Sheela Patel on the Urban Housing Crisis: Think Big, Act Local (Cross-posted)

**This article originally appeared on TheCityFix, produced by WRI**

By Alex Rogala

From evictions and skyrocketing rents to substandard infrastructure and services, many residents in cities across the global south face acute housing challenges. And the problem is growing. According to estimates, one-in-three people in cities are unable to access affordable and secure housing, leading to burgeoning slums in many fast-growing cities.

Sheela Patel, chair of Slum Dwellers International (SDI), recently sat down with WRI to discuss the latest installment of the World Resources Report, “Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South: Adequate, Secure and Affordable Housing.”

For decades, Patel has been a champion for the needs of the urban poor. In 1984, she founded the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, an Indian NGO that partners with communities to expand access to housing and basic services for the urban poor. Today, she is well known across India, Africa and Latin America for her work with SDI extending lines of micro-credit, stopping evictions, and helping organize networks of urban poor to better advocate for their own concerns.

Here, we share three of her key messages.

The Scale of the Problem

The global housing gap is enormous and it’s not getting better, Patel says. Currently, 330 million households in cities around the world, equivalent to 1.2 billion people, do not have access to affordable and secure housing. By 2025, this number is estimated to grow by 30 percent, to 1.6 billion people.

All this growth means that decisions made now will have a significant impact on housing for decades to come. As urbanization intensifies in Asia and Africa, the challenge will get worse without a change in approach.

“We are at a very critical point at which we have to make decisions not only to address the challenges of the deficits today,” Patel says, “but that that process will help us deal with the increase that cities will face [in the future].”

There’s No One Size-Fits-All Answer

Patel echoes a key finding of WRI’s research: there’s no one size-fits-all solution. Instead, practitioners should explore a range of approaches that have proved promising in cities around the world.

“One of them, which is very close to our heart, is the one that looks at upgrading existing informal settlements,” she says. Participatory slum “upgrading” provides residents secure tenure and basic services in the places they already live, rather than relocating them to locations devoid of economic opportunity, and includes their input in the process.

Much of Patel’s work around the world has been focused on upgrading slums in a way that is resident-driven. This model has been demonstrated in several contexts, including India and Thailand, but runs counter to the approach in many cities of simply displacing or relocating slum residents to the urban periphery to make way for new construction within the city. WRI’s research suggests this only exacerbates the growth of slums and inequality in cities.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

Finally, Patel notes that the housing gap is not only a problem for the poor but affects the proper functioning and development of entire cities. “The city is like the human body; you can’t just take care of one part and expect everything else to function,” she says.

Indeed, the report notes that the housing problem is so severe, it threatens the traditional view of cities as reliable drivers of economic growth. At a global level, even as the proportion of urban residents in poverty has declined in recent decades, their absolute number has increased.

“When two-thirds of a city are living in a situation where its garbage is not picked up, its residents are being evicted, they don’t have access to clean water, they don’t have access to safe sanitation, you are creating a situation that jeopardizes the health and well-being of the whole city,” Patel says.

A primary goal of the World Resources Report is to examine whether meeting the needs of the urban under-served can achieve more economically prosperous, environmentally sustainable and socially equitable cities for all. Good housing, Patel and the working paper argue, is fundamental to people’s physical and financial security, economic productivity, and health. Rethinking housing policy then is a truly transformative intervention for cites; it must be viewed as part of a holistic approach to development and planning and not simply another special project.

For more from Sheela Patel on the urban housing crisis, watch a full-length interview here.

Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South: Adequate, Secure and Affordable Housing” is the latest working paper in WRI’s flagship World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City.”

Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Better Measures for Urban Quality of Life: The View from Below

**Cross-posted from Development Progress**

By Sheela Patel, SDI Secretariat & SPARC India

The current debates around the post-Millennium Development Goal development agenda include a vital focus on measuring change and — hopefully — progress. But there is an unspoken tension: the reality of local contexts is becoming less and less visible to increasingly globalised development agendas.

