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Quilombos, Cortiços, Favelas: Moving from Historical Oppression to Social Transformation

by André Sales Batista, Marcos Burgos, and Ricarte Echevarría


Andre Sales Batista, Marcos Burgos, Ricarte Echevarr are three of the founders of the NGO Mundo Real. Andr and Marcos have been conducting research on Rio de Janeiro favelas for over 6 years, and Ricarte has been involved in community development work for over 10 years in New York City. Mundo Real currently has community development projects in New York City, Puerto Rico, and Rio de Janeiro.  Andr was born and currently resides in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, Marcos was born in Puerto Rico and currently resides in New York City, and Ricarte was born and currently resides in New York City.



                        During the early morning hours of Good Friday in 2004 a long-distance phone call was made from Rio de Janeiro  largest slum to a small island in the Caribbean. The connection was weak, which made the distressed caller even more difficult to understand. The call came from a young man in Brazil struggling to cope with yet another intense gun-fight in his community, Rocinha. He explained, in jittery yet coherent words, how utterly exhausted he was from the violence that has plagued his community for so long. The young man in the Caribbean could only listen and reassure his friend that he was hoping and praying for him and his family  safety. The two friends vowed to do everything within their power to ensure that people in Rocinha, such as workers, students, children, the disabled and elderly, in short the 95 percent of Rocinha  residents that are not involved in criminal activity, would not have to live in such conditions. Their commitment to that vow was what led to the creation of Mundo Real, a nongovernmental organization that was formed by them in 2006, and aims to work in similar communities throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Mundo Real was formed to engage in community development projects and to respond to the  Challenge of the Slums.1 The launching of Mundo Real’s first project is in Rocinha, and is the focus of this article.2 It is a direct challenge to current orthodoxies of sociological practices as well as to current trends in NGO approaches, and calls for a direct engagement within communities with the primacy of local leadership in the modern practice of community development by ‘third sector’ organizations.



This work began with a specific event, the distraught phone call from a community under siege. From there we develop our analysis, starting with a concise history of Rocinha and of Rio’s favelas, then we deviate from standard sociological perspectives by offering our own practical recommendations, some of which are currently being implemented to address these growing problems. All of this is considered within the context of asymmetrical globalization, inequality, human rights violations, and socio-economic injustice. Indeed, responding to today’s social problems through the creative and critical lens of a liberating social science is our main goal.3


The majority of our fieldwork in Rocinha is conducted by community residents. We favor this more organic method of research because who can understand and express the plight of the oppressed more appropriately than the oppressed themselves.4 Below we will provide a basic historical description of the beautiful community of Rocinha along with our analyses of sociological and NGO trends, and conclude by discussing the current work of Mundo Real.


Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas

The history of Rio’s favelas is a history of resistance to racism, and socio-economic and cultural oppression. In a sense, favelas are symbolic of the  arvelous City itself, particularly from the 1800s to the present. When favelas emerged during the later half of the 1800s Rio de Janeiro was primarily concentrated in what is today the city center (o Centro). There are various theories regarding the history of Rio  favelas, however, in this work we rely primarily on the ones that link the origin of favelas to the late 1800s, and which identify the majority of favela inhabitants as descendents of African slaves.5 The abolition of slavery did not occur until 1888 in Brazil.6 By the late 19th century, millions of ex-slaves had been released from ‘formal slavery’ into an unwelcoming, openly racist society that provided black and brown Brazilians with very few opportunities, particularly in the areas of employment, education, healthcare, and housing. Housing was and still is a pivotal issue, and many went on to live in cortiços, or over-crowded tenement houses, in and around the city center. Local authorities for various discriminatory reasons demolished the majority of cortiços, including the largest and most notorious, Cabeça de Porco. Subsequently, the thousands of the cortiço dwellers who were left homeless took advantage of the left over debris and constructed make-shift shacks on hills in and around the city center. These displaced cortiço inhabitants, most of who were ex-slaves, were among the first favela dwellers, or favelados. Thus, we concur with Campos and other authorities who recognize a direct link between Trans-Atlantic slavery, its 1888 abolition in Brazil, and the emergence of favela communities.7


