Essential Partnerships: Local Governments and Organized Communities

by James Tayler


By Joel Bolnick, William Cobbett, and Jean-Pierre Elong Mbassi

The roots of the Know Your City campaign grew from the acknowledgment over the past decades that a fundamental shift in the approach to urban development is urgently needed. From its initial work in two slum areas to its current partnerships in 103 cities covering 1,238 settlements, the KYC campaign demonstrates that constructive dialogue, knowledge sharing, and collaboration between slum and informal settlement communities and local government authorities can replace confrontation and lead to the effective integration of informal settlements in comprehensive city planning and upgrading.

The KYC campaign is a joint program between SDI-affiliated federations of the urban poor, and the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG-Africa), with active support from Cities Alliance—of which SDI and UCLGAfrica are prominent members. It is a powerful mechanism for community organization, participatory local governance, partnership building, and collective action. Anchored by community-led informal settlement data collection and the creation of a verifiable body of critical knowledge, the KYC campaign produces a framework for comprehensive and inclusive city planning and management.

In its origins and ongoing practice, the KYC campaign recognizes the interdependence of city governments and the urban poor and draws attention to the resources available and needed for integration of informal settlements into city planning.

KYC is not just about data collection, sharing, and management. It is a participatory, pro-poor, people-centered approach to urban governance. Over the last decade, partnerships between local governments and communities have enhanced collective knowledge about informal settlements and strengthened the capacity of urban poor communities and local authorities to plan inclusively, to enable livelihood opportunities, and to provide land, services, and shelter for the poor.

Filling the knowledge gap is the first essential step toward an informed and balanced dialogue between slum and  informal settlement communities and local governments. Many city governments do not have the data necessary for inclusive city planning and slum communities are viewed as a burden to the city and a problem to be controlled and regulated. KYC data on informal settlements fills this gap and enables informed dialogue on inclusive policy and practice. Starting with the demarcation and mapping of slum and informal settlement neighborhoods in the city, slum dwellers set about settlement profiling and self-enumeration. The information is housed in a data system shared by city governments and slum dwellers, and has the potential to transform dysfunctional systems of urban planning and management.

The co-production of data and information advances recognition of informal settlement dwellers—often considered illegal or nonexistent by authorities—and reinforces their right to the city by quite literally putting them on the map. Such recognition fosters a sense of belonging among communities, confers pride and dignity, and sets the stage for dialogue and partnership. For any dialogue and collaboration to be successful, both parties must know each other and the essential facts of their shared space, and be able to enter the conversation as equals.

Two important factors have made the KYC campaign collaboration possible: first, SDI’s emergence as a global constituency of organized urban poor communities with a proven capacity to develop and implement innovative, bottom-up strategies in concert with formal-sector responses to the challenges faced by cities; and, second, the essential commitment of enlightened local government officials and officers to demonstrate a more inclusive and participatory approach to city planning and management.

In 2016, following successful pilots in Lusaka and Ougadougou, SDI and UCLG-Africa concluded an agreement to expand the Know Your City concept into a Know Your City campaign. Endorsed by Cities Alliance, the campaign is based on protocols co-developed by SDI and UCLG-Africa. The protocols, summarized below, guide the key phases of the campaign.

The key steps in the Know Your City Campaign are:

  • Expressions of interest: The city government or organized community forwards expressions of interest to a team of evaluators comprised of city mayors and leaders of organizations of the urban poor.
  • A readiness assessment is carried out by SDI and UCLG-Africa with the support of Cities Alliance before the campaign is officially sanctioned.
  • Teams are formed comprising the relevant city government line departments and slum community representatives.
  • The campaign is launched with a public event providing a platform for all stakeholders to pledge their commitment.
  • The actual profiling and mapping is undertaken in all settlements, led by slum communities.
  • Data management: Representatives of all stakeholders, especially local authorities and communities, are trained in digital data management, and a Know Your City data management center is set up at the municipal offices.
  • Data dissemination: Data is held by communities, local government, UCLG-Africa, and SDI. Data is analyzed, and reports are produced and disseminated.
  • Settlement-level and municipal-level forums are convened for the verification of information and its dissemination back to the communities, and to provide input into city development plans.
  • A City Fund may be considered to resource the proposed city developments emerging from the campaign.
  • • A city-wide federation or network is formed from the grassroots collectives that are activated or identified through the campaign process.
  • Peer-to-peer exchanges with national associations of local governments and national federations of slum dwellers are facilitated, as well as participation in strategic global advocacy events that further expand and highlight the value of the KYC campaign.

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The design of these campaigns captures the way in which SDI and UCLG-Africa have significantly widened and expanded the Know Your City concept. Know Your City is no longer only a database in which all SDI’s community mapping and profile data is housed. It is a powerful campaign that enables dialogue, collaboration, and the use of rich community data to inform inclusive policies, practices, and investments. Achievements to date indicate that functional relationships between these two most critical role-players set the preconditions for sustainable and secure cities in which all citizens can live safe and productive lives.

Beyond Africa, many other federations in the SDI network have taken up the Know Your City initiative and have built partnerships with their city governments through data collection. As a result, the Know Your City website now houses detailed profile data and survey maps for over 100 cities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

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The Know Your City campaign makes a commitment to being pro-poor and offers a challenge to the “smart cities” concept, which tends to place a major emphasis on the use of high-tech and big data to guide choices in the planning and management of cities. By contrast, a Know Your City campaign emphasizes the collaboration of organized communities and local authorities as the cornerstone of planning for inclusive and resilient cities. KYC offers a strategy for harnessing data that is deeply rooted in local knowledge and context, to guide decisions to make cities safe, secure, livable, and attractive to all.

In February, SDI launched a landmark publication titled “Know Your City: Slum Dwellers Count,” showcasing the extraordinary contribution of the Know Your City (KYC) campaign to creating understanding and taking action to reduce urban poverty and exclusion. We are posting a new chapter from the book every week. Enjoy! 

Download the full publication here: