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ARGENTINA | 19-05-2024 05:02

With poverty on rise, NGOs seek state support for five million living in villas

Around 12% of the population lives in slum neighbourhoods in Argentina; Residents need state support to improve their lot; Lack of educational, job and social opportunities hurting nation’s youth.

A recent report from UNICEF shows that two-thirds of Argentines are poor in terms of income or being deprived of such basic rights as education, social protection, housing, a decent toilet, water or a safe habitat.

According to the United Nations children’s agency, seven out of every 10 children and adolescents in Argentina are below the poverty line.

Nowhere is the situation worse than in the nation’s villas, often referred to in English as shantytowns, slums or popular neighbourhoods. There are 6,467 of them nationwide, occupying a total surface area three times greater than the nation's capital. Almost a third of them are in Buenos Aires Province, 2,065.

Overall, 12 percent of Argentina’s population, some five million people, lives in a villa.

 

Inequality

The last inventory of slum neighbourhoods, carried out by the RENABAP (Registro Nacional de Barrios Populares) registry with the logistical support of Techo Argentina and other NGOs was presented to the national government a few days before President Javier Milei took office last December.

Diving into the data, which has been centralised by RENABAP since 2017 and tracked by Techo Argentina since 2009 (via its Relevamiento de Asentamientos Informales, or RAI, survey), reveals worrying figures.

In broad numbers, 66 percent of slum residents have no access to a formal supply of electric power, 92 percent have no drinking water and 97 percent are not connected to any sewage system. Ninety-nine percent depend on the purchase of costly gas canisters or the use of dangerous stoves for their domestic supplies.

Furthermore, 87 percent of the women living in these neighbourhoods head their households and only 31 percent had paid jobs.

“Over 70 percent of Argentina’s shantytowns have arisen from what is known as ‘anthill-style occupation’ – [when] a family or group of families occupy an abandoned and unused site and invites others,” explained Juan Maquieyra, the director of Techo Argentina. “We speak of shantytowns when things happen which for them are everyday life.” 

Maquieyra was referring to demonising trends in public opinion, which highlight murders, crime, drug-traffickers or directly write slum-dwellers off as freeloaders, focusing on cases which stand out and do not represent everyday life.

 

Prejudice

Prejudice against shantytown residents was discredited by a recent report by the Observatorio de Argentinos por la Educación and the Secretariat of  Socio-Urban Integration of the former National Social Development Ministry. It looked at an exploratory sample of 540 slum families with children in primary and secondary schools. 

Together with an ethnographic study seeking to identify the demands and expectations of these families regarding the education of their children, the report came to disturbing conclusions. 

“The lack of educational, job and social opportunities for youth in vulnerable zones contributes to their being recruited into drug-trafficking and other illegal activities,” wrote its authors.

The report warns that residents in places where drugs are sold are more exposed to situations of violence and harassment in a context of confrontations between groups. families or gangs in turf disputes.

Community leaders, families and slum youth who do not participate in illegal activities suffer from fear, a feeling of being defenceless and the harassment of these gangs or illegal groups.

Drug-trafficking in shantytowns is favoured by the absence of the state and/or the connivance of the security forces in these illegal activities, concluded the document.

“People living in slums work, celebrate birthdays and weep and rejoice over the same things as the residents of other neighbourhoods but they are only news when something exceptional happens,” argued Maquieyra.

 

Perception

According to the survey, one in four households (26.5 percent) identify the sale of drugs as taking place in their block or neighbourhood. The figure is 12.1 percent in Buenos Aires City, but rises to 31.1 percent for Greater Buenos Aires and 32.8 percent for Rosario, both above the averages for big and medium-sized cities (26.7 percent and 25.7 percent respectively). 

Meanwhile, the perception of drug sales nearby rises to 49.2 percent in shantytowns and 41.2 percent in low-income neighbourhoods. By comparison this risk falls to 20.3 percent in middle-class neighbourhoods and to 3.9 percent in upper middle-class neighbourhoods. 

The illegal scale of drugs is a nationwide problem whose gravity and scope has grown in general during the last two decades but above all in the poorest neighbourhoods, creating a socio-economic framework which weakens social integration and the possibilities of community empowerment.

This affects society as a whole although the main victims are the youth of different social classes and regions, especially the socially excluded who lack the social, family and/or community structures of support and containment.

Even if the sale and consumption of illicit substances spans the entire social structure, it is in the most vulnerable urban areas where it acquires the greatest penetration and visibility with the most serious consequences, forming a structural part of the socio-economic life of the vulnerable neighbourhood.

 

Penetration

Since becoming a cross-party state policy nine years ago, RENABAP has formally depended on the Secretariat of Socio-Urban Integration, although always with Techo Argentina as its executive branch. 

It was constituted by Law 27,453 in 2018 (voted by a broad majority of political parties), better known as the ‘Ley de Barrios Populares.’ Since 2021 nine percent of the Impuesto PAIS tax has been allocated to financing the fund, with additional revenue from other sources.

Registering slum areas brings benefits for the communities. Not only does it give them legitimacy, it is also a first step towards joining the urban fabric via public infrastructure works.

According to government data and several external evaluations (CIPPEC, 2023; ODSA-UCA, 2022; SISU, 2023), public works delivered via this programme include over 1,200 projects in more than 300 municipalities. By mid-2023 there were almost 20,000 new plots with public services and around 250,000 housing improvements on behalf of women delivered via the ‘Mi Pieza’ programme.

Last February the Milei government suppressed the FISU (Fideicomiso de Integración Socio Urbana) trust fund for works of infrastructure and the advance of the creation of plots with public services, grounding this decision on presumed irregularities and personalising the accusation against social leader and former presidential hopeful Juan Grabois.

Several NGOs, including ACIJ, Techo Argentina and Hábitat para la Humanidad Argentina, have issued a joint communiqué calling for the continuity of policies of socio-urban integration, arguing that "it is fundamental to sustain and even widen" the financing of such programmes.

Charitable actions are not enough. Proyecto 7, an organisation formed by and for homeless people, has made agreements with the Buenos Aires City government, private entities and philanthropic individuals to prepare “four meals daily for around 400 persons,” which nevertheless, in the view of its head Horacio Ávila, “is always insufficient.” 

“There are over 12,000 homeless in this city alone, a really exorbitant number. Unfortunately, with no response from the state, we have to say that it will just go on rising,” he added. 

 

– TIMES/NA

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