Gideon Abagna Azunre | Richard Azerigyik | Pearl Puwurayire
For years informal urbanization by the urban poor and its spatial outcomes—i.e., slums—have become ubiquitous in Global South cities, particularly Africa. Consequently, authorities are engineering strategies that could arrest and slow down its proliferation in the quest for resilient and sustainable cities. Within the complex discourse of informal urbanization, one very crucial piece of evidence that appears to be unclear pertains to its driving factors. Using Ghana—particularly rapidly urbanizing southern Ghanaian cities—as an empirical case, this paper untangles the complex and multidimensional drivers of slum growth beyond the traditional population-heavy approaches. Using the push-pull theory as a conceptual and analytical prism, analyses reveal that poorly designed housing policies, the informal economy, weak urban planning, political interferences and political clientelism accelerates slum growth. The article argues that coping with unplanned urbanization by the urban poor may be extremely tenuous if these complex factors are not well-understood and seriously considered in policy circles. The findings of the article also lend credence to arguments that call for a shift from population-heavy readings of urban challenges in Africa to more institutional, political, and historical perspectives. The paper concludes by recommending that states and city authorities ought to recognize and address their institutional culpabilities in contributing to slum growth. A critical starting point could be the re-examination of draconian policies and the adoption of inclusive, pro-poor, and proactive urban strategies.
Informal urbanization; Slums; Push-Pull theory; Sustainable City Development; Ghana
Gideon Abagna Azunre recently completed a Master of Science degree in Urban Planning and Policy Design at the School of Architecture Urban Planning Construction Engineering, Politecnico di Milano. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Planning and a Bachelor of Science degree in Development Planning from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST, Ghana). His academic and research interests are transdisciplinary in nature and sits at the intersections of informal urbanism, sustainability, and resilience.
Richard Azerigyik holds an MPhil degree in planning from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST, Ghana). He is currently a PhD student in the same department, and his research interests lie in urban poverty reduction, urban housing, and water resource management. He is currently working on a project titled “Land Use Planning as a Tool for Managing Transhumance-Associated Conflicts in Ghana”. The project seeks to navigate the complex relationship between competing land users and sustainable conflict management.
Pearl Puwurayire (MPhil, BSc) is an Assistant Lecturer at the Department of Planning and Sustainability at the University of Energy and Natural Resources in Ghana. She is a development planning practitioner who has worked with the Development Planning Unit of the Local Government. She is currently a co-founder of a Non-Governmental Organization which is focused on Girl-Child Education. Pearl’s research interest is in urbanization and urban development, urban informal economy, urban environmental health and management and urban disaster and risk reduction.
Urbanization is traditionally presumed to be a catalyst of productivity, industrialization, and socioeconomic transition (Cobbinah et al., 2015b). Despite a recent study (Vollset et al., 2020) pointing out fluctuations in the world’s projected population, the consensus remains that the global urban population will continue increasing. As of 2015, 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas and is projected to reach 70% by 2050 (UNDESA/PD, 2012). The majority of this growth will occur in Africa, with nearly a quarter (1.3 billion) of the world’s urban population by 2050. While some developing countries like China reap the benefits of urbanization (Cohen, 2006), it seems to rather disrupt urban functionality and stall socio-economic development in most African countries (Cobbinah et al., 2015a). This underlies the long-held pathological-indeed Malthusian-view that overurbanization is the prime cause of urban development problems in African cities (Boateng, 2020a). One of these critical urban challenges is unplanned urbanization—also called informal urbanization. For the purposes of this paper, our central focus is on the spatial by-product of informal urbanization by the urban poor— that is, slums.
According to recent estimates, there has been a reduction in the proportion of urban slum dwellers from 28% in 2000 to 20% in 2014. However, the absolute number of slum dwellers has increased from 792 million in 2000 to 880 million in 2014 (UN-Habitat, 2016a). Recent statistics have painted a dire picture, suggesting that about 1 billion people currently live in slum settlements. Households living in such settlements constantly face harsh conditions such as inadequate access to clean water, sanitation, and durable housing. This informal urbanization trajectory is a valid paradigm of several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Ghana (Amoako & Boamah, 2017; Amoako & Inkoom, 2018; Poku-Boansi et al., 2020). Available statistics show that Ghana’s cities are rapidly urbanizing and unauthorized development is gradually becoming a norm. It is, therefore, no surprise that two out of five Ghanaian urban dwellers (37.9%) live in settlements that can be classified as slum (UN, 2017).
Given its current scale and future contours, informal urbanization by the poor has garnered enormous international attention. One principal medium through which this global interest has been crystallized is with international goals and accords. The overarching aim of these commitments is to improve slum livelihoods and bring decent living conditions to such neighborhoods. For instance, the ‘cities without slums’ agenda advanced in the year 2000 echoed the international ambitions to reduce the proliferation of slums in cities. Similarly, the current Sustainable Development Goals (Goal No. 11, Target 11.1) anticipate that by 2030 all slums will be upgraded, and all urban residents will have adequate, safe, and affordable housing. In the quest to achieve these goals, city authorities strategically implement promising urban policies and programs such as participatory slum upgrading and large-scale affordable housing schemes. Remarkably, these efforts have slowed the pace of informal urbanization and have enhanced the living conditions of slum dwellers.