Rocinha’s history began in the 1920s when the first clusters of shacks were noticed.8 The worldwide economic depression of the late 1920s was partially responsible for the massive rural to urban migration, with many destitute migrants moving to Rio  emerging favelas, such as Rocinha. Rocinha  fastest growth occurred during the 1950s and 1960s; largely influenced by the destruction of several nearby favelas, the continuation of the rural to urban exodus, and the real-estate boom in the surrounding upper-class neighborhoods.9 By the 1960s, Rocinha was considered Rio de Janeiro largest favela, and many claimed it to be the largest slum in all of Latin America. Today Rocinha is a sprawling, and towering, urban slum/city consisting of roughly 21 neighborhoods, but only occupying an area of approximately one-half of a square mile.10 Current population estimates range from an official government figure of 56,000 to the inflated estimate of 1 million.11 While accurate data do not exist we estimate that there are approximately 140,000 to 225,000 inhabitants, and consider the government  official population estimate to be an under-representation of reality, a misrepresentation many locals, as well as scholars, consider deliberate.12


Most academics covering favela history tend to focus largely on urban planning and public service issues such as public health, urban space, and/or lack of standard and affordable housing. We agree with Campos that favela history should also, and most importantly, be understood as a historical social process—an oppressive one—that is largely the result of the Brazilian aristocracy’s treatment of historically subjugated peoples. The criminalization and injustices favela residents have endured for over a century existed before the favelas, and is best comprehended by considering the way the power elites13 in Brazil have long dealt with poor and non-white Brazilians, especially within the runaway slave communities known as quilombos.14 The authorities considered quilombos to be wretched settlements, overrun by squalor, poverty, and crime; and they were essentially ignored by the state with the exception of violent intrusions.15 As formal slavery ended, first the cortiços, then the favelas, inherited the quilombos undesirable status. Thus, fear and resentment have long been two of the generative themes linking the minority power elites to the majority non-whites and the poor in Brazil. These tensions are exacerbated because many favelas are located on valuable land that speculators and developers covet in order to engage in profit-seeking and capital reproduction.16 At the heart of the problem, however, is the fact that the poor and non-whites in Brazil have long been excluded from formal markets.17 For favela residents, long oppressed and marginalized, the favela offers the unique and advantageous position of being outside of standard institutions, allowing favela residents concrete possibilities within each favela community.18 The communal nature within favelas has helped generations of ex-slaves and migrants prepare for life in the city, as the place where they were received and welcomed. It was exactly these communities and networks of solidarity that the established state powers have attempted to demolish, as they successfully did with the cortiços.


Today elites and middle class residents of Rio de Janeiro fear the favelas, and the associated violence and drug trafficking more than ever, but their fear is not new. As early as November of 1900 favelas were gaining negative attention when the Jornal do Brasil published an opinion letter addressed to Rio’s Chief of Police. The letter (which we have translated) reads as follows:


A group of vagabonds and thieves have invaded nearby Morro da ProvidLncia….they are bothering the neighbors, and the families in the area are tired of hearing the profanities of these unproductive people all day…these people are of the lowest class, living in squalor and seeming to be fine with it, and in order to permanently remove them a minimum of 80 heavily armed soldiers will be necessary.


The negative publicity continued throughout the 1900s as is eveident from a 1952 Time magazine article, which included the following excerpts:


The favelados number an estimated 500,000, about three-fourths of them Negroes. Rio's cops, tough as they are, avoid favelas even by daylight. As a sanctuary for criminals, said the newspaper O Globo, the favelas are as inviolate as the ancient temples. The law . . . stops at the base of the hill, as if it were the frontier of a foreign country. Cariocas fear favela-bred epidemics of disease and crime, but they fear explosions of discontent even more. Now & then, a rumor that favelados are about to descend from the hill in plundering hordes puts fear into carioca hearts. Such rumors floated about during last month's carnival celebrations, souring some of the city's gaiety with a vague dread.