Social movements of the urban poor find themselves caught in the cross-fire of such debates. I have dedicated the past three decades of my professional life to working with the leaders of many such movements around the world, and this has been my experience. Real people, real families and real lives are subsumed into aggregated figures that mask local variations.

Almost all countries in the Global South, especially in Africa and Asia, are undergoing historic urban transformations. Yet many have national leaders elected from rural areas, and political parties whose leaderships persist in 19th- and 20th-century perspectives principally addressing rural development. We need measurements to assess whether politicians and administrations’ development policies are pro poor in urban areas.

International-development investments are focused on rural development, based on theories rooted primarily in rural experiences. Cities are seen by many as locations of economic growth, not locations for aspiration, opportunity, equity and inclusion. We need measurements that can inform indices for desired ends such as equity and inclusion.

I am not advocating that we throw out all existing poverty indices. Rather, I am absolutely convinced that these indices need to be adapted to meet the challenge of linking traditional measurements of poverty with new approaches to measuring urban quality of life. The prevalent informality of habitat and livelihoods in developing-word cities mean it is crucial to develop both measurement benchmarks and practical policy initiatives that make cities work for all who live in them. We cannot benchmark what is not comprehensively measured.

Another flawed global measurement concerns the universal dollar-based poverty line. This measurement has barely any relevance to the experience of people who contend with the twin challenges of poverty and inequality. Measurements of urban subsistence must be linked with macro-economic and financial trends such as inflation. Just one example is food inflation. In my country, India, the sudden quadrupling of potato and onion prices, due to an increase of fuel prices and speculative practices, has had a significant impact on what and how much the poor eat. The increasing number of malnourished children in urban areas makes this clear. However, universal poverty lines do not capture this very real effect.

Informal shelter strategies in cities are also invisible to such universal measurements. Those who live in homes with insecure tenure, under the ever-present risk of demolition and eviction, often use soft, impermanent material for house construction. These may have to be rebuilt after a monsoon, or on a seasonal basis, depending on the local climate. Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), the global network of grassroots urban poor federations, estimates that over 25 years, a family could build one good-quality home with those labour and material costs. This indicates there is an urgent need to measure the impact of evictions and of the destruction of habitat and livelihoods, often brought about by government agencies.

The global economic order is based on upfront capital investments that sit uncomfortably with urban-poor strategies to upgrade their lives incrementally from survival to stability. Households consolidate their home structures and upgrade them, especially those who have de facto security of tenure. In the absence of state support, this is how almost all informal households create shelter to meet their needs. But almost all government standards for habitat and all capital-investment strategies of accessing subsidies and finance for households needs, require capital to be ‘collected’ upfront and then repaid over 10 to 20 years. This is only possible if lending institutions feel secure in the applicant’s financial situation; and they are never satisfied if the applicant is employed in informal livelihoods.

Basic amenities such as water, electricity, sewerage and sanitation remain a major problem for most urban households. As long as informality renders urban populations invisible, data will be skewed and investment delayed. In some cities, the poor only began to receive water and electricity once state and private-sector companies realised that the poor were ‘purchasing’ these amenities from informal cartels at higher rates.  The Department for International Development and the World Bank have begun to incentivise electricity providers to reach the poorer consumers .

Measurements of sanitation access for the poor are incomplete. Further, aid agencies and foundations have worryingly chosen to focus on technical solutions to deficits in access to adequate sanitation. In so doing they ignore the primary drivers of the financial and political relationships that determine the extension of services.

More and more urban workers are employed in the informal sector. Where are the measurements of their impact on GDP, or to demonstrate that most poor people end up working from their homes? Furthermore these informal entrepreneurs are often vulnerable to a city’s punitive anti-hawking rules and can lose their capital investments when their goods are confiscated.

Governments are almost completely unaccountable to their poorest citizens. This is because they are disenfranchised in an underground system and the logic of cities is not easily accepted and measured. Corruption in high places is measured and quantified quite well. But the extent to which the poor pay for this in order to survive is rarely calculated in measures of governance.

