Empowering squatter citizen: local government, civil society, and urban poverty reduction



Jorge L. Karol

Professor, Universidad de Buenos Aires and Universidad Nacional de la Plata, Argentina (email:



Editors: Diana Mitlin & David Satterthwaite
Publisher: Earthscan, London; 2004
ISBN: 1844071014; softcover; 336 pages, price £19.95

This book sets itself apart from the myriad of recent books that make "global" declarations for poverty reduction and those that microanalyse anti-poverty programmes. Instead, it presents sound, critical reviews of strategic, methodological and operational approaches to reducing urban poverty and facilitates understanding the complex issues associated with such poverty.

Although poverty and impoverishment are ultimately caused by global inequality gaps, the authors argue that locally experienced deprivations need to be dealt with at the local level. This proposal is based both on the limitations of local urban organizations to change global economic circumstances and on their abilities to find and implement solutions that may improve daily living conditions at the local level.

The book's authors challenge many of the current definitions, measurements and intervention models associated with urban poverty. They argue that all of urban poverty's visible manifestations as well as the basic deprivations associated with it (income; material and non-material assets base; housing; public infrastructure; basic (social/urban) services; safety nets; protection of the poor's rights; and voicelessness and powerlessness of the poor) occur simultaneously but to different degrees and are caused and reinforced by mechanisms that are specific to each setting. Poverty's institutional, ideological and political dimensions – those that "empowerment" and "citizenship" ultimately refer to – are incorporated by the authors into a conceptual and operational definition as well as into the design and implementation of strategies to overcome or reduce poverty.

The largest part of the book is devoted to analyses of the experiences of four government-oriented (in Mexico, Nicaragua, Philippines and Thailand) and four community-driven interventions (in Brazil, India, Pakistan, and South Africa) and to proposed concrete strategic and operational guidelines for use by the main stakeholders involved in tackling urban poverty. The need for long-term, flexible, interactive initiatives is stressed. It is recommended that such initiatives interconnect stakeholders' interventions at the local level; build-up associative – rather than confrontational – strategies; set up institutional arrangements, with the active protagonists being the poor themselves; and give priority to groups that examine and address their own goals continuously. In addition, the initiatives should strengthen, foster and accompany the active constitution of the poor's sociopolitical identity using rights-based approaches – rather than treating them as mere recipients of need-driven, centrally defined projects. Recent comparative assessments in Latin America confirm that the growth potential of these types of initiatives is stronger and more sustainable if goal- and rights-driven grass roots organizations have been set up and are running prior to and independently of any external interventions.

Broadly then, the book deals with poverty and strategies to reduce it. In a stricter sense, however, it mainly covers the ways in which governments, nongovernmental organizations, civil society and grass roots organizations, international donors, and multilateral agencies should relate to each in tackling poverty. In this respect, it clearly stresses the need to set (and suggests strategic directions for) major institutional, operational and methodological changes to make it easier for players to act effectively at the local level.

The book also poses some crucial questions:

• Who empowers whom and who pays for it, under different political-institutional settings?

• How should the possible paths to setting and managing "partnership" or similar management programmes evolve in settings where stakeholders' rationales and logic are contradictory and operate on very different scopes and time frames – for example, public urban infrastructure and utilities under private management or subject to privatization processes?

• What are the different "qualities of citizenship" to be achieved by poor segments of the population in progressively dualized economies/societies, given that even locally successful poverty reduction strategies may not stem the growth of the inequality gap.

In summary, this is a well structured, authoritative and reliable book.

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