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A unique 30 year portrait of a shanty town and its people

November 25, 2009
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In 1978 Caroline Moser, a young British anthropologist went with her two children and film-maker husband to Indio Guayas, a new squatter settlement in the swamps surrounding the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil. They built a 4 x 8 metre bamboo house joined to dry ground by long, rickety walkways, and lived there for 7 months while Brian Moser made a film of life in the shanty town.

ordinaryfamiliesextraordinarylivesCaroline went on to work in academia and the World Bank, but has gone back repeatedly over 30 years, building up a unique longitudinal picture of the evolution of a shanty town which she has now pulled together in a new book, ‘Ordinary Families, Extraordinary Lives: Assets and Poverty Reduction in Guayaquil, 1978-2004’.

The book employs something she terms ‘narrative econometrics’, a mix of quantitative analysis based on 3 household surveys in 1978, 1992 and 2004, and field notes and focus groups from her 10 visits to the community. A series of photos chart the transformation of the community from swamp to a well-constructed suburb. The result is a deep insight into the lives of a community that she contrasts with the ‘decontextualized, quick-fix experimentation solutions in twelve villages in rural Africa’ of Jeffrey Sachs. The book charts the interplay between the individual struggles of families and a community, and the sweep of economic and social change as Ecuador’s oil boom of the 1970s gives way to the ‘lost decade’ of austerity and structural adjustment, and then an ‘explosion of migration’ to Spain suddenly floods the settlement with remittances (she even goes to Barcelona to interview the migrants).

Moser shows how the initial struggle for land (literally – organizing to pressure the authorities to fill in the swampland) and housing evolved over time. Next came services and education. Much depended on the degree of ‘social capital’ largely stemming from the rapid friendship and organization of women as they found their feet in a new urban world (the men seem to have spent most of their time drinking, but Moser is nuanced on the importance of marriage and relationships with men). Their achievements were extraordinary (hence the title) – bamboo shacks transformed into two story concrete houses; mains water for 94% of the houses by 2004; ‘extraordinary educational outcomes’ as parents who had not even finished primary school made the sacrifices to see their kids finish secondary and even (10%) go on to tertiary education.

Along the way, expectations changed – educated young women rejected the cleaning, washing and cooking jobs their mothers had found, but were unable to find better alternatives. Migrants to Barcelona worked in jobs well below their qualifications. The system failed to keep up with the progress of families, and as a result alienation has grown.

This is no development fairy tale – Moser’s keen eye and massive database charts success as well as failure in a ‘natural experiment’ where the decades produce winners and losers from a community that began as equals. If I have one criticism, it is that she fails to spell out the implications of her ‘big idea’ – she has developed an ‘asset vulnerability framework’ as a way of understanding the lives of the poor and the role of assets (physical, human, social etc) but I finished the book unclear on the ‘so what’ – what do you do differently using that framework rather than any other? It appears to lead to a focus on creating the ‘enabling environment‘ that allows poor people to build their assets, stressing opportunities rather than risk management or protection from shocks. So far, so World Bank. Thinking about assets highlights the interrelated, but sequential way in which households accumulate them. As they do so their wellbeing increases (e.g. housing is the first asset the acquire – it does not get you out of poverty but is a precondition for others that can and do). That sequential aspect is largely missing from other analyses of poverty and vulnerability.

Moser family and friends 1978

Moser family and friends 1978

Today, Indio Guayas faces new challenges of crime, drugs, violence, fear, and the erosion of the social capital accumulated by years of community organization. Once again, much will depend on the women leaders who became Caroline’s friends, most of them now grandmothers, who must now deal with this new threat (the police are largely absent, or part of the problem).

Longitudinal studies, especially this thorough, are like gold dust. They reveal all the complexity, optimism and beauty of human development. It’s too late for me, but could younger readers please think about doing a Moser and putting in place their own personal baseline that they can return to as their careers develop?

3 comments

  1. The recognition of expectation outstripping opportunity, especially for women, movingly occurs in Andrew Beatty’s ‘A Shadow Falls: In the Heart of Java’where here it becomes part of the explanation of the attraction of more rigourous forms of Islam – that are seen as more modern than traditional forms and offering a more defined identity.