Thankfully, I see practical seeds of hope every day amongst the communities in which I work. The poor survive often through collective processes, while governments and external investments in development overwhelmingly target individuals. Social movements [add link] of the urban poor are emerging mainly because urban changes are not impacting their lives. All over Asia, Africa, and Latin America, those fed up with systems are exploring different ways to seek change. Many have been patient for too long waiting for their national governments to wake up. Others, especially young people, are getting impatient. The poor may increasingly turn to violence as the only way to get the attention of their governments.

What the world needs now — and urgently — are new ways to track these processes, and to develop new paradigms of development that work for the poor, their communities and their cities.

Sheela Patel is the Founder-Director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation that has been working on housing and infrastructure rights for the urban poor for the past two decades. She is also chair of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI).


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


SDI Joins World Urban Campaign

SDI Signs MOU with UN Habitat

**Cross-posted from MuST Blog**

By Shaddy Mbaka, Muungano Support Trust (Kenya)

NAIROBI, 18 APRIL 2013 | SDI has officially joined the World Urban Campaign, a lobby and advocacy platform on sustainable urbanization for “Better City, Better Life,” coordinated by UN-HABITAT.

The World Urban Campaign brings together partners from across sectors. It is designed to facilitate international cooperation, and acts as platform to converge organizations in order to collaborate on solutions and build consensus towards a new urban agenda for the Habitat III conference that is expected to take place in 2016.

SDI Joins World Urban Campaign

SDI, now a partner in the World Urban Campaign, will help engage cities around the world through the I’m a City Changer campaign, aimed at raising awareness on urban issues and to include the voice of the people to propose positive solutions to urban challenges.

SDI will also have an opportunity to represent the voices and interests of the poor, and thereby engage slum dwellers as city changers, while working closely with key World Urban Campaign partners around the world to ensure improved cities and to integrate poor communities in the management and development of their cities.

UN-HABITAT runs a series of strategic programmes designed to help make cities safer, to bring relief in countries suffering the aftermath of war or natural disasters, and to promote sustainable cities and good governance. Under the Urban Management Programme, an initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN-HABITAT, the World Bank and various bilateral donors, the agency fosters urban management in the fields of participatory urban governance, urban poverty alleviation, environmental management, and the dissemination of this information at the local, national and regional levels.

UN-HABITAT also develops indicators of good urban governance with two principle aims. The first aim is to help cities identify urban governance priorities and assess their progress towards the quality of city-life and the second aim is to develop a global Good Urban Governance Index. The agency has a Training and Capacity Building Branch which works at national and local levels in various countries to strengthen capacity building through high-level policy dialogues seminars, consultations and expert workshops.

The SDI team, led by Jockin Arputhum, Sheela Patel, Rose Malokoane and Joel Bolnick, expressed enthusiasm for continuing to collaborate with UN-HABITAT and use the campaign platform to work with other organizations in order to improve urban life for all.

In her speech to the press, Rose Molokoane one of the SDI Coordinators said;

“We feel really honored for the recognition by UN-HABITAT as a partner in World Urban Campaign. It is the basics of engaging the communities that has brought us this far, through savings and placing the women at the centre of collective community leadership, has created engagements with governments and local authorities. This has set precedent for government and other stakeholders that organized communities can bring about transformation.

Slum dwellers know how settlements can be planned. This can only happen by involving the poor in the planning process, deal with slums not slum dwellers. The urban poor are the only ones who can open up cities for development; therefore they should be seen as partners who are well able to change the cities, to achieve this, governments should give the urban poor security of tenure to witness urban development”.

SDI Chairperson Sheela Patel acknowledged that it was indeed a special moment for SDI. She said that change requires transformation, and through the Memorandum signed between UN-HABITAT and SDI, the urban poor global network can seek to demonstrate the potential for transformation especially from below.  This kind of partnership has been waiting to happen for a long time, we have tried to engage in the past, some have been successful while some unsuccessful, either way we hope to change how stakeholders view the urban poor,” said Ms. Patel.

