Is urban development too complicated for us?

Aid agency staff find it difficult to work in informal settlements. There is little or no data about their residents. For many, there are no maps or street names. There are often complex political struggles that frustrate development projects. But this can be addressed by working with grassroots organisations and federations – as they have the knowledge and it is their needs that aid is meant to be addressing.

Blog by
17 May 2018

David Satterthwaite is senior fellow in IIED's Human Settlements research group

There is often very little data available about people living in informal settlements such as these along the riverfront in Ahmedabad in India (Photo: Emmanuel Dyan, Creative Commons via Flickr)

There are huge differences between cities and within cities in (social, economic, environmental, demographic and political) context and in what development initiatives are possible (technically, politically, financially). These complexities are seen in informal settlements that now house around a billion urban dwellers.

Within each settlement, there are differences in what residents prefer (or prioritise) and can afford. There are the differences in what can be provided or supported by government or utilities, and in what governments permit.

No numbers, no names

Consider the difficulties facing any international agency wanting to improve conditions in informal settlements. There is usually no data on who lives there and on the deficiencies in provision for water, sanitation, health care, schools, emergency services and much else besides.

Most residents have no title to the land they occupy and their right to be there is often contested. Official household surveys do not provide data on informal settlements; they only collect data for a national sample. Census data, if collected in informal settlements, is not available at ward, sub-ward or street level so does not fill the information gap. 

There are usually no maps and often no street names. Professionals may worry about their safety – or in large informal settlements about getting lost (which I know from personal experience is easy to do).

Aid agencies need local knowledge but, as outsiders, find it difficult to know which actors to engage with. Who are allies, who are opponents? And how to understand differences in needs and priorities – for landlords and tenants, women and men, boys and girls, different ethnic groups…

One response by external agencies is to put a lot of effort into trying to understand local contexts before trying to develop solutions for a particular informal settlement (with all the complexities noted above). But why not support the residents to provide the needed data and help develop the solutions that works best for them? Especially if there are already community organisations in the settlement that have the trust of the population.

Women-led savings groups: plugging the data gap from the inside out

Shifting the focus from what external agencies need and prioritise to the priorities of residents makes what seems so complicated much simpler. Federations of women’s savings groups have demonstrated how community-led mapping, profiles and enumerations can fill the data gap; there are community-driven surveys for thousands of informal settlements.

But what is perhaps even more impressive is all the initiatives that women-led savings groups undertake in their informal settlements to address their priorities. Most of these fall below the radar of external groups – but they can dramatically improve access to toilets and washing facilities and set up community policing (with support from the police).

Well connected

We undervalue the capacity of these groups to innovate and, with their deep understanding of local context, to mobilise action. I remember the education I got from a group of women in Pune, India who lived in informal settlements and were savings group managers. We were waiting to see the municipal commissioner.

In the waiting room, there were photos of the last seven commissioners. I asked: how well did each of these commissioners serve and support you? What I got was an amazingly coherent, detailed account of how they negotiated with each commissioner to get what their settlements needed and used skilful diplomacy to draw them into working with the savings groups. No outsider could get anywhere close to the depth of these assessments. 

Asking – but not listening

A large international NGO invited me to present on the work of these federations of savings groups at their meeting. There were representatives of many country offices and my presentation generated some interest and many questions. Many participants thanked me, commenting that points I had raised were valuable to their discussions. 

But in the wrap-up section detailing what was to guide their work for the next five years, there was no mention of supporting grassroots organisations. So I asked the meeting: how many of you are going to return to your country office and make contact with savings group federations? On a quick count, of the office representatives present, at least 15 worked in countries with established savings groups. No one responded. The explanation: sorry but this is not in our strategy.

Another large international NGO asked my advice for developing an urban programme. Again I recommended making contact with these savings group federations or with Shack/Slum Dwellers International – the international umbrella organisation they have set up.  But their response was: no – we want to focus on energy access. So they asked the question but were deaf to the answer. Too often it is ‘we’ the funder not ‘we’ the people that choose the focus.

When are funding agencies going to develop relationships of trust, of accountability, of transparency with these savings-group federations? And remember the importance of organised urban poor groups for driving more effective new social and environmental policies?

These groups have so much to contribute to answers. It is their unmet needs that aid agencies are meant to be addressing. When are aid agencies going to start listening to them? 

This blog draws on the editorial in the April 2018 issue of the international journal, Environment and Urbanization on Finance for community-led local, city and national development.

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