Flawed Assumptions

Mathare slum Kenya

By Robert M. Buckley, Achilles Kallergis, and David Satterthwaite

Forty-two years after Habitat I—the first international commitment toward an urban agenda—urban poverty persists, the number of slum dwellers continues to increase, and hundreds of millions lack access to the basic services associated with city living: shelter, water and sanitation, and jobs. How is it possible that in 2018 a silent urban crisis continues unabated—right alongside global pronouncements and aspirations of inclusive, resilient, and “smart” cities?

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The idea that cities and urban policy play an extraordinarily important role in the development process is increasingly recognized, though still given low priority by most international agencies and national governments. The New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals attempt to elevate the role of cities as crucial spaces where struggles for inclusive and resilient development will be won or lost. Almost all the world’s governments endorsed the SDGs’ commitment to “leave no one behind.” How far are we from this reality, and what will it take to make sure cities become inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable?

These questions resonate strongly for the urban poor. The population of slum dwellers by absolute numbers is on the rise. In many low-income countries, the growth of slum populations has been more rapid than the average urban growth. In some regions, access to the basic improvements associated with city living—better health, stable jobs, good housing, and vital household services—have yet to materialize for the majority of urbanites. In addition, the projected demographic growth in cities of the Global South makes previous urbanization phases seem like ripples in a stream. While urban growth rates are declining, almost all of the growth in the urban population—from 4 billion in 2015 to over a projected 6 billion by 2050—is expected to take place in low- and middle-income countries. By 2050, these cities, already facing acute challenges in terms of access to land, shelter, and services, will need to absorb over 2 billion people, increasing their total urban population by 75 percent. There is a narrow window of opportunity to address the needs of current and future city dwellers, particularly the most vulnerable slum dwellers.

Do We Know Our Cities? Revisiting Assumptions About Urban Development

The inability to improve the living conditions in cities for so many urban dwellers makes it imperative for us to reexamine the basic assumptions underlying urban development policy and practice.

Flawed Assumption 1: Informal settlements are temporary way stations for the urban poor on the path to modernity and prosperity.

It is assumed that as countries urbanize, welfare gradually improves, and the corresponding increases in income help societies afford more and better housing, increased educational opportunities, improved health care, and other amenities. It is also understood that urban density lowers unit costs for most services and contributes to greater innovation and creativity. By this logic, informal settlements are temporary way stations on the path to modernity and prosperity.

However, when urbanization takes place without job opportunities and infrastructure, urban density does not contribute to innovation and growth. On the contrary, without provision of safe shelter and services, density becomes deadly and costly. The fact that most of the urban population in many low- and middle-income countries now resides in informal settlements—often for generations—implies that these locations have become poverty traps rather than stepping-stones to prosperity.

Flawed Assumption 2: Slum dwellers benefit from better overall health conditions in urban areas.

It has long been assumed that an increase in the share of the population living in cities assures significant improvements in health through what is called the “urban health premium”—that is, better health conditions are found in cities than rural areas.

However, while this “urban health premium” has played an important role in improving welfare throughout the world, it appears to be disappearing in many cities. In at least two African cities for which data is available—Nairobi and Dar es Salaam—infant and child mortality rates among urban poor groups approach and sometimes exceed rural averages. In some cases, health outcomes among low-income urban dwellers are far worse than among low-income rural dwellers.

Flawed Assumption 3: The conditions of the urban poor can be improved without their involvement in planning processes.

There is an assumption that improving the conditions of the urban poor can be done without detailed knowledge of what their living conditions are. Moreover, it is assumed planning priorities in informal settlements can be set without consulting the residents, suggesting housing, infrastructure services, and resilient communities can be built without consideration of people’s incomes, needs, and preferences.

However, while knowledge about cities overall is growing, our knowledge of urban poverty and the living conditions of slum dwellers in particular is seriously lacking. Although contemporary urban practice recognizes and underlines the need for greater participation and better data, there is no mechanism in place to systematically assess and collect information about the living conditions of the urban poor. Official reporting on housing, basic services, and health vectors relies, for the most part, on urban averages that obscure the challenges in informal settlements.

Going Forward: Inclusivity Is Not Automatic

Inclusive outcomes demand inclusive knowledge and action. The above flawed assumptions beg the question: How can we “leave no one behind” if there are hundreds of millions of urban dwellers whose needs are undocumented, whose voices are unheard, and whose capacities are ignored? We simply cannot produce nuanced definitions of “poverty” unless these are grounded in local data and knowledge.

For cities to serve as engines of inclusion, growth, and development for all inhabitants, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, policies and institutions must be constructed with the explicit intent of facilitating and safeguarding social, political, and economic inclusion for all residents.

Collaborative planning leads to collaborative action. Such action can resolve the concerns of low-income residents in practical, affordable, and scalable ways while motivating local government to realize the benefits of engaging the community in dialogue and viewing community members as valuable partners and constituents. Considerable evidence shows that including the voices and capacities of urban poor households and community organizations in planning and implementation leads to collective action that produces more inclusive and sustainable outcomes.

Complex cities require collaborative planning and insights from local knowledge and data. The capacity to act fast and effectively almost always rests on adequate knowledge. The SDGs acknowledge the need for disaggregated data, but little data exists that can be disaggregated to settlement level, and the system continues to use urban averages that perpetuate myths  and flawed assumptions. Many of those left behind simply cannot be found in the data, and if you are not in the data, you (and your needs and capacities) do not count.

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In the chapters that follow, authors from government, academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations (CBOs), and public-private partnerships outline proven and emergent solutions that hold greater promise for enhancing inclusiveness and resilience at scale. These solutions highlight the fundamental importance of collective action and partnership in addressing the growing challenges of the urban poor. Specifically, we will explore the Know Your City campaign and how federations have collected systematic data on conditions in their communities that matches or exceeds the credibility and reliability of much more expensive surveys and catalyzes the organization of communities and partnerships required for collective action.

The data has unmet potential to assess whether SDGs are being met in informal settlements—the very places where people are being left behind. We must acknowledge that we can and must do better. We must also recognize that new insights and partnerships with the urban poor can lead to new ways of thinking and acting that inspire and catalyze transformative change.

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. Over the next weeks, we will post a new chapter from the book every week and related material on our social media platforms daily. Enjoy! 

Download the full publication here: http://bit.ly/2seRc0x

Ten Essentials of the New Urban Agenda


This article was originally published on the IIED blog shortly before PrepCom 3 in July 2016, where intense negotiations on the New Urban Agenda took place ahead of Habitat III in October. 

By David Satterthwaite, IIED Human Settlements research group

Habitat III will seek global political commitment to making urban centres more sustainable, inclusive and resilient. But the latest draft of the New Urban Agenda – to be agreed at the summit – is long, impenetrable and gives little attention to urban governance. Frustrated by this unwieldy document, we have developed an alternative version of the New Urban Agenda – in one page.

Borrowing the format of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s Ten Essentials for Making Cities Resilient (PDF) these short and practical points provide national governments with clear direction for a workable outcome from Habitat III.

The text does not include many important goals. It seeks instead to push attention away from long lists that repeat commitments already made to the means by which these can be met.

Ahead of the last negotiation meeting before the summit we share these guidelines and are keen to hear comments.

The 10 essentials

We, representatives of national governments, recognise the two key stakeholders crucial for implementing the New Urban Agenda are urban governments and their local populations whose needs are not met – including representative organisations of slum/shack dwellers. Only with their buy-in will a New Urban Agenda will be effective.

  1. The New Urban Agenda must support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We commit to supporting urban governments to develop their responses to the SDGs and work with them so no one is left behind. This means shifting attention from defining goals to creating the institutional and governance basis in each locality to meet commitments already made in the SDGs and in the Paris Agreement on climate change
  2. We recognise how much can be achieved through strong local democracies and organised urban poor groups. We acknowledge a form of governance where local governments work in partnerships with civil society that can be rooted in local needs and possibilities as well as being more accountable and transparent
  3. We recognise the importance of local leadership for the New Urban Agenda and of learning from the experiences of innovative city governments, mayors and civil society groups – especially those that combine prosperity, good living conditions, and low ecological footprints
  4. New sources of finance are needed to support local governments and urban poor organisations to meet the SDGs. This includes raising local revenues and national government and international agency support (most international agencies pay little attention to addressing urban poverty)
  5. We support good local practice such as participatory planning and budgeting, citizen-based monitoring and community-driven upgrading in informal settlements. Importantly, these encourage voice and engagement by groups who face discrimination (for instance on the basis of gender or being a migrant or refugee)
  6. We commit to improving the quality and coverage of local data so this information is available to all and can inform local governments where needs are concentrated. This includes recognising the capacities of community-driven enumerations and mapping to generate data needed for upgrading informal settlements
  7. Urban centres need infrastructure and services that reach everyone (so no one is left behind). And that contribute to good health, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation (there are many co-benefits between these). Urban centres also need to contribute to climate change mitigation and thus to the realisation of the Paris Agreement and the avoidance of dangerous climate change
  8. Buildings and infrastructure must be safer and constructed in line with realistic, risk compliant building and land use regulations. But these must be grounded on what is possible and affordable in each location. There is an urgent need in most urban centres to identify safe land sites on which low-income citizens can build and to upgrade informal settlements (and address infrastructure deficits)
  9. We support investment in risk reduction in urban centres and their surrounds and in the information base it needs to be effective (so data are collected on causes of injuries and premature death and the impacts of small and large disasters). We also commit to preserving the productive and protective services that ecosystems provide for urban centres, especially for water management and flood risk reduction, and
  10. We agree to develop local government capacity to respond rapidly to disasters, conflicts, shocks or stresses, ensuring that the needs and capacities of the affected population are at the centre of responses.

Key factors influencing the agenda’s success 

Of course, effective local government depends on supportive national governments and appropriate legislation, rules and regulations – such as planning, health and safety, building standards, disaster risk reduction, climate change – and systems of devolved finance. It often depends on metropolitan or regional systems through which local governments can work together on the 10 essentials.

There is also an urgent need to generate new employment and income streams and what the SDGs describe as ‘decent work’ particularly for youth. But the SDGs say little about how.

Most local governments have limited capacities to directly expand employment, but much of what is outlined above (and the building of low carbon urban economies) will generate many new jobs including from the private sector and widen opportunities for young people.

Click here for an overview of SDI’s activities at Habitat III, and here to read the final version of the New Urban Agenda, adopted by member states at Habitat III. 

CoLab for Change: Case Studies for Collaborative Urban Transformation

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CoLab for Change: Case Studies for Collaborative Urban Transformation is a project of the Cities Alliance Joint Work Programme for Habitat III. 

Transforming fast growing cities of the global south into globally attractive hubs of the world economy cannot be achieved without including the urban poor as leaders in housing and urban development processes.