On his part as the SDI President, Jockin thanked the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, for agreeing to sign an MOU with Slum Dwellers International, for it has opened a new chapter. ”SDI is privileged to partner with UN-Habitat on the urban transformative agenda. Being part of the decision making process, this partnership will bring change through the involvement of the poor, and we take it as a challenge in helping to realize the Millennium Development Goals. The issue of lack of proper sanitation infrastructure is a major impediment to development. We  are going to work together and show the world how we are going to change, we have the information and we know how to plan”, said Jockin.

Dr. Joan Clos, UN-HABITAT Executive Director expressed appreciation for the work that SDI has done and continues to do, and for SDI’s unique makeup and tireless efforts to create inclusive cities and to promote participatory processes beginning at community level to city wide transformation.

“SDI has become a force in favor of the poor by demanding the recognition of the poor as far as the urban agenda is concerned. Slums are a source of innovation (citing Mumbai), therefore there will be no bulldozing of livelihoods of the people living in these settlements, any transformation in urban poor settlements need be in participatory of slum dwellers because these communities are well organized, something governments are yet to do,” said Clos.

He also noted the importance of this collaboration in bringing the urban poor to the forefront of shaping the global urban agenda, and the important role SDI has continued to play in building inclusive cities.


Pineapple Studios: SDI at 2012 AAPS All Schools Conference in Nairobi


By Skye Dobson, SDI Uganda & Secretariat 

There were a number of comments from professors at the AAPS Conference in Nairobi (October 16-18) about the name that should be given to Urban Studios. Should they be called practical planning studios? Reality studios? How can they be distinguished from the studios to which planners are accustomed? For SDI, as one programme officer pointed out, “they could be called pineapples for all we care, as long as they do the work and have productive outcomes.”

This reality check was, in many ways, the reason SDI was invited to this gathering of planning professors from across Africa. A partnership between AAPS and SDI is working to make planning more responsive to the realities of life in developing cities by bringing planning students into partnership with slum dweller federations in SDI’s network.

Sheela Patel, one of the founders of SDI and chair of the organization’s board, gave the keynote address, which undoubtedly ruffled the feathers of a few professors who questioned the focus on slums, informality, and even the urban sector.

Sheela didn’t sugar coat her relationship to planners either. “I used to love to hate planners”, she said. As the years passed, however, she came to realize it is necessary to examine the reasons why planners were not serving the needs of the urban poor and work to change it.  She said her blood would boil as a young professional when she would be forced to sit across from a planner who ordered eviction after eviction, but she focused on finding the cracks and the loopholes, that would enable a critical mass of urban residents to generate solutions. For the critical mass, finding solutions was easy. The city could not plan for what it did not know.

She urged participants to work toward disconnecting planning from 19th century principles and recognize that planning is deeply political. Despite endless platitudes to the urban poor, she argued, the judiciary continues to uphold deeply exclusionary urban planning systems. This, she warned, could have terrible consequences for the cities of the developing world where she doubts young, impatient, and aspirational populations will not be prepared to wait for years for their cities to recognize them. She said the time has come for African planners to move away from Eurocentric models and generate their own.

AAPS is deeply cognizant of this need and the conference highlighted the urban pineapples conducted by SDI affiliates and AAPS member schools. The studios highlighted were conducted in Uganda and Malawi and the Kenya federation shared its experience working with students. The presentations highlighted the benefit to students and communities through such partnerships. The sense that the university is an ivory tower with little to no relevance to the urban poor was turned on its head. Each studio aimed to infuse Africa’s future planners with the knowledge that planning developing cities simply cannot ignore the reality of life in the informal settlements where the bulk of the urban population resides. As student Sam Nuwagira, a studio participant from Uganda, remarked, “As planners we are taught that we are gods. The studio helped me to see that the gods are the community as they have the knowledge about their areas.”

