6th World Urban Forum: will the agenda of slum and shack dwellers ever get considered?

David Satterthwaite asks why representatives from the federations and networks of slum or shack dwellers were absent from almost all the official events and wonders when their priorities will get the attention they deserve.

07 September 2012
Cebu, Phillipines

Informal settlement, Cebu, Phillipines. (Photo: Copyright, David Dodman)

After decades of discussion on participation and listening to the ‘voices’ of urban poor groups, large forums and conferences on urban issues can still be organized without the involvement of the urban poor themselves – even as these events are justified by their apparent importance for addressing the needs of the urban poor.

The 6th World Urban Forum was held in Naples this week; its theme was The Urban Future. Organized by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), it included an official programme of events and space for over 150 ‘networking’ and other events organized mostly by academic institutions,  NGOs, national government agencies, professional associations and international funding agencies and foundations.

Focus on local governments

One innovation that UN Habitat has pioneered is a strong focus on the importance of local governments in development and environmental management and this has included the involvement of mayors. This is never easy in that all UN agencies are accountable to national governments who may not support the policies and practices of some local governments. But many of the speakers at the official events were city mayors, along with representatives from national governments and international funding agencies, academics and a few NGOs. This gave a much needed focus on the role of local governments in the urban future.  But there were hardly any representatives from the billion people who live in informal settlements – or slums or shacks. It’s as if they were thought to have no role in defining the urban future.

Some side events included slum/shack dwellers

One possible excuse for this could be that they weren't present (although this would raise the issue as to why they were not invited and supported to come). But there were many representatives and leaders of national federations or networks of slum/shack dwellers at the side events. And, perhaps surprisingly, these side events often included presentations, not only by federation leaders, but also by local government or national government staff that work with them.

For example, in a session on potential alternatives to evictions organized by Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI), the Mayor of Iloilo in the Philippines (Jed Patrick Mabilog) talked about the importance of his government’s partnership with the Philippines Homeless People’s Federation, which was then confirmed by Sonia Fadrigo, a representative from the Federation itself. 

The Mayor of Harare (Muchadei Masunda) spoke of his commitment to stopping evictions and the value of the partnership between the city government and the Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation and the NGO supporting its work, Dialogue on Shelter. This was confirmed by Davious Muvindhi from the Zimbabwe Federation.

Ernest Sonnenberg from the government of Cape Town talked about how they are supporting community-based slum upgrading, and this was endorsed by Siku Nkhoma from SDI and Alina Mofokeng from the South African Homeless People’s Federation.

The importance of working partnerships between grassroots organizations and local governments was also evident in a session on community-driven enumeration and mapping based on the latest issue of IIED’s journal, Environment and Urbanization. This included presentations by Sara Nandudu from the Uganda Homeless People’s Federation, Shaikh Parveennisa Razi Ahmed from Mahila Milan (the India-wide federation of women slum dweller savings groups) and Edith Mabanga, from the Namibia Homeless People’s Federation on their collaboration with local government in mapping and enumerating informal settlements. This provides the data and maps needed for installing infrastructure and services and regularizing tenure. Dozens of cities have completed community-driven enumerations and mapping for all informal settlements and these are guiding government-supported improvements including provision for piped water and toilets  (referred to as ‘upgrading’ in the sector).

A session organized by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) revealed the scale of the city-wide upgrading initiatives taking place all over Asia, driven by community organization and action. The session included short presentations by many community leaders and local government politicians and civil servants about their partnerships. 

All three of these sessions were packed with people standing at the back and crowding the doorways. The insights and commentaries of two SDI leaders, Rose Molokoane and Jockin Arputham were heard at these and other sessions. The federation members had also organized a celebratory march around the exhibition hall singing songs – almost as a way of making their voice heard and reminding everyone of their relevance, despite the small space allocated to them.

Anyone who listened to the presentations of these and other federation members and leaders during the World Urban Forum were reminded of how clear they are about their needs and priorities, the challenges they face in getting these addressed, and how often these differ from our assumptions about their needs.

The Mayor of Iloilo ensures that there are representatives of the Homeless People’s Federation of the Philippines on key committees within his government, including those allocating funds and those determining infrastructure priorities. Why weren’t representatives of urban poor organizations, federations and networks on the committees organising this and previous World Urban Forums? 

Why are the powerful global institutions so reluctant to engage the urban poor directly?  When the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were formulated, they weren’t consulted; if the UN had done so, the MDGs would have had a much more ambitious and relevant target for improving slum conditions.  

The preparations for the post MDG 2015 global development framework should involve the representative organizations of slum/shack dwellers – and other relevant groups, such as waste picker networks. If not, it risks assuming that their priorities get represented by professional groups or NGOs.  This has to change.  As Adnan Aliani from UN ESCAP commented at the World Urban Forum, in so many countries it is no longer an issue of people needing to participate in government programmes, it is an issue of governments learning to participate in and support people’s programmes.

Find more details of the work of the federations.

To receive a summary of the special issue of Environment and Urbanization on Mapping, enumerating and surveying informal settlements and cities email E&U and specify whether you want the electronic copy or printed copy (for which we will need a postal address).