Challenges of Working with Government

By Ben Bradlow, SDI Secretariat 

A cornerstone of SDI’s working methodology is for federated groups of the urban poor to work to broker deals and develop relationships with the kinds of institutions that facilitate development at scale. More often than not, institutions of the State are the key actors with which organized communities need to engage in order to make an impact. 

Such relationships are almost inherently fraught. Slum dweller organizations can end up making deals with governments that in one breath may provide land, services or funds to one settlement, while threatening another with eviction. Government may try to use seemingly participatory processes as a tool for rubber-stamping previously approved government plans.

But in order for slum dweller organizations to achieve developmental scale, they must work with government at the same time that they challenge these very same institutions. It is a delicate balance that belies academic, theoretical imperatives for ideological purity. The politics of pragmatism are often slum dwellers’ greatest strength. For these are their politics of survival and innovation. It is important for planners to see slums the way slum dwellers see their own homes and neighborhoods. Not from the bird’s eye view from the sky, but from the street level on the ground. Similarly, the airborne purity of the ivory tower of academics and professionals bears little relation to the street level skills that characterize the pragmatism of slum dweller organizations in the ways in which they approach their governments.

At an SDI board meeting held in Cape Town, South Africa, on 13-14 July 2010, leaders of affiliated federations reflected on the scale and impact of the relationships that they have forged with their respective governments. These kinds of relationships take place at the local and national level of State administration. These relationships are full of mistakes, corrections, innovations, and lessons learned. Sometimes a formal agreement opens doors that would have otherwise been closed. In other cases, it is the exact opposite experience: the lack of formality facilitates organic, productive relationship building.

The Ghanaian federation has faced down eviction threats from various municipalities, most notably in Old Fadama in Accra. These threats have served as entry points for more sustainable relationships with local authorities. For example, after a threat to Old Fadama residents in 2009, the Federation convinced the authorities to accept the results of an enumeration of the 80,000-strong settlement before moving ahead with any future plans. Relationships with traditional councils in some areas have begun leading to the provision of new plots of land for slum dwellers.

The Indian alliance of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, Mahila Milan and support NGO SPARC, signed an MoU with local authorities in Pune. This facilitated the passage of a work order approval and house building has begun. There are five cities where the local authority works with communities to finance housing construction. In each of these cases, the community commits to provide 10% of the total housing cost. The alliance also has MoUs with three different states in the country, while at the national level SAPRC sits on a prime ministerial committee for housing. Arputham argues that the signed document of the MoU is a starting point to get access to begin talking with government. One of the largest accomplishments of such engagements is that the alliance managed to change the policy towards the ubiquitous pavement dwellers in Bombay.

The Kenyan Federation, has an agreement with the Nairobi Water Company for the connection of water for 4000 households in the Nairobi slum of Mathare. The Federation engages with local departments of planning but does so without a formal MoU. Engagements with local authorities are increasing, especially as the Federation becomes acquainted with new municipal configurations, says Federation leader Benson Osumba. It has been more difficult to engage with ministers at the national level, but lower-level professionals who are more stable in the relevant ministries have begun to work with the Federation. For example, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Housing has promised the provision of infrastructure in the Nairobi railway slum of Mukuru.

The emerging Liberian federation has signed a MoU with the Monrovia city council.

Relationships in Malawi between the Federation and the national government were codified in a MoU signed in 2007. This has resulted in the provision of land for 500 housing plots in Blantyre. The national government has also just begun allocations for slum upgrading initiatives, and the Federation is being recognized as a legitimate for ensuring that these funds reach the grassroots. This has been an opening for the Federation to begin advocating for a partnership with government around a revolving fund for slum upgrading. In addition to greenfields housing development, the Federation has begun partnering with the Lilongwe municipality around in situ upgrading.

The federation in Namibia has achieved significant financial commitments from the national government, but the relationship is not codified in a written document. One of the struggles in this relationship, says the National Housing Action Group’s (NHAG) Anna Muller, is convincing the government to work together to establish a revolving fund for housing and informal settlement upgrading. In this financial year, the government has committed approximately USD1.2 million as grant funding for what is known as the Build Together Fund. This was a tripling of the previous commitment from the government. The money is located at the local authority level, and the Federation is finding that repayments to the fund often get lost at that level. The Fund also individualizes the group loans, which has tended to confuse community reporting mechanisms. The national Director of Housing had been interested in setting up a more community-centered revolving fund, but such negotiations were sidetracked when he died earlier this year. The Federation appears in the government’s national development plan, but is still subject to annual budgeting decisions. It is the only non-governmental group to appear in the national development plan.

Local level relationships have been slower to develop for the Namibian Federation. The Community-Led Information Program (CLIP), which entailed the profiling of every informal settlement in the country, allowed the Federation to make links at the local government level in some towns, though they are not formalized, says Federation leader Edith Mbanga. Four towns are already using the information collected through CLIP as part of their local development plans.