The global aspiration to arrest informal urbanization or slum growth has also fueled numerous academic studies, prominent among those are the works of scholars such as Hernando de Soto and Ananya Roy. All these serve as fodder for the intellectual mill aimed at addressing informal urbanization among the urban poor. However, a critical question that still lingers is: what are the complex drivers of this seemingly untenable phenomenon? Answers to this seem to be cursory in the informal urbanization discourse. In fact, available studies have done little to move beyond the population-heavy diagnosis of informal urbanization which implicitly suggests that slum settlers are solely to blame for the situation. Also, little to no studies untangle how the complex factors act in ‘push’ and ‘pull’ scenarios. Therefore, the aims of this study are twofold: 1) to determine the multi-dimensional drivers of informal urbanization beyond population-heavy factors, and 2) to assess the interconnected nature of the factors using the prism of the ‘push and pull theory’. Our study adds to the already rich and extensive body of literature from a sub-Saharan African context, Ghana.
In what follows, we review relevant literature on informal urbanization (‘Section 2: Informal urbanization: a literature outlook’). Section 3 captures the methodology adopted to perform the analysis while Section 4 thematically presents the results. Section 5 covers the discussion of key findings and lessons learned. The final remarks of the study are presented in Section 6.
Informal Urbanization: A Literature Outlook
Conceptualizing Informal Urbanization and its Spatial Outcome
Informal urbanization is defined as a systematic “dwelling process” through which settlements and housing are ‘‘constructed individually and incrementally, using locally available materials” in an informal manner that reflects the socio-economic status of owners (McFarlane, 2011b, p. 664, 2011a, p. 216). This complex urban phenomenon involves very different classes of households who utilize urban lands by generally violating land-use and spatial regulations. The outcome of these incremental informal processes could be viewed from a two-pronged perspective: economic and spatial (Rigon et al., 2020). The spatial outcomes and by-products of informal urbanization have been a contentious subject in the conventional literature. On one hand, it is argued that informal urbanization produces informal settlements while on the other it is argued that it generates slums. Some commentators even go further to use both terminologies synonymously. Before going on, these need to be clarified.
In our view, the terms ‘slums’ and ‘informal settlements’ can be designated to a settlement depending on the types of households involved, the legal status, and the services or infrastructure present. According to UN-Habitat (2016a), slums are contiguous settlements that lack one or more of the following: 1) access to clean and potable water; 2) access to improved sanitation; 3) sufficient living area that is not overcrowded; 4) durable housing; 5) security of tenure. On the other hand, settlements are defined as informal when they reflect the primary criteria of informality: that is, tenure insecurity and violation of planning regulations (e.g., land use plans, zoning guidelines). Premised on the foregone definitions, some informal settlements can be defined as slums if they further lack essential services such as water and sanitation. Contrarily, some informal settlements or developments are not slums: for example, those produced by middle- and high-class households. This process is gaining ground in the literature, with several scholars (Banks et al., 2020; Roy, 2011) elevating the term ‘elite informalities’ to refer to informalities transcending the urban poor (see Section 3.1 for examples in Ghana). According to Roy (2011), elite informalities are mostly valorized due to the economic and political power such actors wield while subaltern informalities (those by the poor) are criminalized.
Additionally, some slums cannot be strictly defined as informal settlements if they are legitimized or recognized by authorities. For instance, in India, some slums are notified under the Slum Areas Act of 1956 which makes them legal in the eyes of local and national authorities. However, because they are produced by poor households, they still lack crucial social services. In short, it is maintained that slums and informal settlements are not completely synonymous. This study, thus, elects to use slums as the by-product of informal urbanization since the focus is on the urban poor. We are aware of the growing critiques on the nomenclature of the terms “slum” and “slum dwellers” because it is implicitly derogatory and stereotypical, and it downgrades the value and agency of such settlements (see: Butola, 2019; Mayne, 2017; Roy, 2011). However, we deem it appropriate in the present study for two main reasons.
First, international commitments such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have adopted the term “slums” in setting global targets. For instance, target 11.1 under SDG 11 aims to reduce the proportion of “slum dwellers” by 2030. This study is thus consistent with the global trend. Secondly, as would be made more explicit shortly, statistical estimates and research on the drivers of informal urbanization have generally been reported on slums. Focusing our analysis on slums is therefore a good way to obtain reliable information to clearly understand informal urbanization beyond population factors. The present study, strongly supported elsewhere (Azunre et al., 2021), is also rooted in the idea that there is enormous value in some of the activities of households in such settlements. Therefore, it is important to understand the drivers of such a dynamic and complex urban phenomenon for the purpose of both policy and planning.
From Population-Heavy to Historical-Institutional Drivers of Slum Growth
The literature is replete with variegated factors that drive informal urbanization and slum growth in the Global South. Rapid urbanization and population growth seem to be the most consistent underlying factors across the literature—so-called population-heavy diagnosis. According to these arguments, the continued rural-urban gap has caused several rural dwellers to seek economic success, livelihood opportunities, and access to social services and infrastructure in urban areas (Tacoli et al., 2014). This migration pattern fuels the rapid urbanization trend in most parts of the Global South today. The world’s population is expected to reach about 9.8 billion in 2050 with about 66.4 percent (two-thirds) of those living in urban areas (UN-DESA, 2014). The surge in urban population has coincided with several sustainable development challenges. Premised on the foregoing, population-heavy theorists conclude that urbanization in the Global South, and Africa in particular, is ‘parasitic’ because it negatively correlates with socio-economic development.
