Informal politics and informal settlements – measuring the relationship across 200 cities

Informal politics and informal settlements – measuring the relationship across 200 cities


Written by:

Chandan Deuskar

First Published:

06 Nov 2019, 10:19 am


Informal politics and informal settlements – measuring the relationship across 200 cities



What is the relationship between the physical form of a city and its politics? Those of us who study cities in developing democracies in the Global South are familiar with how informal political dynamics can drive the growth and persistence of informal settlements, or conversely, how informal settlements can foster certain types of politics. In particular, there has been a wealth of research over the years into the role of clientelism – i.e. the informal provision of benefits, including urban land and services, to the poor in contingent exchange for political support – in informal settlements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.


However, research into clientelism in informal settlements has mostly been based on case studies of individual settlements or cities. In the course of my own research into the topic, I began to wonder whether there was a global relationship between clientelism and informal settlements, and if so, whether it had ever been demonstrated empirically. I found that it had not, and for good reason. The data that such a study would need had not existed at the global scale – that is, until recently. Two new data sets would allow this question to be analysed for the first time.


The first data set is the 2016 version of the Atlas of Urban Expansion, produced by New York University, UN-Habitat, and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which includes metrics on different categories of urban growth, as discernible from satellite imagery, in a globally representative sample of 200 cities. The other is the eighth version of the Varieties of Democracy (‘V-Dem’) data set, released in 2018. The V-Dem Institute, headquartered at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, uses thousands of country experts to produce metrics on political practices in 201 countries from 1789 onwards, in what it describes as “one of the largest-ever social science data collection efforts”. The 2018 version includes for the first time a ‘Clientelism Index’ among its variables. I was able to use these recently released data sets to test the statistical correlation between clientelism and informal urban growth, across the Atlas’s sample of 200 cities.


My findings have recently been published in Urban Studies as an article titled ‘Informal urbanisation and clientelism: Measuring the global relationship’. They suggest that cities in more clientelistic countries are in fact likelier to experience urban growth in the form of a particular kind of informal settlement: those that appear to have been planned in advance of settlement (‘informal subdivisions’), though clientelism was not correlated with the share of unplanned, ad-hoc informal growth or total informal growth.


I found that if a country were less clientelistic by one point on a 0-10 scale in 1990, the proportion of residential growth in the form of informal subdivisions between 1990 and 2015 in its cities would decrease by 16% of its previous value, a magnitude equivalent to that of an increase in 1990 GDP per capita (Purchase Power Parity) of $2,700.


It isn’t possible to test causality with the data available, but in the article I propose a few possible mechanisms by which clientelism and informal subdivisions may be correlated, drawing from examples in the literature, which suggest that the findings are plausible.


These results support the notion that urban informality is not simply associated with poverty but also with politics. They indicate that particular political dynamics may have a spatial ‘signature’ on the urban landscape, and/or that, conversely, certain urban spatial forms may be associated with certain kinds of politics. The study also demonstrates how newly available data have expanded the possibilities for research into the relationship between politics, urban space, and informality.


Read the accompanying article Informal urbanisation and clientelism: Measuring the global relationship on Urban Studies OnlineFirst.