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Remember Huaycan

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page A17

"When elephants fight," says the African proverb, "it is the grass that suffers." So, as the Bush administration goes tusk to tusk with Old Europe to install the architect of the Iraq war as president of the World Bank, let's not get so engrossed that we forget the billion people underfoot -- the "grass" that the World Bank is supposed to cultivate out of desperate poverty.

The war in Iraq is as much a product of Paul Wolfowitz's grand idea to democratize the Middle East as anything else, and to the war's opponents this should disqualify him as head of the institution that is supposed to build bridges, not bomb them.

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As deputy defense secretary, Wolfowitz has paid too little attention to life-and-death details such as troop levels and body armor. His blithe assumption that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators was wrong. Domino-effect events in Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinian territories keep alive the chance that the gambit he designed may ultimately work, but it's still too soon to tell. European leaders who opposed the war see his nomination as in-your-face American arrogance.

But I'm not sure any of this is relevant to the World Bank's mission, and I'm sure it doesn't matter to the people of Huaycan.

Huaycan, which I got to know a few years ago when I was a correspondent in South America, is a vast shantytown on the outskirts of Lima, Peru -- a sprawling settlement that spills down a bleak, treeless, utterly barren hillside toward the polluted trickle that Peruvians still grandly call the Rimac River.

Tens of thousands of people lived there -- no one knew exactly how many. Most were internal refugees who had fled political violence and economic devastation in the high Andes. They had come to the big city, or at least as far as its bleakest fringe, to scrape out a living. You could tell the newest arrivals because their homes were built entirely of woven reed mats. Those who lived in two or more rooms, enclosed with cinderblocks, were the affluent of Huaycan.

I remember how pristine the children looked as they went off to school in the morning. To get their uniforms so clean and crisp, the women of Huaycan had to take the laundry all the way down to the river to wash it, then haul it back; if they were lucky, they owned or could borrow an iron, and perhaps someone in the family had earned enough money that day to buy a little starch.

When we think of extreme poverty we often think of villages and huts, but increasingly we should be thinking of places like Huaycan. Urbanization is one of the great transformations underway in the world today, as economic trends and political upheaval draw people from the countryside to the cities in massive numbers. Throughout the developing world, shantytowns ring major cities like necklaces of misery. By 2015, according to United Nations estimates, 23 cities in the world will have populations of more than 10 million. Bombay, Lagos, Dhaka, Sao Paulo, Karachi and Mexico City will all be bigger than the Big Apple.

These Third World mega-cities are not only reservoirs of poverty but also cauldrons in which culture, politics and violence mix in unpredictable ways. Their size overwhelms local and national governments; other sources of authority rush in to fill the vacuum -- fundamentalist religion, radical politics, organized crime. The hillside slums of Rio de Janeiro, for example, are ruled by drug-dealing gangs that dare the police to enter. Try to imagine what sort of worldview young minds are forming in the slums of Karachi or Cairo.

In Peru, shantytowns are called pueblos jovenes -- young towns. That's just what these improvised settlements are: the world's youth, the world's future. It's a future the World Bank could, and should, help shape.

My worry about Paul Wolfowitz is that his well-known zeal to spread democracy will lead him to focus the bank's lending and influence so intensely on reforming governmental institutions -- a key step toward economic growth -- that he overlooks the desperation and ferment in the slums and shantytowns of the world. The other day, as part of a charm offensive, he chatted by phone with Bono, the Irish rock star and poverty wonk. He should keep in mind the title of one of Bono's most famous songs, "Where the Streets Have No Name." That's the place to start.


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