Know Your City Concluding Thoughts: Democratizing Data & Making the Invisible Visible

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By Jockin Arputham, Joel Bolnick, Somsook Boonyabancha, and Sheela Patel


When the police van went up

We went down

When it came down

We went up.

When the police stood

We also stood

When they sat down

We also sat down

When the committee went to negotiate

We went to invade

When they evicted us

We resisted the eviction

Patrick Magebhula

“This Is Not a Debate”


The late Patrick Magebhula was the founder, charismatic poet, and president of the South African Federation of the Urban Poor. In many ways Patrick understood, better than most, how organizations of the urban poor could use their capacities to produce disruptive change. Critically, Patrick understood that resistance and conflict were but part of an arsenal of actions that organized communities could use in their struggle for inclusion in city development. These confrontational strategies were never intended to be ends in themselves. They were a means to creating conditions for engagement with other stakeholders, normally the state: entities that otherwise considered the poor either as obstacles to development or beneficiaries of the interventions of others. What is more, these strategies made little contribution to the all-important question mentioned earlier in this report: When evictions are prevented, what happens next?

Patrick coined many of the slogans of the South African Federation, which over time got replicated in other countries. One such slogan was a pointed rephrasing of one of the rallying cries of the South African liberation struggle. “Amandla Ngawethu”— Power to the People—was a chant that stirred the excluded black majority to action and struck fear in the hearts of the apartheid police. “Amandla Ulwazi”— Knowledge Is Power—was Patrick’s reconstruction.

Know Your City underscores this message, the inference being that if knowledge is power, then data is political. The value of data serves many purposes that can be described as political. It legitimates representation of the urban poor. It removes the mantle of invisibility that impedes the urban poor in their efforts to contribute to the transformation of their cities. Most important, it gives voice and choice to a significantly substantial majority that live in the shadows of the formal city.

Many individuals, organizations, and institutions worry that shedding light on that which is hidden will produce more evictions, more divisions, and more oppression. SDI disagrees. Democratizing data and making the invisible visible is critical for making development investments work. Not only should the poor collect data that affects them and the city, but they have the right to interpret it as well, within a clearly articulated framework and within accepted standards. What gets aggregated and disaggregated and who creates the framework for how data is used and how it is owned is deeply political. The obsession with big data and the new science of algorithms is a case in point. Seldom has this big data been used to produce goods and services and resource allocations that serve the poor. Data about the poor—about their land insecurity and the huge deficit in amenities that they experience—is rarely the basis for understanding what cities need.

When community data links grassroots organizations, city governments, and private sector actors, it becomes easier to develop plans with a joint focus on delivery to ensure that all are included. Assigning different roles and responsibilities becomes simpler—as does ongoing monitoring.

SDI believes that each neighborhood must understand how their data helps them make choices and open avenues to seek useful discussions to improve their lives. What is more, SDI’s emphasis on women’s participation and increasingly on promoting the role of youth produces instruments for data collection, collation, aggregation, and application that are likely to produce outcomes that are sensitive to the needs of all residents, not just those determined by a few male leaders and politicians.

Patrick Magebhula called SDI’s data collection process “the community’s magic box.” The time is at hand to open it and spread its magic to all cities in the world.

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. This is the last chapter from the book. Scroll back in our blog posts to read the rest of this exciting publication. Enjoy! 

Download the full publication here:

Looking Ahead — Opportunities for Fundamental Change

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By Joel Bolnick, Robert M. Buckley, Sarah Colenbrander, Achilles Kallergis, Nancy MacPherson, Diana Mitlin, and David Satterthwaite

SDI has been inspired by the vision of socially and economically integrated slum settlements with security of tenure, universal access to affordable basic services, and adequate housing. To that end, SDI has demonstrated over many decades that constructive dialogue, collaborative data gathering, and knowledge sharing among informal settlements, communities, and local government authorities can contribute significantly to inclusive and sustainable urban development. Our societies face mounting global risk, characterized by profound inequality and rising wealth disparities, social instability, disruptive technological advancements, large-scale involuntary migration, and climate change. Many of these challenges are concentrated in cities.

Fundamental changes are needed to:

  • shift the approaches to urban development and informal settlements so that the poor are recognized as assets and partners, not problems;
  • support the essential partnerships required to deliver inclusive, resilient, and sustainable urban development;
  • reimagine data and information systems so they support shared knowledge, trust, and collective action;
  • develop innovative instruments and frameworks to monitor and report on poverty that shape more inclusive policies, programs, and investments.

