Making participatory processes work in urban upgrading: innovations and challenges from Asia

Asian countries have been experimenting with participatory development processes for decades. In 1980, in Karachi, Pakistan, the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), a community-owned and driven sanitation initiative, proved that solutions to infrastructure upgrading could be found within informal settlements themselves. The OPP turned the tables on traditional top-down redevelopment. Today, participatory urban upgrading has been explored all over the region — and the world, for that matter — from basic service delivery to affordable housing, yet many barriers and challenges remain. Over the next two weeks, our expert panelists will provide context for discussing and advancing participatory processes regionally — and, like Mike Slingsby, an Urban Development and Poverty Advisor for UN-Habitat in Myanmar, consider how players can take a step back from being "doers" in communities and ask instead: "How can I do less and make more happen?" Join Gayatri Singh, Mike Slingsby, Diane Archer, Neda Pencheva, Rakhi Mehra, and John Arnold for a lively discussion and debate; we welcome your experiences and insights in the comment section below.

Click on the pictures to see each panelist's perspective below.

Gayatri Singh Mike Slingsby Diane Archer Neda Pencheva Rakhi Mehra John Arnold


Dr. Gayatri Singh

Dr. Gayatri Singh — Urban specialist, social demographer and consultant with the World Bank's East Asia and the Pacific Infrastructure Unit


Developmental challenges and poverty in Asia will continue to become increasingly urban in the 21st century. Physical manifestation of disadvantage within the urban built environment is often clearest in terms of inequality in the distribution of capability-enhancing public services and infrastructure. While strong municipal governance and a sound financial capacity are key for ensuring service delivery to the urban poor, these are not sufficient conditions. Efficient and equitable service delivery requires three further elements, where community participation can play a central role.

First, information on intra-urban disparities in service delivery required for planning purposes is often not available at city-scale in developing countries. Data gaps are especially severe for assessing the quality and condition of infrastructure and services within poor areas, especially informal settlements. Approaches like Participatory GIS can generate detailed infrastructure GIS for a settlement with the cooperation of its residents, a task that would otherwise be difficult. This approach also empowers communities by enabling them to participate more effectively in urban governance.

Second, municipal governments often have limited financial resources and must prioritize investments from a menu of needs and gaps in services. Interventions and projects that use a top-down approach and neglect consultations with communities to identify priorities are less likely to be successful. Community participation is also important to ensure that communities take ownership of government interventions. However, communities are not homogeneous in terms of interests and preferences. Efforts should be made to ensure that influential members within the community are not appropriating the participatory processes.

Finally, the successful implementation of projects or programs requires strong state-society ties. Here the presence of strong civil society organizations can serve as an effective mode of information dissemination, advocacy on behalf of the urban poor, facilitating negotiations, and most importantly, for weakening existing networks of political patronage.

Dr. Gayatri Singh is an urban development specialist and a demographer with 10 years of experience working and researching in urban contexts of Africa and Asia. She is currently a consultant with the World Bank's East Asia and Pacific Infrastructure Unit (EASIN). As a Rhodes Scholar from India (2000), she studied at Oxford University receiving degrees in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE, senior status Bachelors) and Forced Migration Studies (Masters of Science). She has recently completed her PhD at Brown University, studying the success of rural-urban migrants' transition to Indian cities. Her expertise spans areas of urban poverty and inequality, urbanization and urban policy, migration, displaced populations, public health, and application of mixed methods research in urban development using spatial, survey, and qualitative approaches. Gayatri has experience of working with a wide range of actors, including international organizations, local and state governments, non-profit organizations, and communities themselves in the urban contexts on issues of urban governance, service delivery, social assistance, and migrant settlement. She was a core contributor to the World Bank and IMF publication Global Monitoring Report 2013: Rural to Urban Dynamics and the Millennium Development Goals. (The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and positions of the World Bank Group.)



Carlin Carr's picture

I would like to start off the discussion by first of all welcoming everyone to's first Asia-focused discussion. We will be focusing on the potential of participatory processes in urban development, and as you can see, our six distinguished panelists have set out broadly the case for community involvement and we will explore these ideas in more detail over the course of the next two weeks. I would like to invite our panelists to share with us this week reflections from the field--what's worked in these type of initiatives in your region and what hasn't. We'll see what cross-border connections we can make in the region and what we can learn from each other.

