Leadership in a Slum: A Bangkok Case Study

by Alan Johnson

This book is a good contribution to the emerging literature on work in slum communities but without a specific focus on missional notions.

Regnum Books International, St. Philip and St. James Church, Woodstock Rd., Oxford, OX2 6 HR, U.K., 2009, 238 pages, £24.99.

Reviewed by Glenn Smith, executive director, Christian Direction in Montreal.

This book is a good contribution to the emerging literature on work in slum communities but without a specific focus on missional notions. As the title indicates, Alan Johnson is interested in examining how leadership is lived out in the specific situation of the Bangkok slum Lang Wat Pathum Wanaram (LWPW). Three questions orient the research and inform the models and conclusions. Interestingly, the author provides a good personal critique of his questions as the reader draws to the end of the book.

The first three chapters give an excellent overview of slum life. Anyone familiar with the issues will recognize the dynamics. Slum communities can be places of hope as well as places of despair. Although there are multiple ways to define these communities, UN-Habitat uses characteristics and indicators to have a more operational definition of a slum. These include communities that have inadequate access to safe drinking water, inadequate access to sanitation, poor structural housing, overcrowding, and insecure residential status.

LWPW certainly fits the description. A fundamental question one needs to examine at every juncture of slum living is how poverty affects worldview and how worldviews can transform poverty. Essentially, poverty is about relationships. It is not just about economics. Poverty is a broad concept including economic, social, emotional, physical, and spiritual realities. It is often intergenerational. It affects peoples’ identity (social exclusion, absence of harmony in life and well-being) and vocation (deprivation at every level of life, including one’s ability to participate in the welfare of the community). People sense they have no choices. A worldview is a powerful instrument in perpetuating chronic poverty. Johnson gives good insights into these issues in this section of the book.

The next three chapters examine models of leadership in LWPW. As this section is based upon a vast inquiry that the author did, it is interesting to learn from his quantitative and qualitative research methods. He proposes different models to engage the dynamics of Thai culture as experienced in the slum. The concluding chapter, “Application for Leadership Practice and Training,” is a fine piece of contextual reflection.

The strengths of this textbook are its contextual examination of the issues. The author’s sensitivity to Thai urban culture and the dynamics of culture in group formation provides any reader with a vivid illustration of how to investigate similar issues in one’s own community. However, the text is quite erudite, and the casual reader (however interested he or she may be in slums) could easily get lost in the models the author proposes. For those readers, I would suggest Planet of Slums by Mike Davis (Verso, 2006). It is quite thorough and very readable. Shadow Cities—A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth (Rouledge, 2004) is the newest book on the subject that I have read. This investigative reporter spent months living in squatter communities in places like Mumbai and Istanbul. He paints an upbeat picture of life in these unique places.

That said, for someone looking at issues of leadership formation within slum communities, Johnson’s book is a fine piece of contextual research.

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