    As to focusing on assets, what you do differently, in my experience, is precisely focus on opportunities. A community, however impoverished, has assets to offer to its own reshaping and it enables people to focus on what is possible, that certain steps are immediately possible; and, that this builds momentum for change that comes from within to which external interventions can be harnessed. As the great Saul Alinsky used to say of community organising, start with small victories.

  2. This is a very interesting look and analysis over a period of 30 years of a comunity. However, I would like to look at two things: effects of migration and remittances. Remiitances, while they will increase consumption and standards of living, it certainly create an unequal environment, and if it stays that way will later create a breeding ground for violence. Because not everyone is employed in the same sector of the economy and even if that was the case, they will be subject to different wages –for many different reasons. As those with more income send more remittances back home, what you will find is the creation of an unequal economic environment; thus, tensions can arise. As for the effects of migration, developing countries suffer a lot from brain drain, but having job well below one’s qualifications is well-documented in migrant communities. This situation creates, in effect, a ceiling glass for migrant workers who are unable to find alternative from those of their parents; therefore, they do have opportunities, but they have been constrained to grow to the fullest as persons.

  3. Here are some remarks from Anthony Bebbington at a launch of the book in Manchester:

    ‘I want to comment on some things that Ordinary Families, Extraordinary Lives think it suggests to us about doing development research and writing about development.

    First off, Caroline’s is a monograph at a time when we write way too few monographs. It strikes me that when we think of classic texts in development (outside of development economics at least) we almost always think of monographs. There are some classic edited books, there are some iconic articles, but when people think of classics, I suspect that more often than not they think of monographs. Development studies falls short, I think, because we don’t put many products into that slot. Caroline’s book will become a classic I think. We could really use some more.

    Second, it is a monograph is about a place, a people engaged in that place, and how the place, those people, and those engagements change over time, and why. It is a book made possible by fieldwork, sustained engagement and reflection over time, but also by a methodological choice to stick by a place. It is a book made possible by really detailed knowledge of and empathy for that place.

    Third, it shows that you can be committed to a place without being stuck in a thematic rut. Caroline explains to us how Indio Guayas was in some sense her laboratory in which to explore a range of themes: settlement, pueblos jovenes, informal economy, gender, vulnerability, assets, social capital, violence …. The questions changed, the place remained.

    Fourth, the place becomes your touchstone – helping you see things that you can then explore elsewhere. It keeps you honest. Caroline talks about how things she saw in Indio Guayas then became the topic of broader research projects. The clearest example is how the rising violence in Indio Guayas led her to work on violence in other cities.

    Fifth, engaging so deeply with a place is a great guard against our theory determining our findings. When we do cross sectional work based on bringing together a number of shorter, less in depth case studies, the likelihood that our data will confirm our suppositions is rather higher than it should be. Conversely, when we follow places and people over the long haul there is a far greater likelihood that we will be surprised. Just when we thought we were getting to know somewhere, something will happen to suggest to us that we don’t, that our theories are not enough to make sense of this place, that what we had thought were structures may not in fact be that constraining; and that the agency we believed in may not have been that autonomous after all.

    Sixth, this is an engagement with a place and a people that show how places have to be understood within a cascade of relationships. Caroline shows us how Indio Guayas has to be understood in terms of its relationship to Guayaquil politics, to Ecuador’s political economy, and to relationships between Ecuador and Spain.

    One final thought that is close to my heart relates to what the book says about the role of family in research. Caroline ends her acknowledgements with thanks to her families – but these are not acknowledgments of the type “thanks for letting me disappear for months at a time”. Instead she seems to be saying, “thanks because the fact that I did this with my families opened up parts of Indio Guayas that I might otherwise have missed”.

    Let me finish by saying that these may seem like the normal starry eyed comments that get made at book launches and of course they are complementary. But they are intended to be very serious. If Development@manchester is going to change thinking about development, we absolutely have to produce more products like this. To do so will demand serious strategic investment in research trajectories and projects in order to create the space for such products to emerge. It will also demand that we allow the space for people to do good stretches of fieldwork. The investment is important, because suspect that in the end intellectual historians will assess our contribution in terms of how many products like this we bequeathe, and not by much else.’

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