This point was reinforced by federation member and “community professor” Katana Goretti, “In communities we know the number of settlements, services and origins of the people. We know how they spend their money and how they would like to develop their areas. You cannot plan from the office but if you go to the ground and speak to people and learn from them it can help you plan better.” As part of the urban studio in Uganda, Katana delivered lectures at Makerere University, took students on transect walks through Uganda’s slums, and helped student planners understand the necessity of planning with communities. 

Critically, the studio work will need to impact upon the planning curriculum. There was much discussion about how this might be possible and also much concern about the bureaucratic barriers within universities. This discussion will continue within the AAPS community. Many professors present expressed interest in conducting similar studio to the ones conducted with SDI and countries such as Nigeria, Mozambique, and Rwanda expressed interest in starting SDI affiliate federations.

For SDI the vision is to see organized communities become the drivers of pragmatic and inclusive urban planning. Building partnerships with actors typically charged with urban planning – such as municipal and city councils, urban ministries, and academic institutions – is seen as the most viable strategy for incrementally generating systemic changes to the practice of urban planning. Critically, partnerships – like pineapples – can look good from the outside, but be brown, mushy, and useless at the center. True partnerships involve negotiation and engagement between equals. Community professors still face challenges being perceived as such, but SDI believes it’s headed in the right direction.


Sheela Patel attends IMF AGM in Tokyo


Sheela Patel at the Annual General Meeting of the International Monetary Fund, held in Tokyo last week. 

Pictured: Far Right, Sheela Patel (Chair of SDI). Next to her Jim Yong Kim (President of the World Bank) and second from left Christine Legarde (President of the International Monetary Fund).  

 At a related event, Sheela Patel spoke about the role of the urban poor in building our urban future: 

“I come to this session with a very confused sense of identity. Everyone has a different idea of what a civil society actor is, so perhaps it will be easier to say why we do what we do, and how we seek to influence.

My organization in India, and the international network of organizations that I represent, Shack Dwellers International, represents people who have found that global investment in cities, infrastructure, and other capital investment, have found these processes produce exponential increases in eviction. As a citizen, the right to be provided services, and so on, cities do not plan to accommodate the poor. Most people that work in human rights in this field, will know that the law upholds the development plan of the city. By giving you a notice, the city has the right to evict, without a responsibility to give you anything in return. The inability of having the right to reside, of citizenship, means the civil society movements emerge form people who feel they do not have the rights that they are entitled to.

Why a global network? Because many of the aspects driving these processes including the thinking, are globalised. All finance ministers control the purse strings, most in the South have rural constituencies, and see the city as simply a place to manufacture and produce.

Our architecture is from grassroots up to local. Secondly that the processes to provide voice, has not yet succeeded. Hence our community leaders who have fought evictions and others, eventually we aspire to have them instead of me and professional advocates sitting here, I and others are seat-warmers.

My colleagues are not enabled to speak in these forums, so if you are in the business of development, learn the language of development, rather than force them to learn the language of these places.

My most important lesson is that most instances the government does not know what the poor want, nor how it could be delivered. Treating poor people as consumers of development is a mistake. The poor survive despite development, and can participate in providing new solutions that go to scale if they are part of the process, its execution and design.

Fourth, the whole issue of engendering development – most of our partners were mainly men who used to fight eviction and development. The issue of habitat, creating safe neighborhoods, the responsibility of doing so is also women’s. So what agency are we giving to them? We promote new generation of women’s leaders.

Note, everything that poor people want in cities is ‘illegal or inappropriate’. We produce our efforts to challenge development norms. We have examples of interaction with the WB, and in many instances WB projects involve eviction – termed ‘involuntary resettlement’. We have shown again and again, that involving poor people in design and execution of projects, you succeed in far more successful projects.

Local economies and processes can hugely benefit form participating in this process. Our work is challenging processes, from local to global. We seek a voice, not by saying ‘we have a right to be there’ but by demonstrating that we can succeed by taking different approaches.

