SDI Invests in Income-Generating Community Resource Centres: The case of 302 Albert Road


By Merhawi Okbaselasie, SDI Secretariat

In this fast-changing environment, NGOs are becoming particularly concerned about financial sustainability, and SDI is no exception. The challenge is how to become financially sustainable without drifting from SDI’s core mission of realising inclusive and resilient cities that improve the lives of the urban poor. SDI achieves this core mission through investing in the urban poor’s self-organising and by supporting them in exploring alternatives to evictions. This includes land tenure, access to basic services, and housing solutions. There are many successes that attest to the effectiveness of SDI’s bottom-up approach to urban development.

However, for SDI to continue to fulfil its mission and to ensure the sustained effectiveness of its network, some level of financial self-sufficiency is vital. The SDI Secretariat has long recognized this challenge and has been making some strides in diversifying the income sources of the network. Efforts include broadening strategies to attract donor finance (e.g. individuals of high-net worth, challenge funds, and impact investments), generating funds from the general public through campaigns and direct marketing (e.g. challenge funds, crowd funding), as well as generating revenue through market-based opportunities linked to SDI’s core work. One such effort is the recent development of the property at 302 Albert Road into a ‘commercial hub’ and ‘community resource centre’.

SDI, through its investment arm Inqolobane Trust, has recently acquired an old commercial property situated at 302 Albert Road in Woodstock, Cape Town. A well-located, diverse and vibrant area close to the Cape Town CBD, Woodstock is one of the oldest working-class residential areas in Cape Town. Unlike many other neighbourhoods, residents in Woodstock managed to avoid the brutal forced evictions of the Apartheid era. However, over the last two decades as the city has grown, Woodstock has increasingly been subject to a process of gentrification with poorer communities facing more surreptitious forms of evictions.

The premises at 302 Albert were in dire need of maintenance and upgrading. SDI adopted a ‘’light touch’’ approach and invested in upgrading and restoring the heritage qualities of the old Victorian building (built between 1900 and 1905), and refurbishing industrial structures at the rear of the property. The efforts also included expanding and renovating the existing central courtyard to create a communal space with seating and greenery. The design interventions were approved by the Western Cape Heritage Resource Authority.

302 Albert is designed to function as both a ‘commercial hub’ and a ‘social hub’. Because Albert Road functions as a high street, commercial activities are located on the ground floor ensuring accessibility and visual connection to street level commercial activities. There are two 70 square metre retail shops: a jewelry shop and an art gallery along Albert Road, with an open plan studio above the two shops housing the SDI Secretariat’s new office. Accessed via a paved access way and an internal courtyard, the rear of the property houses a ground floor workshop and a restaurant, with a large open plan studio above the restaurant. This studio will soon become a hub for SDI’s Know Your City TV (KYC)  programme.

As mentioned above, the objectives of the 302 Albert development are both commercial and social. The first objective is to generate financial returns to contribute to the financial sustainability of SDI. To this end, the SDI Secretariat invested in upgrading and branding of the centre to position 302 as a landmark along the Albert Road corridor. These efforts significantly improved the quality and appeal of the ground-floor rental spaces and helped the centre function as a ‘commercial hub’.

302 is expected to generate an annual income that, in year one, will translate into an 8.5% gross yield. The upgrading efforts also included investment in grid connected rooftop solar PV and water tanks to harvest rainwater. The energy generated from solar is expected to reduce the total annual electricity costs of the centre by about 20%.


The second and equally important objective is to create a social space with two key functions: Firstly, the space will function as a hub for SDI’s Know Your City (KYC) programme. The emphasis will be on youth development through the KYC TV programme which provides training to youth from informal settlements in photography, media, storytelling, and film production. Secondly, the space will become a space for dialogue for communities and civil society organisations in the area to engage on critical issues affecting the urban poor, particularly forced evictions, which is at the centre of SDI’s core mission.