Roughly 1 billion people worldwide live in slums, with little to no access to safe housing, water, sanitation, electricity, or any of the other physical and social services that many of us take for granted. For these people urban development is about survival. It is about creating cities in which they can live safely and with dignity. Yet it is precisely these populations who remain least represented in urban decision-making processes.

The Cities Alliance Joint Work Programme on Habitat III highlights the value, experience and role of partnerships between national governments, local authorities and organized civil society in achieving sustainable development and poverty reduction in cities and believes that development partnerships:

  • Are key catalysts for a sustainable future
  • Help realise good urban governance
  • Strengthen economic development
  • Build inclusive cities

For more information, read the JWP’s Technical Background Paper.

The CoLab for Change case studies highlight the need for local government to implement the successful tools developed by community organizations and civil society that generate inclusive urban policies and development.

The work highlighted in these case studies shall inspire governments and civil society to develop effective strategies to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 11 to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” and SDG 17 to “revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.”

This project was made possible through financial support from Cities Alliance and GIZ.

These films were made by youth in slums as part of SDI’s Know Your City TV project, equipping youth with video documentation resources to tell stories of the lived experiences of the urban poor, and make media that contributes to the transformation of slums and cities.

Click here to visit the project page and watch the 6 case study videos.

SDI at Habitat III: Highlights from Quito

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45+ SDI delegates

14 affiliates from Africa, Asia, and Latin America

80+ speaking engagements

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Some highlights from SDI’s eventful week at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador:
Click here for the full report. 

  • Rose Molokoane, a national community leader from South Africa, SDI Coordinator and founding member of the SDI Network, was elected Chairperson of the World Urban Campaign.
  • Adorned with SDI’s new branding, SDI’s booth at the HIII Exhibition center was a lively space for discussion, and 360° slum experience. It served as a central point for discussions between federation leaders, partners, and key urban decision stakeholders.
  • SDI chaired a breakout session at the Women’s Assembly, producing a set of concrete commitments and requests from Member States towards effective implementation of the New Urban Agenda.
  • The SDI Board of Governors (BOG) met during the week in Quito, chaired by Minister of Human Settlements for South Africa, Lindiwe Sisulu. The meeting highlighted some of SDI’s achievements over the past year and teased out strategies for enhancing BOG support to SDI efforts to implement the NUA and SDGs.
  • In plenary meetings of the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), SDI urged members to support local stakeholder implementation and monitoring of the NUA – particularly urban poor communities in partnership with local authorities.
  • SDI launched the second phase of its expanded Know Your City campaign in partnership with Cities Alliance and UCLG-Africa. This coincided with the launch of SDI’s new KYC website, showcasing slum dweller surveys, stories, and films. This was followed by a Know Your City networking event where a detailed panel discussion took place on the KYC Campaign, including moving testimonies from slum dwellers from Ghana, Liberia, and Zambia about their work to profile and map all the settlements in their cities.
  • SDI, Cities Alliance, and GIZ screened the Ghana case study from CoLab for Change – a project of the Cities Alliance Joint Work Program for Habitat III. Two federation members and one government official featured in the film made presentations explaining the collaborative partnerships that have enabled their success and the process of training youth to document their stories as part of Know Your City TV.
  • Since 2007, SDI and Y-Care International (YCI) have worked together to support the growth of urban poor federations in Liberia, Togo, and Sierra Leone. On Monday 17th October, SDI and YCI launched a new MOU to scale up and deepen the collaboration region-wide.
  • Unlike many events that have gone before, grassroots leaders were given the opportunity to speak at plenary sessions in Quito. This achievement was made possible through SDI’s work over the past 20 years and its active participation in the GAP and WUC. Rose Molokoane used this platform to push forward the commitments of the grassroots constituency and call upon member states to uphold their commitments to partner with organized communities in implementation of the NUA and SDGs. She urged members that “the time for talking is over. It’s time toimplement!”
  • The SDI team was presented with many requests to expand the network into Latin America. With a strong team from Bolivia and Brazil taking the lead, SDI will follow up on all the many requests from Latin American countries.
  • Just prior to Habitat III, the Governor of Lagos, Akinwunmi Ambode ordered an immediate eviction notice to all Lagos waterfront communities. Each and every federation member in Quito took copies of the Federation’s withdrawal demands to their events and raised the issue whenever the opportunity arose. High level meetings were arranged with various government officials from inside and outside Nigeria to build pressure on the Governor to withdraw his eviction notice, but also to highlight viable examples of alternatives to eviction within the SDI network and the desire of the network to support Nigeria to undertake inclusive upgrading inline with NUA commitments. Sani Mohammed, a federation member from Lagos, worked tirelessly to secure meetings with relevant authorities and donor partners. He was able to get an audience with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the ED of UN Habitat, ensuring the message reached the highest platforms.
  • Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and SDI launched a new film, ‘No One Left Behind’ in which slum dwellers call into question the effectiveness of militaristic responses to urban violence.

“Community monitoring of the NUA at the local level will be essential for transparent assessment of progress and ownership of the NUA” – Rose Molokoane

SDI at Habitat III


SDI is participating in over 60 events over the next week at the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador, including participation in at least 9 high-level events and co-hosting of at least 11 side, networking, and other events.

