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Slums and Slum-dwellers: the untapped potential of collective capacity

The recently launched report by the High Level Panel on the post-2015 Development Agenda puts forward that the post-2015 agenda needs to be driven by five big, transformative shifts. The first one it highlights is that the new agenda should leave no one behind. It states that:

“We should ensure that no person – regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status – is denied universal human rights and basic economic opportunities. We should design goals that focus on reaching excluded groups.”

Clearly, the world will have to pay particular attention to slum-dwellers, who are left behind in many areas of development and in the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

This year’s Global Monitoring Report expresses concern over the violation of housing rights of urban poor and the challenges this poses to the achievement of the MDGs.  As highlighted by the United Nations MDG Report 2012, insecurity regarding possible eviction without due legal process remains one of the most common forms of housing rights violation for urban poor in developing countries. Re-establishing urban residence can pose huge economic and social costs for urban poor who are not only confronted with establishing a new residence but also often find their property destroyed during forced evictions, livelihoods disrupted and social capital depleted when communities are split apart. However, alongside increased reports of slum evictions and slum clearances in the last decade, a growing number of success stories of slum service provision and in-situ upgrading are emerging. Three key themes seem to dominate the reasons behind successes. These are: resident driven and community conceptualized solutions; an anchoring role of community based organizations; and a close collaboration with local governments.

While specificities of local contexts demand that the solutions are tailored accordingly, there seems to be considerable scope for scaling up these successes not only at the city level, but also nationally and even regionally. For example, under the nationwide slum upgrading initiative (Baan Mankong) in Thailand, 512 upgrading projects across 1,010 communities were undertaken between 2003 and 2008. At a regional level, the achievements of the Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) are noteworthy. ACCA has had considerable success in facilitating community-led slum upgrading in cities of its 19 member states since 2009, including in Cambodia, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. Centered on building community level financial capacity to support development and maintenance activities undertaken by slum residents, the recent successes of Baan Mankong and ACCA have been in securing land tenure from local governments as well as negotiating adjustments to existing urban planning standards for better addressing the needs of slum dwellers.

Community driven success stories highlight the collective capacity of slum dwellers that is commonly overlooked in much work documenting vulnerabilities of urban poor. Two aspects of such untapped potential of urban poor are highlighted by the GMR 2013. One, the spatial proximity of slum dwellers necessitated by the structure of the built urban environment can create an effective platform for collective action, community driven development, and in turn, increased accountability from urban local governments. Admittedly, collective action does not simply materialize because people live in close proximity. But the work of ‘clustering’ or ‘federating’ savings groups that form National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda (NSDFU) highlights how the agglomeration of the collective capacity among Uganda’s slum dweller communities has improved the living conditions of people across several slum settlements through water and sanitation improvements. Simultaneously, the work of NSDFU has been instrumental in improving tools for urban planning for local governments by undertaking slum infrastructure mapping, enumeration of slum households and identifying gaps in service provision across slums. 

Along similar lines, the work of “garbologist” Sonia Dias, Waste Sector Specialist at Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), focuses on informal sector waste pickers who make significant contributions to the task of waste management within cities but often live and work in deplorable conditions. She highlights the recent recognition of waste pickers as collaborators by local governments in Belo Horizonte (Brazil) and Pune (India). In both these cases waster pickers have formed collective partnerships and strategic alliances with other advocacy groups to negotiate their inclusion as partners within municipal waste programs. These partnerships extend not only to the waste collection process but also to the integral involvement of waste picker associations within urban waste management policymaking process. Not only has this raised the standard of living and working for the waste pickers, but also strengthened solid waste management in these two cities in a cost effective manner.

In closing, GMR 2013 recognizes that new ways of thinking about service delivery are required to address the uniquely urban challenges confronting MDGs in developing countries. The good news is that an increasing number of innovative strategies that tackle these challenges are being documented. But more emphasis is needed to understand the scalability of locally derived approaches. This does not mean advocating for a cookie cutter approach. Instead it requires an identification of the factors that have resulted in success within local contexts and may be replicated elsewhere. Most importantly, strengthening the capacity of local governments and gaining their commitment for a pro-poor urban agenda will be a key ingredient for any successful approach.

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