SDI, WIEGO & Avina: Growing a Global Coalition of the Urban Poor

**Cross posted from the SA SDI Alliance Blog**

By Yolande Hendler, SA SDI Alliance

Piesang River – the home of the South African Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP), a meeting place filled with sounds of Portuguese, isiZulu, Spanish and English,  a place filled with expectations of what a four-day learning exchange might hold for its participants – representatives of urban poor networks from across Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and South Africa. Are there joint mobilisation strategies? How does each movement build partnerships? And what does advocacy from the perspective of community leaders look like? These questions shaped the purpose of the four-day learning exchange from 21-24 September in South Africa’s east coast port city, Durban.


The participants included community leaders and supporting organisations from

  • the Brazilian Alliance of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI)
  • the Ecuadorian Waste Picker Network
  • the Ecuadorian Network for Fair, Democratic & Sustainable Cities
  • the Association of Recyclers in Bogota, Colombia (Asociación de Recicladores de Bogota)
  • Fundacion Avina in Peru & Ecuador
  • Women In Informal Employment : Globalising & Organising (WIEGO)
  • Asiye eTafuleni in Durban (AeT, network of informal workers)
  • The South African SDI Alliance as hosts: Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP), Informal Settlement Network (ISN) and Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC)

What brought together representatives from such different locations? Their affiliation to SDI (Brazil & South Africa), WIEGO (Colombia & Asiye eTafuleni, South Africa) and Fundacion Avina (Ecuador). All three are global movements of the urban poor. Although their approaches may differ, SDI, WIEGO and Avina share the vision of building equitable, just and inclusive cities. The learning exchange was convened by Cities Alliance, of which WIEGO and SDI are both members. Envisioned as a two-part exchange, the first was hosted by SDI in South Africa, while the second will be hosted by WIEGO in Colombia.

The exchange focussed on exposing the visitors to the South African Alliance’s approaches to- and outcomes of community organising. This included a visit to housing and informal settlement upgrading projects, a savings scheme, conducting practical data collection, a partnership meeting with government and getting to know the context of informal workers.

A People’s Approach to Housing and Upgrading

Visiting a people driven housing project at Namibia

While each movement shared its main focal areas and organisational approaches in presentations on the first day, a real sense of getting to know each other occurred through questions and anecdotes that opened windows into personal and collective experiences:

“In Colombia waste-pickers have been organising for more than 30 years – recycling is an option for poor people who are old or don’t have access to jobs. I was displaced during the war. My husband was killed by guerrilla fighters. Through recycling I was able to support my family” (Ana Elizabeth Cuervo Alba, Colombia)

“As waste pickers in Ecuador we lobbied the government to a point where we now have a national agreement that pays waste pickers for recycling” (Elvia Pisuña, Ecuador)

“Urban informal workers usually face extreme challenges with people resisting their presence in public spaces .We called ourselves, Asiye eTafuleni because it means – come to the table. Let us negotiate for the inclusive future of the working urban poor.“ (Richard Dobson, Asiye eTafuleni, Durban)

Incidentally, Piesang River also displays the fruits of FEDUP’s militant negotiation with national government around housing delivery. FEDUP leaders explained that the vast housing settlements in Piesang River and Namibia Stop 8 (a further area visited that afternoon) are a result of their success in convincing government to grant members direct access to their housing subsidy. This enabled them to self-build larger houses, culminating in the adoption of the People’s Housing Process (PHP) policy. Although it has not been without its challenges, PHP represents a breakthrough in altered approach from “delivery” to “collaboration”.

Recycling Exchange

In contrast, community leaders of the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) elaborated on their difficulty in achieving breakthrough in municipal support for informal settlement upgrading. With over 2700 informal settlements in the country and an increasing housing backlog, the ISN supports communities with tools and plans for negotiating with local government around service delivery through incremental upgrading. During a visit to Mathambo settlement, community leader and regional ISN coordinator, Ndodeni Dengo explained that despite the settlement’s relatively small size, existing structures were located in high density to each other, with most not larger than 9m2 – and a deficit of water, sanitation and electricity services. The community had collected data about its settlement through a detailed household level enumeration that helped them negotiate upgrading plans with the local municipality. By using wooden boxes for planning a new layout that would enable service installation, the community established their ideal design for the upgraded settlement.

How do urban poor communities organise?

Over the next two days the visitors were introduced to the driving force behind FEDUP and ISN’s housing and upgrading projects: the practice of daily savings and data collection as tools for community organisation.

Explaining savings Kwa Bester

At Kwa Bestar savings group, the visitors saw that saving is not primarily about collecting money, but about collecting people. Savings groups are a space where trust is nurtured through daily saving, sharing needs and identifying common solutions. At present, the group of 39 active members has saved US$ 2800. It is also engaged in forming smaller saving units to access loans by generating income through small businesses. The keen involvement of young people aged 8 – 25 in the savings process was a special highlight. Once more it became evident that savings is about growing and enabling people, showcased by the rich dance, drama and music performances by the youth.

Youth savings group shares dance performance

Where savings builds self reliance, data collection builds knowledge: upon arrival at Zikhali, a small, rural settlement in the northern sugar cane fields of Durban, Rose Molokoane, National Coordinator of FEDUP and SDI deputy president, explained:

“When a community knows clearly who they are, which are their problems, it is much easier to negotiate with municipal officials”

This is how data collection through settlement profiles (of a settlement’s history, infrastructure, conditions) and enumerations (detailed household level surveys) enables partnership with local government officials. When walking around the area, the group mapped the settlement boundaries and landmarks such as water and sanitation points on GPS devices while others spoke to residents, collecting household data by using the Alliance’s enumeration form.

GIS mapping in Zikhali settlement

Household Enumeration in Zikhali

Approaches to building partnerships with government

It is through savings and data-collection that SDI’s urban poor federations leverage partnerships: saving contributions show self-reliance and community will; settlement-wide data powers a community’s negotiation capacity. On day three the visitors accompanied the Durban Alliance to a meeting with the local municipality, province and a representative from national government, discussing the progress of housing and upgrading projects.

The South Americans perceived

  • A strong relationship with government officials
  • A measure of trust and flexibility in receiving visitors at the meeting
  • Political willingness to listen and debate

Insights from the South African participants

  • The perceived trust and partnership with Municipal Government was “built by doing”, demonstrating results and inviting the municipality to be part of the social process
  • Despite the working group and formally conducted meetings, the municipality often does not give prompt answers to the most urgent needs of communities

The visit to Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) added rich insight to the experience of informal workers and an added dimension to partnership building with local authorities. The group was introduced to AeT’s work in developing inclusive spaces that support sustainable livelihoods for informal workers. The shared realities of informal settlement dwellers and informal workers became particularly evident on a walk-about through the bustling Warwick market in Durban’s inner-city. For AeT and the SA SDI Alliance the encounter highlighted similarities and differences in approach but most of all established a platform for increased collaboration in the future.

Government Partnership Meeting

View on to a section of Warwick market


Walkabout in Warwick Junction

Reflecting, Learning and Joint Advocacy

With a rich collection of experiences and impressions, the group gathered on the last morning to reflect and share on the ….

  • Non-monetary value of savings. Savings are about collecting money and people (building social capital, trust, self-reliance)
  • Power of information: data collection is crucial for building self-reliance, identifying common goals and establishing negotiating power
  • Key role of women as cultivating transparency and accountability
  • Cultural factors present in South Africa: welcoming, joyful people, ability to join efforts and to coordinate
  • Youth work: value of young people generating and managing their own savings to use in initiatives of their choice (e.g. creative arts)
  • Global similarities in poor people’s struggles
  • Recycling as Income Generation: value in using opportunities around you (e.g. waste = recycling opportunity = income generation)
  • Increased awareness of interface between shack dwellers and informal workers

… and on strategies for the road ahead:

  • Mobilisation Strategies: Gain understanding of waste picker movements in South America
  • Building Partnerships: Plan further exchanges with local (i.e. national) counterparts of global movements
  • Prepare for Joint Lobbying at Global Events such as Habitat III.

As the global development community gears up for Habitat III, global movements of the urban poor are establishing a firm coalition. This learning exchange forms an integral part of that process, “allowing networks organised around livelihood and habitat to come together, share their experiences and strengthen their capacity to organise and advocate in favour of the urban poor” (Cities Alliance, Exchange convener). When speaking with a united voice, advocacy has the potential to influence policy discussions on increased collaboration between communities and governments.

“By referring to our connection with one another, WIEGO, SDI & Avina can make a strong case for a pro-poor agenda. Only if we come together as poor people we can show our governments that we are influencing their policies to meet the needs of the people. “ (Rose Molokoane, FEDUP Coordinator & SDI vice president)

Work and Shelter – Two Struggles, One Reality

Bellagio Meeting

The struggles of grassroots organizations for livelihoods and shelter have much in common. Organizations explored this common ground at a recent meeting, says Diana Mitlin.

Close to a billion people – one in seven of the world’s population – live in informal settlements in the towns and cities of the global South, where they lack both secure livelihoods with adequate incomes, and secure housing with adequate basic services.

Yet urban development programmes tend to serve these people poorly, in part because they focus either on work and incomes or on shelter, tenure and basic services. These divisions reflect neither the realities of people’s lives nor the inter-connected nature of the challenges they face. Poor housing affects people’s livelihoods, as when shacks burn down and people lose scarce possessions or when people fall ill because of inadequate sanitation provision and are unable to work.

Such realities are encouraging grassroots movements and their support agencies to share ideas about how to address these people’s needs with strategies that target BOTH shelter and livelihoods.