However, some urban scholars (Boateng, 2020b, 2020a; Njoh, 2003) have criticized population-heavy readings of urban problems in Africa and raised arguments to incorporate the interplay of several other local and external factors—particularly historical-institutional. This appears to be a valid point of view for understanding informal urbanization by the poor. City authorities in many parts of the Global South lack the capacity (i.e., financial resources, logistics, and human resources) to plan and provide affordable housing and social infrastructure for the urban poor. This phenomenon is evident in Asia and Africa—touted as the fastest urbanizing regions. With limited budgets, city authorities are unable to finance new housing production to alleviate the housing deficit (Ooi & Phua, 2007; United Nations, 2014). The demand for land for new development in urban areas has aggravated the situation. Since the supply of land is fixed, competition has been increasing from various interest groups. The increasing demand for land among competing land users has made land, irrespective of its quality, relevant in the urban space (Zhang, 2016). This ongoing land crisis has priced out the urban poor thus making them encroachers and creators of substandard housing and unsanitary settlements and neighborhoods. Also, high poverty levels, the informal sector, poor urban governance, weak institutions to ensure compliance, and outmoded land laws and regulations, have contributed immensely to the growth of slums in city centers (see: Azerigyik et al., 2018; Lau & Chiu, 2013; Mishra, 2011; Ooi & Phua, 2007).
Furthermore, slums continue to swell up due to the inherent socio-political and economic opportunities they present to the urban poor. Many slums across the globe are close-knit and near Central Business Districts (CBD) because of the available economic and employment opportunities. According to Lau & Chiu (2013), slum dwellers live and explore livelihood opportunities in close-knit ways to reduce or avoid the cost of transportation. Also, due to the high social network and family ties exhibited by slum dwellers, slums have become attractive for migrants. The population, social network, and high sense of solidarity exhibited by slums have made them influential in policies, political discourses, and elections (Jha et al., 2011).
To sum up, the preceding underscores how pervasive unplanned urbanization is and its attendant driving factors. Most population-heavy assessments seem to relate slum growth directly to the influx of people in urban areas with little to no recognition of the economic, institutional, political, and cultural factors which shape the phenomenon. These studies also implicitly suggest that settlers are the sole protagonists of the informal urbanization situation. However, the central argument of this article is that this is not necessarily the case. A complex assemblage of factors such as the failures of the government or state to respond to the basic needs of the growing urban poor class, distributional and investment inequalities, political factors, among others drives slum growth. This study looks to unpack these other factors using Ghana as a case study.
Materials and Methods
Case Study in Perspective
The Republic of Ghana (simply known as Ghana) is a West African country located on the Atlantic Ocean and shares borders with Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso (see Figure 1.1). Ghana is one of several Anglophone countries in the sub-Saharan region because of its colonial affiliation to Great Britain (Lassou et al., 2019). Similar to the state of Texas in the United States of America, Ghana has a population of about 30 million (Ghana Statistical Service, 2019; United States Census Bureau, 2019). This population is unevenly distributed across the country, with regions in the southern part being the most populous in comparison to those in the northern part. Currently, the country is administratively divided into 16 regions after a recent constitutional instrument created six new regions. Ghana’s international recognition arises from its prominent role in the mass exportation of raw materials such as gold, cocoa, and timber.
Ghana is an interesting case in point to untangle the determinants of informal urbanization because the country has been rapidly urbanizing since 2010 when for the first time over half of the population lived in urban areas (Ghana Statistical Service, 2014b). The national capital, Accra, currently boasts of being the most urbanized followed closely by Kumasi (Cobbinah, 2021, p. 3). Other cities in the northern part of Ghana such as Bolgatanga and Wa have gradually urbanized at a pace closer to that of the southern cities. The urbanization trajectory of several Ghanaian cities has brought informal urbanization to the forefront of policy and academic discourses. The population-heavy assessments are also visibly seen across the literature in Ghana, with urban population growth touted as the main cause of informal urbanization.
However, it is worth highlighting that informal urbanization in Ghana touches various classes or groups from low-income to high-income. Informal urbanization by middle to high-income households has been extensively reported by several scholars (Asante & Sasu, 2018; Boateng, 2020b, 2020a) among property developers. In fact, Boamah, Gyimah, & Bediako Nelson (2012) found that 10% of households in a high-class residential area in the Wa Municipality did not apply for building permits. Some of these housing developers try to circumvent building regulations or permitting processes which have caused several buildings to collapse across major cities in Ghana. Some examples are a six-story Melcom shopping complex in Achimota Accra which collapsed on November 7, 2012, and an uncompleted five-story hotel building in Tarkwa which collapsed in 2010 (see Asante & Sasu, 2018; Boateng, 2020b for in-depth discussions and examples of these).