The Time article concludes with Dr. Guilherme Ribeiro Romano’s somber warning that, “This may be Rio's last chance, he said. If we don't control the favelas, they will keep on growing and turn this city into one vast slum.” Though disturbing, these thoughts are not out-dated. For example, Sandra Cavalcanti, the former Secretary of Social Services for Rio de Janeiro, expressed similar sentiments in a November 1996 publication of the Jornal do Brasil newspaper:


The only solution that exists in order to take back the territory that is in the enemy’s hands is to initiate a bellicose operation. To try and implement in practice the tactics of war, with the occupation, ostensive and forceful, of the entire territory to be conquered.


More recently, just after the three-day war of April 2004 in Rocinha, Rio’s vice-governor proposed that a 20-foot high solid wall be built around the entire community.19 The objective of the proposed wall was to control violence and growth. After heated debate and exchange of opinions, most people agreed that turning an already oppressed community into an urban concentration camp was not the best plan, and so the vice-governor’s proposal was never implemented.


Rocinha, and other comparable communities, are in need of comprehensive, and non-prejudicial/classist, approaches to community development that aim to ameliorate some of Rocinha’s most challenging problems while incorporating some of its most important resources: the strength of local bonds amongst residents and the desires that many residents have for improving the conditions of daily life in Rocinha. Community development planning must be inclusive of local residents and should begin from within Rocinha. The NGO Mundo Real is presently taking an important step in this direction at a time when Rocinha is in the midst of the continual danger of shifting gang control and facing the imminent implementation of misguided state-sponsored interventions.20



As we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we are confronted with the reality, as the case of Rocinha well shows, that the cultural, social, economic, and political domination of people are issues that are as prevalent in modern times as they have ever been in human history. It is even possible that at no time have these issues been as important considering the increasing populations of people that live under social, economic, cultural, or political oppression.21 How are the residents of communities like Rocinha, and residents of ‘slums’ anywhere, responding or reacting to their crisis? How can social scientists work with them to overcome these injustices?


It is Mundo Real’s belief that social scientific work can remain true to the practice of the scientific study of societies, while simultaneously producing a body of work that is tendentious in one very important sense: it aims to directly contribute to efforts to create necessary social transformation. While macro studies of the impacts of globalization, neo-liberalism, and inequality are informative, they are not directly useful to the people most in need of information, resources, education, and assistance. For example, in a recent article the noted urbanist Mike Davis examines the challenges posed by the global growth of urban slums.22 As he describes in his article, slums are growing in number and population worldwide, but any sense of community is lost at this macro level of analysis. Through our experience in Rocinha, we have encountered people with inspiring life stories who share a community that has an identity and history. This history is shared in many ways with other favelas throughout Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil, but less so with other ‘slum-like’ communities throughout the world. An analysis based on global conditions like Davis’ is no more than minimally helpful to ‘favelados’ whose struggles, as we have shown, are historic, and local. Micro level social scientific studies, the classic ethnography for example, do a great deal of injustice to oppressed people, as well. The idea that communities of oppressed people can be studied in a very intimate manner with access provided to social scientists by local residents, and the end result of this relationship is a study that does absolutely nothing to better the material conditions of residents’ lives is selfishness carried to its greatest extreme.


There is copious research pertaining to Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, making them some of the world’s most investigated low-income communities.23 However, very few publications, particularly in the English language, have been the product of work conducted by, and then credited to, residents of the favelas. Favela discourse in the US and Europe is dominated by members of racial groups and social classes who, despite possible good intentions, could not be further removed from the local reality of communities like Rocinha. Again, fieldwork may entail a short stay in a favela, but the end result is typically a job in a first world university or mainstream NGO for the researcher, and continued struggle for residents of the community studied. We consider this asymmetrical exchange to be an infringement on the cultural and intellectual property rights of favela residents. Amidst all of this ‘study’ the social conditions of favela residents remain stagnant as favela populations grow, and proposed public policy responses are still as draconian as they have ever been.24 Social scientific study should be more directly useful to residents of oppressed communities by assisting them in a process of social transformation. We are convinced, by our research, that many residents of Rocinha are in a position to utilize social scientific study to achieve this aim.  However, we are also convinced that in order to create this change some framework for carrying out this complicated objective is necessary, and in modern times no framework is more conducive to this process than the NGO, and no NGO model is presently more effective than the community development organization. Our philosophical approach differs from practices that are currently predominating in the NGO world.25 We argue that civil society organizations can increase their effectiveness, and legitimacy, by locating within communities like Rocinha and incorporating local residents into their leadership and staffing.