✸ ✸ ✸

The successful realization of KYC in 103 cities and 1,238 settlements demonstrates the power and potential of an expanded KYC campaign. KYC is capable of reorienting the way that urban planning and development happens. It can guide local governments, national and international policies, and programs and investments at scale. As such, it can contribute significantly to managing the persistent social, economic, and political risks facing cities and nations.

A scaled-up KYC campaign presents opportunities for SDI and partners to transform existing urban development practice and policies by catalyzing new thinking and solutions in: monitoring for local action; advancing urban resilience and inclusion; redefining and managing risk; and securing new finance for the urban poor.

Monitoring That Enables Local Action

As noted in Rose Molokoane’s introduction, there is a need to move from talk to action. KYC has much to offer the SDG and city monitoring processes in moving to achieve inclusive, resilient, and sustainable urban development.

KYC profiling and enumeration processes provide the detailed information needed to reframe issues from a local perspective and identify practical solutions for informal settlements. The central role of slum dwellers in collecting and processing data ensures a focus on the poor and on operational knowledge for local actors working to implement global commitments.

Universal generalized indicators fail to capture the complex and locally specific conditions of slums. They therefore lead to policies and programs that do not respond to the most pressing needs of the urban poor, and can direct investments away from realistic and affordable improvements. Without accurate information and a deeper understanding of the needs and priorities of informal settlements, slum dwellers remain invisible, and efforts to reduce urban poverty and inequality will fail.

KYC fills a crucial gap in efforts to localize global development monitoring agendas in the following ways:

It generates operational local knowledge. A commitment to disaggregated, local data on the most vulnerable populations is essential to ensure we understand the reality of life for the majority of residents living in cities characterized by informality. It is staggering to see the exclusion of slum households and informal settlements in national censuses, household surveys, and other data that form the basis of poverty measures. Through their design, such surveys miss millions of poor individuals, particularly those residing in informal areas. KYC is designed to measure what matters to the urban poor and cities concerned with inclusive development.

KYC offers systematic, rich, contextual information across low-income neighborhoods in cities of the Global South. The information generated through KYC profiling and mapping is operational. It informs local action by clearly showing what the priorities, capacities, and preferences of slum dweller communities are, and how those preferences vary by local context, city, neighborhood, or  even household. This level of detail is necessary to realize pragmatic improvements, set appropriate standards, and create adequate solutions from the urban poor perspective.

It generates collaborative local action. KYC has tremendous potential to develop a shared understanding of local conditions and build the relationships needed for collective action by slum dwellers and local governments. It demonstrates the critical role that community groups play in framing problems, identifying issues, and addressing priorities. The power of KYC extends well beyond the data it produces and is transformative because it serves as a mechanism for communities to use this rich information to broaden understanding and accountability, both in horizontal relations (within a community) and vertically (among communities, the state, local governments, and the private sector).

Concrete examples of KYC’s potential are found wherever there are active SDI federations. The impact is strongest where KYC is embedded in national urban policy and programming. In the Cites Alliance–funded Country Programs, for example, the role of community profiling and mapping is a core element recognized by government, local partners, and international support agencies. In Uganda, Ghana, and Liberia in particular, SDI federation profiling data set baselines from which program achievements were measured, informed the development of city development strategies and urban policy, and grounded the identification, by communities, of priority slum upgrading projects funded by municipal Community Upgrading Funds.

To “leave no one behind,” we need better tools to measure change in the most vulnerable populations. For those seeking to convert information into action, KYC offers tremendous opportunity for monitoring progress toward global agendas and catalyzing dialogue and action at local, city, and national levels.

Advancing Urban Resilience and Inclusion

Inequality and climate change are two of the defining challenges of the contemporary era. Increasingly, developing cities find themselves at the very heart of these challenges. Over the past decade, the global development community and investors have seen promising results from investments that seek to build the resilient capacity of individuals, communities, and systems, including the most vulnerable. Significant conceptual, technical, and operational advances have been made using a resilience lens to reframe problems, solutions, and investments to respond better to incremental, chronic, and catastrophic shocks and stresses. The KYC campaign has been essential in advancing new ways of analyzing and understanding the role that informal settlements can play in achieving resilient and sustainable cities, reframing problems and solutions, and managing and mitigating risks. As a groundbreaking civic initiative for urban resilience, KYC offers unparalleled insights into the risks facing urban residents, as well as the means to transform relationships within settlements and cities in ways that tackle the driver of vulnerability: exclusion.