Rakhi Mehra's picture

Involving communities as part of the wide stakeholders is a key ingredient for longer-term success of the initiative. The case that Maria highlights from Mexico, where community groups are mobilized and empowered along with the individual rebuilding efforts will be key for issues of further neighborhood development, maintenance issues of the project and most importantly building trust amongst each other and with the external parties.

In our experiences at mHS City Lab, the nature and extent of involvement/participation must also be well conceptualized and defined. At the very least, in projects that affect low-income communities for instance, mobilizing communities are important. In one slum rehabilitation program in East Delhi, Sunder Nagari it was important for us to access community groups where all voices would be heard- those of women, youth, single parent families, renters, owners etc. The Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) the government program on urban housing has almost prescribed (for the better or worse) minimum guidelines for community engagement.
On the other hand, regarding large-scale urban development projects that may directly or indirectly affect neighborhood communities, the engagement participation process is trickier. mHS was involved in bring social equity to a Transit oriented development project (TOD) where new metro stations were proposed with pedestrian friendly zones around 1.5 kms of the station and encouraging mixed-income and mixed use developments. Our community engagement process here was much broader- involving schools, hospitals, religious institutions, local resident welfare association, small traders, the metro users and transit populations in addition to residents of the low-income settlements surrounding the metro site. The interaction served both as an exchange of information, understanding the gaps in infrastructure and facilities that enabled us to come up with a concept plan for the location (e.g east delhi has 1/3rd of Delhi’s population but no higher education facilities. Although the Master Plan of Delhi encourages participation through Local Area Maps (LAP) facilitated by local government agencies for urban development projects, I’m afraid all the voices do not surface, as they should.

John Arnold's picture

Rakhi - May I ask you to elaborate further on your comment in your intro piece about finding "a more nuanced understanding on security of tenure" and invite others to share experiences in this area? Diane A, you mentioned it briefly when describing the issue under Baan Makong.

I am involved with a project in Bangladesh developing a government programme to facilitate poor urban households to improve their housing. In many ways the programme aims to emulate experiences in Thailand, with community groups and community savings at the heart of the process, and with affordable finance to be made available through a fund provided by the government. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and also has a very opaque land registry. As a result land is very expensive and very contested! It is likely to be one of the make or break issues of our project, and so far our approach has been fairly traditional in that we are assuming land titles have to be secured before finance can be given.

I am interested to hear of any examples where more 'nuanced' approaches have been taken, particularly involving government programmes. I look forward to hearing from you.

Rakhi Mehra's picture

Hi John - Happy to discuss and share perspectives on land tenure although I suspect it could be the topic of another Asia panel discussion in itself!

Let's begin with the project you mention in Bangladesh where 'secured land titles' are being considered an important pre-requisite for financing. What is secured? To what extent does it need to be secured - i.e registered in the public land records? Should you be paying house/land tax or does an electricity bill suffice? Interestingly there is no one document that shows proof of ownership or a secured title. At least in India, a bank financing you will need about 8-10 certificates - including a legal notice in the newspaper asking for no objection and an architectural/engineering building plan approval and a document proving you are the owner and possessor. If a household owns land that is outside the preview of the municipal government - i.e still considered rural or agricultural - despite being in the city - that would have its own set of laws and regulation requirements.

We call for a nuanced understanding on security of tenure with the intention that the current occupant has a shot at accessing finance or other municipal services such as water, sewage, electricity etc. What are the typologies/combinations of land tenure rights that exists and how can we design products/services given those rights. The government of Delhi hands out tenure of 5 years to a site and services slum rehabilitation project - which is de facto a lease-hold. What would it take a a housing finance company to give a 4 year loan in this instance? How can the financier ring fence the property to ensure that they have a quasi collateral/asset - what social and physical checks and balances can exist that allow for legal recourse.

An earlier blog on on a finance company I visited adopting some innovative mechanisms to stretch the understanding on secured title.

To bring this discussion to participation and city wide planning: the process adopted is critical despite issues of tenure, technical etc which are case-specific. The CODI examples are extremely encouraging to learn about reason for optimism. Although not easy seeing a city government investing or appreciating the role that community mobilisers can play to make implementation more effective. We see less resources being dedicated to this critical role of mobilising communities and investing in faciltiators.
Another scalable initiative successful in Ahmedabad and Indore was the Slum Networking Program (SNP) where municipalities comfort through a non-eviction guarantee (of 10 years I believe) and communities invested their savings/private sector and NGO funds in a large upgrading effort of 7 basic services including toilets, sewage, roads/pavements etc. The housing upgrades were a by product of the investments made at the community level and a significant leverage of the program.
This model that was implemented over 10 years had the potential to be scaled at India level - however a top down central government scheme (RAY and JNNURM) killed the local initiative by placing competing policy incentives and no municipality was keen to come forward as they waited for what centre had to 'offer'.

