Between 1988 and 1991, the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), a network of grassroots organizations and NGOs, began linking groups with each other through exchange visits between cities and countries in the Asian region. ACHR’s activities focused on urban poverty reduction, and one of the key strategies employed included the formation of low-income, women-centered savings and credit groups.
By this time, Jockin Arputham, a community-organizer living in the slums of Mumbai, had been active for nearly thirty years. It was during his work mobilizing to avoid evictions in Janata Colony, Mumbai, that Jockin first made use of community-led surveys, or enumerations, to prove that the settlement was classified as permanent and therefore should not be evicted (2008:326). In 1976 a State of Emergency was declared in India, and Jockin was given orders by the police to leave India. Through connections with the World Council of Churches, Jockin spent time in the the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia, where he made connections with various other community-based organizations working on similar issues in urban informal settlements. Upon his return to India a year and a half later, Jockin began travelling across the country, sharing his experience in fighting evictions in Janata Colony with others (2008:334 – 336).
Meanwhile, in 1984, a small NGO formed, working with the pavement dwellers of Mumbai. The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), started by providing these women with a space to meet and discuss their problems, and by working with women to organize into collectives of savings and credit groups, which came to be called Mahila Milan (Women Together.). Mahila Milan began developing strategies to bring them out of isolation and improve their quality of life, including: community-led enumeration, strategies to fight eviction and police harassment, access to basic services and amenities (including water and sanitation), and strategies for secure housing. It was not long before Jockin became aware of the work of SPARC and Mahila Milan, and between the years of 1986 – 88 an alliance was formed with the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), the loose coalition of federations Jockin had built through his work in Mumbai and travels across India. The Alliance developed an “educational and organizational strategy for community-learning” including the implementation of pilot upgrading projects and the expansion of learning through settlement-to-settlement exchanges. It was this Alliance that made links with ACHR in the late 1980s, and that later traveled to South Africa, where they made the first links that would lead to the formation of SDI.
The foundations of SDI were laid during this time, and were strengthened by community exchanges between India and South Africa that began in 1991 and by subsequent inter Africa exchanges undertaken since 1991 by the South African Homeless People’s Federation (now called FEDUP).
A critical feature of the emerging network of community-based organizations and NGOs spanning the Asian region in the late-1980s was the determination that local capacity be build within the leadership of the urban poor, rather than the leadership of the NGOS. As stated by Patel, Burra and d’Cruz in their 2001 paper, “The mass character of people’s organizations would help make the social movements accountable to the poor… The organizational choice of a community based organization and NGO configuration reflected the belief that the voices of the urban poor should be heard directly rather than through intermediary institutions such as NGOs. Who was better qualified and equipped to speak for the poor than the poor themselves?” (2001:48). This belief is at the core of SDI’s practices and methodologies, and has been carried into every aspect of the organization’s makeup to date.
In 1996, federations of the urban poor and their support NGOs gathered in South Africa. These federations had been working in urban informal settlements – defending communities against evictions and working to gain access to basic amenities – for what ranged from few years to over a decade. In some cases, federations had begun to take on a more proactive role, entering into negotiations with local and national governments to address these critical issues. During this meeting in 1996 it was agreed that an international network would be created, Slum / Shack Dwellers International (SDI), with representation from urban poor federations from countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.