While investments in resilient, “smart,” sustainable, green, and livable cities have proliferated, many of these initiatives fail to address persistent poverty, exclusion, and lack of opportunity. Instead they often focus on technological fixes to infrastructure while remaining relatively silent on inclusion and equity.

SDI’s membership includes some of the most vulnerable populations in the world. These people frequently live in parts of the city that are exposed to hazards—for example, in low-lying coastal areas and floodplains, or on steep slopes. Environmental threats are exacerbated by the absence of risk-reducing infrastructure, such as water supply, sanitation, drains, and durable housing. As a result, slum dwellers bear the brunt of major disasters, while living with a range of everyday hazards that middle and high-income households are often able to avoid. By proactively engaging with initiatives designed to achieve resilient and sustainable cities, such as 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), and C40, SDI seeks to bring the urban poor to the center of strategy development and implementation.

As part of the 100RC effort, Durban, South Africa developed a city Resilience Strategy that identifies two critical priority areas for resilience building—one of which is, Collaborative Informal Settlement Action. This priority emerged from a highly participatory strategy development process driven by the city. Implementation of the strategy will be informed and monitored by “consolidated quantitative and qualitative community and municipal-collected data, information and knowledge on all informal settlements [that] is accessible to all and updated regularly.” Other 100RC cities are already looking to Durban for lessons on developing strategies that address informality. SDI federations in Accra, Nairobi, Lagos, Paynesville, and Cape Town are strategizing with their city government partners about how the KYC campaign can add value to the formulation and implementation of their resilience strategies. In partnership with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and Inclusive Climate Action Program, SDI seeks to deepen the use of KYC by city mayors to make the case for inclusive climate action.

Redefining and Managing Risk

Much needs to be done to translate our understanding of the linkages between risks, human vulnerability, and poverty into robust risk management and investment strategies. Deepening inequality and poverty, compounded by the catastrophic effects of extreme weather events, violence, migration, and discrimination, have catalyzed new efforts to redress inadequate risk management strategies and instruments.

Over decades, SDI has implemented proven approaches to risk reduction through collective power, data, and savings. These strategies reduce everyday risks for urban poor families and help to secure assets, such as their homes. What is seldom taken into account is how these strategies also reduce the risk that voices of the urban poor will be silenced.

The KYC Campaign brings the power of community data and local Urban Poor Funds together in order to identify and reduce risks for the most vulnerable. This underpins collective efforts to negotiate and deliver community-managed public goods and services (tenure security, water, sanitation, drainage). Investments in these public goods address collectively experienced risks and help to strengthen awareness within the community of the significance of reducing and managing risk.

KYC also provides the basis for building relations that enable organized slum dwellers to challenge adverse political outcomes and reduce the risk of political exclusion. Politicians and officials appreciate the detailed information provided by KYC and recognize the potential of the organizations that produce this data. This makes them more likely to listen to SDI federations. In Namibia, for example, using the relationships enhanced by KYC, the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia successfully argued for inclusive upgrading solutions that now have the support of city and provincial government.

In the face of outmoded risk management instruments and strategies, innovators and early adopters in the urban field are experimenting with advancements in insurance products, credit rating systems, pro-poor safeguards in protocols for city investment, and the acquisition of risk-reducing assets through finance and social networks. SDI is also helping public and private partners to rethink the assumptions and processes that underpin decisions about banking systems, basic services, and municipal finance.

Innovation in New Finance for the Urban Poor

The United Nations estimates that it will cost almost USD $4 trillion a year to achieve the SDGs in developing countries alone, with an annual shortfall of an estimated USD $2.5 trillion. A significant portion of this funding is required for critical infrastructure to reduce urban vulnerability, but the share of public funds for these developments is diminishing. This realization, along with the emergence of impact investing and innovative finance, has spurred SDI to explore the potential for the urban poor of new experimental financing mechanisms including resilience bonds, social impact bonds, diaspora bonds, insurance-based instruments, crowd-funding, peer-to-peer lending, and outcome-based contracting.