Despite these, informal urbanization in Ghana is much more prevalent among low-income households. This is evident, first and foremost, from the class distribution of new urban migrants who are mostly from rural communities (see Table 1.1). Rural communities in Ghana are characterized by high poverty levels. Thus, in an attempt to escape poverty, a significant proportion of rural dwellers migrate into cities in search of greener pastures (Ghana Statistical Service, 2014b). Due to the generally low income or economic standings, these rural-urban migrants encroach unoccupied urban lands, squat, or live in slums that offer affordable housing. For example, several studies (Adamtey et al., 2021; Adusei et al., 2017; Azerigyik et al., 2018) reveal that most slum communities in Ghana (such as Old Tulaku, Old Fadama, Agbogbloshie, Dagomba Line, Avenor) are predominant recipients of migrants from rural areas and/or poor communities in Northern Ghana.
Another evidence of informal urbanization’s rapidity and strong correlation to the poor is the growth of slums across most major Ghanaian cities. Estimates suggest that two out of five urban dwellers in Ghana (37.9%) live in slum settlements (UN, 2017). Accra and Kumasi are the two cities in which slums are rife (see Figure 1.2). From the maps, it can be observed that slums in Accra and Kumasi, and by extension Ghana, have strong centrality in relation to the Central Business District (CBD) where jobs and economic opportunities are available for the urban poor. The foregoing justifies the focus of the present article on informal urbanization by the poor, and more particularly on their spatial outcomes which are slum settlements.
Before going on, it is crucial to first underscore the types of “slums” in Ghana. Ghanaian slums are sometimes difficult to distinctly classify, but a study by Paller (2015) introduced a comprehensive categorization with which we adopt for the current study. First, extra-legal slums in Ghana are settlements viewed as illegitimate and not officially recognized by local and national authorities, which are mostly labeled as squatter settlements. Secondly, indigenous slums are those settlements that have a traditional connotation and gradually become slum settlements due to poor planning and neglect by authorities. Finally, purchased slums are legal in nature, in that all formal land purchasing and customary processes have been followed by owners; however, they have become slums because they lack essential services such as water and sanitation. Among these three slum typologies, extra-legal slums are the most politically vulnerable and they constantly face threats of evictions. A well-documented example in the Ghanaian literature is in Old Fadama, Accra—the largest slum in the country (Afenah, 2012; Farouk & Owusu, 2012; Housing the Masses, 2010).
The current study is based on a systematic review of the literature. The review was applied under the case study research design. The case study design provides the opportunity to gain concrete, contextual, in-depth knowledge about the intricate web of factors that engender slum growth (Bryman, 2012; Yin, 2013). Specifically, the study focused on Ghana to help systematically synthesize secondary data. Secondary data is used in this study to refer to data collected by some researchers but manipulated by others to achieve research objectives different from the original collector (Hox & Boeije, 2005; Vartanian, 2011). Secondary data mainly comprised peer-reviewed journal articles, institutional documents (e.g., census records from Ghana Statistical Service [GSS]), and gray literature (e.g., online news posts).
To search for literature, a thematic approach was adopted. Four themes were developed: 1) Ineffectual housing policies, 2) Informal economy, 3) Politics and distributional/investment inequalities, and 4) Weak urban planning and land tenure issues. The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) approach (Moher et al., 2009) was employed to extract literature under each of the four themes. Additionally, the Boolean search method was adopted to develop search strings by pairing keywords (e.g., “slums”, “slum growth”, “housing policies in Ghana”, “politics”, “urban planning in Ghana”, etc.) and their synonyms with Boolean operators (e.g., “AND”, “OR”). A combination of these keywords generated phrases that were run in search engines such as Google, Google Scholar, and Mendeley literature search. This facilitated the swift access of scholarly works from online repositories such as JSTOR, Elsevier, SAGE, and Taylor and Francis.
Furthermore, content and thematic analytical tools were employed to analyze the literature obtained. The aim of the analysis was to build an argumentative narrative on the driving factors of informal urbanization and slum growth beyond population-heavy diagnosis. Also, the analysis was guided by a specific theoretical framework (i.e., the push-pull theory) to help unpack how the driving factors attract or force households into slum settlements. The theoretical framework of the study is discussed in Section 3.2.1 below. It is worth noting that the researchers have a fair understanding of the research context and case study. Therefore, this tacit knowledge was fused with the secondary data to enrich the analysis and discussion. At the end of the search and analysis, 70 articles/reports/websites were used (see Table 1.2).
Theoretical Framework: Push-Pull Theory
Theories of migration have rapidly evolved since the notable works of Ernst Ravenstein on the “Laws of Migration” in the mid to late twentieth century. Ravenstein was the first to theoretically frame the phenomenon of migration and how it emerges. Following this, other works mushroomed to disentangle the phenomenon of migration and the drivers of international or national mobility. For the purposes of this study, Lee’s (1966) theory of migration is considered comprehensive enough to unpack the diverse factors of spatial mobility at both a macro and micro scale. Lee identified four main categories of factors in the act of migration: (i) factors associated with the place of origin, (ii) factors associated with the place of destination, (iii) intervening obstacles, and (iv) personal factors. As presented in Figure 1.3, each origin and destination point have a set of positive and negative factors that attract or repel people. Consequently, the push factors are those situations that give one reason to be dissatisfied with one’s present locale (Dorigo & Tobler, 1983). People are then forced to leave the origin to the destination, not because of the attractive nature of the destination but because migrating is the best available option. By contrast, pull factors are the attractive elements in the destination that appeals to individuals
The push-pull theory grounds this paper and allows for a more structured exploration of the factors that lead to informal urbanization by the poor. The destination points in this regard are slums and the origin points are other neighborhoods in the city, peri-urban areas, or rural areas. It is worth mentioning that we do not intend to exhaustively apply the model to the informal urbanization phenomenon. It is beyond the capacity of any brief article because informal urbanization involves complex individual decisions (i.e., personal factors) that would require rigorous primary data to disentangle clearly. Nevertheless, the model presents a remarkable opportunity to systematically explain the more general factors and trends that engenders informal urbanization and how households (particularly the poor) are pushed or pulled to live in slums. The push-pull theory also allows for an in-depth exploration of the historical-institutional factors which condition the actions of low-income households towards slums.
