Towards the Urban Poor Development Goals: Setting Milestones for a Sustainable Post-MDG Development Agenda


Global discussions and serious reflections on development goal setting post-2015 have begun.  To some degree the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been able to inject socially responsible goal setting into national budgeting processes. They have also served as a strong rhetorical tool for justifying the allocation and transparency of resources for ends that improve human needs. Notwithstanding these tangential impacts, they have not been able to affect the institutions that make these decisions in the first place.

Against this backdrop, SDI affiliates have identified clear and strong commitments to address urban poverty that they would like to see as part of the next MDGs:

  1. Governments must enable the production of mixed land use and habitat where the rich and poor live and work within the same geographies. It is critical that the future growth of cities is planned around this principle.
  2. Where people are already living in informal settlements, security of tenure must be ensured, so as to reduce the persistent man-made crisis of forced eviction.
  3. Informally settled communities, through capacitated community organizations, must be included in the design and execution of investment by state authorities. This means that state authorities must demonstrate willingness and capacity to enter into meaningful partnerships with community organizations to address challenges faced by cities.
  4. The role and contribution that women play in cities and especially in low-income slums must be recognized. Development goals must support women-led community organizations of the poor.
  5. Adequate access to finance for upgrading basic services and infrastructure must be ensured, especially in invisible and marginalized informal settlements. This will not only ensure equity but will prepare communities for climate change and mitigate against disasters.
  6. There must be a commitment to economic policy-making that prioritizes the availability of life-affirming jobs (eg. accessible, decent wages, predictable schedule, bargaining and organizational rights). Cities in which everyone works with a realistic expectation of social mobility and basic dignity, will grow and remain peaceful.

From Theory to Action

The post-2015 goals must be rooted in a sober acknowledgement of social and economic trends, in particular the rapid urbanization of countries in the developing world. The experience of networks like SDI and other groupings of grassroots communities that interact with governmental institutions points to one key lesson: The increasing voice of the poor in decisions around finance, design, and project implementation are essential institutional innovations for almost all the issues with which the current set of MDGs have been concerned.

We would like to see the post-2015 development framework highlight the material inequities that face the poor with respect to the range of basic human needs. This needs to be situated in a broader framework that challenges governments to make the space for the influential inclusion of the poor. This cannot just be rhetorical. For example, with respect to urbanization, by prioritizing discussions around access to land in cities, slum dwellers will necessarily dialogue with the key actors in the politics of urban development. Land, which is not mentioned in the current MDG framework, needs to be central to the post-2015 approach if we are to begin to adequately address fundamental factors and impacts of rapid urbanization.

The current message of “poverty eradication” implies that governments just need to allocate more resources to addressing poverty and “perform better.” But the need for inclusion of the poor in decision-making processes is integral to lasting efforts to address inequalities, marginalization and social exclusion. One particularly fruitful approach has been the establishment of citywide funds for informal settlement upgrading that are managed jointly between local government authorities and citywide networks of community organizations in informal settlements in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Uganda, and South Africa. These have increased the influence of the shack-dwelling poor in ways that address not just MDGs related to improvement of life in slums, but also access to water, sanitation, and gender equality.

Giving Meaning to “Participation” and “Inclusion”

Frequent calls for greater “participation” are generally watered down to mean either a) consultation with ordinary people and communities on projects and programs that have already been conceived by large actors in government and the private sector, or b) the ability of communities to hold such actors accountable for promises after they have been made.

The next global development framework must be clear about what we actually mean by “inclusion” and “participation,”. Investing in community organization capacity and partnerships between communities and local government can be an effective means of achieving inclusive governance capacity.

The key is not to dictate specific policies and interventions for every country. Rather, the key is to articulate specific principles of institutional inclusion, as well as specific material outcomes. SDI’s experience is that when a framework of partnership between state institutions and community organizations is a pre-requisite for delivery, then it is much easier to develop mechanisms for delivery that are sustainable over the long term. These may play out differently across countries, especially in terms of the specific institutional designs that emerge from such a framework. However, the basic principles of inclusion and investment in community processes can be universalized. 

Resilience to Crisis

A new framework addressing resilience should recognize both the causes of crises to begin with, and the most impactful approaches to resilience. With respect to the causes of crises, there are primarily man-made reasons for crises that are both environmental and political in nature.

The first problem is that the urban poor generally lack security of tenure, and are pushed into marginal areas of cities. They are therefore subject to the crises of eviction, flooding, and fire. The new framework should make it clear that in order to lessen the human impact of large natural incidents, governments need to make well-located land available to the poor.

The Urban Poor Development Goals: A Global Compact for Development

A global compact for inclusive urban growth — the Urban Poor Development Goals — is needed to achieve development and reduce vulnerability. There are four elements:

  1. Inclusive institution building. State institutions reformed or created to embed partnerships with community organizations, especially at the city level to drive decision-making about programs and financial allocations for development of urban infrastructure. 
  2. Inclusive land management. Well-located land made available to the urban poor, who constitute the majority in most cities in the developing world. This should ensure zero forced evictions, and grant security of tenure so as to make investment in infrastructure viable for both local government and slum dweller communities.
  3. Inclusive urban infrastructure. Water, sanitation, electricity, and transport infrastructure that services the poor so as to achieve zero-open defecation cities globally within 10 years, electricity for all, and 100% improvement in life-affirming job opportunities over 10 years.
  4. Inclusive community development. Programmatic investment by national and local authorities in capacity building of community organizations so as to continue to deepen the inclusive development agenda highlighted in the first three elements.

Global development forums tend to have a “same-y” feel to them, because they involve similar actors making similar discussion points. The number one priority for all public forums aimed at building consensus around a new framework should be to put the voices of the poor center stage. A global compact will be strengthened through the empowerment of these voices, so that development does not remain something done by the rich for the poor, but to affirm both the voices and needs of the poor.

For more on these topics, check out SDI’s 2012 / 2013 Annual Report.