Lessons from SDI’s experience in urban poor finance can help to inform and ground the design and innovation of these and other much-needed new financial strategies and instruments in the realities of informal settlements. The Urban Poor Fund International (UPFI) is a self-governed, self-managed, and expanding financial facility that provides capital to national Urban Poor Funds. These in turn provide low-cost loans and grants to savings collectives undertaking important urban improvement and housing projects. It puts capital directly into the hands of slum dwellers undertaking urban improvement schemes that they have negotiated with local and municipal government. Giving federations direct control of capital enables them to negotiate as an acknowledged potential partner with formal bodies such as governments, investors, and banks. These interventions have been anchored by the same local knowledge and partnerships that guide KYC and have thus produced practical interventions for affordable and scalable finance in support of the urban poor.

Climate-Compatible Informal Settlement Investments

In the face of new environmental threats (such as floods and sea level rise) investments must, to the extent possible, be designed in ways that support low-carbon development. There is far too little work done with respect to informal settlement upgrading in the context of climate change. Particularly among city governments and investors, few appreciate the extent to which good-quality upgrading could build resilience to climate risk. Throughout the SDI network, federations are building housing structures that are better able to withstand storms and floods; installing piped water supplies; making provisions for sanitation and drainage; constructing all-weather roads and paths that are resilient to extreme weather; and creating house and neighborhood designs that help populations cope with heat waves and flooding. In partnership with Global Infrastructure Basel (GIB), SDI seeks to increase investment in climate-friendly infrastructure in informal settlements by producing business cases guided by KYC data and SuRe® Standard sustainability and resilience assessments.

Risk is all about protecting the bottom line. In the case of slum upgrading in an increasingly dangerous environment, the bottom line is to change the political and economic climate. The first step is to recognize that risks associated with leaving millions of people behind will be equally shared, not borne only by those who can least afford to carry them. And to appreciate that including the urban poor in development plans will generate economic, social, and environmental benefits for all residents.

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:

Shifting Investment Decisions Toward Inclusion in Manila and Jakarta


By Smruti Jukur, Fleur Henderson, Sheela Patel, and Anne-Marie Rakhorst

City development is increasingly financed through global, national, and local private sector investments. Local and national governments welcome these investments. The public sector rarely has the resources or expertise to undertake large-scale investments to meet urgent needs. Increased private sector funding may be both the cause and the result of declining influence of state institutions, but this has not led to greater inclusion of the urban poor. Slum dwellers find themselves and their neighborhoods just as invisible as before. What is more, the risks of forced eviction and the destruction of neighborhoods and livelihoods are on the rise.

Too many city and national governments either look the other way or are complicit in accepting the negative consequences that too often result from these investments. Though politically elected by the same constituencies that get the short end of the investment stick, they see no other way of bringing in the investments they need. The problem is compounded by the fact that in most cities, the existing legal policies and frameworks deem “squatting” by the urban poor as illegal.

While it is acknowledged that there has to be business in order for urban development to take place, it cannot be business as usual—not if we truly seek inclusive, equitable, and sustainable urban development. Politicians and administrators cannot hide behind nineteenth-century legal frameworks to address twenty-first-century problems. The private sector cannot abdicate responsibility but must make investments that ensure good governance, inclusion, and scalable solutions that work for all. An organized constituency of the urban poor is a critical precondition for remedying flaws in how development takes place. But how can urban poor social movements play this role when they are forced to concentrate all their time and resources on constantly fighting evictions? The new millennium needs new alliances and new partnerships to break these exclusive and exclusionary practices.

Testing Out New Alliances

This is the story of an emerging strategy that seeks to create the disruption that is needed. It shows how SDI federations have sought to engage large multinational private sector companies, universities, and communities of the urban poor to produce new institutional arrangements with the express intention of encouraging learning and action on the ground. By creating space for the urban poor around the negotiating table, SDI is creating conditions for the emergence of precedent-setting financial solutions that are inclusive and scalable. In order to ensure that communities do not enter these negotiations empty-handed, SDI is helping the affected communities organize themselves around the data they collect and manage.

SDI is working with a Dutch-based institution, the Human Cities Coalition (HCC), in two locations in Asia: Manila, in the Philippines, and Jakarta, in Indonesia. HCC is a public-private partnership of organizations from Dutch business, government, NGOs, and academia dedicated to making cities more inclusive and sustainable. The partnership chose to focus on Jakarta and Manila because they are both megacities in a river delta. Such cities face specific challenges for which HCC is well equipped, as some members of the coalition are worldwide leaders in water management and infrastructure. At the same time, Manila and Jakarta are two of the most populous cities in Asia. A significant percentage of the population lives in informal settlements, albeit on a small fraction of land, a considerable portion of which faces severe risks in terms of flooding and waterborne diseases caused by inadequate sanitation and potable water supply.