Jockin Arputham, SDI president and president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation of India, argues that the Namibian model has a lot to teach other kinds of community groups looking to broker deals with the State. This is especially so with regards to the Federation’s relationship with the national governement: “There is a lot of money being committed. But do not get hung up on getting a formal commitment from government when a lot can come out of more informal relationships.”

The Philippines Federation has begun engaging local authorities through MoUs that are project specific, says federation leader Sonia Cardonigara. Agreements with the Manila local authority have been used to influence other cities such as Ilo Ilo and Montealban. The written MoUs have been helpful to commit authorities when it comes to the provision of land and housing. Involvement in the Community Land and Infrastructure Finance Facility (CLIFF) has been a major catalyst for building such relationships.

Communities in Freetown, Sierra Leone, have faced eviction threats, particularly in seaside slums like Kroo Bay. The community there completed an enumeration that has helped stave off the latest eviction threat issued in August 2009. The uphill slum of Dworzack has worked on a similar enumeration, this time in partnership with the Freetown City Council.

The South African federation has a long-standing pledge of housing subsidies from the national government. However, these subsidies are distributed through provincial government. Bureaucratic hold-ups and even willful negligence have meant that few subsidies actually get through to the Federation. The MoU underpinning this agreement has had limited use on the ground, though it has opened doors at all levels of government to begin engagements. In the City of Durban, municipal authorities have described the MoU as basically meaningless. Federation president Patrick Magebhula suggests that MoUs between cities and towns that are connected to specific projects can be much more effective. However, the national MoU has allowed for engagement primarily at the policy level, where the Federation can challenge issues like housing standards. In the city of Cape Town, a new network of informal settlement communities called the Informal Settlement Network has been working with municipal authorities for the past year on a series of informal settlement pilot upgrading projects. After a full year of working together, now municipal authorities are asking for a MoU to concretize the burgeoning relationship. A recently completed profile of every informal settlement in the Ekurhuleni municipality caused national government to begin talks with the South African alliance around expanding the community-led information gathering method nation-wide.

The new government in Sri Lanka has severely hampered efforts by the slum dwellers federation there. There is no allocation for housing in the latest budget, and housing is now a line function of the ministry of defense. Policy has shifted towards the rhetorical lynchpin of “slum eradication.” The Federation has made tentative steps towards initiating dialogue with the national government, but there is little awareness about the information collection and construction that has already been done.

In Tanzania, the federation has achieved much in the terms of support for community-led housing initiatives in places like Chamazi, Dar es Salaam. But all of this has come without any formal document concretizing the relationship.

The federation in Uganda has had a MoU with the national government dating back to 2002, which applied to the cities of Kampala and Jinja, where the federation was active at that time. This MoU helped facilitate the provision of a communal toilet block in Kampala. However, the MoU expired in 2007. The Cities Alliance program for the “Transformation of Settlements of the Urban Poor in Uganda” (TSUPU) has opened doors to formalize relationships with national government, as well as local authorities in the cities where the program is active: Arua, Jinja, Kabale, Mbale, Mbarara. The federation has representation on newly established national and local urban forums. The Jinja municipality has provided land to the federation in the settlement of Kawama.

The Zambian federation has MoUs with four city councils, and is in the process of finalizing such a document with the national Ministry of Local Government. In Livingstone, a relationship with the Water Company has resulted in the provision of water in informal settlements there. The Federation has currently been investing a lot of time in developing relationships with traditional chiefs, as they have a lot of control over land allocations. There is hope of beginning to sign MoUs with such officials.

The Zimbabwe federation has a Memorandum of Understanding with the national Ministry of Local Government and Urban Development. However, says federation leader Davious Muvindi, the MoU has not committed the Ministry to fulfilling its commitments in practice. The government has allocated some land, as stipulated by the MoU. This often does not take place directly, but through the influence of the MoU on local authorities. Over 160 total stands have been located in the authorities of Chiredzi, Kagoma, Nyanga, and Nyazura. However, the overall goal for the Federation is to convince local authorities to work with communities provide infrastructure, water, sewage, sanitation, and road services. The Federation feels it has the capacity to complete the building of house if the services are in place. Information gathering is also becoming a point of engagement with State authorities. The Federation recently completed an enumeration in Ward 7 of Epworth, where it had previously been difficult to work because of political tension. “We were successful because aligned the Ministry, local authority, and the community,” says Muvindi. “Local authorities are working with us, and the Ministry has availed some computers to do the work.”

Patience Mudimu, coordinator of Dialogue on Shelter, which supports the activities of the Zimbabwean Federation, says that the agreements that aren’t codified on paper may be even more effective than those that are. “These are the local authority level on specific development projects using development permits … We were thinking of formalizing the relationship in Kariba, and then the mayor asked why they should change things when the development permits are working.” The national MoU has opened doors at the local level for these less formal relationships. “We have used the MoU beyond what is written,” says Mudimu.