Resilience & Sustainability from the Bottom Up: Building Partnerships for Scale & Impact

by James Tayler

Enumerations in Cape Town

By Sheela Patel, Chair of the SDI Board and Co-Founder & Director, SPARC

For actors and institutions concerned with the economic and social well-being of humanity, urban development is increasingly recognized as the major lacuna of fighting poverty, managing climate change, and generating inclusive growth. Within our network, we are transitioning to a new scale of activities and beginning to get recognition in our cities, countries, and at the global level for what we do. As an institutional form focused on altering the developmental calculus such that the informal poor can achieve greater voice and influence in formal decision-making, we are tasked with navigating the tensions associated with increased institutionalization and formalization. We are in a position where, as an institutional form, we are able to speak to major development debates, as seen through the eyes of the grassroots urban poor federations that comprise our network.

Change is a crucial and foundational aspect of ongoing influences that impact a neighborhood, city, nation and now our planet. Some changes we can plan for and embrace. Others we can imagine, but communities on the ground need space and time to reflect on the impact on their lives and produce a response. Still others come without any warning. The changes that emerge from what communities seek to do and aspire for have been negotiated for acknowledgement and inclusion into policy, and our work over the past year clearly reflects the projects and partnerships that reflect the progress made. SDI now increasingly seeks to develop capacity to anticipate the impact of global and externally promoted developments, to ensure that its affiliates and their memberships understand and develop confidence to respond rather than react to them, and to ensure that they can participate in discussions around these issues.

So how do we create a balance that retains focus on what can be done by civil society and by our own institutional interventions, while external support of often oppositional currents of change continues? How do we accommodate planetary challenges and national issues within our perspective without allowing them to drown our focus on creating voice, choice and space for the urban poor in cities? Clearly the choice is between reacting or responding to expand our vision, capacity and reflections on these processes as we engage communities of the urban poor and their city government for local action with a global perspective.

In the context of continuing to build and refine the strategic orientation of our network, it is worth reflecting on the oft-used and misunderstood concept of “sustainability.” We need to clearly understand the implications of what we do and where it will take us. In development-linked discussions there is a big debate on how institutional sustainability is defined. The prevalent, simplistic assumption is that if you have financial sustainability all else will follow. There is no question that financial independence and sustainability have value in and of themselves. However, such a singular focus is a denial of the complex environment in which organizations working on issues of poverty operate.

Formal institutions seem decades away from creating real inclusion of informal urban dwellers and all rhetoric of inclusion has to be constantly tested. The innovative precedents needed to make this process operational are few and far between. Even those financial institutions that exist are in a hurry to demonstrate sustainable models in time frames that are not suited for the task at hand.

We in SDI are of the opinion that the development institutions and projects owned and managed by the poor are viewed as investments in strategies to provide voice, outreach, scale and impact in addressing poverty. If viewed from a lens of research and development for addressing urban poverty, SDI and similar organizations become learning centers for the larger community. There are few strategies, and even fewer systems, that encourage the poor to seek investments from the state. Clear linkages between what is good for the poor, and strategies that have both local prospects for achieving scale and potential to be globally transferable, are in short supply.

What we do and with whom we interact to create solutions has huge significance for plotting the development agenda more broadly than just in our own network. The quest to refine and develop our strategic approaches in our cities and countries merits investment as a priority, far and above the notion of simply becoming financially self-sufficient. At some point we may no longer have financial support from traditional development aid institutions, and will be forced to develop alternative strategies. We are already preparing ourselves internally for this possibility. The fear is that this may limit our ability to set precedents, take risks and innovate while building internal governance structures and management skills that will work not only for us but inform policy and practice for a sector that, to a significant degree, still needs to be built from scratch. This requires continued exploration of both the successes and fruitful failures on our road of experimentation for building voice, influence and knowledge of, by, and for the poor in our cities.


For more about SDI’s strategies for developing institutional sustainability and building voice and influence through partnerships at the city, national and global level, read our 2012-2013 Annual Report.