This packed schedule includes a joint networking event hosted by SDI, UCLG-Africa and Cities Alliance. This event, entitled “Know Your City: Creating a Joint Knowledge Base to Transform Cities and their Relationships with Informal Settlements,” will unpack the Know Your City (KYC) campaign – a joint initiative of the three partner organisations – that supports community-driven urban data collection and collaborative planning between local governments and organized communities of the urban poor. These collaborative planning processes produce implementable strategies for inclusive and resilient cities that are owned by a broad base of the city population.

This project demonstrates the critical role and potential value of partnerships for collaborative planning that are rooted in community-collected data at the city and global scale. The event will showcase examples of how already this project has facilitated governments and civil society to develop effective strategies to implement the commitments of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 11 to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” and SDG 17 to “revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.”

The event will highlight the ways data collected by the poor, about the poor and for the poor is being used as standard benchmarking data for city governments, urban policy makers, and planners across Africa. It will also reveal the power of profiling and enumeration to organize and energize communities and position them as partners, rather than beneficiaries of development. This event will draw on examples from SDI, the South African Government, Cities Alliance and UCLG-A’s joint work in Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia, to highlight the effective use of community-collected data as the basis of collaborative planning between organized communities of the urban poor and local and national government authorities.

The key takeaway from this event is that community-driven profiling and enumeration of informal settlements has the following benefits:

  • urban poor communities are organized and become active citizens,
  • organized communities gather much needed data on informal settlements that feeds city planning,
  • organized communities feel ownership of this information and use it to plan improvements in their settlements,
  • organized communities become partners with city government for development,
  • organized communities build skills and collective capacities,
  • organized communities gather data at a much lower cost than consultants.

This event will explain how and why some cities and national governments have invested in this process. It will present case studies that explore how partnerships around data collection are leading to innovative upgrading solutions and will challenge other city governments to follow suit.

A breakdown of our other events is included below (click on the image to enlarge). For more information on these events and more, please email us at info@sdinet.org, and check our Facebook and Twitter feeds throughout the week to keep tabs on what’s going on as it happens. 



Habitat III must institutionalize ‘participatory’ urban development

**This post originally appeared on Citiscope**

By Ariana K. MacPherson, SDI Secretariat

The New Urban Agenda will need to factor collaborative development into the design of its implementing strategies, while ensuring that adequate investment is made in organising communities for effective participation.

Last month, the turned its official focus to informal settlements and slums, just weeks ahead of the release of the first draft of the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of the Habitat deliberations — the.

While much progress has been made during the course of these discussions, significant gaps remain. These issues will now need to be addressed as member states begin negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, which is to be finalized at a summit in Quito in October. ()

The main event on this topic was the Habitat III Thematic Meeting on Informal Settlements, which took place in Pretoria, South Africa, in April. There, Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and other groups played a key role in drafting official input to the New Urban Agenda. Yet while the succeeds in its inclusion of many of the core principles embodying the SDI’s work, it remains vague and overly lenient around some key concerns.


For instance, the declaration uses popular terms such as “inclusive” and “participatory” but without specific mention of how these words will translate into action on the ground. The New Urban Agenda must create space for the voice, experience and strategies of the urban poor in urban policy, planning and development.

Strategy development for the implementation of this agenda should factor collaborative development into programme design. Investments also must be made in organizing communities for effective participation. Without doing so, such rhetoric will only continue a trend that has resulted in years’ worth of empty promises for slum dwellers worldwide.


A key example — the — was successful for exactly these reasons. By mobilizing federations of the urban poor through savings schemes, mapping and enumeration initiatives, and community-upgrading funds, this programme laid the groundwork for effective participatory development. Through the coming negotiations, the New Urban Agenda must now learn from such examples.

Where communities already exist

The Pretoria Declaration does well to make clear the need for a holistic approach to dealing with the issue of slums. The document recognizes that this issue is not about poverty or migration or land use in isolation, but rather about the dysfunctional way in which these issues combine with urban land markets and policies — a confluence that has systematically marginalized the poor the world over.

“The Pretoria Declaration uses popular terms such as ‘inclusive’ and ‘participatory’ but without specific mention of how these words will translate into action on the ground.”

Yet the declaration remains unacceptably lenient on one of the most violent, disruptive and unjust practices: forced evictions, which continue to threaten the lives of millions of urban poor worldwide. Eviction means the destruction of the assets of the poorest and most vulnerable, and the postponement of meaningful solutions to inclusive urban growth.


The declaration’s recommendations on this issue suggest merely that the New Urban Agenda “Considers encouraging states” to adhere to the. This is insufficient.

We must emphatically insist that the New Urban Agenda demand that no state carries out forced evictions of any kind. Let’s make sure that this document calls for a categorical end to this practice once and for all.

Instead, the state must prioritize local partnerships between government and organized communities of the urban poor in order to promote the co-production of in situ, incremental slum upgrading as an effective alternative to evictions and the default approach to dealing with inadequate, unsafe housing, infrastructure and basic services.

Slum upgrading includes any intervention that improves the physical conditions of an informal settlement and in turn enhances the lives of its inhabitants. For SDI, this ranges from the construction of to drainage systems to to and more.


But the most critical component is that this process should happen in situ — where communities already exist. The urban poor locate themselves where they do for the same reasons as the rest of us: access to work, social and familial networks, and services such as transport, health care and schools. As such, relocations should always be a last resort.

In situation where a relocation is unavoidable — such as in floodplains and along railway lines — the New Urban Agenda must push governments and private developers to partner with organized communities of the urban poor and their support organizations to carry out systematic, secure, resettlement and relocation programmes in which decisions are made in conjunction with affected communities.

