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Favela study shows improved living conditions

Living conditions in the slums of Rio in Brazil (favelas) seem to have improved dramatically, according to research by Janice Perlman, professor of comparative urban studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Unfortunately, however, the favelas have been plagued by drug trafficking, leading to concerns about crime and insecurity. Perlman was a guest speaker at a recent seminar organized by PROLEAD, the IDB-sponsored Program for the Support of Women’s Leadership and Representation.

In the late 1960s, Perlman spent a year and a half living in three favelas in Rio de Janeiro, where she interviewied 700 residents. Some 35 years later, she returned and managed to track down about 40% of the original interviewees. Her findings are to be published under the title "From Myth to Reality, Rio’s Favelas 1969-2002" in an upcoming book (Urban Informality, Lexington Press, 2003).

Social capital payoff. In reinterviewing the favela residents along with their children, Perlman found that about half had moved to better neighborhoods, and that the upward mobility rate was higher for women, including women heads of households. She also found that upward mobility was higher among the favela residents who had been more active in the community than those who did not participate in neighborhood associations or visit regularly with friends, neighbors and relatives.

Unfortunately, community space has been expropriated by drug dealers, making residents afraid of leaving their homes and therefore shrinking their “social capital.” The residents’ sense of insecurity is no illusion: 80% of the interviewees reported having been robbed or having a family member who had been robbed. Even more disturbing was the figure for homicide, with 27% of the interviewees reportedly having a family member who had been murdered.

Social stigma. During Perlman’s second visit, she noted that the vast majority of the favela residents had better housing, with brick homes, electric power and indoor plumbing. Education levels had increased as well, with illiteracy rates falling from 23% of the original interviewees to 6% of their children. However, returns to education, measured in terms of income by years of schooling, were much higher for interviewees who lived in non-favela neighborhoods than those living in favelas, reflecting the social stigma associated with favela residence.

Many interviewees reported that at job interviews, once they gave a favela address, they were told the position was already filled or not to call. When questioned about discrimination, 96% of the interviewees cited favela residence as a factor, just above the 95% who listed race, compared with 84% for clothing and 71% for race.

Although since the return of democracy in 1985 they have seen improvements in housing, transportation, sanitation and access to education, the favela dwellers claim they have also suffered from a deterioration in their economic situation, insecurity and exclusion, according to Perlman. A majority of the interviewees expressed disillusionment with democracy, which they had hoped would eventually bring them a better quality of life. A large majority agreed that “a good job with a good salary” was the most important factor for them for “a successful life,” but only a minority felt the government had helped them.

Rio de Janeiro has a favela neighborhood improvement program known as Favela Bairro that has received two loans from the IDB for a total of $360 million. A seminar on the program was held recently at IDB headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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