Furthermore, the literature overview in Section 2.2 shows that a plethora of studies have investigated informal urbanization and conceptualized some of its causal factors. However, none of the studies reflected on the factors from a push-pull scenario nor did they clearly discuss how these factors interrelate in a rapidly urbanizing sub-Saharan African city like Ghana. These are but a few gaps the current study will help plug.
Results: Drivers of Informal Urbanization by the Poor in Ghana
The drivers of informal urbanization in Ghana are analyzed under four (4) themes. The analysis under each theme will tease out the “push or pull” dynamics of the causal factors.
Ineffectual housing policies,
Politics and distributional/investment inequalities, and
Weak urban planning and land tenure issues.
Ineffectual Housing Policies in Delivering Low-Income Housing
Public policies are the most important instruments used by city authorities to redress the ills facing various sectors of the economy, including the housing sector. In the Global South, it has been extensively documented that housing policies are generally poorly developed, inefficiently implemented, and fail to benefit the worst off (Monkkonen, 2018; Rojas, 2019; Scheba & Turok, 2020). This has been the case in Ghana for the past few decades. The problems facing housing policies and their attendant effects on informal urbanization can best be disentangled from a path-dependency perspective. The path-dependency theory, which emerged from economics, posits the situation where historical events have the possibility of creating “lock-in” structures that define pathways of development (Arthur, 1988; David, 1985, 1988). Consequently, some scholars (e.g., Kay, 2005; Poku-Boansi, 2020) assert that path dependency is an essential mechanism for understanding public policy development. As such, the problems that Ghana’s housing sector and policies are facing today with respect to low-income housing are a consequence of previous historical happenings.
Generally, Ghana’s housing policies have been deeply politicized with policy ambitions and aims changing with every successive government (Boamah, 2014). During the colonial era, housing was mainly directed at expatriate and senior indigenous staff members holding positions in the colonial public service (Hornsby-Odoi & Glover-Akpey, 1988). The most important low-income housing scheme during the colonial era came in 1924 after an outbreak of cholera in Kumasi and other parts of Ghana. This health crisis required the mass clearance of slums and the construction of housing projects to re-house the displaced (Agyapong, 1990; Songsore, 2003; Songsore et al., 2004). However, during this period, housing access by low-income groups was hampered by some restrictive rules such as the town and country planning laws (Konadu-Agyeman, 2001).
From 1951, housing policies began to explicitly focus on low- and middle-income groups. Two mid-term development plans from 1951-1964 were rooted in a socialist philosophy and primarily aimed at providing adequate and subsidized housing for low-income households (Ansah & Ametepey, 2013). The highlight of the plans was the formation of housing-related institutions such as: i) First Ghana Building Society, ii) Tema Development Corporation (TDC), and iii) Ghana Housing Corporation (now known as the State Housing Company) (Bank of Ghana, 2007; Konadu-Agyeman, 2001). Specifically, TDC helped develop eight new housing Communities in Tema by constructing about 2,255 units (Ansah & Ametepey, 2013). Also, the Roof and Wall Loan Scheme which was started in 1955 advanced the aided self-help housing idea (Addo, 2014). The government provided materials, loans, and serviced sites at moderate rents to low-income households.
Nevertheless, governmental changes in 1966 to the National Liberation Council (NLC), in 1969 to the Progress Party (PP), in 1972 to the military leadership of the National Redemption Council, and in 1979 to the military rule of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) led to housing policy agendas slipping and sliding from direct housing construction for the urban poor to complete neglect.
A watershed in Ghana’s housing policy landscape occurred in the 1980s when the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) and Economic Recovery Program (ERP) were developed under the conditionalities of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Neo-liberal and ‘enabling environment’ approaches were advanced; this facilitated housing provision by the private sector and avoided interventionist provision of public housing by the state (Harris, 2003; UN-Habitat, 2005). The government significantly retreated from direct housing production and lost grips of the housing market. According to several scholars (e.g., Addo, 2014; Songsore et al., 2004), this period kickstarted the substantial housing deficits faced in the country (see Table 1.3).
To alleviate the housing deficit, the government developed a comprehensive National Housing Policy in 2015 that “…envisions a country in which everyone is able to access safe, secure, decent and affordable housing either owned or rented.” (Ministry of Water Resources Works and Housing, 2015). Consequently, investments have been placed in large-scale affordable housing projects such as OAS affordable housing program in Saglemi, Borteyman affordable housing, Asokore Mampong affordable housing project, among others. However, these projects are failing for two main reasons: firstly, they are highly politicized and causing implementational delays and/or abandonment; and secondly, the prices quoted for completed units are only affordable for middle- and high-income households.
