People power: the urban poor are now a force to be reckoned with

Speakers at the "View from the streets" event in London showed how the urban poor can group together to bring about change.

Suzanne Fisher's picture
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17 October 2011

The Mahila Housing SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association of India) Trust offers savings, loans and micro credit schemes (Photo: Shack/Slum Dwellers International, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Communities often develop from a sense of place and a shared sense of belonging to that place. So, how do you bring a community together in a slum where people aren’t allowed to ‘belong’ because they don’t have anywhere to live, or they’re living illegally in a shack and know they might be evicted tomorrow?

Jockin Arputham, the President of Shack/Slum Dwellers International did this in the most unlikely way: by singing with a group of children.

Arputham has been living with uncertainty all his life. Like many people who migrate to the slums, he moved to Mumbai to find food and work. He worked as a carpenter and was homeless for many years. One day, he got a group of children to sing some songs androof tops , after a few months, the idea had spread like wildfire. He had thousands of children showing up to his impromptu singing sessions, which later developed into informal schooling.

From there, the group began to tackle problems facing the community. The first problem was piles of garbage which led to high numbers of mosquitoes. One Saturday he encouraged the children to pick piles of the garbage up and walk en masse, to dump it at the municipal council office. He says: “This one incident changed my whole life.”[Environment and Urbanisation Vol 20 No 2 October 2008].

All of the speakers at the “View from the streets” All Party parliamentary group for International Development and the Environment event on 18 October 2011 have been helping people live with and build on the uncertainty created by having no tenure or rights to the property they are living in.

Bijal Bhatt, Director of the Mahila Housing SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association of India) Trust described how the government originally didn’t want to provide basic services to the slums of Ahmedabad because it would strengthen the slum dwellers’ claim to the land they were living on. So, SEWA and the slum dwellers came up with a legal loophole in order to ensure people got the basic services they needed by developing a “500 No objection certificate (NOC) scheme”. Once residents have the NOC, they can apply for legal individual sewage and water connections to their house, and the government knows that this arrangement doesn’t strengthen people’s legal rights to the land. SEWA is also trying to provide for the women’s ‘life-cycle’ of financial needs. While many other banks only provide credit, the SEWA bank provides savings, loans and micro credit.

A force for change

Empowering the poor – harnessing the power of the people – is critical to carrying out sustainable and real long-term development. But how do you organise thousands of individuals living in the slums  – especially given that many might be quite transient, moving around looking for work – into a group that is a force for change?

Arputham knew that even political emancipation wasn’t enough to bring about changes for slum dwellers. When he first visited South Africa he said: “People thought milk and honey would flow through the streets when they got independence but I said that it was unlikely to happen.” People disagreed with him at the time, but he had heard people saying similar things about Indian independence and knew better. But when South African slum dwellers realised they needed to pull together to do something about their living conditions, they began building one of the biggest federations in the world – The Federation of the Urban Poor has 40,000 savers in about 700 settlements throughout all of the country’s 9 provinces.

Shack Dwellers International (SDI) is a network of community-based organisations in 34 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, an international umbrella organisation linking urban poor communities from across the south that puts “the urban poor ...at the center of strategies for urban development.”  At a local level, groups of slum/shack dwellers work with SDI Federations to help them gather information about their community, set up financial structures to mobilise capital, and organise and negotiate with local authorities. The federations are also involved in infrastructural projects – brokering deals with local authorities to design, construct and maintain toilet blocks.

The federations are composed of savings groups set up in the settlements, and these groups, according to SDI, are the building blocks for all of their work because: “The trust built through savings is not only essential to the formation of a strong and active Federation, but also critical to take pro-poor development initiatives to scale.”

These organisations prove that the urban poor can organise themselves into a force to be reckoned with and Diana Mitlin from the International Institute for Environment and Development's Human Settlement's group encouraged the Department for International Development and bilateral donors who aspire to be pro-poor to work more with them. Mitlin said they were increasingly organised, willing to negotiate with their local authorities and hold their governments to account. And they fill an important niche because local governments often don’t work well – if at all – in informal settlements.

“What we are saying is let us all be winners – it will only help by working with the community,” Arputham said at the event.

I’d suggest it’s possible for poor and vulnerable people to group together and bring about change because they have two key criteria on their side: huge numbers and enterprise in the face of great adversity.

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