SDI’s main focus will continue to be the support of the urban poor in fighting evictions and accessing land tenure, basic services, and housing opportunities. Because of the nature of its work SDI will always require donor financing. However, the efforts made at developing 302 Albert using its own reserves highlight that SDI is serious about diversifying its funding sources and ensuring long term survival and effectiveness of its network. The challenge now is to scale up the successes achieved at 302 Albert across the SDI network. The idea is that these community resource centres – with emphasis on youth development – will be anchored around the Know Your City programme throughout the network,  delivering on both social and developmental outcomes and generating financial returns for the SDI network.

Climate Change Renaissance: The bottom-up city approach











**This article was cross posted from the Muungano wa Wanavijiji blog**

Similarly to local governments, federations of the urban poor globally are equally concerned about the strong impacts of climate change they continue to experience. Urban poor communities living in global cities believe that COP21 in Paris is an opportunity to state loud and clear that local communities are major players in finding lasting solutions in the struggle against climate change.

Anastasia Wairimu Maina is one of the founders of Muungano wa Wanavijiji, Kenyan Alliance and its National Chairlady since it was formed in 1996. Wairimu was one of the delegates representing Slum Dwellers International (SDI) at the COP21 summit in Paris. She views the Climate Summit as “an opportunity to voice up that we, the slum dwellers within the SDI network and beyond are major players in the struggle against climate change.”

“Cities can make a difference, our collective actions as a network of the urban poor globally ought to be recognized on the international platform of which our achievements may be built onto the climate agenda. This would encourage a more ambitious and inclusive international climate agreement in Paris.”

Anastasia Presenting on the need of partnerships between communities and local governments to address climate change

Anastasia highlighted how urban poor communities at the local and city levels are directly affected by climate change. “The floods, air pollution by medium and large industries and factories- which directly affects air quality in informal residential areas and settlement-fires. This intimates two things: Climate change is real and is here with us and local governments and authorities cannot address this on their own.”

Awareness Creation

In its urban agenda, Kenya’s federation of the urban poor, Muungano wa Wanavijiji, has begun to address challenges posed by climate change through awareness creation among the masses. The awareness is built on the Climatic Change Awareness Creation and Adaptation for Improved Livelihoods among urban poor Communities. Another aspect of this awareness is pegged on the improvement of food security for small holder city farmers and food vendors in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, through creating awareness about causes and effects of climate change while motivating them to mitigate and adapt to the changing climatic conditions.

Although climate change and its effects have taken root in most parts of Kenya, there is general lack of knowledge by the policy makers, private sector and urban communities about its causes, effects, mitigation and adaptation measures.

“The consequences of climate change are felt locally, often by slum dwellers living in degraded environments, and have to be dealt with at local and city levels. It is therefore crucial that the voices of the urban poor are taken into consideration by and wholly represented to the local authorities be heard at the Climate Summit. Then we can locally and influence change globally,” asserts Anastasia .

Inclusive participatory Planning of Public spaces

A Public Space in Kibera Photo Credits.

Urban planning and development remains to be an important aspect of rapid urbanization. This therefore makes it important for city authorities to innovate and plan for public spaces in a manner that would incorporate city demands, thus enabling city residents to feel part of the city. Public spaces are typically having the mandate of the people to develop, manage and maintain such spaces on behalf of the people.

Slum-dwellers play a significant civic role in the utilization and maintenance of public spaces. It is therefore equally important for city authorities to involve urban dwellers to model an inclusive, connected, safe, and accessible city. Public participatory processes give the urban poor the opportunity to help plan and design their city and its public spaces.

Anastasia emphasized the importance of (local) government and business partnering with organised slum dwellers, because “we are many, we have something to offer, and you cannot do without us to do something about climate issues.”

Cohesion and coordination between members of the public, community, and civic, charitable and private entities do commonly have different approaches and capacities to safeguard, utilise and improve public spaces. However, it is important to note that such spaces ought to bring all actors on board to enhance better planning, design and maintenance of public spaces.

The sustainability of our cities is enhanced by compact, mixed-use development, and dense centres served by a safe, well-connected network for pedestrians, bicycles and motorised vehicles. Renewable energy and waste recycling systems, native trees and vegetation, clean air, water, soil and sanitary systems all serve to sustain and benefit public spaces.

Governments often lead the way in taking ambitious action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. As the level of government closest to the people and the one responsible for actually implementing climate action on the ground, it is essential that they not only be heard, but also help shape the climate change discussions.

The SDI network is calling on national, European and international policy makers to recognise the role and efforts of local urban poor communities in climate mitigation and adaptation in the Paris agreement and to adapt both financial and legal framework conditions in partnership with local actors.

Resilience & Sustainability from the Bottom Up: Building Partnerships for Scale & Impact

Enumerations in Cape Town

By Sheela Patel, Chair of the SDI Board and Co-Founder & Director, SPARC

For actors and institutions concerned with the economic and social well-being of humanity, urban development is increasingly recognized as the major lacuna of fighting poverty, managing climate change, and generating inclusive growth. Within our network, we are transitioning to a new scale of activities and beginning to get recognition in our cities, countries, and at the global level for what we do. As an institutional form focused on altering the developmental calculus such that the informal poor can achieve greater voice and influence in formal decision-making, we are tasked with navigating the tensions associated with increased institutionalization and formalization. We are in a position where, as an institutional form, we are able to speak to major development debates, as seen through the eyes of the grassroots urban poor federations that comprise our network.

Change is a crucial and foundational aspect of ongoing influences that impact a neighborhood, city, nation and now our planet. Some changes we can plan for and embrace. Others we can imagine, but communities on the ground need space and time to reflect on the impact on their lives and produce a response. Still others come without any warning. The changes that emerge from what communities seek to do and aspire for have been negotiated for acknowledgement and inclusion into policy, and our work over the past year clearly reflects the projects and partnerships that reflect the progress made. SDI now increasingly seeks to develop capacity to anticipate the impact of global and externally promoted developments, to ensure that its affiliates and their memberships understand and develop confidence to respond rather than react to them, and to ensure that they can participate in discussions around these issues.

So how do we create a balance that retains focus on what can be done by civil society and by our own institutional interventions, while external support of often oppositional currents of change continues? How do we accommodate planetary challenges and national issues within our perspective without allowing them to drown our focus on creating voice, choice and space for the urban poor in cities? Clearly the choice is between reacting or responding to expand our vision, capacity and reflections on these processes as we engage communities of the urban poor and their city government for local action with a global perspective.

In the context of continuing to build and refine the strategic orientation of our network, it is worth reflecting on the oft-used and misunderstood concept of “sustainability.” We need to clearly understand the implications of what we do and where it will take us. In development-linked discussions there is a big debate on how institutional sustainability is defined. The prevalent, simplistic assumption is that if you have financial sustainability all else will follow. There is no question that financial independence and sustainability have value in and of themselves. However, such a singular focus is a denial of the complex environment in which organizations working on issues of poverty operate.

Formal institutions seem decades away from creating real inclusion of informal urban dwellers and all rhetoric of inclusion has to be constantly tested. The innovative precedents needed to make this process operational are few and far between. Even those financial institutions that exist are in a hurry to demonstrate sustainable models in time frames that are not suited for the task at hand.

We in SDI are of the opinion that the development institutions and projects owned and managed by the poor are viewed as investments in strategies to provide voice, outreach, scale and impact in addressing poverty. If viewed from a lens of research and development for addressing urban poverty, SDI and similar organizations become learning centers for the larger community. There are few strategies, and even fewer systems, that encourage the poor to seek investments from the state. Clear linkages between what is good for the poor, and strategies that have both local prospects for achieving scale and potential to be globally transferable, are in short supply.

What we do and with whom we interact to create solutions has huge significance for plotting the development agenda more broadly than just in our own network. The quest to refine and develop our strategic approaches in our cities and countries merits investment as a priority, far and above the notion of simply becoming financially self-sufficient. At some point we may no longer have financial support from traditional development aid institutions, and will be forced to develop alternative strategies. We are already preparing ourselves internally for this possibility. The fear is that this may limit our ability to set precedents, take risks and innovate while building internal governance structures and management skills that will work not only for us but inform policy and practice for a sector that, to a significant degree, still needs to be built from scratch. This requires continued exploration of both the successes and fruitful failures on our road of experimentation for building voice, influence and knowledge of, by, and for the poor in our cities.


For more about SDI’s strategies for developing institutional sustainability and building voice and influence through partnerships at the city, national and global level, read our 2012-2013 Annual Report. 

