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Despite cities are the main driver of growth, prosperity and innovation worldwide, inequalities still arise in them in various ways. One of them is the lack of access to basic services such as housing.
Unfortunately, our region is no stranger to this phenomenon. According to recent data, 1 in 4 urban inhabitants in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) lives in an informal settlement. What is the cause of this phenomenon? To a large extent, this problem has its origins in the rapid growth of the population of our cities without an adequate urban planning.
Paraguay, in particular, has the lowest urbanization rate in the Southern Cone – 61.6% compared to an average of 84.6% for the countries in the region. For this reason, and thanks to its late urbanization, Paraguay has the opportunity to tackle the reduction of urban inequalities by taking advantage of the successful experiences of other LAC countries.
With this blog we begin a series in which we will address the situation of urban informality in Paraguay, its challenges, opportunities, and the role of organized civil society to reduce the housing gap in the country.
Urban inequality: a problem common to the entire region
As is the case in the entire region, Paraguay is a country with great inequalities, which are also reflected in the urban environment. It is precisely these urban inequalities that modify and, in turn, amplify the structural differences that have historically characterized LAC.
It is estimated that 52.9% of the country’s poor population lives in urban areas. If, in addition, we consider that 97% of its population lives in the Central Department (equivalent to 40% of its national territory), and that this includes the capital (main economic center), we obtain as a result that in a small territory coexists two very unequal realities.
The weak implementation of public planning and land use planning policies contributes to exacerbate urban inequality: according to information from the Ministry of Urbanism, Housing and Habitat (MUVH), only 4% of the 251 municipalities in Paraguay have a Land Use Plan Urban and Territorial (POUT) approved by the Municipal Boards.
The pandemic and its effects on informal settlements
The pandemic has further exacerbated inequality, severely affecting the most disadvantaged populations. Next, the effects of COVID-19 in the region and especially in informal settlements are discussed, paying special attention to Paraguay.
A study presented in October 2021 indicates that LAC is the developing region most affected by the pandemic. Likewise, it ensures that in 2020 the mortality levels from COVID-19 were higher in municipalities with higher levels of overcrowding (3 or more people in a room) and without basic services, common critical characteristics in informal urban areas. Adding up the data from 33 countries, in September 2021 the region reached 30.3% of the world’s total deaths, which, according to the study, reflects the need to accelerate integrated and articulated policies to care for the most vulnerable population.
According to a survey carried out by the World Bank, it is estimated that, in Paraguay, during May 2020, 28% of the workers who lost their jobs worked in the personal services sector, 18% in the trade sector and 10% in the manufacturing sector. The data shows that, since the beginning of the pandemic, job losses hit women even more, being almost 3 times higher than for men and almost 30% higher for those households with the presence of school-age children.
The impact of unemployment affects cities heterogeneously and showcase urban inequality. For this reason, and mainly at the beginning of the health crisis, hygiene measures, social distancing and isolation were (and continue to be) essential aspects for the prevention of infections. This has been a challenge for the entire population, but even more so for those in vulnerable situations who live in informal settlements.
COVID-19 and informal settlements in Paraguay:
Informal settlements are a fundamental part of the integral development of a city. As such, they should be prioritized on the post-COVID-19 recovery agenda. The health of its inhabitants is in constant threat due to the difficulties of adequate access to basic services and food, the presence of vulnerable minorities and the informality of work (among others), situations accentuated by the pandemic.
Currently, the Paraguayan government does not have a database that lists the informal settlements in its territory. As a consequence, it is difficult to articulate public policies at the national and sub-national levels to support families living in these areas.
However, last year, 37 civil society organizations in Paraguay, motivated by the consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic, formed the Settlement Support Network. It is an independent and voluntary network of organizations that, articulated with public institutions, seeks to support, and collaborate in the definition and implementation of actions to promote the resilience of settlements considered popular in the country. This joint action was born to respond to the health emergency and seek long-term urban economic and social integration.
Getting closer to knowing the reality of informal settlements in Paraguay
Given the uncertainty about the duration of the pandemic, the MUVH and the Settlement Support Network, with the collaboration of the Inter-American Development Bank, began a collaborative dialogue with the aim of contributing to the development of local strategies to learn about and promote recognition measures of informal settlements in Paraguay. This initiative has two fundamental objectives:
- The construction of strategies that allow the prevention of the formation of informal settlements
- The planning of intersectoral urban regeneration measures taking into account the experience of the Network and that of other countries in the region
The first step to achieve these goals was to hold a Participatory Workshop to exchange and discuss experiences and lessons learned in response to COVID-19 in informal settlements during a pandemic. The Workshop demonstrated the opportunity involved in establishing participatory spaces for reflection that unite public institutions and organized civil society. Instances that motivate, inspire, give voice to actors with a fundamental role in solving the structural urban problems of the country.
How to address urban informality in Paraguay?
In the next blogs in this series, we will share the national and international experiences presented at the Workshop, as well as the possible proposals to efficiently face urban informality in Paraguay.
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