Book review: Forbearance as Redistribution: The Politics of Informal Welfare in Latin America

reviewed by Irene Farah

1 Feb 2022, 3:48 p.m.
Irene Farah

Forbearance as Redistribution book cover

Book review: Forbearance as Redistribution: The Politics of Informal Welfare in Latin America

by Alisha C Holland and reviewed by Irene Farah

New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2017; 398 pp.: ISBN 978-1-316-62635-1, £26.99 (pbk)


Alisha Holland’s book, Forbearance as Redistribution: The Politics of Informal Welfare in Latin America (2017), offers a theoretical framework and a compelling analysis of cities’ state capacity and its implications for welfare in Latin America. Against previous work, she argues that lax enforcement of laws is not an issue of state incapacity, but an electoral and redistribution strategy which politicians employ. By developing the concept of forbearance, which she defines as ‘an intentional and revocable government leniency towards violations of the law’ (p. 13), she differentiates cases of politicians being unable to enforce the law from cases where politicians are unwilling to enforce it. In order to examine local state capacity, she examines variation in enforcement of laws against street vending and squatting in Bogotá (Colombia), Lima (Perú), Santiago (Chile), and Istanbul (Turkey). While most of her emphasis is in the Latin American context, Turkey serves as an example where forbearance practices have shifted towards enforcement, providing external validity to her theory.

I found the book to be a very important contribution to the literature in the Global South on welfare provision, urban governance and electoral theory since it sheds light on the bi-directional complex relationship between the state and society, using housing and employment as a lens to study the political structures of cities. Of particular importance to urban studies, she further complicates conventional theories on clientelism, going beyond practices of intermediation and patronage by illustrating how politicians use forbearance as a redistributive tool and as an indicator of commitment to poor constituencies. Moreover, her scrutiny of urban informal processes serves as an example of informal welfare provision of the state, in line with widely accepted work in urban studies arguing that informality is produced by the state and going against conceptions of informality as a synonym of ‘unplanned’ action (Roy, 2005). By analysing cities across time, she also provides a rich historical analysis of housing and employment policies, emphasising the spatial and temporal variations across and within the different cities.

In Chapter 1, Holland explains why politicians allow for legal violations while others do not and lays out her argument by presenting a definition of forbearance and her case studies. She also creates a typology of forbearance in function of political rewards and economic incidence, creating different dimensions of forbearance which are classified as corrupt, clientelistic, plutocratic and welfarist enforcement.

Most innovative is Holland’s conceptual framework laid out in Chapter 2, which draws from economists’ price theory to empirically distinguish when politicians choose not to enforce the law from when politicians cannot enforce the law using offences as a function of sanctions. Both agents involved in the model (citizens and politicians) determine the degree of enforcement. In her model, citizens decide to comply or not with the law, having an inverse relationship between sanctions and offences. Conversely, politicians decide to enforce the law or not, showing a positive relationship between sanctions and offences. Through this lens, she examines stricter or more lenient cultural norms and different enforcement levels defining the level of sanctions and offences and the degree of forbearance.

In Chapter 3, Holland analyses the pathways that link national housing provision policies with enforcement decisions sanctioning land invasions and informal occupations by shadowing politicians and bureaucrats in Perú, Colombia, and Chile. In turn, Chapter 4 shows how state capacity is insufficient to explain enforcement patterns against street vendors, focusing its attention on the variation of core constituencies in Lima and Bogotá. In this chapter, Holland analyses the shift of attitudes towards street vendors by tracing enforcement polices through newspaper articles and discusses the impact of electoral dynamics on degrees of enforcement.

I found that Chapters 3 and 4 were particularly rich in the amount of information gathered from each city since she traces meticulously the enforcement processes which different governments undertook in order to distinguish administrative constraints from political decisions. In these two chapters, Holland goes beyond the understanding of administrative processes as indicators of state presence, exposing cases in which there is an unwillingness to enforce laws due to a lack of government social policy or as an electoral strategy in poor core constituencies which benefit from squatting and street vending.

Chapter 5 also contributes to the literature on decentralisation, electoral theory and city governance, arguing that in decentralised cities (Lima and Santiago), enforcement varies across space depending on the proportion of poor in each district compared with centralised cities (Bogotá) with more homogenous enforcement across districts. She concludes that cities with different electoral institutions will have varied enforcement patterns. In order to analyse the geographic variation in how much effort a government exerts, Holland examines structured surveys she administered to the directors or sub-directors of each electoral district and then conducts a cross-sectional analysis of enforcement by running a Poisson regression measuring the impact of unlicensed vendors in each district on the number of enforcement operations.

The previous example is one of many data compilation methods and analyses drawn throughout her book. Beyond Holland’s theoretical contributions, the quantity, quality and diversity of data that she collected during her research and her use of mixed methods to carry out the analyses make the book worth reading. Although her attempt to generalise her theory of forbearance across more countries is less convincing than her interviews, surveys, and historical analyses in her case studies, her creativity in statistically isolating key elements from pre-existing surveys, such as the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) survey data from 18 countries, is laudable. Holland uses this survey to provide external validity to her study in Bogotá regarding people’s opinions on enforcement of laws concerning squatters and street vendors, redistributive claims and how these opinions vary across income levels. In order to compare both data, she isolates the key aspects of a question which contains information on both land invasion and political protest by measuring the variation unique to the question of land invasions.

In Chapter 5, she also quantifies the number of unlicensed street vendors and the number of decommissions, controlling by districts’ characteristics to estimate the degree of forbearance in Colombia. However, the small size of her data (36 observations) is worth noting despite her findings being consistent with the theory of enforcement determined by the number of offences in centralised cities.

Towards the end of the book, Chapter 6 takes a more macro approach, examining how governments rely more heavily on forbearance rather than on tax-based policies or substantive social policies as a mechanism of welfare provision. She also argues that these countries have fallen into a ‘forbearance trap’ by creating post-hoc policies, attempting to formalise informal property and employment, deepening informal welfare policies.

Throughout the book, she also makes use of elasticities to explain how responsive enforcement policies are to budget changes or fluctuations in state capacity, elucidating the distinction of politicians willing versus politicians unable to enforce. As is the case of street vendors in Bogotá, politicians do not respond to changes in resources or fluctuations in state capacity, making enforcement inelastic and depicting forbearance as a political strategy. These concepts are helpful to keep in mind throughout the book in order to differentiate political strategies from state capacity. Without a doubt, Holland’s methodological adaptation of elasticities serves as a tool for future research in urban studies to think analytically about dynamic and complex processes happening in cities.

In sum, Holland’s book is an exemplary contribution on how the poor get access to basic social goods like housing and employment in cities. She meticulously studies how enforcement varies according to changes in budget, the presence of social policy, voter demographics, and state capacity across spatial and temporal dimensions in Colombia, Perú, Chile, and Turkey. She uses Istanbul as an example of an economy which escaped the forbearance trap. In this case study, she shows that by diminishing inequality, expanding its middle class and helping it become a more ethnically diverse city, the government shifted from forbearance strategies to greater enforcement against squatters and vendors. This case makes us rethink the conditions of migrants in places within and beyond Latin America and how they are positioned in terms of housing and employment.



Roy, A (2005) Urban informality: Toward an epistemology of planning. Journal of the American Planning Association 71(2): 147–158.
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