Slum dwellers take the lead in building partnerships

by James Tayler

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

“If we think we can build houses for the poor without the poor, we will never make it,” said Jerry Ekandjo, Namibian Minister of Regional and Local Government, Housing, and Rural Development. They were words that were echoed by government officials from East and Southern Africa throughout last week’s “Building Cities Through Partnership” conference in Windhoek, Namibia.

After two days of sustained dialogue with 12 SDI slum dweller federations, politicians and officials from Malawi, Naminia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, were all singing from same hymn book as Ekandjo.

The conference was a unique opportunity for slum dwellers, government officials, and donors to sit at the table and discuss the priorities of the poor. The meeting was chaired and orchestrated entirely by slum dweller leaders from SDI federations.

“Partnership” and “participation” are words that often get stripped of substance when referring to the role and work of the poor. But after presentations by federations from countries in East Africa, Asia, South America, and Southern Africa, the extent of results achieved on the ground by SDI people’s federations was staggering: tens of thousands of houses and tenure secured. Hundreds of thousands of lives changed.

The scale of such achievements has been built through organization around a developmental agenda and people’s empowerment, said SDI president Jockin Arputham. Partnership with the government is a key part of building a voice for the poor. “We are not begging from donors and government,” he said. “We are saying ‘come join hands with us.’”

Such proclamations were followed by action. John Bande, Malawian.Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, signed a landmark memorandum of understanding with SDI for funding slum upgrading projects in his country. This commits the national government and Malawian homeless people’s federation to work together to develop over 2,000 housing units nationwide by the end of 2012. Funds will also be committed from both sides.

The message from slum dwellers, donors, and government officials was clear, said Melanie Walker, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”