“Green Shack” Features Community-based Planning at Design Indaba 2013

The Green Shack

**Cross-posted from the SA SDI Alliance blog** 

By Walter Fieuw, CORC South Africa 

In 2012 the community of Mshini Wam initiated an innovative approach to the in-situ upgrading of their dense informal settlement. Working closely with the Informal Settlement Network (ISN)—a collective network of informal settlements linking informal settlement civil society groups in five cities in South Africa—and the support NGOs Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) and iKhayalami, the community worked with City of Cape Town officials, engineers and field officers to upgrade their informal settlement.

Mtshini Wam Profiling

Reblocking is a community-led in-situ re-arrangement of shacks in accordance to a community design framework which opens up safer and more dignified public spaces (called “courtyards”). The community was in charge of implementing this project and more than 50 short term job opportunities were created through the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) in partnership with the City of Cape Town.

Through the “re-blocking” and community mobilisation processes, topographical, institutional and social issues have been overcome. The “re-blocking” is a priority as it will allow better access to services. To further protect against fires, the community is hoping to use fire-resistant materials when re-building their houses. The city will partner to provide sewer and water lines, as well as electrical poles and electrical boxes for each family.

Re-blocking is more than just technical solutions to improving access to services. It is about a community process that starts with the empowerment of woman through savings schemes, the cohesion and unity of community working together on a broad-based project, and the formation of partnerships with government and other stakeholders in the long term development of the Settlement. 

In November 2012, the Mshini Wam community was introduced by long-term development partners Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to Stephen Lamb and Andrew Lord of Touching the Earth Lightly (TEL). A pilot project was initiated around the building of a “green shack”, which incorporates low-tech, cost effective and sustainable design principles in the in-situ upgrading of informal settlements. By installing vertical gardens on shack walls and “liter of light” which amplifies natural light through a chemical-based dispenser installed in the roof of the shack. The pilot project drew a lot of media attention. The gardens were installed and subsequently the community started greening the courtyards created through reblocking by installing similar gardens.

All sketches courtesy of TEL

According to TEL’s website,

The Green Shack looks at how simple, low-tech design can transform temporary spaces into “home” spaces. It is focused entirely on what we can achieve now… The next two sides of the cube represent the sun-facing walls of the shack. On these two sides The Green Shack suggests they be wrapped with a fire-proof boarding, covered by a vertical thriving organic vegetable garden. This wall garden creates food for the household. This wall is drip irrigated using a low tech, slow-release gravity fed system via a pipe made of re-cycled car tires. Rain water is also captured off the roof and stored on site. The slow-drip nature of the irrigation system ensures that the wall is constantly wet.

The term “blocking” refers to building or re-building shack according to a spatial development plan. The concept of the “Green Shack” is intended to “piggy-back” this infra-structure development and create what we call “Green Blocks”

With TEL’s low-tech, cost effective and sustainable design products, embedded in the social processes of ISN and the reblocking support from CORC, iKhayalami and ISN technical coordinators, the “green shack” and “green blocks” could inform a new way of looking at productive spaces in informal settlements. For this reason, the South African SDI Alliance partnered with TEL at this year’s Design Indaba at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. This is a opportunity for exhibiting community based planning meeting innovative design.

Be sure to visit the green shack from 1 – 3 March 2013 and have a first hand experience of “green shack” built on site.

Stephen Lamb showcasing the vertical gardens at Design Indaba 2013

The “green shack” from the inside, a 20sqm floor space


Inclusion: A Sustainability Agenda for African City Growth


This article originally appeared in Perspectives: Political Analysis and Commentary from Africa #3.12.

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI Secretariat 

An old South African song of the anti-Apartheid struggle is called “Meadowlands”. It commemorates a forced removal of many black and coloured people from the bustling, multi-cultural neighbourhood of Sophiatown in Johannesburg to the suburban township of Soweto in the late 1950s. The creolised tsotsitaal lyrics echo through the African continent’s historic urban transformation, which is well underway today: Ons daak nie, ons pola hie. “We are not leaving, we are staying right here.”[1]

Inclusion. A place to call home. Such are the essential challenges that urbanisation has evoked for ordinary people and communities throughout the continent. The lessons emerging from both the successes and challenges of city growth in Africa suggest that developmentally sound approaches hinge on the extent to which ordinary people are incorporated into the financial flows, planning institutions and political processes by which it takes place.

Yet these lessons are not part of the dominant understanding of processes of urbanisation and development in Africa. This is true whether we look at the worlds of academia and theory, or the worlds of policy and politics. The urban population in Africa has almost tripled in fifty years, and this has been accompanied by a proliferation of informal settlements that lack access to basic services such as water and toilets, land tenure, housing and formal employment.[2] These inequities are the overwhelming experience of the continent’s young, urban population. Over one-fifth of Africa’s population is between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, and in eastern and southern Africa, this proportion rises to one-third.[3] 

Building a Strategy

Economic inequalities track closely with political exclusion. In truth, approaches such as “participation”, while common to the sustainability agenda, carry little weight in the big decision-making flows that actually impact on African urbanisation. Instead, they have been watered down to mean either a) consultation with ordinary people and communities on projects and programs that have already been conceived by large actors in government and the private sector, or b) the ability of communities to hold such actors accountable for promises after they make them.

“Political sustainability”—a broad notion of social and economic inclusion—coupled with environmental sustainability, is quite simply not the dominant paradigm of development and urbanisation in Africa. If we can generalise at all about African cities—a questionable task in and of itself—then the image of fancy skyscrapers rising next to sprawling informal settlements perhaps best represents this process. Economic and political inequality, environmental degradation and social insecurity are all too common as part of the urbanisation process in Africa.

So the task is twofold: first, to understand what we mean by “sustainability” in the first place; second, to strategise for embedding “sustainability” in the influential agendas that drive African urbanisation in the present and for the future. Such an approach has to link housing, land and employment in order to build inclusion into the urbanisation process. It also has to identify where the kinds of citizen groupings and organisations are emerging that allow for more responsive approaches to this triangle of needs. 

Finance, Planning, Politics

The exclusion of the urban poor from planning for growth implicates three major trends.

First, the financial arrangements that determine urban development are exacerbating divides of inequality in terms of access to services, land and employment opportunities. Little finance is allocated in either national or international aid budgets for the upgrading of informal settlements. Local governments struggle to collect property and land taxes, and have little financial discretion to direct resources to the upgrading of informal settlements.[4] Urban development is still an unpopular policy orientation, and the money that is directed at poverty alleviation continues to exhibit “rural bias”. Meanwhile, the finance available to industrial and real estate development in urban areas has a sharp [G1] tendency to not benefit the people and interests that fall outside of the formal sector.

Take two examples of spatial disparities in East Africa, which demonstrate the stark inequalities of financial flows to African cities. In Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, over 70 percent of households are on land whose ownership rights the law does not recognise. In other words, the vast majority of the city is “informal”.[5] Even starker is the situation in Nairobi, where recreational space occupies more total land than do slums. Sixty percent of the city’s population lives in slums.[6] While the formal world is accessing finance and the power it accompanies, the populations that are growing most quickly in African cities experience deeper exclusion.

Second, the institutional arrangements and planning processes that impact on urbanisation build and reinforce inequalities. Planning standards condemn informality in contexts where governments need to embrace and integrate informal populations. Participation is all too often a byword for using the poor as a means of an ex post facto rubber stamp of consent after key decisions around project conception and even implementation have been made by governments, private investors, and external aid agencies.

The challenge is not only a question of whether there is a moral need to include the poor, but even more, a question of how responsive existing institutions are to changes on the ground. The financial flows of urbanisation in Africa currently override the shaping capacity of institutions, especially in both local and national governments. The imperatives of private developers and corporations override the potential for the state to intervene effectively to mitigate the negative effects of the market.

In a sense, this is another version of how economist Joseph Stiglitz described what has happened to Western financial institutions in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, in which processes of economic growth have been “privatizing gains but socializing losses”.[7] Charles Sabel and Sanjay Reddy have identified the key institutional problem as an inability to “learn”.[8] Hence they propose steps for “learning to learn”, a method for examining the constraints of both supply and demand that policy-makers and institution-shapers must address. This means identifying new problems for policy, and opening up decision-making to be more accountable and, in fact, empirical.

Yet this can come off as pie-in-the-sky dreaming. Cities in Africa are a crucible for both the new global order of nations and new institutions that make the decisions that impact on economic growth patterns. In such areas, as Mark Swilling, director of the Sustainability Institute in South Africa, recently noted, institutions and ordinary people alike require “the ability to learn and unlearn very quickly in the blink of an eye as context shifts”.[9] How can Sabel and Reddy’s “learning to learn” framework possibly address this reality?

The third and related cause of exclusion, and the necessary impact of inclusion on the sustainability agenda[G2] , concerns the political processes of urbanisation in Africa. In essence, the current exclusion of the poor from decision-making, project conceptions and fundamental re-imaginings of city development fundamentally impedes a more responsive set of institutions along the lines of “learning to learn”. When the urban poor are considered objects of developmental decisions of others—when ordinary people are a nuisance to be ignored or evicted—informality continues to hinder economic growth and the development of social fabric in cities.

Most poverty alleviation approaches are focused on supporting individuals and households to achieve basic human needs. But from the sustainability perspective—understood broadly—this actually undercuts the need for political inclusion. Given the constraints on political agency and economic opportunity that exist among many communities of the poorest of the poor, representative organisations of the poor are of particular significance.

It is therefore time to pay more attention to the kinds of popular institutions of the poor that can be effective at influencing formal institutional structures. These exist in many parts of the world currently undergoing rapid urbanisation. Even those cities that are not in Africa offer significant learning opportunities for alternative political approaches. A few different types include a) city-wide community networks of informal settlement dwellers in Thailand that work with a government program for slum upgrading called Baan Mankong; b) street committees in places like Karachi, Pakistan, that work with local government through the Orangi Pilot Project; and c) national and city-wide slum dweller “federations” in many countries in Africa and Asia, that are part of a global network called Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI). In all of these cases, the most important lesson concerns the ability of government, especially at the local level, to reform existing institutions or create new ones that allow communities and officials to speak with each other as equals and to make decisions jointly.

Investing in Community Organisations and Networks

With this triangular framework for understanding the challenge of the sustainability agenda as it pertains to urbanisation in Africa—finance, planning, and politics—we need to begin understanding the strategy for actualising such an approach. We need to get deep into the real-world practices that, over time, cohere to create this kind of impact-driven approach to sustainable urbanisation. The notion of “learning”, as Sabel and Reddy, amongst others, have put it, is useful for describing how small changes in institutional practice can be geared towards exactly this kind of high impact.

In particular, we need to consider the lessons of communities that are actually involved in a learning process with elements of local bureaucracies. These relationships help to develop alternative mechanisms for delivery and to construct deeper bonds of citizenship through the links of community associations with state bureaucracies.

An instructive case is a set of interactions between community associations and low-level bureaucrats in the Informal Settlements Unit of the Department of Housing in the municipality of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

The informal settlement of Langrug is home to about eighteen hundred households, according to a community-led household survey in 2011. The settlement had gone with approximately forty toilets for all eighteen hundred families for many years. In 2010, a rich landowner nearby threatened to sue the municipality for the polluted runoff coming from the settlement on to his property.

The rich were making the claim in this case. But it is the poor who have gained attention from the claim. The municipality had long tried to provide services to Langrug through ad hoc, top-down methods. These previous attempts had been met by vandalism and destruction, as the community felt that there was no consultation about the needs or priorities of the settlement.

Over 2011 and 2012, both the community and low-level bureaucrats have changed. The bureaucrats visit the community much more often and sit in joint meetings with community leaders to plan improvements for the settlement. The city has also begun employing community members, who work on upgrading projects through short-term public works programs. In just a year, the community has achieved more toilets and water points, reorganised shacks near small flood plains in the settlement, and cleaned drains. The community and city government have begun working together to formalise the settlement and provide land tenure to residents. The community has also begun to alter and deepen its governing structures in the wake of its new experience in working with local government. Leaders have created smaller block committees, as well as issue-based committees (e.g., to plan for a new community hall that will serve a number of businesses and social organisations, and a health committee).

