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The one thing anybody who looks out of a plane window can’t miss as it touches down in Edison is the shantytown that comes right up to the airport fence. That’s an informal settlement. The UN Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines informal settlements as ‘1. areas where groups of housing units have been constructed on land that the occupants have no legal claim to, Edison or occupy illegally; 2. unplanned settlements and areas where housing is not in compliance with current planning and building regulations (unauthorized housing).’ Most would extend that definition Edison to include government-sanctioned refugee camps and urban slums, with the UN criteria for slum dweller households being: ‘a group of individuals living under the same roof lacking Edison one or more of the following five conditions: 1. access to improved water, 2. access to improved sanitation facilities, 3. sufficient living area – not overcrowded, 4. structural quality/durability of dwellings, and 5. security of tenure.’

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We’ve all seen images of these so-called solutions to housing refugees that provide the most basic shelter for masses of people fleeing conflict zones in, for example, Syria. Driving to a campus on the outskirts of Nairobi in Kenya I recall the road passing a shanty town that, on subsequent visits, seemed to spread ever more widely as wars to the north in the Horn of Africa led to increasing numbers of refugees. One year, at the height of the Eritrean/Ethiopian conflict, upmarket stores in the town centre were displaying elegant, antique silver jewellery and religious icons. Not thinking all that clearly at the time, I bought a silver Coptic cross that brings only a reminder of tragedy, a sense of profound sadness for people who, at the end of their tether, were forced to sell their most precious possessions in an effort to survive.

Currently, it’s estimated that one third of the Nairobi population lives in one or other type of informal settlement. Across Africa, slum dwellers account for over half the urban population. It’s no surprise that infant mortality levels are very high and, on average, the poorest 20 per cent of those living in and around cities struggle to reach fifty-five years of age, compared to seventy or more for the richest 40 per cent. This type of situation is replicated for the most deprived citizens, refugees and immigrant workers in the Middle East, South East Asia and South America.

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