On the positive side, both cities have governments that have acknowledged the infrastructure deficits that characterize slum areas and are therefore encouraging private interventions to bridge these gaps within a policy and regulatory framework designed and overseen by the state. Both cities have decided to undertake major water infrastructure interventions through a bidding process that places international engineering companies in the frame. These developments will produce investment plans worth trillions of dollars. They are co-financed by private companies with links to the Netherlands as well as local companies and government. HCC and SDI recognize that the current, mainly private sector, financing strategy may further marginalize the poor. There is a strong likelihood that the risks will escalate and will accelerate evictions and forced relocations of coastal slums and those in flood-prone areas. There can be no disputing the fact that these investments are urgently needed, but the challenge is how the urban poor will fare as a result. The intended outcome of the HCC/SDI collaboration is to turn this situation around by designing inclusive bidding and procurement protocols to guide investments. These protocols will demand assessment of the investments’ impact on the poor.

An Emerging Strategy

When HCC chose to work in these two locations, its board and the SDI Secretariat developed an intervention strategy. SDI and the Shared Value Foundation (SVF) undertook slum profiles in the metro areas affected by the port plans. In the Philippines, this was facilitated by the Homeless People’s Federation of the Philippines Incorporated (HPFPI), an SDI affiliate. In Jakarta, where there is no local SDI affiliate, the profiling was done by an international SDI team comprised of Indian and Filipino federations and support professionals. Data was collected using Know Your City protocols, meaning that once settlements had been identified by SDI and HCC, they were mapped and profiled by community teams. In both cities, with the support of SDI and members of HPFPI, the information was fed back to the communities before being presented by community leaders to city officials.

A singular contribution made by the community-gathered information was not the content alone but the conclusive proof it provided that the government agencies commissioning the planning through their bidding processes had hardly any data about informal settlements. As a result, they did not consider it essential to provide information to the planners or agencies applying. Indeed, the effect of the development on tens of thousands of slum families went unmentioned. At the same time, the private sector companies themselves did not find it necessary to seek or examine the information that was lacking.

The raw data itself did not produce much that was new. Today, with Google Maps in the public domain, informal settlements are no longer hidden, and the maps clearly show informal structures and settlements to anyone who takes the time and makes the effort to examine them. While open source data portals make a lot of information readily available, they cannot help communities get organized or facilitate their participation in discussions of issues that will affect their lives. The new collaboration with HCC enabled the organized communities to access new data platforms, way beyond (but not excluding) their city government. This has produced new opportunities for communities seeking to advocate against negative change and for inclusive development. At the same time, it has enabled HCC to bring an important but hitherto neglected voice into city development debates.

Long-Term Outcomes

A probable outcome from the HCC/SDI collaboration in Jakarta and Manila may be an all-important mechanism to produce a procurement and bidding protocol for water infrastructure investments and general-area developments. This would ensure, first, that local communities are involved when planning for the execution of infrastructure projects is undertaken, and, second, that residents’ needs and concerns are incorporated so that sustainable solutions are achieved. SDI and HCC can contribute to a future reality in which basic rights such as tenure security and basic services are guaranteed when international companies make investments in water-related infrastructure projects in the Global South. This could produce self- induced industry-wide commitments, backed up with inspections, to ensure that this self-regulation works.

While the details of the agreements would vary from place to place, some important requirements could be universally applied. The clearest examples would be no forced removal; no relocation without prior approval, and only to well-located land; and priority interventions identified through intensive community consultation. Through HCC, these protocols could be applied to Dutch companies seeking work in the Global South. If successful, they would be replicated elsewhere. It is clear that such a process would benefit the HCC and SDI constituencies: potential investors who are looking for suitable projects; and the urban poor, who currently suffer the negative effects of such investments.

Short-Term Outcomes

These larger plans almost always span decades. In the short to medium term, the more immediate needs of the communities become the focus for local action, with a view both to develop solutions that serve residents’ basic needs and, more importantly, to undertake these in a way that helps city administrations and other tiers of government address some fundamental issues with regard to land security and access to basic amenities and services. The dialogue, triggered by and revolving around Know Your City–generated data, initially brings to attention the unmet needs of affected communities, leading to exploration of a range of possibilities and the taking up of demonstration projects to test impact, cost, and usefulness.