Community-driven data

Finally, as we move into the implementation phase of the New Urban Agenda and the recently agreed (SDGs), it will become increasingly critical that these processes be informed by robust data. In this, it is important that the Pretoria Declaration makes clear the need for “credible and timely data” — an issue on which the New Urban Agenda will need to follow suit.

“The urban poor can be transformed from being treated as a liability in city development to creative and innovative partners in changing our cities.”

Yet the declaration does not mention the benefits of community-driven data collection. This runs counter toSDI’s experience, which clearly suggests that such processes are most successful when data is collected by slum dwellers about the communities in which they live.


Data collection serves as a critical tool for the empowerment of these communities and as a powerful basis from which to enter into partnerships with their local governments about development priorities and upgrading needs. Urban development policy and practice must be informed by the uniquely rich information that urban poor federations gather through settlement and city-wide community-driven data collection, including profiling, enumeration and mapping.

In one of SDI’s newest affiliates, the Liberian federation has profiled one of the most tenure-insecure settlements in Monrovia — West Point, located on a peninsula that juts out between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mesurado River. Because of coastal erosion and pressures to “clean up” the city and claim prime land, the community lives under the constant threat of eviction.

In May 2015, a team made up of slum dwellers and professionals from across the SDI network led a slum profiling and mapping exercise in West Point. This effort found that the settlement is home to more than 65,000 inhabitants, mostly living in overcrowded conditions with little to no access to sanitation. Of the 12 public toilets in West Point, only six are open for use. The vast majority of residents use “hanging toilets” — rudimentary structures built over the sea.


Toward the end of 2015, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointed a task force charged with cleaning up the city, a body headed by controversial former Monrovia mayor Mary Broh. The Special City Beautification Task Force subsequently waged a fierce campaign of breaking down vendor stalls in road reserves, demolishing informal housing said to be illegally constructed, and arresting those believed to be connected to drug or prostitution rings.

West Point’s residents knew that the community’s hanging toilets were also on Broh’s list of structures to be demolished. While community members agreed that these do not constitute a long-term solution for West Point, they had obvious concerns about their removal.

So, community members called a meeting with city officials to present their profiling data. They were able to demonstrate that the situation would be much worse if the hanging toilets were suddenly removed and all 65,000 residents were forced to use the six working public toilets. Residents warned that a cholera outbreak would be likely and that the beach would again become littered with human waste. The community also highlighted their efforts to save and plan for the construction of new, safer toilets in the coming year.

These negotiation efforts were eventually rewarded. The task force agreed not to enter West Point and, instead, the community was allowed to take charge of a clean-up effort.


Overall, SDI’s activities on the global stage aim to fulfil our mandate of promoting a people-centred, citywide upgrading approach. Our advocacy work remains rooted in the experiences of grass-roots federations of the urban poor, and our international partnerships and activities are determined by the anticipated impact they will make on federations’ local processes.

As such, our main priority for the Habitat III process is that the New Urban Agenda reflects a few key priorities critical to contesting the status quo of the urban development arena. SDI’s experience demonstrates how the urban poor can be transformed from being treated as a liability in city development to creative and innovative partners in changing our cities.

What might slum dwellers want from the SDGs?


Jockin Arputham has been fighting for the rights of slum dwellers for nearly 50 years. This blog is drawn from an interview by IIED’s David Satterthwaite ahead of World Habitat Day about what the Sustainable Development Goals could mean for slum dwellers.

Jockin Arputham founded the first national slum dweller federation in India in 1976 and went on to ally this with Mahila Milan, the Indian federation of women slum and pavement dweller savers. He has spent over 20 years encouraging and supporting slum and shack dwellers federations in many other countries – and he is President of Slum/Shack Dwellers International.

Jockin visiting Mathare Slum_2

Making the SDGs action oriented

The SDGs promise so much but they are not action oriented. Many countries do not have the  capacity to act.  We see dreams of a slum-free world or a slum-free country or slum-free cities.  But that is an ideal that needs strong political will, a strong and stable economy, and a conducive environment for the community. In Europe you might expect UN promises that everyone has a decent home to be met – but is this realistic for India?

Ambitions must be achievable

My ambition for the SDGs is limited to what we can do – what is meaningful, useful and sustainable – and implementable.  So our goal is not slum-free cities but slum-friendly cities.  Not a slum-free India but a slum-friendly India.



What does slum-friendly mean?  That the SDG promises like clean water and good sanitation for all, land tenure for people, incremental housing and basic employment are met for all slum dwellers. If these five mandates are accepted, how can we set standards and measure what is or is not happening in each city?  If there is also a mandate for people to participate, and take part, then set dates by which to achieve each of these. Even to achieve the more modest goals for slum-friendly cities means that governments have to do three times what they are doing now

Will action on the SDGs be any better than the Millennium Development Goals?  So much high talk of all the goals in last 15 years but where are we in the goals and in their measurement?  Are we setting unattainable goals with the SDGs?

We have seen government commitments made at Habitat I (the first UN Conference on Human Settlements) in Vancouver in 1976; then at Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996. At Habitat 1, there were commitments and targets for 1990 and these were not met.  There have been very few tangible achievements.  I was invited to go to speak at Habitat I in 1976 but the government was bulldozing the settlement where I lived, so I stayed in Mumbai where I had fought this threat for 10 years.