We as development actors require new strategies of interaction – one of the biggest challenges is that the world is becoming more urban. Most people in cities will be working and living informally, so how are these exclusionary practices going to impact that, and what does it mean to be this intermediary in institutions or with individuals who seek development.”

For a full report of the event, click here


Culture, Informality, Heritage, and Cities: A View From Below


By Sheela Patel, SDI Secretariat / SPARC

Culture is Produced by the People

Cities are now at the cross roads of making choices in relation with what attributes they concede to the production of culture. Planning norms and practices have begun to identify buildings, districts and heritage sites, and often end up protecting them against people!

Cities are truly the creatures of living cultural heritage, and its inhabitants must face the challenge of dealing with seemingly sensible rules and regulations that are not working for a large section of their populations. Instead of creating mechanisms to arbitrate between diverse interests and conflicts, these processes are producing mono cultures that  stamp out the rights of many for the fulfilment of rights for a few. These challenges are most obvious in cities of the global south, although these tensions and processes operate in all cities around the world.

All southern cities are crowded by people generally using non-motorized transport. There are large crowds everywhere,  in markets and on the streets and in temples. There are festivities erupting in cosmopolitan neighbourhoods where modern global “good practices” seek to reduce sound pollution and thereby put restrictive use of public spaces where traditional celebrations takes place and where the poor participate in large numbers. As a result, the spontaneous yet structurally robust confusions created by celebrative events in the heart of cities – are being stamped out by rules created out of fear and demand for clearing the public spaces for cars of the elite. Gated communities, shopping malls, fly-overs, all new symbols of modernity and success and progress are destroying living city cultures that have evolved through many decades and in some instances through centuries.

How should the rules of engagement for cities be developed? How can universal guidelines work to identify, deepen and make robust that which is celebrated and produces a public and street culture that “modernity” and “the new monocultures” are systematically killing? What are “the precious elements ” which creates identity, relationships and networks in cities? What can and should be changed in order to produce more equity, more inclusion and breach old cultural practices? Who is it in the power to decide?

Not a optimistic picture

The present situation is not very optimistic. In many cities both the built heritage and cultural traditions are first demolished and then their loss is bemoaned, by which time it cannot  be reconstituted. Often the reasons for the loss are hidden and not understood by  those who lost these spaces and lived through the processes of cultural change. What they do recognise are that what happened seems to lead to reduced tourisms or reduced livelihood options and reduced revenue, which again brings a sense of crisis into the challenges already faced when addressing cultural issues.

Cities and towns in the global south seek copy the development of cities of the north without acknowledgement that in their past industrial stage they faced similar challanges. Development imageries are imported from northern post- industrial cities and imposed along with their development regulations, and end up making cities work for a few and make the majority’a usage of the city  illegal. The use of public spaces for informal habitats and livelihoods have become unacceptable by the rule of law based on the planning norms from the “global north”. International development and knowledge systems and “modern town planning schemes” further assists deepen this process. In some places the needs of 10-15% of the population elite, overrides the needs of the whole city.

Countries, cities and localities in denial of their cultural heritage

Culture is not just old buildings, it’s how individuals, neighbourhoods and cities create rituals and practices to transact their lives, produce processes and systems which enable them to cohabitation. Each generation has to assess these practices and choose what works for their time, and what is intergenerational and critical for future generations to retain.

Markets, neighbourhoods, walled cities are under threat by modernity, mainly because the lands on which these operate are now seen as valuable to capitalize on. Wet markets (vegetable markets) which are in every city and town in the global south, where the rich and poor buy their food and other daily needs, are gradually being phased out. Malls are replacing the wet markets, and many studying this phenomenon clearly see that the natural cross-subsidy for fresh produce and vending opportunities are lost to a large majority.

