Monster of the moment
Zimbabwe is being hypocritically vilified by the west for forced slum clearances that are routine throughout the developing world
Friday July 1, 2005
For a month now, the BBC, CNN, ITV and others have been reporting what has been portrayed as one of the greatest humanitarian and human rights disasters in years. At least 200,000 people - sometimes this figure grows to 250,000 or even 300,000 - are said to have been forcibly evicted from slum areas of Harare in Zimbabwe. The figure peaked last week at 1.5 million, but yesterday the BBC reckoned that bulldozers were now "crashing through the homes of 500,000 people".
In fact, only about 1.2 million people live in Harare and no one is suggesting that half the population has fled in terror or that most of the city has been wrecked. So where are all these allegedly terrorised people? A few thousand have been filmed in makeshift camps but not many more. Who is trying to count the numbers? They are almost always attributed to an unnamed person in an unnamed UN agency. But read the only UN statement on the evictions and it says nothing of 200,000 people.
The evictions - which are clearly happening on a wide scale - have been seized on by the west, and the former colonial power Britain in particular, as another reason to demonise President Mugabe and further humiliate long-suffering Zimbabwe. It's open season on the Harare regime and it appears that anyone can say anything they like without recourse to accuracy or reality. Whipped into a frenzy of hypocritical outrage, the EU, Britain and the US, as well as the World Bank - all of which have been responsible for millions of evictions in Africa and elsewhere as conditions of infrastructure projects - have rushed to condemn the "atrocities".
The vilification of Mugabe is now out of control. The UN security council and the G8 have been asked to debate the evictions, and Mugabe is being compared to Pol Pot in Cambodia. Meanwhile, the evictions are mentioned in the same breath as the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans - although perhaps only three people have so far accidentally died. Only at the very end of some reports is it said that the Harare city authority's stated reason for the evictions is to build better, legal houses for 150,000 people.
Perspective is needed. The summary removal of people at gunpoint from their homes is indefensible, almost certainly unnecessary, and probably economically counter-productive, but it is not unusual in the developing world. Every year millions of poor people are evicted to make way for tourism, dams, roads and airports, for events like the Olympics, and for the gentrification and beautification of cities, national parks and urban redevelopments.
Nor is it new. Forced evictions, brutal land grabs and slum clearances were all used by Britain's own rulers in the past to enlarge their estates, build bigger, more modern cities, construct reservoirs, make way for railways and lay out fine parks and fashionable areas for the newly rich to live. Rapidly developing countries are now doing the same as the rich world did during its own industrial and urban development.
The difference is mostly in numbers. According to UN-Habitat, the Nairobi-based agency that concerns itself with the urban environment, hundreds of millions of the world's poor are technically illegal squatters living in slum communities like those in Harare, liable to be moved on by private landowners or by governments. In the past five years, slum clearance programmes have forced more than 150,000 people out of their homes in Delhi; 300,000 people were evicted to make way for Olympic sites in Beijing; 100,000 were moved on in Jakarta; 250,000 were forced out of dam sites in India; and as many as a million in Lagos and Port Harcourt in Nigeria. There are many more.
Yet those who like to call themselves "the international community" say nothing about these mass evictions and the world's press has been mostly silent. For the World Bank to condemn the Zimbabwean evictions was particularly rich. According to its own calculations, the bank has funded projects that have required the eviction of at least 10 million people.
So why are the Harare slum clearances so different? As international monster of the moment, Mugabe is unacceptable to Britain and the west mainly because he has chosen to evict whites and redistribute land grabbed in colonial times. The fact that the African Union and other African leaders are not prepared to condemn him for the Harare evictions reflects the fact that they, too, recognise the injustice of the colonial land ownership inheritance and do not want to see Africa bullied again by the west.
But there may be another reason why African leaders have not condemned the evictions. Urbanisation is overwhelming most African cities, which have been flooded by impoverished people forced off the land. According to the UN's 2003 study of urbanisation and slums, the driving force behind the slums of Africa and Asia is not bad governance or tyrants, but laissez-faire globalisation, the tearing down of trade barriers, the privatisation of national economies, structural adjustment programmes imposed on indebted countries by the IMF, and the lowering of tariffs promoted by the World Trade Organisation.
Like every city in the world that has tried to clear its slums, Harare will find that history repeats itself. This year, Zimbabwe faces massive food shortages that will force more of the urban poor into destitution and drive yet more people off the land into the cities to look for work. The poor, punished for their poverty rather than for voting one way or another, will become poorer and the shacks and shelters so brutally pulled down in the past month will just go up somewhere else.
However, an alternative to forced evictions is emerging right under Mugabe's nose. Last year, 250 homeless Zimbabweans, members of the Federation of Slum and Shackdwellers, negotiated the provision of land from the city authority. They have now planned the layout of their community, worked out the costs of the homes and are ready to build. Where are they? Harare.
· John Vidal is the Guardian's environment editor
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