Jorge Bela's picture

I fully agree with Rakhi: this is a topic worth a discussion on itself! We already looked at it on URB.IM ( innovation is key on this issue. Often new approaches are necessary in order to meet the challenges presented in land titling. Often cooperation between different administrations and clever legal arrangements are necessary.

And, of course, solving the title problems is just the beginning, as services and security need to be provided to the communities.

Rakhi Mehra's picture

Thanks Jorge for the response and the link to the URB.IM discussion on security of tenure. I agree that titles by themselves do not solve problems - and trying to make clean titles (if that ever does even exist) a pre-condition in programs does more harm and good - we are better off drafting clever legal arrangements as you mentioned - which is really what takes place in the formal sector anyway! Interestingly there was a study done in Latin America to study the impact of Hernando De Soto's principle on title is key. In the study I understand that there was no immediate link - i.e despite titles, formal financing did not automatically flow to the residents. Now will try to get hold of this study and will post it here when I do!

María Fernanda Carvallo's picture

Thanks to Carlin and all the panelists for having this important discussion. Despite the discussion is focused in Asia, other cities in the world have the same challenges for urban upgrading. In this sense I will like to share the experience of a foundation "Fundación Kaluz" located in Mexico City which implements housing proyects in rural and urban areas for urban upgrading. The communities beneficiaries of the housing projects have access to government credits in order to acquire the material for the houses, while other part part of the material is donated by allied companies. Once the community has the material, they help to assemble modular homes according to their needs. Also, throughout the construction process, Kaluz is implementing a strategy of social empowerment that is based on community participation for the diagnosis of their local needs that are of common interest, for identifing possible solutions and finally developing a community plan. Through this methodology Kaluz Foundation promotes that the communities become self-management and agents of their own development.

Gayatri Singh's picture

Maria, I am also keen to know more about Kaluz Foundation example you highlighted in the urban context of Mexico. Is there any case study that you can point us to? Thanks!

Gayatri Singh's picture

Many thank to Dallant Network and Ford Foundation for creating the space for this discussion, and to Carlin for facilitating it.

We are all in broad agreement on the merits of participatory processes in urban development. As Rakhi Mehra mentioned in her comment below, master plans (such as that of Delhi) increasingly include components/requirements of participatory engagement. However, we can point to more than one case from the region and beyond where these goals of participatory planning have not translated into action. At times it is because communities are not involved, or consultation meetings not sufficiently advertised, or communities lack the capacity to organize themselves effectively, or there is a capture of the consultation process by small number of influential members who derive their influence from socio-economic standing, gender etc. Besides all these very real barriers to the success of community participation, there is a third reason why participatory processes in urban planning have not become mainstream. This is because the city planners and local government administrators lack the toolkit to fully reap the benefits of these processes. Besides the lack of incentive to go the extra mile to involve communities, local governments’ staff also lacks the training to incorporate participatory processes easily into their planning. There is often especially little thought given to the life cycle of urban planning, the stages when community consultations may be most useful, and the adjustment of the timeline for program implementation to effectively integrate community participation in urban planning.

We need to think more creatively about how we can create effective tools that (a) allow for the scaling up of participatory processes for planning at a citywide level; (b) focus on development of planning tools that city administrators can use (for example, increased ease of utilization of sources data generated by communities through ICT innovations), (c) help city planners understand how to best leverage community participation; and (d) build in monitoring and evaluation components within participatory projects that aim to enforce accountability from the very onset.

Diana Mitlin's picture

I very much agree with the comments above. Just to add that the shift to city-wide interventions is not a trivial one. When communities think about how they can make one or more interventions that has/have immediate potential to scale, they start to plan things differently.

I have worked less closely with governments, but what is notable to me is how few of government upgrading and new build programmes have the potential to reach the scale of need. This does not seem to be a design imperative.

Diane Archer's picture

Hello and thanks to the commenters above me for starting the conversation. To pick up on Diana's point about how rarely government programs reach scale, one approach is for community groups to drive forward the scaling up of an initiative.

These initiatives can be implemented on a larger scale when they are community-led in partnership with other actors, such as local or national governments, NGOs, academics, the private sector, or donors.

