The world’s poorest have the strongest resilience, yet their voices remain unheard

*This article was originally posted on the Climate Home News Website and was written by and .

Historically, the UN’s Conferences of the Parties (Cops) on climate change have been overwhelmingly focused on cutting emissions, but Cop26 felt different with resilience taking the fore.

As Cop president, the UK made adaptation a priority, establishing a two-year Glasgow-Sharm el-Sheikh work programme on a global adaptation goal and a target to balance adaptation financing with mitigation financing by 2025. There was substantial participation on behalf of the adaptation community, albeit largely online and outside the negotiating rooms.

These conversations have carried on, for example at this week’s online Gobeshona Global Conference, creating opportunities to make progress before Cop27 in Egypt.

Read more about the Gobeshona Global Conference here.

The rising significance of adaptation is underpinned by one key fact: the impacts of climate change are here now and set to escalate. However, despite feeling hopeful at times, the most recent climate negotiations still failed to match words about loss and damage, resilience, and adaptation with actions to actually protect the most affected people and areas.

While negotiators have only belatedly started thinking about how best to create the conditions to build greater climate resilience, communities, including our own, have already been doing this for decades.

In Bangladesh, we have been forced to build our resilience by enduring yearly cyclones among other natural disasters and to develop survival techniques like growing vegetables on water, rainwater harvesting, water ambulances, floating schools, and procedures for early warning and evacuation.

Similarly, shack-dwellers globally have learned to build and rebuild their homes in the face of climate disasters. For many the question is not whether the roof over their heads will blow away, but rather when, and how often.

Discover how community-led responses to Covid-19 in informal settlements led to resilience.

The injustice of climate impacts means the strongest resilience – ‘survival resilience’ built on compound crises – is developed by the world’s poorest communities. It is often informal and deeply local. Crucially, it is not fixed or static, due to the unpredictability of climate change impacts. International agreements require mechanisms that reflect this uncertainty.

They must also ensure that practical, local techniques and indigenous practices are coupled with external intervention. With only 10% of climate finance currently supporting locally-led adaptation, and just 2% reaching the most affected communities, we remain a long way from giving those experiencing the most significant climate-related disruption what they need.

Yet, the voices of those with the most knowledge to contribute to the discussion on adaptation and resilience continue to be pushed to the fringes of the Cop process and often go unheard worldwide. How can negotiations about the future remain inaccessible to those with the biggest stake?

A summit cannot truly deliver positive outcomes for youth, women, and indigenous people without their meaningful participation, yet at Cop26 they were outside being pushed back by police while big corporations were in the delegations.

The current system, based on the burning of carbon, resource extraction, exploitation of people in informal work and settlements, and concentration of vast amounts of capital, operates by locking out those who need the system itself to change for their survival. If the voices of those people had been given as much importance as those of 500+ fossil fuel lobbyists, Cop26 might have had a very different result.

Learn more about the outcomes from Cop26 here.

But the UN’s daily subsistence allowance for delegates from poorer countries is provided only until the official final day of negotiations, forcing many to leave before talks conclude. Covid-19 further compounds the inaccessibility of climate talks for people from the global south: most of our colleagues have yet to be vaccinated and none of us could afford to be stuck for weeks if we test positive at a conference.

While the media may have labelled Cop26 ‘the most inclusive Cop yet’, that does not mean it was meaningfully inclusive. Recent reports of Egyptian hotels raising their prices for Cop27 suggest the same mistakes risk being repeated.

Finally, the lack of progress since Cop26 indicates still too little sense of urgency. The latest IPCC report reinforced the need for urgent, transformative adaptive action, yet Cop26 concluded with more delay, more long-term targets, and more climate finance directed towards mitigation than adaptation efforts.

We – the global south – have been forced into adapting now, not in a year or two. Delays of even one year mean more people lose their homes and livelihoods, fewer children go to school and more girls end up in child marriage.

Developed nations and the media must change how they talk about climate change and the people it affects. It is not just a scientific issue. It is about jobs, homes, health, and survival. It is about people fleeing their countries as climate refugees.

If there is one thing Covid-19 has demonstrated, it is that the world is capable of rapid and widespread change in the face of a crisis and that solutions start with the community. If we take this approach with climate change, we might just start moving forwards.

Sheela Patel is the founder and director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (Sparc) and Sohanur Rahman is a youth activist from Bangladesh.

From Recovery to Resilience: Community-led Responses to Covid-19 in Informal Settlements

In 2020, as Covid-19 spread rapidly across the cities where SDI is active, federations recognised the need for both urgent responses to the acute humanitarian crises facing their communities and longer-term strategies to engage with government and other stakeholders to address the prolonged effects of this global crisis. Through a partnership supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), Cities Alliance , and Slum Dwellers International (SDI) we were able to channel much needed resources to organised communities of the urban poor in 17 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America to facilitate these processes.

Over the past 20 months, the Covid-19 pandemic and pandemic responses such as government lockdowns have highlighted and exacerbated many of the chronic stresses urban poor communities live with and struggle against daily. As such, the strategies supported by this SDI / Cities Alliance partnership are about more than Covid-19 response and recovery: they are about sustainable, inclusive, and pro-poor urban development that provides communities with meaningful opportunities to work with government and other stakeholders to address issues such as food security, access to livelihood opportunities, skills training, and basic services like water and sanitation, as well as the need for accurate slum data to drive government responses in times of crisis.

SDI’s urban poor federations have shown that they have the social networks and systems in place to respond efficiently and effectively to disasters and chronic stressors. They have demonstrated their critical role to governments and development partners as reliable actors at the forefront of provision of information on and services to the most vulnerable. Indeed, with lockdowns and government restrictions, many external organisations were unable to access the vulnerable communities where SDI federations live and work, highlighting the immense value of working directly with these communities. 

