Women Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye

Durban blog post

By Skye Dobson, SDI

As the Black Panther movie continues to smash box office records and enthrall the world with fearless female African superheroes, a meeting in eThekwini last week suggests we brace ourselves for Women Transformers – coming to a city near you.

The words stretch out across her bosom: Women transforming the slums of our cities, the jet-black shirt and white lettering convey the same no-nonsense, bold authenticity as the woman with the sky-blue doek (headscarf) and thick wooden walking stick. Sitting at the shiny boardroom table in the Mayor’s parlor of the eThekwini Municipal Council offices, wiping the sweat from her brow, she looks decidedly like someone who understands that transformation is not a development cliché, but an overdue national imperative.

Mama Mkhabela, (full name, Nombulelo Anna Estevao) joined the shack dwellers federation (now called FEDUP) 30 years and one month ago. She recalls the first time she sat in on a savings group meeting in Lindelani informal settlement and heard women from the settlement talking about the need to come together to solve their problems. She says the women were telling each other that poor people can’t wait for government to give them things, but must start making change themselves. Shy and quiet back then, she recalls sitting back and listening to figure out what was going on. She soon joined the Sophumelela Savings Group and quickly gained the trust and respect of her fellow savers.

At first her husband was suspicious of her work with the federation. She recalls him secretly following her to a meeting in another community one time. The meeting lasted so long that he had to stay the night and help everyone get back to their places the following day. “From then on, he stopped fighting with me. He saw that I wasn’t up to any trouble and we were just working!” she says with a chuckle. The Sophumelela Savings Group secured housing loans from Utshani Fund – a part of the South Africa SDI Alliance – in 1999 and the women in the group set about building their own houses. Mama Mkhabela managed the loan repayments and moved from a bookkeeper to a treasurer and is now the regional leader of FEDUP in Kwa Zulu Natal. The region has 70 savings groups with 9,672 members and has built over 2,500 houses.

Mama Mkhabela had not come alone to see her mayor. Two comrades from FEDUP, Rose Molokoane and Emily Moholo, accompanied her. The three women have been engaged in the struggle to transform the lives of the poor for decades.

When apartheid ended and commitments were made to house the poor, there was a sense in many communities that the battle was won. Of course, it was soon painfully clear to communities living in shacks that the structure of society rather than the lack of houses was the true cause of their deepening poverty and exclusion. FEDUP and SDI supported communities in KZN to understand the need to shape policy and practice in the city – to support people-driven housing as well as informal settlement upgrading, improved livelihoods and savings, and better access to land and tenure security. “When we started”, says Mama Mkhabela, “there were very few women in city council. The officials were all men and they were very, very difficult. Only the late Patrick (former leader in FEDUP and the Informal Settlements Network) could penetrate the city.”

But times are changing.

Rose Molokoane, President of FEDUP and the Coordinator of SDI, grew up in an informal settlement called Oukasie in the South African town of Brits. Today Rose sits on a plethora of national and international bodies tasked with shaping land, housing, and urban policy and practice. Last year she was elected Chair of the World Urban Campaign where she champions the role of grassroots communities and local government partnership for implementing global agendas. On the international stage, eThekwini’s leadership frequently encounters Rose and other SDI community leaders. SDI’s unique local to global presence has slowly but surely convinced the city of the need to partner with shack dwellers in eThekwini and has quite literally secured these women a seat at the mayor’s table.

Emily Moholo, meanwhile, was born in Mafikeng and is a member of Ithuseng Savings Group. She is a regional leader of FEDUP in the Free State and chairperson of the provincial joint working group on partnerships between the municipality, provincial government, and the Federation. She is also a member of the SDI Management Committee, and supports the SDI affiliates throughout the Southern Africa region to build strong slum dweller federations and partnerships with local government.

