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Pioneering study charts 30 years in life of shanty town

14 Jan 2010

An anthropologist who has been studying a Latin American slum over 30 years has charted its remarkable transformation in a new book.

The Moser family in  Guayaquil
The Moser family in Guayaquil

Professor Caroline Moser, from The University of Manchester, lived in what was then a new squatter settlement on the edge of the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil in 1978.

Her aim was to understand how poor households could survive without access to education, healthcare, clean water, land or electricity in rickety houses above mangrove swamps.

So, Moser, together with her Granada TV film-maker husband and two young sons, built their own bamboo house and lived in the community for seven months.

Almost uniquely among researchers, Moser has returned many times over 30 years to stay in the same neighborhood and has gathered a unique photographic record of the area.

During that time she has become an internationally renowned expert on urban poverty and Director of the University of Manchester ’s Global Urban Research Centre.

In her just published book ‘Ordinary Families, Extraordinary Lives’ she documents the dramatic improvements households and their children have achieved since then.

“My work takes us beyond the usual ‘snapshots’ of misery and poverty that so often portray slums,” she said.

“When we first lived in Guayaquil conditions were very tough, but the community has made extraordinary changes.

“Largely through the efforts of the people themselves, it’s now a much better place to live, no longer on the periphery but an integral part of the city.

“Not only have the majority ‘got out of poverty’ but more importantly they have accumulated a range of ‘assets’.

“They have replaced their small bamboo shacks with permanent two story houses connected to mains water and electricity.

“Parents denied a full primary education have made enormous sacrifices to see their children finish primary and secondary school – with one in ten also getting into tertiary education.”

But she added: “This is no development fairy tale: there are new challenges today’.

“More educated sons and daughters have different expectations from their parents: they want better jobs and more pay.”

Moser found that migration to Barcelona provides a way out – ‘a safety net’- for some, when tracking down sons and daughters to the Spanish city.

But for others, drug dealing and crime offer the only alternatives to alienation and disillusionment.

She said: “Once again, much will depend on the ability of the same women community leaders to solve these more recent problems.

“Friends over three decades, and now grandmothers themselves, they face new problems of fear, insecurity and violence and ‘as has always been the case, the police are largely absent.”