In the long run, the urban poor produce concepts for upgrading or relocation of settlements and participate in developing spatial designs, house plans, and the prioritization of the kinds of services needed. They also commit to making contributions in cash and in-kind, to the extent they can. At the same time, the city and other centers of government, where possible, allocate budgeted resources and effect the changes in policy that are needed to make participatory planning and development work. The private sector undertakes the production and execution of the project and helps train the communities in future maintenance. The three-way commitment of community, government, and private sector is affirmed in practice, building interdependence and trans-sector accountability.

Priorities will differ from one situation to the next. In Malabon City, in Metro Manila, the diagnostics based on the maps and profiles pointed urgently to lack of access to electricity. While this can be provided by private agencies, it is still largely linked with tenure status: no formal title, no legal connection. This is why SDI and HCC have responded jointly by developing business propositions around community-managed solar energy hubs.

In Penjaringan, in North Jakarta, the diagnostics based on the maps and profiles pointed to lack of access to affordable, safe water and sanitation. Water in Jakarta is largely supplied by private concessions but is generally inaccessible to the poor. Whatever they buy for drinking water purposes costs three to four times what those who live in formal neighborhoods pay and represents 20 percent of their income. A possible solution may be found in business models that look at more effective provision of safe water using existing networks.

SDI’s primary role is to ensure that communities are organized and equipped with the knowledge and capacity not only to produce data but to use it in the cut and thrust of negotiations. Interdependence does not necessarily mean shared vision and shared interest. From SDI’s perspective, it means a recognition by all stakeholders that the urban poor are sufficiently capitalized socially, politically, and economically to have skin in the game. Partnerships with private sector initiatives like HCC strengthen their position.

SDI encourages all organizations of the urban poor to count in order to be counted. Without information about themselves and without being organized, the poor will remain on the outside looking in. There are many examples in the other papers in this document that demonstrate that community-gathered, owned, and managed data can link the disparate worlds of the slum dweller in a shack and the government official behind a desk. It is also the instrument that triangulates this arrangement, drawing in the private sector player and making sure he does not enter the game with eyes wide shut.

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:

Would We Know Scale If She Walked By? Revolutionary Planning in Mukuru, Nairobi

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By Jack Makau and Jane Weru

Oh, I see her hand reaching out to me
Only she can set me free
Have you seen her
Tell me have you seen her

“Have You Seen Her”
The Chi-Lites, 1971

Muungano wa Wanavijiji is a slum dweller movement that emerged in Nairobi in the 1990s as a response to widespread informal settlement evictions. It federated to the global SDI network in 2001, and in 2003, Muungano built its first slum upgrading houses. These were 34 single-room units, each occupying a footprint of 16 square meters, which matched the size of existing informal structures. Each unit cost an affordable $1,000, and the owners could incrementally build them upward into two-bedroom apartments to increase living space. There was a sense that a milestone had been achieved in the search for affordable and in situ slum upgrading. Yet one question lingered: Have we cracked it—is this the solution for Kenya’s 5 million slum residents? A decade and 10,000 homes later, the questions around achieving scale persist.

On August 11, 2017, the Kenya government’s official journal, the Kenya Gazette, published notice number 7654 declaring an area of 550 acres (the area occupied by Mukuru slums) to be a Special Planning Area (SPA). Issued by the Nairobi City County Government, it announced the county’s intention to “initiate a participatory process to develop a physical development plan.” The Mukuru slums are home to 100,000 households and businesses. Contestation over land ownership, consolidation of informal ways of delivering basic services like water, sanitation, and electricity, as well as entrenched informal systems of education and healthcare, make the planning of Mukuru a much larger and more complex undertaking than has been attempted before by the federation or city.

Notice 7654 begins to answer the dogged question: What does scale look like? The treatment of the Mukuru SPA was significant, as it deviated from the country’s conventional approach to slum upgrading. In most cases, Kenyan slum interventions are driven by international development agencies that then draw in city governments. Such interventions are governed by a Memorandum
of Understanding or by other bilateral agreements. In contrast, the Mukuru SPA is a project of the Nairobi city government. Notice 7654 makes the SPA a statutory obligation of the city. The notice makes no reference to the word “slum” or any of its euphemisms. It also does not mention Muungano or any of the other proponents of the program. The SPA’s key goal is to develop a plan that is incorporated into the city’s own 20-year vision instrument, the City Integrated Development Plan. Muungano is confident this arrangement has the potential to create the critical institutional infrastructure required to achieve inclusive slum upgrading at scale in Nairobi.