On 22 November representatives from the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, Red LACRE (the Latin American Network of Recyclers), the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) and StreetNet International (an alliance of street vendors) met in Bellagio, Italy to share their approaches. The meeting was hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation, with participation from Asiye eTafuleni (Durban), IIED and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) to support the discussions.

Participants shared a host of ideas:

  • Ruby Papeleras from the Philippine Homeless People’s Federation described their savings practices and city-wide mapping to document who was most at risk and to inform interventions to address this.
  • Clarisse Gnahoui from USYNVEPID Street Vendors’ Union in Benin (and an active market trader) explained the ways in which they had documented the taxes that they have to pay in order to demonstrate their contribution to the city.
  • Martha Escobar from the recyclers movement in Colombia (and a member of the Cooperativa de Trabajo Asociado Planeta Verde) spoke about the solitude of those engaged in the recycling industry and the importance of solidarity in challenging the local authorities’ exclusionary practices to keep them from accessing their livelihoods.
  • Jockin Arputham (National Slum Dwellers Federation of India) spoke about the ways in which Shack / Slum Dwellers International (SDI) used neighbourhood data to bring all the residents together when they faced threats of eviction or relocations in India.
  • Yamini Parikh (from SEWA) explained how cooperatives in Ahmedabad offered a way of all workers coming together to ensure that they had more regular work.

All agreed that they had something to learn – and knowledge to share. Here are some key themes, which were consistently repeated as central to improved livelihoods and shelter.

  • Women must lead the way: Women have to lead the process for it to be relevant to the most disadvantaged and to increase the likelihood of collective gains (rather than the self-interest of leaders).
  • Visibility is key: When the urban poor are invisible (whether at home or at work), they will not be aware of the many others facing comparable struggles, nor will politicians or civil servants pay them any attention. Accurate data on the contributions of low-income citizens to the city economy and to improving housing helps build a more visible profile. 
  • Stereotypes must be challenged: A real understanding of the contributions low-income residents make to their cities and which benefit other citizens should be reinforced and defended; inaccurate, negative stereotypes must not be allowed to prevail.  
  • Savings schemes are critical: Savings schemes protect people from fluctuations in prices and incomes and enable their organizations to be less dependent on the fashions of donor agencies.

[sub] Exclusionary realities

Many of the problems low-income people in urban centres face are the same from city to city. They stem from the same narrow vision about what successful cities should look like, the influence internationally mobile capital has on how city centres and high-income neighbourhoods are formed, and (for many nations) increasing income inequalities and high levels of poverty.

These factors help to exclude the urban poor from basic services and secure livelihoods on a scale that is staggering.

One billion people – close to one in seven of the global population – live in informal urban neighbourhoods that lack at least one basic service and/or have unsafe housing. Even the most basic of services, piped water, is frequently not available – or only at a price.  Hundreds of millions of urban dwellers have no toilet in their home.

Perhaps as many as a billion people work in the informal economy. Typically incomes are low and insecure, and working conditions are very poor. Over 60 percent of all urban employment in Africa is estimated to be informal, and in India the figure exceeds 80 percent.

Multiple voices, multiple struggles

Trade unions and associations of informal workers bring together all those working in one industry or trade, identify the laws or practices that need to be changed to protect trading spaces (for example for market vendors) or to access the materials they need (in the case of recyclers). They provide solidarity for those harassed while working alone on the streets or waste dumps, and who face exploitative contractual arrangements. The most successful improve incomes and assets, and may secure safer working conditions – BUT they do little to reduce the costs of rent, water and other essentials, or ensure people have a chance to live close to working opportunities.

Urban social movements work to improve access to water, land and/or housing. Women are often active members as they bear most of the costs of inadequate services. Actions focus on securing homes with basic services and reducing women’s burdens alongside improving living conditions. Local solidarity groups are formed as residents work with their neighbours. Groups frequently undertake their own improvements and lobby their local governments for support.

Stronger together

The representatives from grassroots organisations and networks at the meeting agreed that greater collaboration offered much to their on-going work. They were also excited by the potential broadening of their alliances to strengthen their work and amplify their voices in urban development debates. They also recognised that such collaboration should not be at the expense of weakening their base organisations and day-to-day activities.

They agreed to explore, through international exchanges, the potential value of each other’s practices. Proposals included:

–        recyclers that are part of the Red LACRE organisation from Latin America visiting recyclers in Africa and

–        women-led street trader associations in West Africa visiting women-led savings schemes seeking to improve shelter, also in West Africa.

They also agreed that they could make a useful contribution to each other’s events at global meetings such as the World Urban Forum to ensure that events seeking to address urban poverty give the urban poor and their representative organizations a voice, and put them at the centre of activities.

Already these networks assert the right to speak and struggle to advance their opportunities and define new choices. They also claim the right to be involved in the policies and programmes supposedly there to support them. Learning from each other, and finding solidarity together, they are better positioned to address the scale of poverty and inequality in towns and cities across the global South. Together, they are stronger.