Most cities have the poor, the markets, and the “modern city” competing for a place within the city centre. Many cities seek to kill the organic development process by putting up roads and big buildings in an attempt to provide  some “order”. Evictions of poor neighbourhoods are seen as inevitable in the name of investing in the public good, and many households have not even been given compensation because they do not have legal deeds to the land; they have only lived there for many decades.

The questions to be addressed are: Are there other options? Can the right for life and livelihood be invoked to protect the rights of the poor? Can solutions be developed through dialogue and discussions? Can large infrastructure projects consider these processes as investments worth making in both the time it takes to build consensus as well as to produce increased inclusion? The fact is that traditional neighbourhoods and their livelihoods are being destroyed every day as we are searching for evidence for “best practice”.

Take the challenges of informality

Most of the urbanization in the global south is informal, and the largest employment takes place within the informal sectors within a bazaar culture; such as vending and recycling businesses. Street markets, crowded sidewalks are all part of the life in the cities and the markets are venues for many a cultural practice that modern planners seek to control, and in their task often destroy.

Take the instance of waste pickers in Cairo and for that matter all cities in the south. For centuries communities have traded in recycling and have created livelihoods which cities could nurture and link to the city’s garbage management. These processes are sustainable and all they need from the state is the right to have space to sort and transport recyclable waste. Yet almost in all instances the city hires private sector waste recyclers who rarely sort and separate the garbage collected. The traditional waste recyclers need contractual agreements that include them in the garbage industry. What is being done today by city planners is that they seek expensive and unsustainable solutions of garbage handling systems from “the north”, from countries which just recently has started in the recycling of garbage business.

Everyone at odds with slum dwellers

Cities are now at the cross roads in relation to what attributes they concede to the production of culture. Planning norms and practices have begun to identify buildings and districts and heritage sites and often end up protecting them against people! Informal settlements look like a sea of roofs from the outside and so impenetrable that the only way that planners figure to deal with them is by demolishing them. In reality these are complex neighbourhoods that are evolving and changing. Their ability to morph into viable neighbourhoods is dependent on the involvement of the state to assist and support this process. The poor living in the city centres are competing against the elite: Struggling towards the power of the vertically structured commercial house and land market infiltrating their neighbourhoods. 

The next few decades will exacerbate our urban challenges

It is already globally announced that more than half of the world population lives in cities and that even more will settle down in the already crowded cities of the south. For some decades cities have had to accommodate very large numbers. It seems that in future, most houses will be self-built incrementally because cities and national governments can’t develop financing mechanisms to aid them at the rate and pace they need. Most residents will be employed informally and will stay at odds with the laws, the laws which they cannot accept because they are framed to exclude them. In many cities household people squat on sidewalks and bridges in order to be near work, work which again very often forms informal occupations servicing registered institutions and businesses as well as elite households.

All southern cities are and will continue to be crowded. People will continue using non-motorized transport. There will be crowds in markets, mosques, churches, and temples. Festivities will be erupting in cosmopolitan neighbourhoods increasing this spontaneous yet structurally robust confusion, which again will continue to be contested for every new formalizing city rule created: Created out of fear and demand for clearing the public spaces for cars and the elite.

When the state ignores problems people have to create institutions for representation

SPARC started its work seeking the rights of households who live on pavements to prevent eviction without alternatives. From 1986 to 1995 pavement dwellers in Mumbai created organizations that fought to be accepted by the city of Mumbai. Today they have a joint program, but it took ten years for the policy to be formed and in the next 15 years the households should be moved.

The National Slum Dweller Federation (NSDF) of India that seeks to bring the voice of the poor into the development table, formed an alliance with SPARC and Mahila Milan in 1996, and together they founded Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) which now operates in 33 countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Together, the SDI network seeks to build a culture of dialogue amongst the urban poor and to facilitate dialogue between cities and local communities. Federations in SDI have managed to change some rules, and increasingly global and local development actors, are beginning to examine SDI’s solutions as means to address the challenges of conflict in cities. The role of social movements is to produce civilized dissent and  demands for inclusion.