Bold New Partnerships

The planning process, which will run up to August 2019, does more than provide a legal basis to a slum upgrade. According to the county, “The approach to the Special Planning Area intervention in Mukuru is conceptually a reconfiguration of the planning process.” A key aspect of the evolved approach is that it goes beyond the planning department of the county government to incorporate all departments of the county, as well as multidisciplinary consortia of non-state actors.

At the end of 2017, 37 organizations had signed up to participate in the development of the plan. One of the generally agreed-upon principles among the participating organizations is that the SPA is strengthened by pooling different types of resources from multiple sources toward a common goal. The participation of these organizations in the planning has been largely self-financed. Muungano is to provide community organization and community- focused financing. It plays a key role in what has been called the Coordination, Community Organization, and Communication consortium. This group, discussed in greater depth below, seeks to ensure that every technical consortium has meaningful engagement with the community and, in turn, that community voices remain at the forefront of the planning process.

The diversity of participating organizations is another piece of the scale puzzle. Civil society and development organizations are well represented. In addition to Muungano was Wanavijiji and its professional support organizations Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT) and SDI Kenya, Caritas Switzerland leads a consortium to develop the water, sanitation, and energy plan, while Stockholm Environment Institute leads the environment consortium.

Academia is also prominently represented, with the Strathmore University Business School leading the finance consortium; the University of Nairobi leading the housing, commerce, and infrastructure consortium; and the University of California, Berkeley, participating in three consortia (housing, environment, and health services).

A distinct difference between Kenya’s previous slum upgrading experience and the Mukuru process is the involvement of private sector firms. Ordinarily, private sector corporate social responsibility schemes make sizable charitable contributions to development efforts such as children’s homes and other charity projects. In Mukuru, the Kenya Medical Association, a health professional body, leads the consortium that will develop the health services plan. The consortium of land and legal issues has the support of New York-based global firm Sullivan & Cromwell LLC and one of Kenya’s top legal firms, Pandya & Poonawala advocates.

Making the Case for Slum Upgrading: Unlocking the Poverty Penalty

Boy, nothin’ in life is free
That’s why I’m askin’ you what can you do for me
I’ve got responsibilities…
So I’m lookin’ for a man whose got money in his hands
‘Cause nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’
You got to have somethin’ if you wanna be with me
Oh, life is too serious, love’s too mysterious
A fly girl like me needs security

“Ain’t Nothing Going On but the Rent”
Gwen Guthrie, 1986

A lot of slum improvement has been supported by philanthropy. Despite evidence that slum improvement has multiple long-term benefits to the city, the business case for these ventures has not yet been made. The idea of more immediate returns on slum investment, the kind that mayors use on the campaign trail, remains elusive. This makes for a less than attractive proposition for city managers, who are often resource-strained. Part of the impetus for Nairobi to commit to Mukuru upgrading was the possibility of
a measurable short-term return on investment.

Research supported by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) between 2013 and 2018 and undertaken by a consortium consisting of Strathmore University, Katiba Institute, the University of Nairobi, the University of California, Berkeley, and Muungano established that there is a penalty exerted on the residents of Mukuru. The city’s poorest pay far more for lower-quality water, sanitation, and electricity than households in the city’s formal neighborhoods.

Households in Mukuru pay 45 percent to 142 percent more than the formal electricity tariff when connected to informal connections. The penalty on water provision is especially high, as residents can only access small amounts of very low-quality water, at a cost that is 172 percent more per cubic meter than the water utility tariff. The only toilet option for 30 percent or more of Mukuru’s population is a pay-per-use facility outside their homes.

Based on a conservative basket of services (electricity, water, toilet access, and rent), Mukuru’s annual economy is estimated at USD $70 million, much
of which ends up in the hands of informal service providers. The methods used to connect “informally” often result in significant spillage of service cost. So while the poverty penalty presents a challenge, it also demonstrates the latent capacity of communities to afford services, invest in their communities, and perhaps make contributions to housing improvement.

Where Is the Community?

I was born by the river
In a little tent
And just like the river I’ve been running
Ever since
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.

