Sharper Learning Focus: A Culture of Learning By and for the Poor

by James Tayler


The end of 2017 marked the end of a four-year strategic planning period for SDI and the close-out of various projects and contracts in support of implementation of that plan. To report on the successes, challenges, and impact of our work over that time, SDI produced a Basket Fund Close Out report, available in full here. In this series of blog posts, we present excerpts from this report that highlight some of the key learnings and impact of our work over the past four years and point towards areas for continued growth in the new Strategic Plan, launched this year.

The first outcome towards which the SDI network was working over the course of the last Strategic Plan was: SDI affiliated federations apply tools for learning and knowledge with sharper focus and rigour.

Throughout the 2013-2018 period, the city learning centers (identified at the outset of the last Strategic Plan) in Kampala, Accra, Cape Town, and Mumbai played a central role in the development of city-wide organizing and partnerships throughout the network. Targeted exchange programs to and from these centers for both community members and their government partners have been central to this effort.

In the Kampala learning center, citywide community organizing and slum profiling and mapping support robust participatory planning forums that have shaped city policy and practice and catalysed the implementation of a range of slum upgrading projects. Learning exchanges to and from Kampala have focused on topics ranging from innovative sanitation technology to construction methods to the development of land-sharing models for inner city land-based finance to large-scale mixed-use development, incorporating both low-cost housing and informal market upgrades to the development of the SDI network’s first youth media team to citywide profiling and mapping of Kampala’s slums. This learning has resulted in the implementation of a number innovative projects within Kampala as well as across the SDI network where federations have learned from the Kampala federation. As a result of this work, an MOU was signed between the federation and the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) establishing an Advisory Committee for Urban Renewal, chaired by the KCCA Executive Director.

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In the Cape Town learning center, the federation (FEDUP) and Informal Settlement Network (ISN) have also undertaken profiling, enumeration and mapping at city scale. Enumeration of 18,000 structures and profiling of 106 settlements was undertaken as part of two government tenders, representing both a massive achievement in terms of recognition of the quality of community-collected data on informal settlements, and a distinct challenge in terms of creating a service-provider/client relationship between organized communities of the urban poor and government.

SDI identified Cape Town as a learning center in order to ensure representation of middle income countries with well-resourced cities and highly regularized planning frameworks. Federations in such cities can struggle to be viewed as partners in development and parties to decision-making. A related paradox is that successful community precedents are taken up by the government and replicated, but when replicated the central success element of community participation gets lost (eg. Peoples Housing Process (PHP) and re-blocking).

Some important learning opportunities in Cape Town from the 2013 – 2017 period include the re-blocking of informal settlements to improve accessibility, reduce risk of shack fires, flooding, and crime, and allow for basic service extension; community-led research and enterprise development into clean cooking technologies; open space upgrading to include a drainage system, community halls, children’s playground, and sanitation facilities; a community-driven finance facility that manages contributions from government and donor partners towards slum upgrading projects; and the establishment of a Solid Waste Network with over 350 informal waste pickers.

CapeTown Reblocking

In the Accra learning center, the federation’s participation in the Cities Alliance-funded Land, Services, and Citizenship Program dramatically increased the scale and impact of its work and made it an important learning center in SDI’s West Africa region. As part of the program, the Ghana federation, GHAFUP, was the lead community partner charged with mobilizing savings schemes at city scale, profiling, enumerating, and mapping Accra’s settlements, establishing settlement forums, organizing communities to participate in city forums, contributing to the drafting of national urban policies, and designing and implementing community slum upgrading projects such as sanitation units, water taps, and footpaths. Exchanges to and from this learning center served to introduce lessons from the Uganda Country Program (TSUPU), and spread these throughout Ghana and into Liberia, to which Cities Alliance introduced a Country Program most recently. Of late, the Accra learning center has been at the forefront of engagements seeking to understand what resilience and climate change adaptation should look like in cities characterized by informality – engaging in rich reflections with government partners on their city-wide profiling data.

Additional important learning opportunities supported by Accra from 2013-2018 include citywide slum profiling and mapping – including serving mapping –  making the Ghana SDI alliance a nationally recognised source for slum data and knowledge; the development of an active youth component engaged in data collection, media production, toilet construction, and solar energy, and waste management; precedent setting solar energy and clean cooking projects; and strong contribution to the National Urban Policy Framework and Action Plan.


The Mumbai learning center is unique in its offering for knowledge applicable to working at a massive scale. Mega cities throughout the network look to Mumbai for lessons on how to meet some of the most obstinate issues facing millions of slum dwellers – namely climate change, mega infrastructural investments and their impact on the poor, entrenched inequality and intergenerational exclusion. Highly productive exchanges to and from the Mumbai learning center have resulted in stronger partnerships between federations and city governments and more ambitious aspirations for slum upgrading by these partners, especially in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa.

Some important learning opportunities supported by Mumbai from 2013-2018 include digitizing of savings records to increase accountability and transparency; incorporation of a vulnerability index into KYC settlement profiles; explorations around the use of solar power to subsidize the cost of maintenance at housing relocation sites; in influencing private sector investment protocols to assess impact on the city’s poorest and most vulnerable.

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SDI’s Basket Fund represents a commitment from SDI’s partners to join a global network of slum dweller organizations in their long-term struggle to combat poverty and exclusion in cities. In a development sector dominated by consultants and specialists, SDI adds value as a unique organization channeling resources directly to the poor for the development and implementation of their own strategies for change. This arrangement represents an understanding by SDI’s partners that systemic change won’t be projectized or fall neatly into a funding cycle, but requires long-term multi-pronged collaboration to continuously garrison the gains and push the boundaries.

On both fronts SDI made substantial inroads during the 2013-2017 period. Download the full publication here.