What is needed urgently: Capacity to arbitrate

Reconciling, negotiating and balancing are tough acts, and cities need leaders with such capacities. Incremental city growth and crowded streets are there and it is important to take a reality check into this environment before plotting strategies of how to manage cities and make them work for all. The questions related with this endeavour are many, and include: How should rules of engagements for cities become developed? How can universal guidelines work to identify, deepen and make robust that which is celebrated and produces a public and street culture that “modernity” and this new monoculture systematically killing what is precious and which creates identity, relationships and networks in cities? What should be the role of local national and global players which we now see becoming intricately woven into our increasingly connected globalizing world? There is a need to stay focused on the local while building national and global terms of engagement. Capacity building efforts are often treated as “knowledge transfer projects”, instead they need to build skills enabling people to negotiate and arbitrate – THAT IS ALSO CULTURE.


Slum Life: Improving Sanitation through Community Action

Toilets in Kibera

SDI Chair Sheela Patel pushes for co-production of sanitation solutions by and for urban slum neighborhoods in this podcast from World Water Week.

Hundreds of millions of people living in urban areas across the globe lack access to water and sanitation. This was the focus at World Water Week in Stockholm this August, where SDI Chair Sheela Patel, emphasized the need for slums to be recognized as neighborhoods already producing their own solutions, rather than simply nameless, faceless shackdwellers. In her podcast for SOAS Radio, Patel repeats her plea that the urban poor be engaged as co-producers of urban sanitation solutions, citing public toilets as being at the heart of effective slum upgrading. 

Patel elaborated on these issues and more in her article for The Global Herald, which you can find here

Indian government bestows its highest award on SDI founders

The national government of India has bestowed its highest civilian honor, the Padma Shri award, on Jockin Arputham, President of SDI and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) of India, and Sheela Patel, Chair of the Board of SDI and founder of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC). The entire SDI family wishes our two dear colleagues and friends a hearty congratulations!

In its citation for Jockin, the Indian government notes his pioneering strategies for facilitating learning between and among the poor, as well as the significant results these methods have achieved. Such an approach to horizontal learning stands as a significant alternative to dominant development models of training workshops and programs determined by professionals:

Through the same sorts of slum-to-slum learning exchanges that he initiated in India, Jockin Arputham has now extended such efforts to several neighboring countries. Through the Slum Dwellers International, which he helped found, Shri Arputham has assisted urban poor communities in South Africa to organize themselves and work effectively with the government and, in Cambodia, to set up the country’s first government-sponsored resettlement program for squatters. Likewise, the Federation’s community-organizing techniques and practical know-how has been exported to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines, and several countries in Africa.

In electing Jockin Arputham to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, the board of trustees recognized his extending the lessons of community building in India to Southeast Asia and Africa and helping the urban poor of two continents improve their lives by learning from one another.

Ms. Patel’s award cites her commitment to developing a model of professional NGO that supports the work of community-based federations of the urban poor. In particular, the citation notes her success in bridging the gaps between government and such organizations of the poor:

In 1984, she founded SPARC along with other professionals. SPARC came into existence to address the problems of pavement dwellers, the poorest of the poor in the city of Mumbai, who were not recognized as legitimate citizens by public authorities. Soon thereafter, SPARC entered into an alliance with NSDF and Mahila Milan. It would be fair to say that the patient advocacy of the cause of pavement dwellers by this alliance led to their recognition by Maharashtra Government’s State policy and programme to resettle and rehabilitate them.

Smt. Patel and Shri Jockin Arputham, President of NSDF and of SDI, worked closely together to support and create federations of the urban poor both in India and abroad, with a special focus on the empowerment of women – through their savings collectives – and who have now become forces for change all over the world. If one main plank of the alliance’s efforts was to support the organizing processes of the urban poor, the other plank was to build partnerships with municipal, state and central governments so that government policies and programmes would be designed and implemented such that they not only benefited the poor but cities as well.