Informal settlement data and local community responses to COVID-19 and climate risks

This case study examines the deliberative and participatory processes used by Slum Dwellers International (SDI), focusing on two affiliated federations in Kenya and Malawi. It describes the ways in which participatory mechanisms have allowed SDI federations to self-organise and engage with policymakers at local, national and global level to respond to challenges, including COVID-19. It also reflects on the use of digital tools to strengthen community mobilisation, community data generation and learning processes.

Article, 08 December 2020
A man writing notes while a woman watches.

Data collection in Lilongwe at Kawale settlement, Malawi (Photo: Wonderful Hunga, CCODE)

The 'Engaging citizens for socially just climate action' project examines deliberative and participatory processes used by civil society networks in order to understand how to strengthen citizen engagement mechanisms and locally-led climate action and improve inclusive national-level climate decision making. In parallel, the project examines how technology can support citizen engagement by encouraging social inclusion and learning in decision making and resilience building.


SDI is a network of heterogenous grassroots urban poor that has emerged through different development processes since 1996. There are affiliates in 32 countries across the global South, although predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The organisational structure consists of a secretariat, a management committee that acts as the board, and a council of federations made up of elected grassroots leaders. These federations share their origin in resistance to forced eviction and land grabs, and promotion of people-led slum upgrading approaches.

Climate change aggravates the challenges facing informal settlements, home to an estimated of 880 million people (UN Habitat, 2016), struggling with issues of insecure tenure, poor access to basic services and insecure livelihoods. 

The Muungano Alliance is composed of the Kenyan slum/shack dweller federation Muungano wa Wanavijiji (‘United slum dwellers’ in Kishwahili), the support NGO SDI Kenya and the Kenyan urban poor fund, Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT).

Muungano wa Wanvijiiji emerged 20 years ago as a response to forced evictions in Nairobi by the Kenya government. Through community self-organisation processes it has strengthened the individual and collective agency and capabilities of its members, while also forging collaborative alliances with the government and other stakeholders to advance its practical and strategic interests, principally via the formal recognition of slums as human settlements and participation in housing for slum upgrading processes. 

The Federation of the Rural and Urban Poor of Malawi (FRUP) is a grassroots network of saving clusters set up in 2003. The federation works in alliance with the Center for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE) to empower poor communities to address tenure security, lack of services and build economic self-reliance of members.

A group of people looking at a damaged bridge.

Post-disaster assessment in Lilongwe at Kawale settlement, Malawi (Photo: Wonderful Hunga, CCODE)

Deliberation and participation

Deliberative processes used by SDI are organised in nested tiers, where the information and decisions flow from the lowest level up through the entire system. This structure allows members to identify and tackle diverse challenges at the appropriate level (the subsidiarity principle). There are five key deliberation and engagement spaces: 

1. The settlement level: the most important units of organisation and deliberation are community and savings groups. These groups discuss immediate needs, basic services, livelihoods, food security, health and make mitigating decisions around risks. 

The Muungano Alliance combines two models of community participation: the community savings model (which covers 10-20% of residents of informal settlements with a 54:46 women/men ratio) and the Tujuane Tujengane model, which engages all residents via geographically-divided units in a bottom-up approach, starting with Nyumba Kumi (cells of 10 households), including larger units called 'Barazas' (sub-clusters of ten cells: 100 households) and 'segments' (clusters of 80 sub-clusters: 80,000 households). 

The Tujuane Tujengane model developed by the Muungano Alliance. Click on the image to enlarge it (Image: Muungano Alliance)

In Malawi, community savings and community groups have been the cornerstone of the FRUP since 2003. Banks were inaccessible to the poorest, given that they only accept substantial amounts of money. Savings groups provide a convenient and affordable community bank with almost zero transaction costs. 

Communities are divided into blocks, each with an elected leader who reports to the city council and to the community. In parallel, ward committees link the community to their city councillor.

2. The regional level: most SDI affiliates have regional forums where city federations meet on a monthly basis. 

3. National level: national level interactions focus on the funding facility that supports slum upgrading while providing oversight on the federation programs. There is also scope to discuss climate-related challenges that require resources.

4. Supra-national ‘hubs’: four hubs in Asia, Southern Africa, West Africa and East Africa provide a mechanism for collective accountability across the network. Regional SDI affiliates meet with the SDI management committee twice a year to share learning and prioritise decisions. 

5. International level: collective action at the international level ensures that the voices of slum dwellers are heard at global platforms. SDI has uses its presence on the international stage to link with other like-minded coalitions/networks and create space in fora that are often closed to this constituency.  

Using climate information and digital tools

Assessing digital tools needs to be put in context: Kenya is ranked 138 and Malawi 167 out of 176 countries in the 2017 Global ICT Index, which compares information and communication technology access and use worldwide.  