Mama Mkhabela, Rose and Emily invited one of the Directors of the SDI Secretariat (a woman) and the Chief Executive Officer of Global Infrastructure Basil (another woman) to accompany them. The women’s joint mission was to: a) update the Mayor on the South African SDI Alliance’s work, b) request that their MOA with eThekwini Municipality’s Human Settlements Department be expedited and signed before the close of the financial year, c) request that the Know Your City campaign be recognized by the city as an important strategy for collaborative informal settlement action to build resilience and guide climate-friendly investment in infrastructure and upgrading, d) introduce the city to GIB and share an update on the SDI/GIB partnership, and e) to demonstrate SDI and the SA Alliance’s intention to increase support to city efforts to become a leader in inclusive climate and resilience informal settlement action and to accelerate implementation of commitments made in the New Urban Agenda towards the SDGs.

“We don’t come to the mayor looking for handouts” says Rose. “We’re bringing ideas, partners the city needs, and we’re ready to work.”

From the City’s side, there were three strong women at the table. Mayor Zandile Gumede is among a growing cadre of female mayors leading global discussions to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable urban citizens are at the center of climate change responses. She currently serves as the Chair of C40 Africa where she advocates this approach. Globally, the number of women mayors is rising rapidly, which many believe bodes well for inclusive resilience planning and implementation. Indeed, the Resilience Strategy of eThekwini Municipality, formally adopted by the eThekwini Municipality Council in August 2017, is spearheaded by an all-female team comprising Debra Roberts (award-winning global climate change leader), Jo Douwes, and Manisha Hassan, is a product of a four-year consultative process with a broad and diverse group of Durban’s stakeholders. The SA SDI Alliance provided critical inputs to one of the two critical Resilience Building Options of the Strategy, namely: collaborative informal settlement action.

The Mayor said that it was refreshing indeed to engage with groups so clearly seeking positive change. She expressed confidence in the Human Settlements team’s ability to get the MOA signed quickly to ensure stronger communication and implementation at greater speed. She recommended that implementation of the MOA involve the convening of administrative and political officials in order to strengthen leadership capacity at all levels. She highlighted the need to work together to advance the city’s 5 year agenda and to ensure eThekwini, the SA SDI Alliance, and SDI continue to collaborate at the local and global level to showcase the power of community-government partnership for implementation of global urban and climate agendas.

Chairing the meeting was former Head of Department for Human Settlements at eThekwini Municipality, and recently appointed Deputy City Manager for Human Settlements, Infrastructure and Transport, Beryl Mphakathi. Beryl has been a tireless champion of the partnership and MOA between the SA SDI Alliance and the Human Settlements Department. At the request of the team, she committed herself to ensuring the MOA is signed before the end of the current financial year. Beryl explained that the MOA is necessary to “formalize our partnership…to pull all our efforts together and to commit our capacity and time.” Beryl invited the Acting Head of Department for Human Settlements to attend the meeting and ensure the MOA is tabled in time.

When Mama Mkhabela speaks of Beryl she says, “Truly speaking I’m so happy. We are very lucky to have a woman in that position. I can say, she respects me. I respect her. She took a while to understand the federation, but when she did she started to call me her mother. Even if I call her at night she has to respond. If she can’t answer your question right away, she will call you back. We work hand in hand.” When women can forge authentic, humble, thoughtful relationships such as these, institutional partnerships between the city and communities that are based on respect and practical action emerge. Such partnerships have the potential to mitigate the overinflated egos, political turf battles, short-sighted and self-serving approaches that have characterized male-dominated city politics in eThekwini and beyond.

While the centrality of women’s social relationships as a critical resource in community-based political mobilization has long been recognized in South Africa and abroad, city decision making remains dominated by males. If the walls of the Mayoral Boardroom could talk they would have countless tales of hustlers hustling on behalf of their own personal interests. But these women are hustlers acting in the interest of their community. Women transformers from the community, the city, and the international development sector have the opportunity to generate practical collaborations and partnerships to shift the status quo through new models of leadership and pragmatic action aimed at improving the lives of communities. Critically, women transformers from the community must not devalue the power within themselves by elevating leaders or partners – male or female – above the grassroots collectives from which they emerged.

Let’s keep an eye on eThekwini’s community, professional, and government Women Transformers and see if, indeed, they can transform city governance and the slums of their cities as the t-shirt promises.


