Upgrading informal settlements in the global South: transforming relations with government, transforming lives

Upgrading rather than bulldozing is becoming the mainstream government response to deal with informal settlements in many nations – done well, this can be transformative for residents and their communities but the opportunity is often missed.

David Satterthwaite's picture
David Satterthwaite is senior fellow in IIED's Human Settlements research group
05 October 2021
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
Informal housing by the river.

Riverside slum housing in Bangkok, Thailand (Photo: Nathan Rupert via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It is estimated that more than one billion urban dwellers live in informal settlements. These grew in response to rapid population growth and the lack of better quality, affordable alternatives. They are ‘informal’ because they do not conform to government regulations. The official response was generally to bulldoze or, if they were not too visible, ignore them.

But over the last 50 years, many local and some national governments have recognised their importance for housing most of the low-income population and workforce, along with many enterprises. So instead, they have turned to upgrading.

Among the earliest such initiatives was the kampung (urban village) improvement programme in Jakarta and presidential support for ‘young towns’ in Peru in the late 1960s.

Sadly there are still many examples of bulldozing informal settlements – but upgrading is moving from a few innovative initiatives to being a conventional government response.

This is the latest in a series of blogs and interviews, curated by IIED senior fellow David Satterthwaite, examining different aspects of global urban change. 

Planning to upgrade

Planning for upgrading is quite different from conventional planning. For a start the land is already occupied and much of the housing and site layout contravene official standards. The inhabitants usually want to stay in their homes during the upgrading, having no alternatives, which complicates construction.

Agreement has to be reached about ‘reblocking’ to create access and internal roads along with water mains, sewers and drains, and how to meet the needs of those residents whose plot, or part of whose plot, is needed for this.

Upgrading takes different forms

These can result in vastly different outcomes, categorised as follows and summarised in the table below.

  1. Upgrading that is actually eviction

    Residents are pushed out of their homes with no help to find temporary accommodation. They are not able to access the ‘upgraded’ dwellings or to afford charges such as for their water supply.

  2. Rudimentary upgrading

    Some basic, low-cost interventions such as community taps may be installed.

  3. More complete upgrading

    This includes piped water and toilets in every home, along with electricity, and paved access roads. There is little consultation with residents, but the improvements are usually welcomed, unless residents cannot afford the new charges.

  4. Comprehensive government-led upgrading

    Here, a legal land title to the plot and a full range of infrastructure and services are provided for both homes and enterprises. Residents are consulted. For tenants, there is the worry of increased rents.

  5. Comprehensive community-led upgrading

    This brings physical improvements comparable to those in (4) but with community organisations at the heart of planning and implementation.

    There are many examples undertaken by slum/shack dweller federations, affiliates of Slum Dwellers International (SDI). In Thailand such initiatives have been supported by the national government’s Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI).

  6. Comprehensive community-led upgrading with resilience lens

    As in (5) but with greater attention to anticipating, assessing and preparing for climate change-related risks such as extreme weather events happening with increased frequency and intensity. Informal settlements are often located on land at high risk of flooding and landslides.

  7. Transformative upgrading

    As in (6) but with consideration given to low carbon footprint outcomes.

Different forms of informal settlement upgrading

Form of upgrading What it involves
 Upgrading that is actually eviction  Pushing residents out of their homes and settlement and rebuilding but with residents not able to access ‘upgraded’ dwellings
 Rudimentary upgrading  Some very basic interventions such as community taps and public toilets
 More complete upgrading  Piped water and toilets in each home, electricity, some reblocking, paved access roads, sometimes sewers and drains. Little consultation with residents
 Comprehensive government-led upgrading  Legal land title, full range of infrastructure and services (including neighbourhood level such as drainage, street lighting and solid waste collection), support for housebuilding and improvement and for enterprises. Consultation with residents
 Comprehensive community-led upgrading  As above but with community control as exemplified in upgrading programmes supported by CODI and SDI affiliates
 Comprehensive community-led upgrading with resilience lens  As above but with greater attention to assessing and anticipating future risk levels
 Transformative upgrading  As above with attention to low carbon footprint

The text for this table has been developed over time; see an earlier version. It is much influenced by Sherry Arnstein’s seminal work on participation, 'A ladder of citizen participation' 216-224.

It all depends on how government engages with residents

The nature of government engagement with those to be upgraded shapes what is done or not done. For the first four forms of upgrading, it is usually local government that plans and manages the process. For the first three, maintenance may be a problem if no provision is made.

For comprehensive upgrading (4) there is strong government commitment. Settlements gradually become ‘formal’ as city authorities provide services such as policing, street lighting and solid waste collection so they become part of the ‘formal’ city and subject to its planning.

Comprehensive community-led upgrading (5) includes government support for community organisations, from data collection and planning through to implementation.

There are examples of strong local government support for community-led upgrading with a resilience lens (6) with effective community/local government partnerships aiding greater resilience. There is a very large overlap between good quality upgrading and greater resilience to extreme weather events. Transformative upgrading (7) also benefits from these relationships with support from national government.

Involving the residents

The first step in upgrading is to get the data and maps needed for planning. The 32 slum/shack dweller federations that are SDI affiliates have developed a capacity to undertake very detailed enumerations of informal settlements covering each household. These provide the information base for planning upgrading initiatives and negotiating with local governments.

Enumerating settlements is not easy – especially if houses have no addresses, and there are no maps or street names. Residents can be hostile to interviewers, fearing the information will be used to serve ‘real estate’ interests. These fears are far more easily overcome if the interviewers are fellow residents, and if they are kept informed so they feel part of the process.

SDI community-driven enumerations engage all residents so everyone knows what is being done. They are carried out by residents, guided by community leaders. The foundations of these community organisations and federations are the community savings groups, mostly comprising women.

The enumerations are very detailed, for example the data collected about water quality typically asks about the

  • Household's main water sources (nine possibilities)
  • Number of individual, community and shared taps; functionality and water quality
  • Expenditure on water
  • Time needed to collect water, and
  • Water availability.

Other relevant aspects are covered with the same level of detail. And unlike conventional surveys, there is space for respondents to express their priorities. The enumerations teams report back the findings to residents which then generates more discussion about their needs and priorities. They provide data that local governments need.

Examples of community-led upgrading

In Gobabis, Namibia, a programme for Freedom Square, an informal settlement with 4,173 inhabitants on a 60-hectare site, was led by the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia, working with the Namibian Housing Action Group and municipal authorities. The upgrading costs were one-fifth that of conventional approaches so were affordable for many more households.

In Thailand, CODI funds and supports community organisations formed by residents to plan and manage upgrading their settlement. More than 100,000 households have benefited from this programme.

A programme in Mukuru, one of Nairobi’s largest informal settlements, led by the Kenyan Homeless People’s Federation (Muungano wa Wanavijiji) is unusual in its scale (around 100,000 households), and its engagement with all stakeholders seeking to generate consensus.

To sum up…

Upgrading if done well transforms housing, living conditions and lives.

But successful upgrading usually includes (and depends on) much better relations between the residents of informal settlements and local government. Successful upgrading usually includes partnerships with local government as in the examples given above.

Upgrading needs to include all local government departments to avoid conflicts of interest, such as an infrastructure division intent on clearing informal settlements for road expansion as the planning department is developing upgrading programmes.

These changed relationships can provide the foundation from which other needs can be addressed.