Habitat III is approaching (in 2016). Will this bring more unrealistic commitments? Or will it truly be a “new urban agenda” with a clear strategy for achieving the goals with new measures? New locally-generated metrics that everyone can follow.  Everyone’s participation including slum dwellers. All the UN documents and processes claim they have people’s participation but usually this is just a grand talk show.

Looking back – what was the world’s urban population at the time of Habitat 1? Just 1.6 billion people.  At Habitat II there were 2.6 billion.  And now 4 billion.

We have seen the growth of NGOs and big donors and their budgets but for slum dwellers, where has all this money gone?  NGOs and big donors are sharing a platform in the name of the poor and the poor are left out.  Local governments and slum dweller organisations are the ones working on achieving the goals but these are usually left out of these new platforms.

Communuty Meeting with Jockin 2

No forced evictions

And the threat of eviction for slum dwellers still remains.  After Habitat I, we had many sister city programmes – beautiful red wine talk – but this did not deliver land tenure. There should be a commitment at Habitat III – no forced evictions. No evictions without relocations that are acceptable to those who are relocated.  After 40 years we still have not cracked this. Now the pressures of forced eviction will grow as cities invest more in infrastructure.

The cost of decent relocation is peanuts compared to infrastructure budgets. It should be part of the cost of all projects that require relocation. But this needs political will and administrative skill to work with the people and design with the communities. The huge costs of forced evictions are not counted – for the residents, the lost homes, possessions, assets, livelihoods, access to schools….

Where people are moved, we need a package of meaningful rehousing through which the quality of life of the people moved also improves.

Jockin visiting Mathare Slum_1

What new urban agenda?

Now, with Habitat III, either you close the dialogue that has produced so little or you come forward with what we can realistically achieve in the next 15 years and set up a system of measurement that involves and is accountable to slum dwellers.  From this, we learn about what works and from our mistakes.

We need to learn how to find solutions for renters too; so often, relocation programmes only benefit those who ‘own’ their home and can prove they have lived there for many years.

Slum dwellers must become a central part of slum friendly cities especially the women savings groups who are the foundation of the slum dweller federations around the world. But how? We need community participation with a strong focus on women. Full involvement of women in developing slum friendly cities gives a clear change of life for millions of people.  As the women say, I work with my sisters, my federation, my family. Women’s savings groups can manage money and this is a big change. It helps them learn to budget, and they bring their knowledge of the local situation. Then as they join together they work at city scale and interact with city government and city politicians

For each of the SDGs, you need to connect them to the ground.  Create a mechanism to achieve each target.  You do not set up targets without setting out system of delivery – and this system has to involve community groups and local governments. And with progress monitored locally and openly – so these are accountable for all.

Jockin Arputham was regarded for decades in India as a public enemy as he fought against evictions (and imprisoned dozens of times). Latterly his incredible contribution to how to address slums (and work with their inhabitants) has been recognised in India where he was awarded the Padma Shri award and internationally.

David Satterthwaite is a Senior Fellow in IIED’s Human Settlements Group.

The Post MDG Debate: “For the Poor,” but no Voice of the Poor


An influential debate is playing out in the proverbial halls of global development decision-making far from the informal settlements in African cities. The basic targets that will drive government decisions around spending and policy priorities, donor areas of focus, and wider perspectives aound development, are under discussion. These are targets that will promise much of what the post-World War II development institutions have long committed to the people who live in the so-called “developing world.” These are targets to “eliminate poverty,” “deliver basic services,” “secure growth” “reduce inequality,” and so on.

Civil society has very little voice in the determination of the next round of development goals, and this is even truer for the people who are the subjects of these promises. For the people who live in slums, who lack access to toilets, water, and economic security and opportunity, abstract commitments to change their conditions mean little. 

 Yet the content of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the prospect of an urban goal, are significant for all of us who work to make cities more inclusive. Much work is to be done, especially to ensure that an urban goal – and indeed all goals – recognises the deep divides of power, finance, and knowledge that characterise the decisions that drive urban development. SDI is one of a number of organisations that is demanding that the urban poor — the current losers but surely the most worthy potential winners of such a debate — be located as central actors in the goals that governments and formal agencies adopt. For the urban poor federations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, that comprise our network, development goals have to be about improving the lives of real people. As such, a goal on cities must be fundamentally oriented around the people who stand to gain — or lose — the most from the success or failure of such a goal.

A target for universal provision of well-located land, shelter,and basic services should be a minimum of an urban goal. Unfortunately, the previous Millennium Development Goals included a goal on slums that was very unclear and very unambitious – only 100 million were to be helped. The Millennium Development Goals also made the commitment to reduce by half those without adequate water and sanitation. An urban goal should encompass a specific focus on inclusion and the rights of the poor in cities through universal access to these amenities (land, services, and shelter).

Last year, SDI began to articulate a set of principles for a global compact on urban development, the Urban Poor DevelopmentGoals. There are four elements:

1. Inclusive Institution Building: State institutions reformed or created to embed partnerships with community organisations, especially at the city level to drive decision making about programmes and ensure adequate financial allocations. 

2. Inclusive Land Managament:  Well located land should be made available to the urban poor, who constitute the majority in most cities in the developing world. Zero forced evictions and security of tenure for slum dweller communities.

3. Inclusive Urban Infrastructure:  Water, sanitation, electricity and transport infrastructure that services the poor so as to acheive zero open defecation in cities globally within 10 years and electrcity for all.

4. Inclusive Community Development:  Programmatic investment by national and local authorities in capacity building of community organisations so as to realise the inclusive development agenda in the above three elements. 