The following examples highlight how federations have the information, knowledge, and skills to work with government and other stakeholders to implement effective, scalable solutions to chronic and acute urban challenges.

Improved public health and safety

Many residents in slums live in overcrowded homes without access to on-site water or sanitation and face the constant threat of forced eviction. This means that preventative Covid-19 measures such as hand-washing, disinfecting, physical distancing, and quarantine are often impossible for the urban poor.

Outcome Story: Bridging Knowledge and PPE Gaps in Tanzania

There was a gap in knowledge on Covid-19 awareness, especially in informal settlements. Through this project, federation teams have been able to provide support to ensure that communities and schools awareness and knowledge on the pandemic is enhanced and precautions are being taken against the pandemic. This went hand in hand with the provision of hand washing facilities and PPE in places which had no facilities such as in market places and schools. 

This has contributed to behavior change in terms of improving hygiene as a way to stop the spread of Covid-19. Communities now have the knowledge and facilities to wash hands. Correct information sharing around Covid-19 has helped groups such as boda boda drivers (motorcycle taxis), food vendors, and school children which had limited access to information about the pandemic. Interactions with such groups provided an opportunity for them to ask questions and seek clarifications, which enhanced their understanding on prevention and treatment methods. Another significant outcome is the recognition of the Tanzanian SDI Alliance as a partner in addressing pandemics by the government. This has improved the relationship and established new ones with other units/departments within the municipalities such as the public health unit and the regional office. These relationships will help to provide more engagement and opportunities for the federation, and the alliance in general as well to discuss and negotiate further interventions related to the health and public safety of people living in informal settlements. The pandemic has taught us lessons on hygiene promotion, in particular hand washing behaviors, which is a serious issue the community needs to practice beyond the pandemic.

The federation led the process of planning and implementation of these activities and interventions. This included gathering information from different groups on the pandemic, identifying needs, and supporting awareness as facilitators in schools, markets, households, and settlements.


In Ghana, the federation was able to identify and map Covid-19 hotspots. Community members were trained to manufacture and install hand washing stations for community use within these hotspots. Additionally, the grant enabled the installation of in-yard water connections to poor and vulnerable households in slums/informal settlements to increase access to water supply. In Zambia, the federation was able to support provisional WASH interventions and set precedents for water provision to slum communities through community-led processes. Through the provision of water storage and hand-washing facilities in slums, communities are now able to regularly wash their hands in public places and this also enabled market committees to enforce preventive regulations since the infrastructure to wash hands is now available. At the household level the Zambia Alliance identified 75 women with health vulnerabilities who are at greater risk when collecting water from congested public taps. Additionally, through engagement meetings with water trusts and utility companies the federation was able to lobby for pro-poor water subsidies.

Enhanced livelihoods

Despite the negative effect and impact to individuals, communities, and countries the Covid-19 response actions have also brought opportunities with them. Some which came as a result of this programme are income generating projects, for example liquid soap-making and sewing of reusable face masks respectively have equipped community members with skills which some families are now using to earn a living. Federation members in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe were trained in sewing reusable face masks and the production of liquid soap and sanitizers. In Malawi, federation women and youth trained in design and tailoring produced and distributed 17,300 reusable face masks to vulnerable members of the community and primary school going children.

Outcome Story: Building Resilient Livelihoods in Zambia

The Zambia SDI Alliance facilitated trainings to capacitate slum dwellers with skills necessary to build resilient livelihoods. The trainings were conducted in two typologies namely sack gardening/organic farming and metal fabrication. Sack gardening involves the use of biodegradable waste in urban agriculture to provide nutritional support and sustainable livelihoods. At household level, sack gardens significantly reduced food shortages and helped in reducing garbage that has been indiscriminately disposed of in informal settlements, thereby creating healthy and safe environments. Sack gardens have a lower production cost as their main input is organic waste, which is readily available in informal settlements. The sack gardening enterprise consumes about 20 tons of organic waste in a month and with the plans to scale up production, the enterprises will be a significant consumer of garbage being produced in informal settlements. Besides the environmental benefits of the enterprises, slum dwellers secured resilient livelihoods that are set to provide employment to more slum dwellers when the intervention is scaled up.

Metal fabrication training also brought some positive changes to youths, as it created an opportunity for them to produce products that are on demand as well as helping their communities to meet their community demands. Currently the enterprise has been  instrumental in harnessing fabrication techniques for  Covid-19 prevention. The enterprise created a touch-less hand washing facility that has special features to avoid contact with the facility. The facilities have since been distributed into public spaces as well as for other interested organizations. The enterprise has created a viable livelihood for the unemployed youths and this intervention will continue into all settlements to create local technology that can easily be managed and maintained locally.


Pro-poor data driven development

SDI affiliates adapted Know Your City profiling and mapping tools to gather household and settlement level data on the impacts of Covid-19 on the urban poor. In Zimbabwe, youth were trained on data collection tools used to collect information on the level of awareness and community preparedness to Covid-19 as well as the pandemic’s impact on community members in terms of livelihoods, housing, and WASH. In the Philippines, the federation undertook a vulnerability mapping of 22 communities in which localized Covid-19 hotspot maps were produced and included the identification of households with vulnerable groups such as seniors, children, persons with disabilities, and pregnant women. In Botswana, the federation interviewed 33 savings groups to gather information on how Covid-19 has impacted the livelihoods and savings of urban poor communities. Findings revealed that many members stopped saving due to loss of employment and income. Most of the small businesses collapsed during the first lockdown and many of the street vendors that would travel across the border to buy their goods were no longer able to work with borders being closed. Students also faced hardships due to disruptions in education. Findings also showed that schools not only provide education but also provide students with social development skills. The pandemic has contributed to an increase in psychological and economic pressure leaving many without jobs or the ability to put food on the table, which has also highlighted the spike in gender-based violence.


Outcome Story: Using Community Data to Improve Basic Service Access in India

As part of this project, slum profiling and collecting data on community toilets was undertaken from 10 settlements across 10 cities. While conducting these profiles, Mahila Milan leaders realized the different issues communities are facing in the area of water, sanitation, drainage, jobs, etc. They found out which settlements have or lack access to toilets, what water facilities are available to residents, what mechanisms are in place to collect garbage, and how people are dealing with job issues. In Pimpri, Mahila Milan leader Rehana highlighted how in one of the settlements the community toilet that was constructed in 2018 was neither connected to the main sewer line nor was maintained properly which meant people were facing difficulties using the toilet. The women in the settlement approached the local councilor, spoke to him about the problem, and sought his support to fix it. In her own settlement, the drainage water enters people’s homes especially during the rains giving rise to many water borne diseases and skin infections. The dirty water from the community toilet as well as drainage water from individual houses is let out into one drainage line that causes this problem. They have been approaching the local councilor for the last five months but there was no relief. They again visited the local councilor and said that if you don’t take it up then we will have to approach the ward. We work for an NGO and are aware of all the processes and procedures that need to be done to sort out issues. They then got in touch with the health department in the ward office, did site visits, and within eight days they had laid down new drainage pipes. Six such pipes need to be laid down in the settlement in different places which will be completed soon.  

Similarly, the Mahila Milan leaders from Surat were facing drainage issues where water would overflow onto the roads and into the homes. Coordinating and negotiating with the local councilor and ward, they were able to resolve the problem.

In both cities these problems arose during lockdown and community members could not travel to the ward office. However, the Mahila Milan women were adamant to resolve their problems and so they started communicating with the officials via phone on a daily basis until the problem was resolved. At times the officials try to avoid these women, don’t take their calls, and say they forgot what it was about, but the women say even if we have to call them 100 times, we do that and should keep doing it. This is a way of showing how serious the organization and communities are about resolving their own issues, how accountable the leaders feel for their own settlement and people, and how this can be a means of strengthening their relationship with the city and authorities. The end result has been that these women are now called by the city to help them with certain programs or implementing schemes that benefit the city as well as communities. They also get an opportunity to start thinking of upgrading their settlements in different ways.

The Sierra Leone SDI Alliance, in consultation with Freetown City Council (FCC), developed an app (FISCOVIDATA) and live dashboard in which communities can identify hotspots and link to government service providers in real time. The mobile app and dashboard provides two-way communication – it relays information to appropriate authorities and notifies communities of actions taken. Piloted in 10 specific slums, this community-based approach has proven that empowering communities to mobilise actions for response and mitigation of health pandemics, is an effective way to mitigate the spread. This resulted in the reversal of the spread of Covid-19 in these settlements. This work has attracted the interest of other partners, namely Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC) and College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences (COMAHS) to collaboratively work with DICOVERC to develop the app further so as to intervene in any future health emergencies.


Institutional collaboration between the urban poor and government

The need to address basic services, health needs, and decent shelter is critical in the Covid-19 fight and this project supported communities to highlight their plight and push for meaningful change. Applying rules created for the formal city into an informal settlement is challenging and may paralyze the action. Agreements need to be reached and governments need to find flexibility on policies and regulations so that formal interventions can take place in informal settlements. In South Africa, the Federation in the North West province started to implement the Asivikelane campaign in October 2021. The campaign collects data about basic service delivery (water, sanitation, and waste removal) in 21 informal settlements and uses this information to pressurize local municipalities to deliver. Fifteen settlements were mobilized to select 35 representatives to join a meeting with the Madibeng Administrator, the Department of Electricity, the Department of Human Settlements, and the Housing Development Agency as a united front. Through multiple engagements, the SA SDI Alliance is now in the process of signing an official MOU with the Madibeng municipality that will bind the municipality to the working partnership with the Federation in terms of addressing informal settlement upgrading, housing delivery, and formalizing structures.

Covid-19: Fostering Community Resilience Amid the Pandemic

*This article was originally posted on the Cities Alliance website here.
Covid-19 inflicted new levels of despair on residents of informal settlements in developing countries. Over a year later, immense challenges remain but some progress has been made to strengthen the resilience and improve the public health of these communities, which are home to over a billion people.


A partnership between Cities Alliance and Slum Dwellers International (SDI) has played a vital role by supporting informal communities to respond and recover from Covid-19. The initiative covers 17 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, with activities implemented primarily through existing community-based systems and networks.

Throughout the pandemic, the challenges facing urban poor communities have become increasingly urgent and acute.

“These are people working in the informal sector and living hand-to-mouth. Many are unemployed, especially the youth. With Covid, the situation gets even worse. Many people lost their livelihoods. We see landlords and structure owners evicting people from their homes”, said Joseph Muturi, Coordinator of Muungano wa Wanavijiji, a slum dwellers movement in Kenya, and Chairperson of the SDI Network’s Management Board.


As much as this pandemic affects everyone, from where I stand the people who have been hit hardest are the poor.


Joseph Muturi, chair of the SDI Board 

While the project, funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), is coming to a close, the initiative has revealed some important development insights. 

First is the central role the urban poor play ensuring humanitarian response efforts reach those in need. Second is the importance of harnessing the local intelligence of communities to address the long-term challenges faced by slum dwellers. Much of the work supported by the initiative was carried out in conjunction with federations of informal settlement residents, enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of response efforts.

The challenges faced by this initiative were many, but so were the achievements. In the developed world Covid-19 was primarily a public health challenge. In the world’s informal settlements, the pandemic has been a hugely destabilizing and primal challenge. More than just causing many illnesses and deaths, the economic shockwaves have created primal existential difficulties, affecting livelihoods, and challenging the ability of many of the urban poor to feed their family.

Addressing basic sanitation

Slum dweller federations played a key role in establishing public sanitation infrastructure and distributing non-pharmaceutical interventions. SDI federations in Ghana, Liberia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe provided handwashing facilities such as buckets and soap to hundreds of households across the informal settlements. In Malawi, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Zambia federations provided public handwashing stations to schools, markets, communities, and centres.



The federation approach ensures informal settlement communities are partners in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, not just recipients.


Sheila Magara, community leader from Zimbabwe 


“The main difference is that federations do not have a project ending period. For us, we invest in a process that does not have a timeline, does not have a sell-by date, does not have a pull-out strategy. We put measures, and structures, and frameworks in place that support the community beyond the scope of any one project”, said Ms Magara, a community leader in Zimbabwe and member of SDI Management Board.

Numbers tell part of these success stories. Federations in Africa and South America have provided about 10,000 households with hand sanitiser or hand washing materials. These federations have also provided nearly 25,000 masks to vulnerable community members and school children.


Collecting data to tailor responses

Data collection has been another area where Cities Alliance and SDI funding allowed informal settlements to collect and strategically deploy more and better data.

The Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor (GHAFUP)  profiled 25 communities across the Greater Accra region to map Covid-19 hotspots. In Kenya, Muungano wa Wanavijiji  trained 54 community data collectors and mapped and numbered 3,182 households in Mathare 4B as part of their Special Planning Area (SPA) initiative. This data will support the establishment of a new street address system. Across 10 cities in India, communities have collected data on urgent health needs facing the urban poor and supported communities to take action to address these. 

“Communities have gained much from the process of community-based research and mapping. This has given them the avenue to appreciate and value data-driven decision-making for themselves and governing institutions,” noted a report from the Philippines. “To an even greater extent, their ingenuity and resourcefulness are highlighted not just among themselves but also among the various relevant stakeholders we are partnering with”.


Strengthening safety nets 

The pandemic continues to cause widespread economic hardship, but communities are building back better by strengthening safety net structures, such as savings groups. Residents that have lost their jobs or depleted their savings have increasingly turned to savings groups to access loans for essential needs. 

Federations have also provided skills training to community members on sewing masks, making hand sanitiser and soap, and urban gardening, providing new business opportunities for individuals and groups.

In Malawi, the federation produced and distributed 10,000 face masks for vulnerable community members, market users, and school children who could not afford to buy them. By providing masks to the vulnerable it allowed them to continue to work and use their little income to sustain their households with the necessary food items and allow children from poor families to continue to attend school. 


Raising awareness is crucial

Communities have also taken a lead in raising awareness about the disease. Many groups produced and disseminated education materials like posters and t-shirts that were geared towards informal dwellers. They created radio and social media messaging and participated in street theatre all with the aim of passing on messages to help their neighbours understand how to prevent the spread of the disease. 

Stories of social innovation abound. When in-person awareness campaigns became dangerous to hold, the Zimbabwe SDI Alliance worked with a prominent local social media group to produce and film a Covid awareness skit. Their video has been shared widely, reaching multitudes more viewers than would have been possible from live performances. In Uganda, the federation’s youth media group, Know Your City TV Uganda, created a six-part video series entitled “Rays of Hope” about the challenges and opportunities slum dwellers are facing during Covid.

An important intangible impact of all the activities carried out by SDI affiliates has been improved relationships with government officials. In Zambia, the federation engaged a water utility company – the Southern Water and Sanitation Company (SWACO) – to create pro-poor subsidies to support the increased amount of water required for frequent hand washing.  With local support, the company initiated a scheme making it possible for the urban poor to pay a fifth of the cost compared to high-income areas.

The initiative by Cities Alliance and Slum Dwellers International (SDI) exposes the central role that organized communities of the urban poor play in responding to crises. The partnership will continue working to support informal communities to respond and recover from the pandemic. 

What women want – part two: to map vulnerability to climate change


This article was originally published by IIED. 

By Sheela Patel, founder director of SPARC India and co-founder of SDI

This blog draws mostly on the experiences of SDI’s federations, (usually) formed by women’s savings groups. For members of these groups and their federations, exchange visits within their city or between cities – and internationally – have long been a key part of learning. This would include visits to cities where groups were mapping and collecting data on risk and vulnerability.

But when pandemic-related travel bans made in-person visits no longer possible, women learnt how to have digital conversations over the internet.

Five priority areas emerged. The four described in part one of this blog were: a roof over their heads; greens in their meals; women taking care of their own health; and ‘wheels and wages’, or the difficulties navigating increasingly unaffordabe transport options.

This blog discusses the fifth request from women – to be able to use their own knowledge and skills to map vulnerability to climate change.


Mapping benefits for everyone

Mapping and profiling informal settlements brings great benefits by guiding and informing responses to climate change risks. But just as importantly it benefits city government – if they support, engage and work with these women and their federations, both in mapping and data collection, and in developing responses. It also allows women to devise and agree their own strategies for change.

Examples of community-led mapping and profiling informal settlements include:

  • Across Kenya, within a 20-year history of the Kenyan federation of slum dwellers (Muungano wa Wanavijiji)
  • In Cuttack (India), mapping flood risks at city level
  • In Kisumu (Kenya), enumerating and mapping all informal settlements, and
  • In Epworth (Zimbabwe) using a geographic information system (GIS) for informal settlement upgrading.

Engaging the people who know best

Slum mapping and profiling is not easy. Residents often distrust the reasons given for collecting data, and the people who collect them. But this can be overcome by engaging residents from the start, including in the data collection.

SDI’s Know Your City campaign has engaged and supported slum profiling in thousands of informal settlements in 450 cities. The information gathered is added to SDI’s database.

In the last two years of working on climate change issues, SDI has tried to understand what brought women to the city, the challenges they face and where they live. An underlying driver of women moving to cities is their vulnerability to climate change, and being unable to find work in rural areas because of climate change’s negative impacts on agriculture and on rural populations.

In urban areas, the location where women squat is usually on land that was not in use because it was either next to a river or a dumping ground, or in some other way not suitable for habitation. Riverside settlements risked flooding while high-density informal settlements lacking public space created urban heat islands.

Now we must unpack the challenges that women face, understand how these are linked to climate vulnerability and build capacity, so women can deal with these challenges themselves. And we must address the ‘leaking bucket syndrome’ of constantly existing in survival mode to address these ever-present challenges.

So when women heard about the Race to Resilience campaign, it was something they understood very well. If they were supported to come up with robust solutions, it could help save their city, their families, and their communities.

It would also limit the depletion of valuable resources destroyed by disasters. It would improve their ability to climb out of the difficult conditions in which they were living, towards a better quality of life.

Communication is key

Women also realised that most city governments and communities were not in regular touch with each other. When disaster struck, there was no mutual, trusting relationship between them and the city, and urgent issues were not addressed.

But having a detailed vulnerability map of informal settlements is an effective way of grabbing the attention of local government. With a map, training communities and city officials, it was possible to develop a plan together to address different problems.

This would prove invaluable when identifying measures for disaster prevention and preparedness. Women immediately saw the benefits and are keen to explore this with other groups and federations across their networks.

Knowledge is power

The SDI network starts by exploring what women themselves can do. What are the simple questions they can ask themselves and each other to build up responses to help define the challenges and develop action plans. This revealed practices they are already doing, but which may have some frailties, and identified the actions they could do for themselves.

In the second phase, SDI approaches external partners for technical and financial support. Each federation presents their plan to their city government representatives to explore whether they can partner with them in the process.

But the most exciting aspect of these processes is that if communities outside SDI actively engage with these campaigns, they open up ways for grassroots advocacy to inform resilience.

Listening to those who are excluded and vulnerable, and trusting in their ability to define what they need, leads to solutions that are built around them. The outcome is new ways to engage a range of actors and stakeholders who can contribute to solutions that become the new normal.

My two blogs reflect on what women want, and we invite social movements, other networks and people who design solutions in health, housing, habitat, and data management, to join us.

Together we can develop capacities and skills to engage community networks to define areas of investigation. Solutions that deliver the needs and priorities of poor communities, neighbourhoods and especially for women – as identified by them – are possible.

What women want: how COVID-19 has highlighted the priorities and most pressing needs of urban poor women


Sheela Patel discusses how COVID-19 has highlighted the priorities and most pressing needs of women living in informal settlements and tenements.

Women members of informal saving groups and of urban poor federations (and Slum Dwellers International) have long visited each other to share knowledge and experience. Learning from each other strengthens their organisations.

But lockdowns and transport restrictions during the pandemic prevented visits.

So these women learnt how to use the internet for their conversations, and from this they developed five priority areas. Four are presented in this blog:  roof over our heads; greens in our meals; women taking care of their own health; and wheels and wages. The fifth, ‘we can map vulnerability to climate change’ – is discussed in the next blog

It seems a long time ago that I wrote a blog calling on international funders to address grassroots organisations’ priorities; not theirs. I make the point that funders must listen to, and try to understand, the needs of  communities in distress, especially women. Most don’t.

The backbone of the Slum Dwellers International (SDI) movement are women savings groups. These groups support women left distressed, disenfranchised and alone by COVID-19. They bore the burden of not having paid work, not bringing in money, having to feed the family, having to cope with children who couldn’t go to school, of having an old-fashioned phone with very poor Wi-Fi.

Despite these constraints, a modest network emerged. Women from different cities began talking to each other once a week using smartphones. Then some began to talk to those in neighbouring countries. Gradually the mentors in the savings groups started discussing what they had learnt from these conversations between women.

These discussions came to focus on ‘what women want’ – a laundry list of everything women need to keep the family safe and healthy, and to survive the long-term impacts of the pandemic.

This included developing long-term sustainable solutions as well as addressing the deficits that impacted their daily life.

  1. A roof over our heads

‘A roof over our heads’ is an expression of security. Yet poor households face the challenge of leaking roofs that are destroyed by extreme weather. Initially, roofing is made of materials they can scavenge. Material that can be dismantled and used for rebuilding – such as xxxx –wood and plastic has more value than brick and mortar that once bulldozed, cannot be reassembled.  

In informal settlements, constant refurbishing maintains the house – but depletes incomes. How can we transition from wildly inappropriate housing standards which produce units unaffordable by most of the population, to ones which are affordable? Can we develop solutions that make housing cheaper, more robust and more quickly available – while the state produces basic amenities of water, sanitation/sewers/drainage, pathways and road access.

  1. Greens in our meals 

Soon after the lockdowns, the combination of local philanthropic work of NGOs and grassroot groups, and state interventions got cereals in most families’ food baskets.

The real absence was greens – in part because families were unable to afford them, in part because they were unavailable.

During conversations of women’s savings collectives, some suggested growing greens, and to identify recipes with at least one third greens. Those living in neighbourhoods with outdoor space started planting greens and sharing them with neighbours. Those with links to their municipality asked for empty lots. In Quezon City in  the Philippines, the mayor initiated and supported a citywide campaign of kitchen gardens and composting. The authorities in Chiang Mai province, Thailand allowed community organizations to convert a former garbage dump into a thriving urban farm.

  1. Women: take care of your own health please

The conversation about greens came from women complaining they were not feeling well. A few who had doctor check-ups found their blood pressure and diabetes had spiralled out of control. This was especially for older women who were menopausal or close to it. Women began to replace one third of their cereals with greens and take mild exercise. It was evident that while women were caring for their families and managing the d households, their health issues came last. 

We are gradually building a mechanism for measuring women’s health – going beyond a polite conversation to a deeper reflection of needs addressing. We hope it produces both preventive and curative outcomes.

  1. Wheels and wages

The complete closure of motorised public transport and the huge distances between informal settlements and the places where men and women work, and children go to school underpin accentuates the already deep isolation people are living in. .

Most women we spoke to talked of navigating both formal and informal transport options that are increasingly unaffordable. This restricted how far they could go to look for work.

Next steps

Women’s savings group leadership from across SDI is seeking three next steps. The first is to champion these processes – not only to their peers in their own city and country or SDI’s 32 country affiliates, but to all women living in urban areas.

They will work through their mayors networks, their social movements and support NGOs to demonstrate the value of prioritising these four areas.  This will not only change lives; it will help their city understand the steps needed to tackle COVID-19.

Step two is to show municipality representatives and local mayors the positive impact of focusing on these four areas. They need to ensure engagement with what women want does not die with the crisis. But also to recognize that women’s networks are fundamental to building more sustainable and resilient cities.

The third step is to support women’s networks to build a deeper understanding of the challenges of informality, so these challenges can be addressed.

The next blog in the series will discuss the fifth area of what women want: to map vulnerability to climate change in their community and city.

Sheela Patel is the founder and director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), India

This blog was originally posted on the IIED site, available here.




Mbarara, Uganda: An informal community uses collective savings to deal with Covid-19

The slum dwellers in Mbarara city, Uganda are using collective savings to deal with the global pandemic and investing in new businesses. Sarah Nandudu reports

This is the fortieth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN and was originally posted on the ICCCAD website. 

Mbarara city, located in south western Uganda, is the main municipality of Mbarara district and it is the largest urban center in western Uganda. The city is densely populated with low and medium income class population and just like other developing towns, Mbarara is experiencing a rapid growth of slums for example- Biafra, Kiyanja, Kirehe, Kijungu, and others. People living in slums are mainly day labourers and small scale business holders.

Slum dwellers are generally excluded from formal financial markets and are often forced to borrow money from money lenders who charge extremely high interest rates—creating a vicious cycle of debt and ever-deepening poverty.  Slum Dwellers International facilitates the economic empowerment of urban poor communities through direct support to local affiliates, such as the National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda (NSDFU) and their support NGO  ACTogether Uganda.

The Federation is a network of community savings groups that practice daily savings, while using their collective strength to improve the lives of urbanites who reside in six of Uganda’s growing municipalities – Kampala, Jinja, Mbale, Mbarara, Kabale and Arua. Members save at least 100 shillings per day to this group and they loan to members, generally with interest but no collateral. These loans are usually for household and livelihood needs such as school fees, health care, and small business support. Such collective savings have helped the slum dwellers many times in upgrading their communities and have also come handy during the global pandemic.

Impacts of Covid-19 on slum dwellers of Mbarara

Katongole Deus is a boda boda (traditional African motorcycle taxi) rider who lives in Mbarara city. Deus has a family, a beautiful wife and one little boy of 7 years. He is a member of Abamwe group, one of the slum dwellers federation groups mapped in Kakiika, Rwemiyeje cell within Mbarara Municipality.

“I have been in the transport business for three consecutive years and like any other person I have been strongly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The transport sector was, among other sectors, locked down, as boda bodaswere deemed to be  risky operations that can easily transmit the virus. The announcement  of the ban on carrying  passengers definitely and automatically disrupted everything,” Deus says.

Although boda boda drivers were allowed to carry luggage, this alone was not sufficient to earn income that could sustain Deus’s standards of living and that of other family members, since the biggest percentage of his  income comes from carrying passengers.

“Before coronavirus, I used to earn 30,000 shillings (8.2 USD) per day, of that; 10,000 shillings was for my boss, 12,000 shillings for family activities and the rest was saved for school fees and other financial goals. I had great ambitions of buying my own motorcycle but unfortunately the process was disrupted and my ambitions received a great setback,” he laments.

Ibrahim is a market vendor with five children and two wives. He has a stall of shoes (both second hand and new ones) which he initiated long ago with a capital of approximately 500,000 shillings (137 USD). Ibrahim is also a saver in a family support initiative, which is one of the groups that are registered with the federation located in Kiyanja slum.

“Before this period I was earning an average profit of 70,000 shillings (19.1 USD) on a weekly basis. However, these profits multiplied during the festive season, when demand for shoes is high. My target for a long time has been stretching my profits to approximately 100,000 shillings per week and this is something that I have relentlessly been working on through saving and injecting more money in my business,” Ibrahim shares.

But Covid-19 has seriously blocked all Ibrahim’s income-generating plans. Market places where he operated were closed due to the lockdown instituted by the government, which has persisted for months. The lockdown forced all businesses to close and only market places were left for food vendors and this has greatly impacted his social-economic life. His daily meals were also reduced to one meal a day and basic services barely were met.

Using collective savings to tackle the crisis

To sustain life during the lock-down, both Deus and Ibrahim had to revert back to their savings groups. They had to channel the savings that were meant for future goals to the day-to-day demands of their families. But eventually they hope to use the savings in future endeavors as well.

In order to be financially stable in the face of future disasters, Deus is planning to start up a business for his wife (grocery) after the pandemic and boost family income. The pandemic has taught him a lesson to not depend on one business.

The lockdown has further forced Ibrahim to use the savings that he had put aside as a way of mitigating the effects of this pandemic. He wanted to start a merchandise shop using the savings but now, due to lack of capital, he has to suspend this intention.

But he is now exploring bricklaying as a new opportunity where he can generate some income. One of his friends has provided some space for starting the new project. This is a project that he hopes will complement his other business that has been constrained by the pandemic. He also hopes that it will help in multiplying his savings if the situation is settled.

“The saving is another discipline that we will reinforce, it has evidently illustrated its purpose during such times, and we will definitely carry on this with the federation and also encourage other people to join federation schemes” they conclude.

Interviewer’s Perspective

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a disproportionate impact on the people living in slums around the world as they already lack access to basic services. Volatile livelihood options and limited income have been further challenged and tested by the Covid-imposed lockdown. While they lack access to formal banking services, community-based savings groups have been the only resort for them to rely on. Though people like Deus and Ibrahim can meet their basic needs with the savings, and plan for investing on new endeavors based on their savings, such initiatives may not be sustainable due to lack of funds. Governments as well as non-government organisations should consider the plights of the urban poor differently and should invest more on providing financial security to them. Provision of formal banking services at subsidised interest rates can be one of the ways of dealing with the problem.

About the interviewer

Sarah Nandudu is the national coordinator of the National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda. She is the Vice Chairperson of the movement and monitors the consolidation of plans and budgets from communities as well as the implementation of all Federation programmes across Uganda.


About the interviewees

Katongole Deus is a boda boda rider who lives in Mbarara city. He is a member of Abamwe group, one of the slum dwellers federation groups mapped in Kakiika, Rwemiyeje cell within Mbarara Municipality.

Ibrahim is a market vendor with 5 children and two wives. He is a member of a family support initiative which is one of the groups that are registered with the federation located in Kiyanja slum.

Predicting Covid-19 Contagion Risk Hotspots

[caption id="attachment_13126" align="alignnone" width="450"] Dharavi, India. Photo credit: SDI[/caption]

This article was originally published by Cities Alliance.
A new initiative on the ground in eight SDI-affiliated cities, with support from Cities Alliance and The World Bank.


Cities Alliance with financial support from the World Bank has launched a new initiative to provide funding to five affiliates of Slum Dwellers International (SDI) to collect slum level data to support COVID-19 hotspot prediction analysis. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has levelled unprecedented challenges upon cities across the globe. Given their high population densities and concentration of economic activity, cities are on the frontlines of trying to stem the tide of infections.  As the world awaits the widespread rollout of a vaccine, prevention through social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing remains the best means of containing the virus’s spread.

For the world’s one billion slum dwellers, such measures present a challenge as most live in overcrowded urban settlements with inadequate access to basic water and sanitation services. For such communities, crowded communal taps and toilets are the norm and constitute significant contagion risk hotspots.

To support cities to prioritize and target resources to the most vulnerable the World Bank’s Global Practice of Urban, Resilience and Land (GPURL) developed a rapid deployment tool to identify hotspots where the risk of exposure and community contagion is likely to be high. The tool identifies hotspots for exposure and vulnerability, based on:

  • The practical inability for keeping people apart, based on a combination of population density and liveable floor space that does not allow for 2 meters of physical distancing.
  • Conditions where, even under lockdown, people might have little option but to cluster (e.g., to access public toilets and water pumps).

The analysis requires three primary datasets: population, building heights, and location of key services. Since data coverage on informal settlements is notoriously scarce, this project supports a partnership between the World Bank and SDI to fill critical data gaps.

Local affiliates of SDI – comprised of slum dweller federations and their support NGOs –  have decades of experience collecting data and mapping slum communities under the Know Your City campaign. As such, SDI affiliates are best positioned to update the slum level data required during this COVID-19 pandemic emergency and therefore have been partnered with to implement this initiative. Through this partnership, SDI’s slum dweller federations seek to expand the influence of community-collected data in shaping inclusive COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.

“SDI was invited by the World Bank at the height of the COVID crisis to use our Know Your City community-driven data collection tools to map amenities and services in informal settlements in five countries and eight cities. This work will support SDI’s advocacy work, both at the local and global level, as we continue the critical work of seeking amenities and services for informal settlements”, said Sheela Patel, Director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC), an affiliate of SDI in India.


COVID has made it clear more than ever that the failure of cities to provide access to clean water and safe sanitation services to the residents of informal settlements and slums is a threat to all. 


Sheela Patel, Director of SPARC


Cities Alliance will provide funding to SDI’s Ghana, India, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Uganda affiliates to support them to collect and share slum level geospatial data from selected informal settlements in eight cities (Nairobi, Kisumu, Accra, Kampala, Pune, Bhubaneswar, Mumbai and Freetown) to feed into the World Bank’s hotspot prediction analysis tool.


Enhancing the Resilience of Slum Communities to Overcome the Covid-19 Crisis

[caption id="attachment_13337" align="alignleft" width="450"] Youth training in the fabrication of hand washing facilities (People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia)[/caption]






Since last year, SDI has partnered with Cities Alliance to support federations in 16 countries across Africa and Asia who have been working tirelessly to respond to and recover from the Covid-19 pandemic in their communities. The article below, originally published by Cities Alliance, captures some of the key outcomes of this work so far, including diverse responses to communities’ immediate needs and community-driven efforts to provide reliable data on informal settlements for building back better. 

The pandemic has exposed the gross inequalities present in cities, particularly in developing countries, and the urgent need for development assistance that reaches the most vulnerable. Investing in the resilience-building efforts of local organizations is vital to responding effectively to the crisis. The initiative launched by Cities Alliance last year, in response to Covid-19 in informal settlements, demonstrates the central role that organized communities of the urban poor play.  

The main component of the initiative is a partnership with Slum Dwellers International (SDI), to support community-led humanitarian assistance and resilience-building targeting the most vulnerable. Slum dweller federations affiliated with SDI are in the driver’s seat of implementation. They are drawing on a long history of community organizing and partnership with local authorities to ensure an inclusive response and recovery effort in informal settlements. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), is the funding partner of the initiative.

Some of the key outcomes respond to the most immediate needs of the local communities, including:  


Building Inclusive and Resilient Societies in Unpredictable Times

Photo: Know Your City TV Nigeria

This article was originally published in Voices for a Living Planet, a special edition Living Planet Report 2020 by WWF.

By Sheela Patel (ED of SPARC India and co-founder of SDI) and Deon Nel (CEO of Global Resilience Partnership)

The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly exposed many fragilities of our modern world. Fragilities driven by an unsustainable, unequal and hyperconnected global economic structure that has become obsessively focused on top-down productivity and efficiency at the expense of resilience and social inclusion.

A zoonotic pandemic, ultimately caused by an exploitative human relationship with nature, has led to one of the greatest global disruptions in modern history. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of deaths, the pandemic has cascaded into massive social and economic impacts that have most acutely affected vulnerable communities living in dense slums and dependent on daily wages from informal work. It is estimated that 1.6 billion informal workers lost up to 80% of their income due to lockdown measures, with warnings of the largest economic recession since World War II and the biggest food crisis in half a century. Hyper-connected and highly concentrated economic and food systems, overly focused on productivity and efficiency, have been especially exposed and vulnerable communities in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will be hardest hit.

Despite these overwhelming challenges, grassroots organisations have played a remarkable role in building community resilience in the face of COVID-19. These locally rooted organisations have often been the only boots on ground and have demonstrated how invaluable trusted planning, decision-making and knowledge brokering processes are at a time of crisis. Local community leaders have been able to rapidly assess vulnerabilities and find creative ways of directing support to where it is needed most. They also provide trusted channels of reliable information at a time when misinformation spreads faster than the pandemic itself. Even more important, grassroots organisations, if supported and empowered, are able to work with authorities to proactively build the resilience of the most vulnerable.

With trillions of dollars in post-COVID-19 stimulus packages being prepared, the term resilience is being widely used by global and national leaders to describe the future we should be building. But there is little evidence that these commitments will in fact build resilience and protect the most vulnerable from future shocks. This will require investments that have a deep accountability to addressing the needs of the most vulnerable; and should be built around the following fundamental pillars:

Investing in inclusive governance, that strengthens the role of grassroots organisations with the necessary contextual understanding and trusted local relationships to have the greatest impact. These organisations are not only critical to responding to shocks but also vital to proactively building long term resilience.

Diversifying and localising highly concentrated value chains such as characterised in the food, energy and finance sectors. Most notably, diversified and localised food value chains greatly increase the options for maintaining food security during unpredictable and compounding shocks and stresses. Diversifying highly centralised fossil fuel dependent energy systems to more decentralised renewable energy networks brings similar resilience benefits.

And, building a new relationship with nature that recognises that human wellbeing and planetary wellbeing are intertwined and inseparable. This relationship needs to recognise the key role that nature plays in protecting and sustaining vulnerable communities during shocks and stresses, but also the systemic risks related to the reckless exploitation of nature.

Building a resilient future in a turbulent and uncertain world will require global solidarity that recognises that we are all only as resilient as the most vulnerable amongst us. Resilience and social inclusion are inseparable.




Call to international funders: address grassroots organisations’ priorities, not yours


This article was originally posted on the IIED blog.

By Sheela Patel 

As COVID-19 persists and spreads, urban poor organisations need funding that is flexible enough to meet the evolving needs of their communities.

This series of blogs focusing on the transition to a predominantly urban world began before COVID-19 took hold. The pandemic brings devastating current and future health and economic impacts, and demands our attention and commitment to work together to overcome it.

Here, Sheela Patel explains why saving groups supporting organisations of the urban poor need flexible funding to respond effectively to the many challenges emerging from the virus.


International agencies are failing to provide the support that organisations of the urban poor desperately need to fight COVID-19, and to cope with its devastating economic and social impacts. Few if any structure their support to match grassroots organisations’ needs for flexible funding.

So is international funding actually helping these grassroots organisations – including the thousands of savings groups that make up Slum Dwellers International – cope with COVID-19? Or to survive it? And to enhance and support the many roles these savings groups have in fighting the pandemic and reaching vulnerable groups?

You would think that savings groups would be perfect partners for international funders. They are organised, they can manage money, they are trusted, they have capacity, and they operate in the poorest urban communities.

When an international agency wants to help low-income communities in informal settlements, how do they decide on what will be funded, and by whom? It often takes weeks for the funding to arrive when what is needed is a rapid response.

And does the international funding address the local community’s needs? Does it understand roles of grassroots organisations in responding to COVID-19? Are they asking these organisations what form of external support would work best for them?

The growing pressures on savings groups

In the last six months, women’s collectives within SDI are facing very local crises of their own. Their most precious savings and loans programmes have completely collapsed. And with that, all the revolving funds that they built through repayment of loans. Regenerating it without external support will be next to impossible.

And as people move away from neighbourhoods, networks of the federations are beginning to collapse – some going to their rural kinship homes, others exploring other ways to earn.

Low-income residents with infectious or chronic diseases have difficulties accessing health care as hospitals and governments struggle to deal with the pandemic. Immunisation programmes are not reaching large sections of the population.

Women and girls are facing real hardship through so many changes. Many girls are not going to school, and experiencing an upswing in violence in households as deep depression and frustration take hold. Cases of rape and pregnancies in teenage girls are rising.

Most if not all cities in the global South are locked in their own crisis of how to pay sufficient attention to the challenges of the urban poor. Initially, money was available to help feed people. But reaching all those in need has become a continuous challenge, especially the most vulnerable households.

Flexibility to respond

So, what do the thousands of savings groups around the world need? The answer: flexible funds that enable these groups to respond quickly to their communities’ most pressing needs.

For some, this may be food; for others, medicine. Funds may be needed to help struggling community health facilities or to deploy safety patrols that help keep girls and women safe.

Without being able to anticipate what’s coming next, it’s hard for savings groups to write smart proposals requesting money for specific activities. What savings groups really need is to be able to focus on their own priorities, not those of international funders.