These lessons echo throughout the country and throughout the world. Langrug is linked to the Informal Settlement Network, a social movement that is part of the global SDI network. SDI has therefore used its international reach to bring communities and city officials from elsewhere in South Africa, and from other countries in Africa and Asia, to learn from the approach that the Langrug community and the Stellenbosch authorities have been exploring.[10]

Merging the “Top” and the “Bottom”

From the perspective of actors working at the “bottom” of urban politics—community organisations, professional NGOs, legal advocates—“sustainability” too often turns into small projects that appear sustainable, but that do not make any impact at the large scales of financial flows, planning institutions and political processes. Without an articulation of precisely this sort of impact—a broad theory of change to achieve sustainable urbanisation in Africa—we cannot expect to see sustainable cities emerge from the urbanisation process well underway. Often this means that the “bottom” needs to be prepared to find new modes of working with large “formal” actors, especially the state.

From the “top”, the sustainability agenda demands the inverse of such a critical perspective. National and local governments in Africa have struggled to build in the adaptive responsiveness required to deal with rapid change in populations, built environment and economies. Those that have are learning to develop and invest in partnerships with community-based groups and organisations, especially those that constitute themselves at the city-wide level. This is not the simple decentralised model of private-public partnerships, but an approach to partnership that leverages the strategic strength of the grassroots to strengthen public institutions in their ability to perceive and adapt to the rapid changes of urbanisation.

“Path-dependent” views of development have long suggested that historical and especially colonial legacies condemn people in Africa to overwhelming poverty and suffering. Consequently, intervention by aid agencies, multilateral institutions, private actors and national governments has too often manifested in a context that either ignores these legacies and “path dependence” altogether, or assumes that their outcomes make the urbanisation of poverty a historical fait accompli. This mix of hubris and fatalism has led to flows of funds, institutional designs and political power that not only ignore, but actively exclude the poor. Ordinary people continue to persist as objects of interventions by those who are much more powerful, and therefore have little voice.

So we return to the old South African song, “Meadowlands”. Such a collective plea for belonging needs to underpin the sustainability agenda if it will be able to impact on an alternative view of urbanisation in African cities. This means investing in the capacities of communities, just as much as it means investing in the projects and programs that are geared towards achieving the physical “outputs” of inclusionary development: basic services, land, housing, employment.

This also means investing in community organisations, and the networking of these organisations—especially at the city-wide scale—in order to build the political processes at the city and national level that can achieve such physical outcomes. An integrated approach to sustainability will embed the human need for belonging to place, to land, and to community, within the broader processes of urbanisation. This may be our only path to upending a phenomenon that, in Africa, has thus far exhibited all-too-prevalent tendencies of exclusion.

[1] “Meadowlands,” performed by Nancy Jacobs and Sisters. Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (ATO Records, 2003).

[2] John Vidal, “Africa warned of ‘slum’ cities danger as its population passes 1bn”. The Guardian Global Development Blog.

[3] United Nations Population Fund, “Africa: Why Investing in Africa’s Youthful Population Can No Longer Wait”.

[4] UN-Habitat, State of the African Cities 2010, 3.

[5] “Upgrading of Low Income Settlements: Country Assessment Report—Tanzania.” World Bank Institute, Africa Technical Unit.

[6] Florence Dafe, “No Business like Slum Business? The Political Economy of the Continued Existence of Slums: A Case Study of Nairobi”. Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics Working Paper, 12.

[7]Joseph Stiglitz, “The Current Economic Crisis and Lessons for Economic Theory.” Eastern Economic Journal, forthcoming (President’s address at the 2009 Eastern Economic Association Conference, New York, February 2009).

[8] Charles Sabel and Sanjay Reddy, “Learning to Learn: Undoing the Gordian Knot of Development Today”. Challenge, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., vol. 50(5), October 2007, 73–4.

[9] Mark Swilling, “The Power of Quiet Encroachment”. Lecture delivered at TedXStellenbosch, 29 July 2011. http://youtube/GBnN62-Lp7U

[10] Walter Fieuw, “The art of ark building in Langrug, Stellenbosch”.