Homing in, bottom up

Posted: 22 September 2004

Author: David Satterthwaite

David Satterthwaite reports on how slumdwellers and the homeless are helping themselves to a better quality of life.

A new global movement is beginning to transform the lives of some of the world's poorest urban dwellers. The change is being witnessed by 250 homeless Zimbabweans in Harare on a piece of land they are acquiring from the city authorities.

Up to a third of the world's population lives in slums, and improving the quality of life of the poorest is one of the great environmental challenges of the times. But a new international movement, the Federation of Slum and Shackdwellers, is now challenging governments and aid agencies to address the problems.

Mathare Valley Slum, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Justo Casal
Mathare Valley Slum, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Justo Casal
Mathare Valley Slum, Nairobi, Kenya. There are almost one million residents living in this slum area, the majority of whom have no access to water or sanitation facilities.© Justo Casal
The movement is being formed by the inhabitants of slums and squatter settlements. They not only drive change locally but support it in other nations. Hundreds of housing initiatives are under way. Some are large scale and include national programmes.

In India, two federations work together - the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan. Both are savings schemes formed by homeless women. They have more than 750,000 members and work in 70 cities. They have designed and constructed community toilet blocks that serve hundreds of thousands of people and are implementing hundreds of slum upgrades and new housing schemes.

In South Africa, the Homeless People's Federation has over 100,000 members. It has helped 12,000 families get housing, and many more to improve their homes, get water and sanitation and acquire land tenure rights. It is in a housing improvement partnership with the city of Durban.

In Thailand, a national programme is under way to provide good quality housing for 300,000 slum and homeless households. It is being organised by community groups and urban poor federations. Similar programmes are under way in Namibia, Kenya, Philippines and Cambodia while federations are growing in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Indonesia and Malawi.

Grassroots management

These federations are remarkable for several reasons. They are organised and managed by poor or homeless people. They are funded by community-managed savings schemes that provide members with credit to fund such things as medical treatment or school books. They also teach the savers how to manage money.

The federations design and manage their projects. Each one encourages savings groups to try out solutions to specific problems, such as provision of community toilets. In doing this, they are encouraged to improve on the usual public toilet design, for example by including a room for community meetings, separate queues for men and women and separate toilets for children (in conventional designs, men push women and children out of queues). When the new toilet is finished, other savings groups visit it, ask questions about how it was financed and managed and consider whether they could design and build one.

The catalyst for growth comes from those who learn from these exchanges. Most are women who began as managers of savings schemes. Many are illiterate, yet have managed complex projects. Community visits by federation members are frequent. International exchanges take place too, as established federations help savings groups form in other nations. Professional staff from NGOs support the federations, especially in developing links with international funders.

Seeking partnerships

These grassroots organisations seek partnerships with government, but on their terms. Demands often used to get negative responses. But when federation members can take government officials to see evidence of their efforts, negotiations are more productive, especially if the project contravenes official regulations.

In most cities in Africa and Asia, there is little official information about the settlements where the poor live, yet programmes to improve conditions need detailed maps and data. These are expensive and difficult to produce professionally. Many federations have undertaken city-wide surveys of all tenements and squatter settlements, which they present to government with their plans. They prepare detailed maps and statistics upon which upgrading plans can be based. These are essential for government action, but are owned by the inhabitants, giving them more influence in negotiations.

For instance, the Kenyan urban poor federation has been undertaking surveys in Nairobi, where half the population live in squatter settlements. Work to improve conditions has been inhibited by conflicts between landlords and tenants. Yet in Huruma, north of the city, a community-managed survey helped landlords and tenants agree an upgrading programme that accommodated everyone.

Although the federations seek partnerships with governments, some politicians feel threatened by their independence. Professionals in local and international NGOs can be reluctant to hand power to the poor. And even where their importance is recognised, the support needed cannot always be provided. Official aid agencies find it difficult to offer support as the federations do not fit their funding frameworks - but the UK Department for International Development and Swedish and Danish aid programmes have developed ways to support them. While international NGOs such as Misereor, Homeless International, Cordaid, the Lotteries Board and the Sigrid Rausing Trust are involved also.

It is clear that, if permitted, these federations have the potential to multiply everywhere and change lives.

David Satterthwaite works at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. He was recently awarded the Volvo Environment Prize for his work on the rapid urbanisation of cities in developing countries.

logo Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004 . This article was first published by The Guardian, (Wednesday, 22nd September 2004). All rights reserved. Reproduced with kind permission.

Related link:

Slum Dwellers International