Our paper will discuss research and data analysis regarding the right to adequate housing, a second-generation human right as established by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In line with a majority of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to secure fundamental positive rights, SDG 9 includes the aforementioned right as one of its pillars. While we recognize that “adequate” is a broad term, this entry will not deepen discussions on how to define the term; rather, we set out to analyze the persistence of an indisputably inadequate form of housing: slums.
Through case studies of Central and Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, this entry discusses the persistence of slum housing and how it reflects the global progress towards the accomplishment of the SDGs. Furthermore, we conduct a quantitative analysis of the changes on indicator 11.1.1, “Percentage of Urban Population Living in Slums,” and what changes in these numbers reflect over time. Despite the consistently dropping percentages of slums worldwide from 2000 to 2020, Central and Southern Asia is a region with one of the slowest declines and largest number of slums. In addition, this write-up makes comparisons between Central and Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, two regions that have a significant portion of their populations living in urban slums.
As described in the UDHR Article 25 and in the ICESCR Article 11, individuals have the right to adequate housing including land and resources. In the UDHR, people have a “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing …”. The ICESCR includes a similar definition of the right to adequate housing: “an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”
The right to adequate housing aligns with two of the SDGs: Goal 9 for Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure and Goal 11 for Sustainable Cities and Communities. One of the targets of Goal 9 is to increase affordable and equitable access to quality infrastructure. In the case of Goal 11, the target is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” such as by ensuring access to housing.
In order for the right to adequate housing to be upheld and addressed in the SDGs, the SDGs have to apply and interpret the right to adequate housing. Originally, in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), only slums were a part of the criteria to define inadequate housing. The definition of an urban slum is “a group of people living together who lack at least one of the following: access to water; access to sanitation; sufficient living area; structural quality, durability, and location; security of tenure.” The SDGs build on the MDGs’ definition of inadequate housing to include qualifiers of accessibility, affordability, and cultural adequacy. The addition of these qualifiers helps to define how “adequate housing” is measured. The new criteria to define inadequate housing include slums and informal settlements.
Data and Analysis
Worldwide, urban slums are a pressing issue. As depicted in Figure 1, over the past 20 years, there has been a general decline in the percentage of urban populations living in slums, according to data collected by the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) and archived in the World Bank’s open data portal.
While there are urban slums all over the world, Figures 2 and 3 demonstrate that three regions show particularly high occurrences: Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Southern Asia, and East and Southeastern Asia. However, a lack of development is a direct result of global economic policies. Even regions that are “underdeveloped” have seen a steeper drop in the rates of slum housing. Sub-Saharan Africa and Central & Southern Asia have had numerous conflicts and issues caused by Western countries.
The data displayed in Figure 2 clearly shows there is a gap between the housing standards of the Global North and Global South. Although this inference could be made without quantitative data, the actual numbers show a higher disparity than imagined. This means that the global average numbers are highly skewed and that policy changes must be crafted with regional specificities in mind. Central and Southern Asia has one of the slowest declining rates in the world, with only a 7.7% drop in the past 20 years. This is in comparison to Sub-Saharan Africa, which has a relatively higher decline rate at almost 14% over the same time period; with this being said, as of 2020, multiple regions in Sub-Saharan Africa have at least half of their populations living in slums (see Figure 3). While the overall rate has declined, the majority of people are still living in slums in Sub-Saharan Africa. This must prompt policymakers to reevaluate current projects and academics to dive deeper into the regional causes of the issue.
A possible explanation for why Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced a steeper decline rate could be due to the work of the African human rights system. In the case of Africa, Cher Weixa Chen and Alison Dundes Renteln note in their textbook, the African system was created on the basis of the promotion of human rights rather than the enforcement of them (Chen and Renteln). As Alexandra Huneeus and Mikael Rask Madsen explain, this is an outcome of the Cold War and its proxy wars that occurred in the region. As a result, this has created weaknesses within the region because of the lack of state interest in enforcement (Huneeus and Madsen).
The lack of a regional human rights system in Asia can be attributed to a few reasons, the main one being the large diversity and heterogeneous levels of development in the region, generating opposition to a unified system. In addition, there is a tight grip on states’ sovereignty and norms and values making states less likely to ratify treaties. In parts of Asia, the rate of ratification of the UN’s core human rights instruments is lower than in other regions of the world. There have been attempts to create sub-regional bodies such as the Arab system. While the Charter cites the UDHR and ICESCR, it adopts the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights and Islam as a foundational document that is in many ways contradictory to international human rights law. In addition, the Arab Human Rights Committee that comes out of the Charter cannot consider individual complaints given the number of authoritarian states in the region.
Although we have observed a decline in the proportion of urban populations living in slums over the past two decades, it remains a persistent problem worldwide. This issue affects populations in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa more profoundly due to the higher percentages in these regions. However, the situation is particularly alarming in Central and Southern Asia, where the lack of an overarching regional body has hindered progress toward achieving the SDGs set forth by the UDHR.
In terms of future research, it would be beneficial for researchers to delve deeper into the cultural background of these regions to gain a better understanding of how to develop effective mechanisms to assist the population. By doing so, we can work towards a consensus on addressing the challenges and ensuring the right to adequate housing for all.
About the authors
Carly Orent is a senior majoring in Psychology with minors in Spanish and Political Science at Drew University.
Suzy Ott is a senior majoring in Political Science, with minors in Public Health and French at Drew University.
Júlia Oliveira is a junior majoring in International Relations and Spanish, with a minor in Data science at Drew University.
Editor’s note: This entry was written for Drew University's PSCI 333 International Human Rights.