To sum up, the slow rate in producing houses in Ghana, particularly for the poor, is strongly attributable to how ineffective previous housing policies have been. The formal housing sector (i.e., formal public and formal private sector) seems to be targeting middle- and high-income households at the expense of low-income groups. Urban poor households are having to contend with higher rents and land prices which affects their ability to participate in the formal market. They are thus “pushed” and “pulled” to slums where affordable housing is provided (Addo, 2014; Takyi et al., 2020). As Grant (2006, p. 13) writes:
“[Slum dwellers’] position exposes the G[overnment] o[f] G[hana]’s failure to address the housing situation of the poor… [P]eople squat because there are no alternatives…”.
From the foregoing, it is right to argue that Ghana’s unproductive housing policies profoundly influence informal urbanization by poor households.
The first scholar to thematize economic informality was Keith Hart with his research that focused on Accra, Ghana. Hart (1973, p. 68) introduced the term ‘informal sector (IS)’ and described it as a “world of economic activities outside the organized labor force.” Similarly, Feige (1989) defined the IS as all unregistered economic activities that contribute to the officially calculated gross national product. However, debates following the earlier conceptualization of the informal sector prompted the introduction of a new concept: ‘informal economy (IE)’. The International Labor Organization defines the IE as “[…] all economic activities by workers and economic units that are – in law or in practice – not covered or insufficiently covered by formal arrangements” (ILO, 2002, p. 5). Precisely, the informal economy is much broader and can be split into two: 1) informal sector, which comprises production and employment in unincorporated or unregistered enterprises (ILO, 1993); and 2) informal employment which is work without labor-based protection in informal enterprises, formal firms, and households (Basu & Chau, 2015; Chen, 2007, 2012).
Given that the “informal sector” was originally thematicized based on a study of Ghana, there is no surprise as to how conspicuous it is in Ghana’s urban landscape and its implications on informal urbanization by the poor. Data shows that the private informal economy engages about two out of every five (41.9%) of the currently employed persons 15 years and older: 47.8% of females and 35.5% of males (Ghana Statistical Service, 2014c). Also, three-fifths (61.5%) of the employed urban population are engaged informally whereas less than one-quarter (23.3%) of their rural counterparts are informally employed. Irrespective of the locality of residence, more females than males are usually engaged in the informal economy. Some examples of urban informal activities in Ghana are hawking, food vending, scrap metal collection, hair-dressing, shopkeeping, security services, and door-to-door waste collection (Agyei et al., 2016; Asibey et al., 2019).
Generally, slums are hubs for most of the aforementioned activities which low-income households primarily depend on. For instance, e-waste activities in slums such as Agbogbloshie, Accra—the world’s largest e-waste dumpsite—and Aboabo, Kumasi creates income-generating prospects for several households (Asibey et al., 2020; Oteng-Ababio, 2012). The implication, therefore, is that slums turn to attract the urban poor acting as a “pull” factor towards informal urbanization. The Todaro paradox, developed by Todaro (1976), similarly captures the attractive and magnetic power of slums for poor households, especially rural migrants in search of greener pastures. In another vein, because of the centrality of slums within Ghanaian cities, they have become attractive locations to live and pursue informal economic opportunities in other parts of the city. Azerigyik et al. (2018) assert that this helps to reduce the cost of commuting to the CBD. As indicated in Section 4.1, the affordable housing provided in slums also makes it economically logical for households to live and work in the city.
In short, the quest for employment opportunities by the urban poor and rural migrants, which is mainly offered through the informal economy, serves as a critical driver of informal urbanization in Ghana.
Politics and Distributional/Investment Inequalities
Informal urbanization in Ghana has always been politically shaped. The existence of slums can be partly attributed to the politics played by traditional leaders, community leaders, city authorities, and government. The case of Old Fadama which is the largest extra-legal slum in Ghana is especially emblematic. Old Fadama occupies 31 hectares of government-owned land beside the Odaw River and near the Korle Lagoon (Farouk & Owusu, 2012). As shown in Figure 1.4, it is situated across one of Accra’s most important markets, the Agbogbloshie market, on land that was largely a lagoon. Much of this land has been reclaimed from the lagoon and river and has slowly been filled up by residents using temporary materials, including sawdust from the timber market across the road. According to Yeboah and Obeng-Odoom (2010, p. 88) and Afenah (2012, p. 537), this settlement has persisted because it assumed a political tussle between both local and central political actors which crippled any action on that settlement. Several evictions since 2002 failed because residents have been able to collaborate with several organizations such as Shack Dwellers International, a global network of community-based organizations of urban poor. Also, the creation of the NGO ‘People’s Dialogue on Human Settlement’ in 2003 and the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor (GHAFUP) all curtailed eviction attempts.
Within the first three years of inception, People’s Dialogue and GHAFUP realized a number of political achievements for those living in Old Fadama (Afenah, 2012). Also, because of the vast population living in Old Fadama (about 100,000), politicians have identified it as a strategic source of electoral votes. Therefore, they make promises to residents which may run counter to sustainable urban plans that aim at slowing down informal urbanization. All these decisions have resulted in the abandonment of some much-needed long-term slum treatments in favor of more short-term politically friendly initiatives. This phenomenon is widely known across the literature as political clientelism. A “patron-client” relationship exists in slum communities which has created a scenario where political patrons have a huge stake in these communities and are better served if they remain as they are and are not formalized or fully developed. A vicious cycle is generated where due to continued dependence and vulnerabilities, slum communities rely on political patrons for their survival and are willing to pay for the patrons’ help with political allegiance. Several scholars (Paller, 2015; Schildkrout, 1970, 1978) have reported this scenario in Ghanaian Zongos—strangers’ quarters, where migrants to African cities settle. Formal public services to these informal neighborhoods are generally mediated by political entrepreneurs or brokers with high levels of power. The political status of brokers allow them to lobby for services; however, they do not seek universal provision so as not to lose their power.
It is worth noting that the political tussles described above cut across several slum communities in Ghana. This has propelled informal urbanization and has guaranteed its presence in cities. Also, several political twists have affected the integration of some settlements into socio-economic and infrastructural plans. Sadly, officialdom tends to limit investment in communities that are viewed as illegal: that is, extra-legal slums (Paller, 2015). According to city authorities, investing in these communities is a validation of their legitimacy. Some authors (e.g., Amoako, 2016; Amoako et al., 2019) have extensively documented this complex phenomenon with regard to flood management regimes in urban Ghana. In short, the political position of slum communities restricts and constructs responses to informal urbanization serving as an important determinant of its continued proliferation in Ghana.
Weak Urban planning and a Complex Land Tenure System
There is a general notion that urban governance and spatial planning in Ghana are quite weak and ineffective. Urban planning in Ghana dates back to European colonization which largely focused on health and sanitation emergencies such as the outbreak of diseases (Gocking, 2005; Quarcoopome, 1993). Nationwide planning became much consolidated after the passing of the Town and Country Planning Ordinance of 1945 (Cap 84) which established the Town and Country Planning Department (TCPD), now the Land Use and Spatial Planning Authority (LUSPA) (Cobbinah & Niminga- Beka, 2017; Fuseini & Kemp, 2015; Poku-boansi, 2021). Following the adoption of a decentralized system of planning in 1988, several normative and legislative frameworks such as the Local Government Act of 1993 (Act 462) – now Local Governance Act of 2016 (Act 936), National Development Planning Systems Act of 1994 (Act 480), and the Land Use and Spatial Planning Act 2016 (Act 925), was introduced to condition urban planning and governance.
Despite this rich normative environment, several scholars (Boadi et al., 2005; Yeboah & Obeng-Odoom, 2010b) note that urban and land use planning in Ghana has been exclusionary and has failed to address the sustainability challenges from urbanization. As discussed in Section 4.3, this is partly attributable to political interferences that shape urban planning’s operations. Some scholars (Boamah et al., 2012; Yeboah & Obeng-Odoom, 2010b) also associate poor planning with authorities’ limited capacities to enforce rules and guarantee compliance. On the contrary, others (Ayambire et al., 2019; Cobbinah, 2021; Cobbinah et al., 2020; Poku-boansi, 2021; Siiba et al., 2018; Yeboah & Shaw, 2013) strongly relate weak urban planning to the counter-productive institutional roles played by traditional authorities.
The complex land tenure system in Ghana demands explicit emphasis given its enormous role in rendering urban land use and spatial plans ineffective. In Ghana, customary land holding institutions control about 80% of the lands. These lands are communally owned, typically by kingdoms, tribes, clans, or families who hold the lands in the trust of the people (Yeboah & Shaw, 2013). Aside from the ownership of lands, these traditional institutions play administrative roles which sometimes go contrary to zoning and land use plans (Cobbinah et al., 2020). The land-use decisions are mostly made through contracted surveyors who have very little knowledge of formal planning procedures. This process has been largely welcomed by locals because of the bureaucracies and corruption of formal planning institutions. Due to this weak urban planning system, urban poor households sometimes find it easy to squat on lands that are idle or not policed thereby exerting their squatters’ rights and rights to the city. Also, poor households are sometimes given the de facto right to settle by traditional authorities through the informal sale or lease of lands.
To sum up, it is logical to argue that weak urban planning has made uncontrolled urbanization and squatting desirable to several urbanites, especially the urban poor acting as a “pull” effect. However, it should be noted that this attractiveness must not be isolated from the numerous “push” factors such as inadequate access to the formal housing and land market that frames their need to obtain housing informally. Also, it is worth noting that customary land ownership is not the sole contributor to informal urbanization by the poor. Some studies (e.g., Ubink, 2007) have shown significant haphazard development even on state-owned lands that are administered directly by formal agencies.
Discussion and Lessons Learned
The results of the current study reveal that informal urbanization by the poor is driven by a complex interplay of factors which has been given less attention in the conventional literature. More generally, studies tend to emphasize population dynamics as the main driver of this phenomenon. This implicitly suggests that those living in such communities are solely to blame for informal urbanization, diverting away from the other crucial actors and institutions that may have conditioned the actions of the poor. To fill the existing knowledge gap, the present study focused on Ghana as a case study. Findings show that the informal economy, politics, ineffectual policies, and weak urban planning and governance systems are critical in generating slum growth. With respect to housing policies, it is observed that historical policies have engendered the present-day housing deficits faced in Ghanaian cities. Consequently, low-income households are being excluded from formal housing provisions. As a result, slums offer low-income individuals the best option for affordable housing within cities. These slums are also acting as economic hubs and are attracting poor households. Literature reveals that the urban poor, in their quest to obtain employment in cities (particularly within the informal economy), have to rely on slums for housing. The slum modernization theory (Frankenhoff, 1967; Turner, 1969) validates this finding and demonstrates the pull effect of slums.
Furthermore, political interferences and weak urban planning have framed and constructed the way and manner in which strategies are deployed to slow down informal urbanization. Instead of adopting pragmatic and scientifically feasible policies, authorities have to relegate strategies to the political arena. Some politicians, under the guise of settlements being illegal, are limiting investments in slums, making it difficult for them to improve. The emergence of political clientelism and patrons who have ulterior motives (e.g., continued neighborhood degradation) has further hindered the development of slum communities (Deuskar, 2019). Also, poor urban planning has quietly exacerbated informal urbanization in its inability to enforce the rich and fertile planning rules that exist. The customary land tenure system in Ghana has further compounded the challenges faced by urban planning in dealing with uncontrolled urbanization. Boateng (2020b, p. 6) notes that for a long time, “most post-colonial developing societies’ so-called ‘modern’ planning and building systems/regulations, to all intents and purposes, are postcolonial – i.e. they are still structurally embedded in colonial standards and requirements.” This postcolonial attribute of Ghana’s urban planning is highlighted in this article as a crucial driver of informal urbanization by the poor. Renewed efforts to transform planning through a National Urban Policy Framework (NUPF) and a Land Use and Spatial Planning Bill (LUSPB) are very laudable approaches to move away from the obsolete 1945 colonial planning ordinance that underlain Ghana’s planning system (Fuseini & Kemp, 2015; Poku-boansi, 2021). These policies would help in Ghana’s quest for sustainable development and also address some of the systemic challenges that have driven informal urbanization among the urban poor for decades.
Overall, the results point to several “push” and “pull” scenarios that drive informal urbanization and the “unavoidable” movement of poor households to slum communities. The study findings also support criticisms raised against the population-heavy diagnosis of urban problems in Africa and the need to adopt more historical-institutional perspectives (see e.g., Boateng, 2020a, 2020b). A few lessons can be drawn from the above systematic review.
First, slum growth in the Global South is likely to continue increasing given the challenges faced by governments and city authorities to address the needs of its ever-growing population. If this persists as projected, the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of cities could be under serious threat. This partly underpins the global commitments such as Sustainable Development Goal 11 (Target No. 11.1) and national plans aimed at dealing with informal urbanization. However, it is imperative to constructively design current and future policies by taking cognizance of the multidimensional drivers of informal urbanization. The results in this study clearly depict various ways that the invasion and succession of lands by the urban poor are involuntary and sometimes conditioned on external push drivers. Sadly, some current urban management policies fail to embrace these intricacies and would therefore need to be critically re-examined. For instance, draconian policies that solely focus on slum eviction and clearance without resettlement or resettlement to fringe locations must be abandoned as some poor households are caught up in “do or die” situations leading to their habitation in slums. On the contrary, inclusive, pro-poor, and proactive policies should be favored by city authorities. Policies should also exclusively target the “push” drivers such as the housing inequalities generated by inadequate low-income housing supply. There is great promise in the sites and services approach which was swiftly deserted in the late 1990s. A recent evaluation (see: Owens et al., 2018) shows this could be an incredible opportunity to adopt John Turner’s “freedom to build” and “aided self-help” philosophy to tackle informal urbanization and provide decent housing to the urban poor.
Discussion and Lessons Learned
Informal urbanization by the urban poor has become the lived reality for several cities in Africa, especially Ghana. In this article, we deciphered the complex web of informal urbanization drivers among Ghana’s urban poor by discussing how the factors act as “push” and “pull” agents. The underlying logic behind this review was that, without disentangling these intricacies, it may be next to impossible to address informal urbanization. Four broad drivers were examined: housing policies, informal economy, politics, and weak urban planning. Our findings argumentatively support critiques against population-heavy pathological readings of urban problems in Africa (Boateng, 2020a).
Overall, the paper offers important entry points to manage and slow down unplanned urbanization in Ghana and guarantee cities are sustainable and resilient. This study, though geographically limited to Ghana, presents valuable lessons for countries and cities in Africa and the Global South that are facing informal urbanization and are determined to manage their cities sustainably. This paper has not been exhaustive of all the drivers of informal urbanization among the poor; however, it should feed directly into future studies aiming to examine its nature, processes, effects, and impacts. Particularly, it is recommended that further studies employ rigorous empirical data to try and unpack the drivers of informal urbanization in a more in-depth fashion. The “push and pull” scenarios must not be lost in future studies as it has profound implications on understanding more generally what frames the actions of the poor and more specifically the kind of policies and strategies that may be proffered to deal with the root causes of informal urbanization.
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