Social Transformation in Rocinha: Local Activism on Behalf of the Disabled

On a rainy day during the summer of 2006 in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro three founders of the NGO Mundo Real met with Cely a resident activist and organizer for the rights of the disabled in Rocinha whose 14-year old son, Jefferson, has cerebral palsy. For fourteen years she has struggled in Rocinha to raise a disabled child while simultaneously coping with the realities of daily struggle in one of Rio de Janeiro  most heavily armed and dictatorially controlled favelas; all while having very little supportive services accessible to her in the form of assistance for disabled children or their parents. While her son does attend a school for the disabled, it is Cely who transports him to and from school daily on either local public or private transportation, neither of which is equipped to transport disabled passengers. It was such seemingly overwhelming challenges that moved Cely to offer supportive services to other parents of children with disabilities within Rocinha who face the same obstacles. Mundo Real founders met with her that day to review a list of over 150 families with disabled members that she had compiled over time during her organizing of various recreational activities and of supportive services. She estimates that there are nearly 1000 such families currently living within Rocinha without a single community-based organization available to provide services to this special needs population. Mundo Real work involved conducting a series of local interviews, in collaboration with Cely, with some of these families in order to lay the groundwork for the development of a multi-issue community development center within Rocinha.


Many of the families we have interviewed have very critical opinions about the only available services that they can obtain for disabled individuals in Rocinha. These services are provided by FUNLAR, a Rio de Janeiro-based NGO that is fully funded by the local municipal government (Prefeitura) in Rio to provide services to the disabled.26 As currently designed, FUNLAR  programmatic assistance consists of a team of five professionals: a social worker, physical therapist, occupational therapist, psychologist, and a phonologist. They each arrange home visits with disabled residents who sign up for services. However, the disabled families have two major complaints concerning the provision of these services. First, FUNLAR began providing these services to residents of Rocinha just over five years ago, and due to their lack of information they had to rely on Cely  list of disabled families within Rocinha in order to begin service provision. FUNLAR staff soon realized that the population of disabled residents, approximately 1000, was enormously larger than they had anticipated, however that realization has never led to an increase in the number of individuals who have been assigned to work with Rocinha  disabled residents. Secondly, the services that FUNLAR staff provides are not systematically organized, therefore residents may sign-up for services then not ever receive them, or if they do receive a home visit from any of the five professional service providers, a period of months or even years may pass between follow-up visits. Moreover, nearly all of the families that comprise Cely  database of disabled residents share the opinion that the FUNLAR program is a municipal government program whose principal objectives are not to address the real needs of disabled residents of Rocinha, but to provide for the municipal government  need to claim that these services are available and to provide employment for the individuals that FUNLAR employees. As such, many of the families that sign-up for services with FUNLAR (most do not) do so while remaining permanently convinced that the organization  motivations do not lie where they should. It is also important to note that FUNLAR does not include disabled individuals or family members in any of its decision-making processes, regardless of these families obvious capacity to inform program design, implementation, and outreach.


Already, many of the families have expressed the desire to create a community-based rehabilitation center in Rocinha for the disabled. Some of their primary concerns include having insufficient resources to purchase medication, diapers, and wheelchairs, or other important supplies for the disabled. But the families do not simply want to be given supplies, they are mainly interested in finding alternative methods for acquiring them and ensuring that they are equitably distributed. For example, some of the parents have proposed investing in a diaper making machine, so that diapers can be made available to disabled families for free, and to other low-income families at a discount. It is an idea that Mundo Real has already received a commitment of financial support for from a private donor who has spent time in Rocinha as a resident-tourist. Moreover, Cely has formally joined with Mundo Real to implement a strategic plan to work towards the development of community-based rehabilitation center. As part of this plan, a series of community-wide meetings have been scheduled to discuss planning for the center, the development of a set of policies that will govern the center, and the identification of volunteer resources from both within and without Rocinha that will be relied upon to ensure that the center will remain financially viable.