One of the biggest advantages of the emergence of strong support for an urban goal in the post-MDG framework is that it focuses policy-makers on a specific space and a scale of administration in which to make change. In particular, this means a much greater focus on both formal local government and the constellation of actors that drive local governance. Strong local government requires a strong and organised slum dweller organisations to drive both innovation and accountability in our cities.

We cannot ignore this debate because it will define our work for years to come. Now is the time to do what previous development agendas have conspicuously avoided doing: putting the voices and tools of the informal majority of our cities at the centre of how we work. This is the real promise of an urban goal in the SDGs.

Check out SDI’s 2013 – 2014 Annual Report for more on the Post MDG Debate 

SDI Attends Launch of World Urban Campaign’s “The City We Need”


While cities are increasingly central to global development agendas, the precise strategies of city development remain contested. In almost all cities in Africa and Asia, the allocation of resources and political will towards provision of land, services, and shelter for the poor is woefully inadequate. Dominant methods of delivery through “public-private partnerships” and centrally planned strategies have made little impact on the lives of the poor. SDI has inserted a clear voice into this debate to build the voice of the poor to influence more inclusive city development processes. 

On 4 March 2014 at Ford Foundation’s headquarters in New York was the official launch of The City We Need, a key event leading up to the 7th World Urban Forum to be held in Medellin, Colombia this April. The City We Need is a multi-stakeholder, collective contribution to the urban agenda created by World Urban Campaign partners, which have been engaging the international community, public, private, and civil society actors.

Last year SDI officially joined the World Urban Campaign – a lobby and advocacy platform on sustainable urbanization coordinated by UN-Habitat. The World Urban Campaign brings together various urban development stakeholders in an advocacy and partnership platform to dialogue, learn, and share solutions to create a new urban agenda for the Habitat III conference. 

SDI President Jockin Arputham and Rose Molokoane, SDI Coordinator from South Africa, participated in the launch event and emphasized the importance of creating partnerships between government and the urban poor to find solutions to sustainable urban development. To create solutions, one must “Know Your City,” the name of the SDI campaign that aims to address the lack of data on informal settlements. There can be no inclusive or equitable development planning and investment, nor effective city governance if the majority of the residents of informal settlements remain unaccounted for. SDI has demonstrated that cities have to work with urban poor communities to collect baseline data and maps of all informal settlements in the city. Helping the poor to create a voice, a collective identity, and possibilities to participate in transformation and change is an integral aspect of what we all seek in the future of cities. 

SDI will be participating in the World Urban Campaign Special Session at the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia on Wednesday, 9 April at 2:00pm. This event will bring members of the World Urban Campaign together to discuss the new urban paradigm following the theme: The Future We Want, The City We Need. This event constitutes an opportunity to focus new partners around a common objective in order to create concrete goals for the achievement of sustainable urbanization and to mobilize in preparation for Habitat III.

Click here to read the full report of The City We Need launch event.


Discussing Slum Upgrading Strategies: SDI Attends Habitat III

Conference in Rabat

By Joseph Kimani (Muungano Support Trust, Kenya) and Joseph Muturi (Muungano Wa Wanavijiji, Kenya) 


Imagine a world without slums. Fine, let’s keep it close: imagine the city of Nairobi, Cape Town, Mumbai or your favorite city without a single informal settlement, slum or shacks. That is exactly the thing…your mind is probably saying, “Well it is possible.” Perhaps you are also wondering how this could be possible and, in reality, how that could happen. Most likely you are also pondering whether we have the same definition of slums or shacks. Are the favellas in Brazil the same as the ghettos in Kenya, or are the slums in India the same as those in South Africa? Can slums in Nairobi, Mumbai, Brazil, South Africa or anywhere be defined the same way? Are access to sanitation, water, infrastructure and services and secure tenure the only indicators that we should use to measure the extinction of slums? These were some of the main issues addressed at Habitat III, a UN Habitat sponsored international conference that took place in November 2012 in Rabat, Morocco. 

Conference Objectives: 

The three-day conference was organized by the Government of Morocco under the patronage of His Majesty King Mohammed VI and under the authority of UN-HABITAT as an effort to share best practices on policies and the implementation of slum upgrading, eradication and prevention programmes by local and national governments around the world. The organizers invited 20 top countries that have been rated as having performed best in making slums history. The specific objectives of the conference were:

  • Develop specific recommendations and guidelines for slum improvement policies and the development of well-adapted housing alternatives to prevent new slum formation (the Rabat Declaration). 
  • Devise the strategy required to revise Target 7-D of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) and adjust it more closely to the diversity of national conditions and circumstances. 
  • Share successful experiences, methodologies and evaluation methods with regard to slum reduction. 
  • Broaden the scope of experience-sharing within the conference to bring in Least performing Countries (and African countries in particular), to help them implement effective slum reduction policies. 
  • Strengthen partnerships between Morocco and other African countries. 

Conference Participants: 

The Rabat Conference brought together over 150 participants representing 24 government delegations. The countries identified as the 20 best performers in slum upgrading invited were: Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Peru, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Turkey, Uganda and Vietnam.