For example, the Thai national participatory slum upgrading program, the Baan Mankong (‘secure housing’) program, is targeted at communities that have been organised as a collective. This organisation takes place through the process of community savings. Once the community members have saved a certain amount, they are eligible for a collective loan for upgrading – whether this be in the form of re-blocking/re-alignment of certain houses to make wider access paths; complete on-site reconstruction of homes; or purchase/lease of land elsewhere for construction of homes. This loan also comes with a subsidy for infrastructure provision. It is important to ensure there is secure tenure before upgrading takes place –very often, this is in the form of collective title.

The Baan Mankong program has reached over 90,000 households across Thailand, in over 1,500 communities. What has also emerged out of Baan Mankong is a network of low income community organisations, which, working with the support of CODI, provides assistance to other communities seeking to carry out upgrading - from setting up savings groups, mapping and surveying existing settlements, preparing the project plan and application and carrying it out. Members of the network are specialised in various skills from accounting to construction, and thus can provide support based on their own experience of carrying out upgrading works.

This is an example of a government-funded scheme with in-built flexibility to ensure that local priorities and needs are addressed by being locally-driven. The government plays a vital role in providing the loan and subsidies; other key actors include an organisation called the Community Organisations Development Institute (CODI), a public organisation which facilitates community organising and provides technical support such as community architects in planning and designing houses and site layouts; the municipality/agencies in giving the necessary permissions; and land owners for leasing or selling the land. Nevertheless, this process can take time; getting all households to agree to participate and working out a scheme that is affordable to all, finding a suitable land tenure solution whether it is onsite or elsewhere – here, CODI assisted in securing MOUs with major landowning agencies to allow on-site upgrading.

Beyond Thailand, there are now a growing number of organised urban poor community networks in Asian cities and countries, who organise to survey and map settlements citywide, plan and prioritise upgrading projects, and create their own capital base through savings and funds.

widya anggraini's picture

Thank you Carlin and panelists for the interesting articles and discussion. Picking up from Dr Gayatri statement on the importance of strong ties between state and society, I see it as a very important aspect in development process. Often, community’s sense of belonging toward any government projects is low because they have low trust to government. The consequence is that community less involved in managing or maintaining government’s development projects. Low trust also results in low participation in decision-making process. Indonesia already regulate participatory planning process into national law, and yet number of people participation is still low. Local innovations in participatory process have been brought by several new mayors such in City of Surabaya or Bantaeng Districts in South Sulawesi that mostly involve the use of ICT. Good leadership is also one important requirement for the improvement.

I probably need some insight from Rakhi statement that solutions exist within communities. Do you mind elaborate more? Is it mainly working for finance or also other areas and how the process? And maybe you or other panelists could help me with example? This is interesting for me because I understand community has their wisdom and often adopted by government to design participatory process but many urban community in the city consist of people from different social and culture background so that they seldom as one big multicultural community comes up with solution towards their own problem and instead taking for granted what has been provided by the government.

Lastly, if Diana don’t mind to share any websites or information about the urban poor community networks you mentioned earlier because we in Indonesia maybe can learn practices from other countries as well. Thanks

Diana Mitlin's picture

Hi Widya. Thanks for reading my comment. Look at Shack/Slum Dwellers International ( and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights ( The ACHR website has more information about the programme that Diane Archer introduced.

Colleagues at the International Institute for Environment and Development run a journal, Environment and Urbanization. In this journal, there are many papers that share information about what communities have been able to achieve - and how they have worked in partnership with local government to expand their effectiveness and scale.

Priyanka Jain's picture

Thanks to all panelists and Carlin for an inspiring discussion about the process of participation in urban upgradation. It is key for participatory initiatives to be supported by a participatory communication strategy. The questions that arise:

What are the innovative ways to communicate messages to the local community? Developing a communication strategy and action plan is not just about identifying the key stakeholders but also about crafting messages as per different groups within a community and supporting a two way dialogue. The strategy has to be conscious of power relations within a community. Using community media in the form of storytelling, street plays, interactive workshops ensure the most marginalised groups have a platform to voice their concerns.

How do we allocate financial/human resources to such a process? Participatory processes are field intensive and require resources both financial and human. Usually in urban development projects, these resources are either not accounted or minimal amount is allocated for such processes. Ignorance of popular traditional mediums (like radio or theatre) already used by a community further weakens the approach.

All this and more help build trust in the community and reduce the distance between state and society.