What is making this endeavor possible is a combination of local disenchantment with government policies, Mundo Real  intervention, and the presence of local activists like Cely. Initially, Mundo Real plans were limited to the development of a multi-issue community development center, but with the considerable community support and anticipated participation of local leaders and residents, we feel there is no reason why these disabled families can not come together in an organized manner and work towards establishing what they all feel they need most: a community-based rehabilitation center. They fully recognize that municipal, state, and federal policies intended to assist them have largely been  ymbolic policies, and this reality can be seen not just in the FUNLAR program but in some of the previously discussed government responses to quilombos, corti s, and now favelas.27


In the U.N.’s 2003 publication on global slum growth one of the most important analyses made was that resources should be ‘targeted and tailored’ to those residents of slums, like the disabled, who suffer the most from the inhumane conditions that plague them. Community leaders in Rocinha, and in other Favelas, reside within such a complex and dangerous set of conditions that their ability to ‘network’ to the outside world of social and economic justice and human rights actors (civil society) will be a critical determinant in their ability to mount community-led efforts for social transformation. What we advocate and practice through Mundo Real is perhaps a provocative, but not a radical or new concept: residence within communities in a process of teaching, learning, and acting alongside members of oppressed communities to overcome injustice and create change.28 We are not proposing that community development work of this sort is a panacea, ultimately, Mundo Real’s position is that governments at all levels should be more accountable and responsive to the needs of all citizens, particularly those who face the greatest social, economic, or physical barriers. We do believe, however, that if properly designed and motivated NGO’s can lead the path to this social transformation.



1.  In 2003 the UN released Challenge of the Slums  the most comprehensive and alarming study to date of the rapid growth of slums worldwide, which points to neoliberal policies and IMF Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) as the principal causes of inequality and burgeoning slum growth across the globe. The report warns that if critical changes do not take place soon approximately 2 billion people worldwide will be living in slums. Pictures of Rocinha grace the cover of the report, indicating the importance of our community to this pressing issue.


2.  See Mundo Real’s website


3.  Joe R. Feagan and Hernán Vera. 2001. Liberation Sociology. Westview Press


4.  Freire, Paulo. 1972. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Herder and Herder.


5.  Descendents of indigenous Americans and of Europeans are also represented in Rio’s favelas, as are recent immigrants from Asia and Angola. As such, the favelas’ inhabitants are visibly racially mixed, and intermixed, however, the majority of inhabitants are unquestionably descendants of African slaves. See Lessa, Carlos. O Rio de todos os Brasis 2000 Editora Record.


6.  Brazil was the last country to abolish Trans-Atlantic slavery (Campos March 2002).


7.  Campos 2002:22-31


8.  Pandolfi, Dulce Chaves and Grynszpan, Mario. 2003. A Favela Fala: Depoimentos ao CPDOC. Fundaçno Getulio Vargas


9. Ibid.


10.  José Luiz de Souza Lima, local historian and head of an NGO located in Rocinha.


11.  The government data came from the 2006 IBGE census count and the other figure is from Waldheim   García Montoya in El Extra on 1/25/2005.


12.  Leeds, Elizabeth. 1996.


13.  The term ‘power elites’ is borrowed from C. Wright Mills’ classic study of the organization of power in the United States, which called attention to three firmly interlocked prongs of power: military, corporate, and political elite, except that in the case of Brazil the prongs should be expanded to include the considerable power of both organized religion (mainly Catholic) and organized crime. 


14.  Campos. 2002.


15.  Campos 2002:22-31


16.  For example, Rocinha, which has some the most beautiful mountain vistas in Rio, including views of Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf Mountain, and Ipanema Beach, is located between two of Brazil’s most expensive residential communities, Gávea and Sno Conrado.


17.  The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) indicates that black and brown Brazilians earn only 51 percent of what white Brazilians earn.


18.  Obviously not all the alternative possibilities within favelas are positive or progressive, as in the case of the favela-based drug-gangs, but nonetheless they are alternative ways of surviving in an unjust society.


19.  Folha de Sno Paulo 04/12/2004.


20.  During the Christmas holiday season plans were agreed upon between State officials in Rio de Janeiro and the Federal government to use armed forces  to reinforce the city of Rio de Janeiro after an intense wave of violence in late 2006.