Communication among members 

Tools that can ensure constant two-way communication among members are a key element for SDI at all levels. The preferred communication tool for Muungano AMT is bulk SMS. WhatsApp is used for sending pictures or other visual media, but has the limitation of requiring internet access.

Generating community data 

Community data is a core tool for SDI to communicate the extent of urban poverty and informality and gain recognition by policymakers. SDI is standardising and digitally systematising their data collection via its Know Your City website. Some SDI affiliates in Nigeria, Malawi and Kenya have started to incorporate climate indicators into their enumeration processes and the profiling survey, for example the frequency of floods, fires and windstorms.  

In Malawi, CCODE trains local people to use GPS to mapping to identify areas of perceived high risks using the KoBo Toolbox and open-source mapping software. It uses digital cameras and smartphones to record the risks and document impacts. The photo narratives anchor community dialogues on resilience-building and can leverage conversations with external agencies and local authorities. 

COVID-19 response

SDI networks have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by stimulating collective action online. Access is limited by the cost of smartphones and the cost and availability of internet in informal settlements. WhatsApp and mass SMS have been pivotal to this approach at the local level, although community radio also continues to play a key role. Federation leaders with phones can share information with the rest of their community network.  

SDI's secretariat established an emergency relief fund (ERF) for SDI affiliates. Funds previously allocated to slum upgrading projects were repurposed for humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and disbursed via digital financial infrastructure as follows: SDI > bank transfer > NGO affiliate > bank transfer > urban poor fund > mobile money > settlement mitigation initiative/federation treasurer. The ERF used Google Docs to generate rapid needs assessment forms that enabled federations to respond promptly. 

Mungano Alliance is using an online platform to monitor COVID-19 impacts across 400 communities. This maps local responses and promotes solutions such as handwashing stations. In July, Muungano AMT sent 10,000 SMS messages to people living in settlements asking for cash transfers receipt confirmation, and to identify vulnerable people. They received 1,500 responses, including receipt confirmations and requests for assistance. Community savings groups also use SMS to get information about their loans. 

Before the pandemic, SDI’s model involved a lot of travel to facilitate peer-to-peer learning; this was expensive and created carbon emissions. COVID-19 has accelerated efforts to work online using WhatsApp, Facebook, SMS, Zoom, Skype and cloud storage.  

Engaging with policy

SDI federations engage with policymakers at different levels using different tools and strategies. 

To overcome power asymmetries, SDI groups use community data (enumeration, settlement profiling) to identify challenges and propose solutions through deliberative, community organisation processes. The Know Your City platform collates community-driven data on slums from 32 countries and 478 cities and includes quantitative and qualitative information as narrative stories. 

Central influencing strategies include establishing equitable multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral partnerships. Responding to challenges experienced by people living in informal settlements requires bringing together multiple actors, including non-state actors. SDI aims to establish equitable partnerships, particularly given the asymmetrical distribution of power and access to resources. 

The Mukuru Special Planning Area (SPA) in Narobi, Kenya offers an example of inclusive citizen engagement using the Tujuane Tujengane model. Following Muungano Alliance’s policy engagement work using community data, the county government in 2017 categorised Mukuru as a SPA, bringing a requirement for an integrated development plan.

Developing the plan has drawn on inputs from the settlement residents using the Tujuane Tujengane model and blends knowledge with multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral consortium members.

The lessons collected by the Muungano Alliance emphasise the importance of dedicating time and resources for community organisation to secure mass buy-in and ownership of the planning process; creating institutional and procedural mechanisms that integrate community participation into all stages and allow for interdisciplinary and multi-sectoral collaboration (Horn et al. 2020)


The definition of ‘participation’ adopted by SDI involves a systemic approach that starts from individual capacity and agency. This takes more time and more resources than the traditional participation approach that relies on community leaders and representatives.

Logos of the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR)

COVID-19 has accelerated SDI’s adoption of digital technologies. Uses include improving communications, sending money, collecting and generating data and documenting and sharing knowledge. 

There are issues related to building the capabilities to manage new technology. In addition, there are system-level challenges that need to be tackled simultaneously, such as the lack of price control in broadband and mobile broadband access, which pose an asymmetrical challenge for low-income people and countries. 

This case study was co-produced with Beth Chitekwe-Biti ([email protected]) and David Sheridan ([email protected]) of the SDI secretariat; Wonderful Hunga ([email protected]) of FRUP and CCODE; Patrick Njoroge ([email protected]) of Muungano Alliance; Anna Walnycki and Karen Wong-Pérez. The case study is based on interviews with members from SDI network: Sheela Patel, Kirsty Bryant, Joseph Kimani, Joe Mutui, Jack Makau, Jane Weru and Zilire Luka, Beth Chitekwe-Biti, Wonderful Hunga and Patrick Njoroge.

This case study is supported by the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.


Head and shoulders photo of Beth Chitekwe-Biti

Beth Chitekwe-Biti ([email protected]), managing director at Slum Dwellers International