. (1994): Games Real Actors Could Play: Positive and Negative Coordination in Embedded Negotiations. In: Journal of Theoretical Politics 6 (1), 27–53.
About the author:
Uwe Roth is currently doing fieldwork for his Master’s thesis (Resilience in the shadow of hierarchies. A qualitative study of self-organisation in Bhola Slum, Dhaka) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He studies Human Geography at the University of Bayreuth and writes his thesis under the supervision of Prof. E. Rothfuß. At site he collaborates with GIBIKA (icccad.net/gibika/), a project within the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD).