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Shelter and the Millennium Development Goals

Alan Gilbert's picture
Alan Gilbert
January 2014

Almost 1 billion people currently live in slums, and this number is expected to grow by nearly 500 million by 2020 - if we're to ensure that no one is left behind in the future development agenda, we need to determine whether progress is really reaching these marginalised groups. And for that, we need appropriate indicators and data. In this blog series, experts put forward their key recommendations to improve the way we define and measure progress in the quality of life of the urban poor.


Two of the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) concern housing. Target 7c aimed to ‘halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation’, and Target 7d to ‘achieve, by 2020, a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers’.

According to the United Nations both goals were achieved well before the 2020 deadline. Target 7c was satisfied because: ‘The world has met the target of halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of water, five years ahead of schedule; between 1990 and 2010, more than two billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources; the proportion of people using an improved water source rose from 76 per cent in 1990 to 89 per cent in 2010; over 40 per cent of all people without improved drinking water live in sub-Saharan Africa; and over 240,000 people a day gained access to improved sanitation facilities from 1990 to 2011.’

Target 7d ‘was met well in advance of the 2020 deadline. The share of urban slum residents in the developing world declined from 39 per cent in 2000 to 33 per cent in 2012. More than 200 million of these people gained access to improved water sources, improved sanitation facilities, or durable or less crowded housing, thereby exceeding the MDG target.’

While I accept that major progress has been made in the provision of access to improved drinking water, the fact that the UN also states that 2.5 billion people ‘still lack access to improved sanitation facilities’ shows how little real progress has been made, particularly in Africa. Similarly, if ‘863 million people are estimated to be living in slums in 2012 compared to 650 million in 1990 and 760 million in 2000’, there is a very long way to go.

In defining future targets, I have few problems with Target 7c except in terms of improving the accuracy of its measurement. The fact that a settlement or village is linked to the water network does not mean that every household has 24-hour access to a water supply. Some systems only function properly for a couple of hours a day. Some families under-consume because they simply cannot afford to pay for the amount of water that they need.

It would be better to express the target as an absolute rather than a relative goal. Instead of ‘halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of water’, we should establish a specific number of households that will be provided with water. The target for sanitation is also important, because of its role in maintaining health and improving the quality of shelter, but what qualifies as adequate sanitation should be clearly defined; and again we need a numeric target for 2030.

Target 7d is more problematic however. Firstly, much of the progress is because of double counting – access to improved water sources, the main achievement of Target 7c, is what has contributed most to the improvement of slums. Secondly, any attempt to define the pejorative term ‘slum’ is bound to be open to debate. The current definition excludes most rural housing which, because of the greater poverty of most country folk, is frequently of lower quality than city housing.

Then there’s the issue of security of tenure, which fails to take into account the position of the world’s tenants, many of whom can be evicted at a moment’s notice. In any case, the term ‘slum’ is too relative a concept, dependent on income and domestic circumstances: 'your description of a slum is my home'; and what we regard as decent shelter today may well be considered a slum in the future.

Any attempt to measure what constitutes poor-quality shelter across the globe is very complex. Of course it is possible to establish minimum housing standards – a tap in every house providing potable water; access to a system to remove the waste; walls and roofs that are safe and keep out the elements; some degree of tenure security; and some kind of neighbourhood authority that will reduce crime and insecurity and provide decent emergency services. But providing reliable data on those indicators on a regular basis is beyond most governments in the world, let alone the poorest.

Housing plays so many different roles in people’s lives. Many people do not just rely on their home for shelter but also to generate some kind of income. They operate shops and small workshops from the premises. Many others rent out rooms – there are some 1.2 billion tenants in the world, many of whom live in multi-occupancy housing. Others regard their shelter as a form of investment for their old age.

Then there is the issue of family priorities. Other issues are always likely to outrank the quality of shelter in the priorities of the poor. In approximate order, one could argue that access to a proper diet, decent health, a basic education for the children, and a means of earning enough to provide for the family are more important than decent shelter. After all many poor people across the globe ‘choose’ to live in inadequate shelter for a period to save on housing expense.

Housing quality is also a subjective and relative issue. What people are prepared to accept as reasonable varies dramatically across the globe. How can we agree on a definition of over-crowding when people’s circumstances are so different?

In short, should shelter feature at all in the MDGs? Let us concentrate rather on shelter-related issues like water and sanitation, which are more easily measured and which are arguably so much more critical to a decent life than the quality of the roof over our heads.

Frankly if development strategies could be modified to allow a rise in the real incomes of poor households, if opportunities for speculation in housing were reduced and both servicing and infrastructure improved, the quality of shelter would rise automatically.

So should we drop Target 7d after 2015?

Alan Gilbert is a Professor of Geography at University College London (UCL). After brief interludes in advertising and economic consultancy he obtained a research post at the Institute of Latin American Studies and then took up a lectureship jointly at UCL and the Institute. Subsequently he was promoted to a Readership and then a Chair at UCL. His research is concerned with urbanisation and poverty in developing countries and particularly in Latin America and South Africa