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Can North African urban policy keep up with a rising population?

Caroline Abadeer, a Stanford graduate student in political science, examines urban housing policy in North Africa.
Urbanization and Infrastructure

Nearly 70 percent of Cairo’s residents live in “informal” housing – homes built without permits or that are, in some other way, illegal. As more and more people come into the city, neighborhoods throughout Egypt’s capital have expanded rapidly in any way they can.

The city’s housing situation is by no means unique in the developing world, says political science graduate student Caroline Abadeer. A Spring 2016 Graduate Fellowship recipient, Abadeer studies North African urban policies that are meant to curb the more negative impacts of population growth and urban expansion. Among these impacts is the reality that approximately 5% of the Middle East region’s population now resides in slums.

caroline abadeer
Caroline Abadeer

In Kenitra, Morocco, WWII military barracks evolved into what became known as barraqas (slum shacks) after the end of the war. Less than 90 miles away, Morocco’s economic hub of Casablanca is home to the largest agglomeration of  bidonvilles, or shanty towns, in the Maghreb region.

Among Abadeer’s interests are issues of urban governance and the informal economy in countries like Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia. She has spent nearly half a year in North Africa exploring urban strategy policy in these countries.

The policies Abadeer examines include social housing programs enacted in places like Morocco and Tunisia that integrate former slum dwellers into formal middle-class neighborhoods. “The goal of these efforts is to improve the living conditions of the urban poor, and provide them with adequate goods and services they don’t always have access to in informal and slum areas,” she says.

Abadeer explains that these programs were in theory intended to help poor, former rural migrants receive adequate housing when they move into the cities, often seeking economic opportunities. “But in reality, it is not always these communities that benefit,” she explains.

This discrepancy between stated and actual policy outcomes is one of the aspects of urban development that Abadeer wants to understand. In her dissertation, she addresses how developing states in the Middle East implement their urban policies by posing questions like: “How are urban policies formulated? And what are the socioeconomic impacts of slum resettlement programs?”

Field research has taken Abadeer to Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, where she has interviewed academic urban planners and spoken with civil society workers and government officials involved in these efforts. She is also interested in visiting Algiers, Algeria in the near future, which was declared the first slum-free Arab capital in October 2016 at the UN HABITAT-III Conference.

The ultimate goal, Abadeer says, is “to understand the successes of social housing programs across regional countries.” For example, she points out that while countries like Tunisia and Egypt adopted social housing programs meant to benefit lower income citizens, in practice it was often middle income workers like factory employees who ultimately benefitted.

A former Fulbright scholar, Abadeer speaks French, Modern Standard Arabic, and Moroccan Arabic. Her interest in the often times informal nature of North African economies dates back to her college days at the University of Minnesota, where she wrote an undergraduate thesis on the zabbaleen, poor Christian pig farmers from upper Egypt who have worked as Cairo’s unofficial trash collectors since the 1940s.

This college project sparked Abadeer’s interest in economic informality, which includes  informal housing construction that takes place outside the legal system and formal economy. In developing countries, she points out, informal economic activities often comprise up to 50% of all economic activities. This ranges from small-scale street vending to prostitution, to squatters building houses in Cairo on land that they do not legally own.

Please note that prior to May 2019, the Stanford King Center on Global Development was known as the Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development.