The Post MDG Debate: “For the Poor,” but no Voice of the Poor

by James Tayler


An influential debate is playing out in the proverbial halls of global development decision-making far from the informal settlements in African cities. The basic targets that will drive government decisions around spending and policy priorities, donor areas of focus, and wider perspectives aound development, are under discussion. These are targets that will promise much of what the post-World War II development institutions have long committed to the people who live in the so-called “developing world.” These are targets to “eliminate poverty,” “deliver basic services,” “secure growth” “reduce inequality,” and so on.

Civil society has very little voice in the determination of the next round of development goals, and this is even truer for the people who are the subjects of these promises. For the people who live in slums, who lack access to toilets, water, and economic security and opportunity, abstract commitments to change their conditions mean little. 

 Yet the content of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the prospect of an urban goal, are significant for all of us who work to make cities more inclusive. Much work is to be done, especially to ensure that an urban goal – and indeed all goals – recognises the deep divides of power, finance, and knowledge that characterise the decisions that drive urban development. SDI is one of a number of organisations that is demanding that the urban poor — the current losers but surely the most worthy potential winners of such a debate — be located as central actors in the goals that governments and formal agencies adopt. For the urban poor federations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, that comprise our network, development goals have to be about improving the lives of real people. As such, a goal on cities must be fundamentally oriented around the people who stand to gain — or lose — the most from the success or failure of such a goal.

A target for universal provision of well-located land, shelter,and basic services should be a minimum of an urban goal. Unfortunately, the previous Millennium Development Goals included a goal on slums that was very unclear and very unambitious – only 100 million were to be helped. The Millennium Development Goals also made the commitment to reduce by half those without adequate water and sanitation. An urban goal should encompass a specific focus on inclusion and the rights of the poor in cities through universal access to these amenities (land, services, and shelter).

Last year, SDI began to articulate a set of principles for a global compact on urban development, the Urban Poor DevelopmentGoals. There are four elements:

1. Inclusive Institution Building: State institutions reformed or created to embed partnerships with community organisations, especially at the city level to drive decision making about programmes and ensure adequate financial allocations. 

2. Inclusive Land Managament:  Well located land should be made available to the urban poor, who constitute the majority in most cities in the developing world. Zero forced evictions and security of tenure for slum dweller communities.

3. Inclusive Urban Infrastructure:  Water, sanitation, electricity and transport infrastructure that services the poor so as to acheive zero open defecation in cities globally within 10 years and electrcity for all.

4. Inclusive Community Development:  Programmatic investment by national and local authorities in capacity building of community organisations so as to realise the inclusive development agenda in the above three elements. 


One of the biggest advantages of the emergence of strong support for an urban goal in the post-MDG framework is that it focuses policy-makers on a specific space and a scale of administration in which to make change. In particular, this means a much greater focus on both formal local government and the constellation of actors that drive local governance. Strong local government requires a strong and organised slum dweller organisations to drive both innovation and accountability in our cities.

We cannot ignore this debate because it will define our work for years to come. Now is the time to do what previous development agendas have conspicuously avoided doing: putting the voices and tools of the informal majority of our cities at the centre of how we work. This is the real promise of an urban goal in the SDGs.

Check out SDI’s 2013 – 2014 Annual Report for more on the Post MDG Debate