Social Accountability in the Context of Urbanization

UNDP Report

Across the Global South, slum dweller federations are enabling partnerships for both delivery and accountability in cities. UNDP’s recent paper, Reflections on Social Accountability: Catalyzing democratic governance to accelerate progress towards the Millenium Development Goals (July 2013) highlights some of these efforts, and the critical role of social accountability initiatives in improving service delivery and making policy and planning processes more inclusive.

In Chapter 2, Social Accountability in the context of urbanization, David Satterthwaite (IIED) and Sheela Patel (Chair of the SDI Board and Director of SPARC), explore the relevance of social accountability mechanisms for addressing challenges posed by the dramatic increase in urbanization. The chapter documents how urban residents and the organizations in which they engage have held government agencies to account for their policies, investment priorities and expenditures. It also reviews how such efforts have influenced what infrastructure and services urban residents receive, especially those related to the achievement of the MDGs. This includes their influence on how government decisions are made and implemented, how government funding is allocated and how diverging (and often conflicting) interests are reconciled in accordance with the rule of law. 

The chapter highlights two key challenges for the urban poor in holding government agencies to account for their policies, investment priorities and expenditures. First, a large percentage of low-income urban dwellers are seen as ‘illegal’ by their local governments because their homes and communities are located on land that is often characterized by some element of illegality (occupied land, illegal land use, or buildings that violate regulations). As a result, local government bodies may not be permitted, and often do not feel obligated, to provide these communities with access to infrastructure and services. Second, many living in these informal settelements have no official documentation or lack the documentation necessary to access government, or even private, services – from health care to schooling to opening a bank account or voting. This chapter pays significant attention to these critical challenges, highlighting “the ways in which people living in informal settlements have sought to overcome the structural constraints on their ability to exercise their voice,” (39). In this section, the authors focus on SDI-affiliated grassroots organizations’ that have managed to develop positive relationships with their governments in order to form partnerships that allow the urban poor communities to co-produce infrastructure and service solutions, placing them in a position to hold their governments accountable. 

In India, the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), Mahila Milan, and SPARC pursuit solutions to their memebers’ needs and challenges by showing local (and other) governments their capacity to partner on building and upgrading of housing; designing, building and managing community toilets; and supporting the formation of community-police partnerships – or police panchayats – that serve slum communities. Today, the Indian SDI Alliance has co-produced thousands of community toilets and housing units with the Indian government, and developed relationships that allow them to hold their governments responsible to the people they serve. Another example, from Naga City in the Philippines, shows how a small drainage project enabled the forging of a relationship between the local urban poor federation, the city government and the World Bank. And in Harare, Zimbabwe, the local urban poor federation, support NGO, and city government are in the final stages of negotiation around the creation of a citywide upgrading fund. This practical financial instrument is reflective of the patnership between the Zimbabwean SDI alliance and the city, creating shared political and financial responsibility for slum upgrading. This is yet another clear example of how a voice of the urban poor can negotiate changes that have the potential for citywide impact in a manner beneficial to the poor and more contextualized in “on the ground” circumstances.

Read the full paper here, and read more about SDI’s partnerships with governments in India, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, and more in our 2012-2013 Annual Report