Summary report of the plenary discussions, workshops and expert group meeting: 

Some of those who spoke at the conference included the Minister of Housing, City Planning and Urban Policy of Morocco, the UN-Habitat Director, Cities Alliance, World Bank and SDI. In our main presentation, we were able to present SDI’s background, mandate and experience by highlighting the role of the community in slum upgrading. We then shared our perspectives on slums post-2015 MDGs or perspectives that we thought stakeholders in slum upgrading need to consider as UN HABITAT proposes to develop Sustainable Development Goals. We presented three key points that we argued were important in helping a slum upgrading process to take shape, and some of our perspectives regarding the development of Sustainable Development Goals. Here our main argument was with respect to the issue of community organization and the role of the rituals of the federations in promoting community ownership and community led initiatives. We provided examples of Huruma Slum Upgrading in Huruma, Kenya and our experience of the Kenya Railway Relocation Programme. Our second point stressed that land delivery was a prerequisite for any slum upgrading to happen. 

Using our Kenyan example again we shared the challenges of attempting to make slums history when in a situation like Nairobi in which 50% of the slums are on private land and another 40% are on land considered to be unlivable (i.e. riparian and railway reserve and high-risk zones such as those living under the high voltage electrical powerline). This allowed us to highlight the need of government and all actors address the issue of land. Our third point was the need to scale up successful cases by not only choosing to deal with the settlements that are appealing, but to also invest in finding solutions to deal with informal settlements that appear to be difficult. Our major issue on this matter was to encourage all players to consider looking at slum upgrading as both functional and spatial and as a broader strategy of poverty alleviation. 

Conference in Rabat

Joseph Muturi of Muungano wa Wanavijiji addresses the audience. 

Below is a sample of comments and suggestions captured during sessions by SDI representatives. 

“We would have wished to see more representation of the slum dwellers, especially from the case studies, shared in this conference. One would have hoped that the hosts would have had in this conference representative of upgraded areas as well as those that have not succeeded or waiting to benefit”.  – Joseph Muturi, during the thematic workshop session on Planning, Land Management and Urban. 

“In the spirit of sharing could we have in the future conferences representation by countries considered to be under performing in slum upgrading processes or those that have the potential and yet challenged in whatever form. It is amazing to hear stories of change and success and one hopes some of countries would have benefitted a lot from the experiences shared here and could have re-kindled hope to those that have despaired and lost hope of assisting the poor.” – Suggestion by Joseph Kimani, Program Manager at MuST during the South-South Cooperation Session. 

“I want to acknowledge and appreciate that this conference has provided most of us with valuable knowledge and experience. In fact I kind of agree with most of the presenters who holds that we can make slums history in our world. However I strongly propose that we ensure that the message we are taking home to all our governments and slum upgrading stakeholders is that the role of the community in this processes should not be underrated at all. In fact is it possible for all of us professionals and Government as well to allow the slum upgrading process to be led by the slum dwellers while we journey with them in this process, so that the issue is not just mere participation and inclusion for the sake of it but to carry with us the spirit and commitment that requires the people to be at the center of their own developments.”  – Statement by Joseph Kimani during the Expert Group Meeting.  

Our main question: Is it possible to make slums history? How did the Morocco attain this goal? 

The Moroccan speakers took all the participants through their journey of making slums history in their nationwide “Cities without slums” programme which focuses on improved shelter conditions for over 1,742,000 people living in informal, substandard housing, contributing to better urban inclusiveness and social cohesion. We learnt that since 2004 the Morocco programme has achieved over 70 per cent of its overall objective. The speakers too acknowledged there were challenges that they are facing as a government while implementing the programme but emphasised that the 70% success so far has been as a result of the strong push of their strong leadership, political will, well defined objectives, an appropriate modus operandi and adequate budgeting. 

In a nutshell as documented in the National Report (2012) the ‘Cities without Shanties” programme has made it possible to: 

  • Reduce the demographic weight of household dwellings in shanties across Moroccan cities and towns from 8.2% to 3.9% between 2004 and 2010; 
  • Improve the living conditions of roughly 1 million inhabitants; 
  • Declare 45 cities without shanties out of a total of 85. 

In achieving the above, Morocco and many other countries in the world have managed to beat MDG Target 7-D by a multiple of 2.2, namely to “significantly improve living conditions for at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.” UN HABITAT estimates that, between 2000 and 2010, a total 227 million people in developing countries have experienced significant improvements in living conditions. 

General lessons drawn from the conference:

The presentations by best performing countries like Brazil, China, Morocco, Turkey highlighted the extent countries and their governments can go to to improve the standards of those living in informal settlements through scaled-up housing developments. However, it should be noted that caution should be taken to ensure that the large scale housing developments do not create shells of void, silence and emptiness by ignoring the value of human development. This is summarized in the quote below:

“What we aim at… is not simply to have shanty-free cities, still less to set up soulless concrete slabs which thwart all forms of sociable living. We rather intend to evolve cities that are not solely conducive to smart, friendly, and dignified living, but also investment-friendly and productive spaces – urban areas, that is, which are attached to their specific character and to the originality of their style.”  – Extract from the Speech delivered by His Majesty King Mohammed VI on the occasion of the National Convention of Local Collectivities Agadir, 12/12/2006. 


The fact that some of the presenters and participants appreciated and acknowledged the role of SDI in facilitating and enabling urban poor communities i to be the drivers of slum upgrading and human development was very encouraging and inspiring. It is with this same spirit that we hope those of us within SDI will continue to work hard in ensuring that slum upgrading does not only become a rhetoric of the state authorities and institutions but remains real and focused towards addressing the economic, social and physical needs of the people. It is our desire to see countries like Kenya respond by speeding up efforts to scale up slum improvements. The ability is there, the resources are with the public and private institutions, and all that we hope for now is the government’s goodwill and commitment.