21.  United Nations Human Settlments Programme: ‘The Challenge of the Slums’: The Global Report on Human Settlements 2003


22.  Davis, Mike ‘Planet of the Slums’ in New Left Review Volume 26 March/April 2004.


23.  McCann, Bryan ‘The Political Evolution of Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas’ Latin American Research Review 2006 Vol. 41 (3).


24.  As recently as December 2006, local government representatives in Rio de Janeiro were planning for the use of the military in the policing of urban areas and for allowing for the continued use of private urban militias to combat the hold of organized, narco-gangs in some of Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas.


25.  NGO formation and growth worldwide has begun to mirror social, economic, and even regional inequalities extant in the private and government sectors. For a good critical analysis of NGO (Nonprofit) growth in the United States see Hall’s, Inventing the Nonprofit Sector, and for a cogent critique of NGO growth, practices, and inherent inequalities in Latin America see Sorj’s, ‘Civil Societies North-South Relations: NGOs and Dependency’ Working Paper 1, November 2005.


26.  See FUNLAR Rio website at


27.  A ‘symbolic public policy’ is a political science term for a government policy (or program) that has no real material impact on people, as opposed to ‘material policy’. See Anderson, James E. ‘Public Policymaking’Houghton Mifflin Publishers 2000.


28.  Jane Adams, Myles Horton, Paulo Freire, Saul Alinsky, as well as the practitioners of both liberation theology and liberation sociology have all taken this ‘plunge.’ In the early part of the 20th century, Chicago’s slums were the face of American poverty, inequality, and injustice.  It was in the heart of these slums, that Jane Adams founded Hull House, the first settlement house in American history, and where Saul Alinsky introduced his ‘community organizing’ methods that would become so successful that thousands of organizations have utilized them to create lasting social and economic change! Myles Horton founded the Highlander School in the mountains of Tennessee, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, among many other notable social actors, participated in many workshops at Highlander. Strategy, organizing, and other topics were the meat and potatoes students digested at Highlander, and the Civil Rights Movement was the product of their collective learning efforts. There is simply not enough space to detail the many successes of Paulo Freire, arguably the greatest social change thinker and practitioner in Latin American history, or of the many liberation theologians whose ‘works’ defined them, most notable among them being Arch Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Arch Bishop Don Helder Camara in Brazil; that any liberation sociologists can be counted among these great examples may be the saving grace of the discipline of sociology, if not of the entire social sciences.


Works Cited

Anderson, James E. ‘Public Policymaking’ 2000 Houghton Mifflin Co.

Arias, Enrique Desmond ‘Faith in Our Neighbors: Networks and Social Order in Three Brazilian Favelas’ Latin American Politics and Society Spring 2004, Vol. 48 Issue 1.


Davis, Mike ‘Planet of the Slums’ New Left Review Volume 26 March/April 2004.


Campos, Andrelino de Oliveira ‘Origens, Expansno e (des) Construçno do Espaço Favelado no Rio de Janeiro: A Cidadania Ausente’ in 1 Rio Urbano: Revista da Regino Metropolitana do Rio de Janeiro Publisher by Fundacno Centro de Informaçtes e Dados do Rio de Janeiro Março 2002.


Feagin, Joe R. and Vera, Hernán ‘Liberation Sociology’ Westview Press 2001 Cambridge, MA.


Freire, Paulo. 1972. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, Continuum, c2000.


Hall, Peter Dobkin ‘Inventing the Nonprofit Sector’ John Hopkins University Press 1992 Baltimore, MD.


Leeds, Elizabeth ‘Cocaine and Parallel Polities in the Brazilian Urban Periphery: Constraints on Local-Level Democratization’ Latin American Research Review, Vol. 31, No. 3. (1996), pp. 47-83.


Mills, C. Wright. ‘The Power Elite’ 1956 Oxford University Press.


McCann, Bryan ‘The Evolution of Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas’ Political Latin American Research Review 2006 Vol. 41 (3).


Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro ‘Um Retrato das ONG’s no País’ Published in Rio Estudos n<138, setembro de 2004. 23p.


Sorj, Bernardo ‘Civil Societies North-South Relations: NGOs and Dependency’ Working Paper 1, November 2005 available on the web at


United Nations Human Settlements Programme. 2003. The Challenge of Slums. Global Report on Human Settlements.