SDI is often asked, What about the men? Of course, men are an integral part of the SDI movement and the struggle for inclusive and resilient cities. In the meeting described, there were inspiring and committed male leaders and professionals: namely, Jeff Thomas from Utshani Fund, Ndodeni Dengo from Informal Settlement Network (ISN), and Arnotte Payne from CORC (all part of the SA SDI Alliance). These men toil hand-in-hand, day-in and day-out with the women mentioned in this blog. As a leader from SNCC (Civil Rights Movement in the USA) once said of working with strong women leadership, “you come to realize that manhood isn’t the ability to knock someone down but finding your own humanity.” Jeff, Ndodeni, and Arnotte embody this viewpoint and understand that it is not heroic individuals but committed organizers that will sustain a movement and transform the status quo.


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

Cleaner Cooking in Slums

People-driven Initiative for Cleaner Cooking and Improved Women and Child Health in Slum Communities

Toxic smoke of household cooking with charcoal or paraffin kills 4.3 million people annually (more than HIV/AIDS and Malaria combined) and primarily affects women and children. In slums, the indoor air pollution risks are coupled with grave risk of fires that frequently destroy lives and livelihoods.

SDI’s people-driven clean cooking initiative improves public health in slum communities by providing valuable solutions for the poorest households – especially women and children. Click above to learn more. 

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. 

Communities Drive Progress in Slum Sanitation


By Diana Mitlin and Noah Schermbrucker

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) make a clear commitment to universal sanitation. This is to be welcomed. But for the SDGs to be realized, they must be grounded in practical actions that can be replicated affordably, rapidly, and at scale.

The challenge is evident in the failure to achieve the sanitation targets outlined in the SDGs’ predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals. The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme report for 2015 tells us that the percentage of the African urban population with access to improved sanitation increased by just one percent between 1990 and 2015, from 39 to 40 percent.

In absolute terms this means that almost 100 million urban citizens did gain access to improved sanitation during this period – but it also means that 225 million urban sub-Saharan African are still in need.

For those living in the highest-density settlements, standards for universal sanitation are problematic. Present definitions of “improved” sanitation take no account of population densities and risks like water table contamination and the flooding of fecal sludge over pathways, yards, and playgrounds – obvious health risks that incur massive costs both locally and nationally.

In the face of such staggering needs, and existing development plans and programs which struggle to address them affordably and at scale, slum-dweller federations in the Shack / Slum Dwellers International (SDI) network have been working with local governments to explore workable alternatives.

SDI’s slum dweller President Jockin Arputham has spent so much of his life committed to this issue that, as he says, “I’m known world over as ‘Toilet Man’. In South Africa, where it’s a stigma to say ‘toilet’, I made them talk about it. In the United Nations, I built a demonstration toilet in the UN plaza.”

Progress has been made. In Mumbai, a partnership between government and SDI’s Indian Alliance has residents managing toilet blocks in their communities. One thousand toilet blocks have been built by the Alliance, providing 20,000 seats and one million users – roughly half of those in need within the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

In Blantyre, Malawi, both SDI members and the wider community have provided over 700 eco-sanitation units benefitting 2,300 households. Some 14,000 people (both landlords and tenants) share these facilities. Hundreds more households in Zambia and Zimbabwe have replicated this design, while in Namibia communities have saved, paid for, and installed their own sewerage pipes linking to trunk services.

In Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian SDI Alliance has been drawing on the experiences of the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi, Pakistan, to fine-tune designs for a simplified sanitation system that is already providing facilities for approximately 100 households.

What have we learned? When community members refuse to accept the status quo and innovate new ways of organizing, sanitation provision can improve.

The Indian Alliance was told that community toilets were unworkable – they proved these critics wrong. When governments, especially local governments, are prepared to work with organized local communities, then new solutions can be found. Community exchanges can test and spread these solutions.

But financing is needed to scale up. Community members are willing and able to pay for sanitation, but they can only contribute so much – for low-income families, anything more than US$4 a month per household is unaffordable. In SDI’s experience, capital is needed for these infrastructure costs. The best option is subsidized financing, but where this is not available SDI groups have made sanitation investments using low-interest loans.

Sanitation also cannot be dealt with in isolation. For sanitation investments to be scaled effectively and efficiently, water provision, drainage, and improved land tenure security are all important.

