The Dangers of Ghettoisation

In recent years we have observed an increasing tendency, both in “developing” and “developed” countries, toward urban ghettoisation. This trend is a very dangerous one, not only because it undermines societal bonds, but also because it is self-reinforcing. The more ghettos we have created (or allowed to emerge), the more difficult it becomes to reverse this tendency and to restore a stable society.

Ghettoisation is a double-faced phenomenon. On the one hand, there are the “spontaneously” emerging ghettos of the poor and marginalised (or excluded) members of the society. In the “developing” world these are slums, favelas or townships – urban areas that are often completely marginalised, badly lacking basic infrastructure (from health services to clean water and electricity), in many cases also dangerous due to high crime rates and the state authorities’ inability (and/or lack of will) to provide security both to inhabitants and, especially, to outsiders. The picture looks slightly better in the “developed” world, but here as well ghettos can be found in almost every bigger city. Although their population is mostly better off than its counterparts in poorer countries (at least in absolute terms), they share the same characteristics: relatively poor public infrastructure, high unemployment (and thus dependency on welfare services), relatively high crime rates, low participation in elections (and relatively high support for extreme or populist parties) etc. But the most important common characteristic of this kind of ghettos (as opposed to the second kind, to be discussed below) is that most of their inhabitants would not live there if they were able to choose. However, they in most of the cases cannot afford to move somewhere else.

The other form of ghettoisation is completely different from the one described above – except from the consequences. This one is aimed at, well-planned creation of closed, monitored areas where those having a high enough ability-to-pay live and others have no access – especially those from the “classic” ghettos. Here, common characteristics are: high education levels, high incomes, often the employment of domestic workers, foreseeably and controllably planned space, high-quality, private infrastructure (although it is often supported from public funds), cameras, fences, security people… These communities are often even more homogenous and hermetic than the poors’ ghettos. But, contrary to the latter, those living in those closed areas chose to. They did so to protect themselves and their families from crime, “bad influence”, to provide them with the best possible education and career chances. Shortly: They want security and predictability.

However, allowing both for “poor” ghettos to emerge and for “rich” ghettos to be created is a deep failure of public authorities as well as of the broader society. The creation of such supposedly homogenous communities and their separation from each other is bad – bad for society, democracy and, as a result, for the economy as well. Envy and anger on the one side and ignorance and distrust on the other clearly lead to the erosion of social capital (understood here as the adherence to informal social norms and social networks). The precariousness of societal bonds that actually leads to ghettoisation is the reinforced by it. This self-reinforcing loop also has dire consequences for democracy – not only, as already mentioned, because in “poor” ghettos election turnovers tend to be below average and support for populists high. Also, if we define democracy in broader terms, following John Stuart Mill, as “government by discussion”, the erosion of social bonds and contacts/interactions (and increasing antagonism between the haves and the have-nots) cannot but be detrimental for it. This situation is also likely to increase the weight of vested interests in the public debate, creating another self-reinforcing loop.

As a result of the erosion of social capital and democracy, the functioning of market economy is also endangered. As pointed out by Fred Hirsch in 1976, and confirmed by subsequent research on social capital, the modern economic system relies to a large extent on social capital and social norms – among others because public goods and infrastructure are needed if a market economy is to thrive. Also, economic development is much served, as many have argued (among them Amartya Sen), by democracy in its true sense (i.e., going beyond formal institutions such as polls). Therefore, ghettoisation can well be bad for economy, too, even if we don’t view “inequality” as an economic criterion.

All I have briefly sketched above is reason enough to worry about ghettoisation. But there is even more than that. Another problematic aspect is that ghettoisation is a social dilemma. Even those who do not want to accept it are, on their own, on a lost position. To support this I would like to present a personal example: in the city where I live with my family, in my relative neighbourhood, there is a large quarter fitting many criteria needed to call it a ghetto. Even though I don’t think it is good that children are “separated” when going to school – those from the ghetto attending a “ghetto school” and others another one – I would hesitate if I should send my children to the former (in fact, I won’t). I am supporting the system even though I don’t actually want to.

As is the case with all social dilemmata, collective or government action is the only viable recipe. Where the problem of ghettoisation is rather small (in smaller cities and/or where it is a relatively new phenomenon) collective action by those affected may work. Otherwise (as in my personal case described above) there likely is no way around some sort of government involvement – through economic incentives (e.g., subsidies for those moving to poorer quarters, progressive taxes and the like), legal reforms (e.g., to prevent the creation of closed areas) etc. There is no easy, ready-made solution, but looking away is not an option.

The dangers of ghettoisation – for society in general, for democracy and the economy – are large. The problem is equally present in “developing” and “developed” parts of the world. While individuals are unlikely to break this self-reinforcing loop, communities can. If not, the consequences may be dire.

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