“A Change Is Gonna Come”
Sam Cooke, 1964

Perhaps one of the bigger challenges in achieving scale is how to ensure that the people whose homes and settlements will be most affected continue to be central to decision making as the process becomes increasingly technical and complex. Can the quality of the community’s involvement remain high as the program expands to the city-scale? And what does that look like?

The SPA has developed seven thematic and technical consortia. These consortia attract and engage the services of professionals and specialists from organizations with core competencies in project management, financing, planning, and architecture—specialty skills needed for the scale of SPA planning and implementation.

Muungano plays a lead role in an eighth consortium, known as the Coordination, Community Organization, and Communication Consortium. This reflects Muungano’s core mandate for community organizing and pro-poor finance. It also recognizes Muungano’s ability to draw upon the SDI network for support. This serves the dual benefit of bringing SDI expertise to the project and sharing vital lessons from Mukuru throughout the SDI network.

A core consideration for Muungano in this process is how to apply SDI’s distinctive approach to community organizing, sometimes referred to by federations as “SDI rituals.” What are these rituals and associated tools, and how have they manifested in Kenya?

  •  First, Muungano invests in establishing women-led community savings groups to drive community organizing, learning and gendered approaches to upgrading.
  • Second, SDI’s Know Your City campaign, which seeks to create city-wide slum profiles, has been Muungano’s key tool for framing the slum transformation agenda in Kenyan cities.
  • Third, household level slum enumerations, carried out by the savings groups, have been the basis of consensus-building within slums and have provided vital data to design interventions.
  • Fourth, Muungano’s project financing models have been based on community savings groups that have leveraged resources, often city or state resources, sometimes at ratios as high as 1:50 (converting community savings to development finance).

Muungano’s experience shows how the enigmatic pull of scale affects the rituals that have proven to be so effective for SDI over the years. It is exploring ways for these to evolve and accommodate the city government and sensitivities of a broader range of partners. Take, for example, the strategy of women-led community savings groups, very much the holy grail of SDI. In Kenya, this ritual has been adapted over the years to suit local context. Muungano is working to grow the number of savings groups in Mukuru from 53 in 2016 to 330 by the end of the SPA planning process in 2019.

The savings groups will act as catalysts for the establishment of theNeighborhood Associations, which the 2012 Constitution and various County Planning Acts have authorized to support public participation and civic engagement. Muungano’s intention is for these women- led savings collectives to imbue the Neighborhood Associations with qualities of horizontal accountability, peer-to-peer support, gendered development strategies, and the vivacious energy that characterizes federations in the SDI network. The savings schemes will also play the dedicated and critically important role of building the financial capacity of individual households to participate in the implementation of the Mukuru plan. The Neighborhood Associations, dubbed Leave No One Behind, will organize each community into household units of ten families. This is intended to ensure complete representation in the SPA planning process of all residents. In this regard, Muungano has effectively applied SDI rituals—designed to be flexible—to the demands of scale and the context in which they operate.

The New Narrative of Interconnectedness

The exploration of achieving scale has led not only to the evolution of Muungano’s practice but to the creation of a whole new narrative among city stakeholders. Essentially, the narrative has shifted from one in which slum improvement is a matter for slum dwellers alone. Instead, it is a challenge for the whole city and one that requires the city, in the broadest sense of the word, to unpack and resolve barriers to inclusive development. Perhaps nothing demonstrates the interconnectedness of the formal and informal city and the rich and poor more starkly than the real-life example of Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance contracting cholera in 2017 at the very same time that reports emerged of an outbreak of the disease in the slums of Mukuru and Kibera. The SPA represents a multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral approach to what were previously regarded as challenges exclusive to the slums and those who had to live in them.

The approach is significant because it produces new ways of understanding these challenges and a new set of innovations toward resolving them. Social, political, and economic resources are vested in different sectors—state, civil society, the private sector, and the community—and each should use its reach and influence, individually and collectively, in order to resolve challenges of the city as a whole, not just the challenges of its growing number of citizens who are locked spatially into areas known as slums.

The SPA has used research, including community collected and analyzed data, to begin to frame the problem of slums in a new way: a way that says, “together we can.” Together we can mobilize resources and start to blend these resources for greater impact. Together we can take advantage of the political opportunities that exist, such as the new Constitution, the creation of counties, and the willingness of the counties to address the problems of marginalized and excluded groups. Together we can create a city for 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: