Our Practices for Change


Savings Schemes

Each day groups of women in slum neighbourhoods and settlements walk from home to home, and gather small change from each other in order to collectively address the livelihood struggles they share.

Through daily interactions, and weekly community gatherings, savings group members begin to articulate what problems exist within their community, creating a sense of shared identity for the women of urban poor communities.

Whilst SDI does not exclude men, the reality is that the savings groups are comprised mainly of women. Women are often at the center of the household – responsible for the provision of food, school fees, clean water, and a place to sleep. By targeting the poorest women in a settlement, one can be sure that the settlement’s most vital needs will be addressed.

Additionally, the structure of savings groups allows members to access short-term loans, which are otherwise largely unavailable to the urban poor. This system of savings & credit prepares communities for medium and large-scale financial management necessary in the slum upgrading projects they are likely to pursuit. Often regarded as the cornerstone of SDI, these savings groups link together to form “federations.”

Central Participation of Women

For SDI, the central participation of women is not just an ideal but a critical component of a gender-sensitive mobilization strategy, which sees men and women re-negotiating their relationships within families, communities, and organizational forms such as slum dweller “federations”. By prioritizing the leadership potential of women, federations alter traditional male domination in communities, in ways that actually strengthen grassroots leadership.

Recognising that women are often the true engines of development, SDI uses the savings and credit methodology to develop their leadership capacity, financial management skills, and confidence. By entrusting women to handle such important monetary systems, whereby they are in charge of the precious savings of their neighbours and friends, communities begin to understand the potential of women as public decision-makers and powerful agents of change. In fact, savings and credit activities, apart from their clear financial benefits, serve as a means to bring women out of the home and into the public sphere in a manner that men rarely resent.

Enumerations & Mapping

Community planning activities build political capital for communities both internally and externally. Within communities, activities like enumeration (household-to-household socio-economic surveys) and mapping create space for communities to: identify developmental priorities, organize leadership, expose and mediate grievances between segments of the community, and cohere around future planning.

Such activities serve as a platform for engagement with governments and other stakeholders involved in planning and setting policy for development in urban centres. A key aspect of community planning activities is that communities own the information they collect. When they share the data with government, they are able to create new relationships — and even institutions — that make the poor integral role players in the decisions that affect their lives.


SDI federations cannot address informal settlement challenges on their own, but they can catalyse change. The key to reaching community driven development at scale is the inclusion of external partners. SDI engages with governments, international organisations, academia and other institutions wherever possible to create relationships that benefit the urban poor. By opening space for slum dwellers to engage in international advocacy at the global level, and by drawing international partners into local processes through key local events, opportunities are created for key partnerships to develop that can impact at both the local and global level. Ultimately, the aim is to create situations in which the urban poor are able to play a central role in “co-producing” access to land, services, and housing.

Slum Upgrading

There is not, and never will be, a one-size-fits-all approach to upgrading of informal settlements. Each settlement is unique in its challenges, but there are common themes. Informal settlement upgrading is not simply “site and service” or the provision of a “top structure” house. Upgrading is any intervention that improves the physical conditions of a settlement, which in turn enhances the lives of its inhabitants.

The most critical emphasis is that this process should happen in situ, where communities already exist. Relocations should always be as a last resort. However in situations in which they are unavoidable, such as in flood planes or along railway lines, the federations work to ensure that decisions are made in conjunction with the community.

SDI projects do not deliver land, services and incremental houses as ends in themselves, but do so as a means to draw in politicians and policy makers in order to challenge and transform institutional arrangements and policies. For SDI this is not only a matter of delivery but also one of deepening democracy.

Learning Exchanges

Horizontal learning exchange from one urban poor community to another is the primary learning strategy of SDI. Participants within the savings networks learn best from each other. When one savings group has initiated a successful income-generating project, re-planned a settlement or built a toilet block, SDI enables groups to come together and learn from intra-network achievements. The community exchange process builds upon the logic of ‘doing is knowing’ and helps to develop a collective vision. As savers travel from Cape Town’s Sheffield Road to Kenya’s Mukuru Sinai to India’s Pune, the network is unified and strengthened. Such learning happens not only at the street level but between towns, regions, provinces, and nations. In this way, locally appropriate ideas are transferred into the global dialogue on urban development through dialogue between slum dweller peers.

Additionally, horizontal exchanges create a platform for learning that builds alternative community-based politics and “expertise,” challenging the notion that development solutions must come from professionals. In this way, communities begin to view themselves as holding the answers to their own problems rather than looking externally for professional help.

The pool of knowledge generated through exchange programs becomes a collective asset of the SDI network. When slum dwellers meet with external actors to debate development policies, they can draw from international examples, which influences government and other stakeholders to listen.