What squatter cities can teach us

I really like the first half of this TED talk by Stewart Brand (0-8:00). He captures the progress of people coming together in cities to provide public goods, like a marketplace and schools, cable and water, so that they may pursue their private desire to navigate the opportunities of large urban centers.

“These people are valuable as a group, and that’s how they work.” Stewart Brand (3:31)

Settlements in Dhaka, Bangladesh, are shown as an example (6:58). When we lived in Dhaka in the late ’60’s this region was one of the poorest in the world. By the time this video was made in 2006 progress was underway. But just this year all indications are for continued success.

From today’s Dhaka Tribune:

He (Minister Muhammad Tajul Islam) said when the Awami League came to power in 2009, per capita income was hovering around the $700-mark. It increased to $2,554 in a decade under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina. 

He added that it may increase to $3,000 in 2022.  


Brand’s predictions for a prosperous outcome for the people filling up the slums came to fruition in Bangladesh. Yet I take issue with how he refers to the economic activity as an informal economy. This term is a bit slippery, but its most prevalent definition is taken from the viewpoint of the political state. This, for example, from Wikipedia: “An informal economy (informal sector or grey economy) is the part of any economy that is neither taxed nor monitored by any form of government.”

The activities specified by Brand in the development of schools is a story of parents pooling money to hire teachers to educate their children. There’s is a cash element to this procurement of the public good, as well as a non-paid time portion from the parents involved in organizing and managing the teachers. But there’s nothing hidden or under the table in these proceedings.

Education is known to be the most important contributing factor to pulling people out of poverty. How it is described in the TED talk does not matched the definition of an informal economy. The state did not provide a public-school education in the slums, but I think we’re all past the notion that government has a corner on this sphere of the market.

Public goods are traded throughout the west as well as the east within groups of people who share a common objective. This is accomplished with a combination of paid and voluntary positions, with an input of shared and private resources.