Different solutions are needed in the diverse contexts apparent throughout the Global South. SDI groups organize themselves at the local level, gather information on the needs of slum dwellers, negotiate with local government, and design solutions that work in their context – always prioritizing the poorest members in a community.

The local communities that make up the SDI alliances in 34 nations across the Global South do not understand why professional development assistance agencies do not support their work.

In so many places, communities see development agencies implementing small sanitation projects that are never going to address the massive needs. They see projects captured by landlords because the local context was misunderstood; they see corrupt contractors inflating their invoices; and they see poor management of facilities that soon fall into disrepair.

What are the steps forward? A first step is implementing suitable monitoring systems to collect accurate baseline information in communities. SDI has information on the sanitation situation in over 6,000 informal settlements. In SDI’s experience, such information helps communities establish their priorities and helps them to build relationships with their local governments.

Importantly, community-gathered data consistently emphasizes the priority slum communities place on improving access to sanitation, in settlements from Mumbai to Accra.

In partnership with like-minded organizations and governments, SDI is working to help achieve the SDGs by generating scalable, affordable, and environmentally sustainable sanitation solutions for the world’s rapidly growing slum dweller population. We believe that community involvement in the design, implementation, management, and monitoring of this agenda is essential, and non-negotiable.

Takeaways from New York: Reflecting on the Path to Habitat 3

Upon her return from the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York City, Beth Chitekwe-Biti shared some key takeaways on SDI’s participation in the processes and activities surrounding the post-2015 development agenda and Sustainable Development Goals. Beth highlighted in particular the challenges of grassroots organisations operating within such formal systems, the need to target city governments for implementation of the SDGs, and the obvious links between implementation and the work of SDI, particularly around the Know Your City campaign, which calls for community-driven data collection as the basis of active partnerships between organised communities and their city governments in order to co-produce inclusive upgrading and development solutions:

“The SDGs on paper seem an improvement. But of course it’s about how much political will there is on the ground to actually create tangible benefits to the urban poor. There seems to be a commitment to get the urban poor involved, but there is always a chasm between intention and what actually happens.

The systems seem very formal, so you are forcing grassroots people to be quite formal in how they work and engage with each other… I wonder if this really allows for creative engagement between different grassroots organisations and whether this really works with getting the grassroots voice heard in the UN. But at least the space if there for us to use the best way we can…

…Some of these commitments are pitched too much at the national level when it is really city government that will make a difference.  This was emphasised at the Cities Alliance Joint Work Programme event, but is missing in a lot of other discussions. This fits in with SDI’s Know Your City message and hopefully governments who sign on will realise that it is at the city level that things really need to be implemented.”

To read more, and listen to an excerpt from Rose Molokoane’s talk at an even on implementation of the SDGs, click here. 



Less Talk, More Walk: Rose Molokoane on Localising Implementation of the SDGs

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Last week New York City was buzzing with events surrounding the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit for the post-2015 development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were formally adopted on the first day of the summit. SDI’s Rose Molokoane and Beth Chitekwe-Biti were in New York City for the week and participated in a number of events, many of which focused on how actors in the development sector – particularly urban development – can effectively work together to implement the SDGs.

Rose Molokoane was invited to speak at a high level plenary and workshop on “the implementation pathway for the post 2015 development agenda and its SDG on cities and human settlements” hosted by the UrbanSDG Campaign. In her talk, Rose addressed the importance of productive, effective partnerships between organised communities of the urban poor and local and national governments in the planning and implementation of development priorities. She emphasised the frustration that is building in communities after more than twenty years of global conferences and forums with little change on the ground:

“…It is really creating an issue of depression to us as the people at the community because we are very happy to listen to you when you say community participation. What kind of participation are we talking about? Is it participation of coming here, sitting here, listen to Rose Molokoane making noise then after that Rose goes back to South Africa and nothing happens? Or is it participation of saying let’s create the forums that will continue to happen even after the SDGs and the Habitat 3s; where we go back locally and sit together and say ‘What did we learn from Habitat 3?What is it that we can do together?’ and the important part is planning, information, and recognition of what it is the people are doing on the ground and then institutionalising the forums we are talking about.”

Listen to Rose’s entire address below:

[audio m4a="https://sdinet.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Rose-at-Ford-meeting-.m4a"][/audio]

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