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

November 25, 2009 3 By admin

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?