Diane Archer's picture

Hi Priyanka, I'd just like to pick up on your question of innovative ways of communicating. Peer-to-peer exchanges through citywide, national and international exchanges between community leaders and representatives are an important communication mechanism. For example, the urban poor federations active within the Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) initiative of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) regularly participate in exchange visits and assessment visits, both nationally and internationally. Community members from one city/country might visit another to discuss and debate progress and mechanisms of projects on the ground, such as how interest rates on loans are decided, or strategies for negotiating tenure. They might share their experiences of forming partnerships with local government or negotiating changes to by-laws to enable affordable housing construction (for example, minimum plot sizes or road widths may leave limited land available for housing in already dense areas). In Thailand, certain communities in the Baan Mankong initiative (see my post above) have been designated ‘learning centres’ for other communities seeking to carry out similar upgrading projects.

This peer-to-peer learning is one route to communicating and raising awareness amongst peers who share similar experiences and priorities, and the time and resources for exchanges could be budgeted as part of projects. It is also supports the scaling up of community-led initiatives.

Gayatri Singh's picture

Hi Priyanka!

I completely agree with Diane on the benefits of peer-to-peer exchanges.

In a piece commissioned by the World Bank's Global Monitoring Report 2013 that focussed on rural-urban disparities in Millennium Development Goals and the benefits of urban agglomeration, Skye Dobson of SDI conceptualized this kind of learning among communities in urban areas as the 'agglomeration of collective capacity'. I think it is a powerful way of thinking about networked learning, facilitated by the presence of a strong civil society organization such as ACHR or SDI in the most successful examples I know of. Have a look here at some of the examples:,,cont...).

While governments and international organizations are focusing on the benefits of urban agglomeration for the ease of service delivery, the collective power of learning created by the spatial proximity of informal settlements in urban areas is going unharnessed.

Rakhi Mehra's picture

A question for all on the discussion: Have you come across experiences of adopting technology in a limited or integrated way for encouraging participatory discussion. Gayatri, you had mentioned in her opening comment that access to ICT information can improve governance. Would love to hear more about such projects and thoughts/insights into making them relevant and accessible at a community level.


Diane Archer's picture

Hi Rakhi,

Participatory mapping and surveying is an approach to opening up discussions at both the level of individual communities, and citywide, between communities and other actors,iin which technology can play a role. Simple GIS technology can be used in the mapping process - see for example the Cuttack case study in this issue of Environment and Urbanization on mapping and enumeration (open access)

Additionally, other technologies for mapping are being used, such as balloon photography in Kenya, or aerial drones in the Philippines. Now with many people having GPS on their phones it can also be used fairly easily, and satellite imagery from Google Earth images can also be accessed for mapping.

Participatory mapping hass been used as the basis for communities to plan and negotiate upgrading projects. For example, mapping can identify particular risks and hazards faced in certain communities, in order to prioritise action to minimise these hazards. At the level of communities, the mapping process can be a way of engaging all residents, from the children in measuring out paths and houses, to community elders in recounting past floods or the evolution of the settlement, for example. At a citywide scale, mapping can identify potential relocation sites, or those settlements most at risk of eviction/flooding/other hazards. Informed communities are then better placed to negotiate service provision or upgrading with the authorities. The papers in the link above provide case studies related to this.

Rakhi Mehra's picture

Thanks for the response Diana. I'm currently based in the Philippines and had a chance to read how drones were deployed to survey the post-typhoon destruction. Unfortunately was not able to openly access the E&U publication - I'll drop you a separate email. Thanks.

Thank you for your comments, Rahki. This is all outside of my field but it's very interesting to learn about these issues. I've studied democracy but not as it's applies to these issues and one thought came to mind-- perhaps it's sophomoric!

We think of democracy as a method to get things done that is inclusive and that recognizes the collective wisdom of everyday people to make the decisions most important in their lives. But more than that, we understand that if stakeholders play a role in key decisions, they are more likely to thrive in the conditions that are created/built/etc. But at the same time, we would never have say, democratic decisions play a role in surgery. For that job, we recognize that this person (or facility) has an expertise in that technical field and so we defer to their know-how to make the best decisions on our behalf. I know the example is not a perfect one, but I wondering if you know what I'm getting at (kind of like the difference between a republic and direct democracy).

I love democracy and I believe it's important, but where do we draw the line between people having a say, and others (perhaps informed by studies or city-planning) taking bold leadership to make meaningful progress? I hope I don't come across as a dictator-- that's not what I'm advocating at all. I'm just wondering if it's possible, in urban housing, to come up with a model so full of democracy that we could find ourselves blocked, or, worse case scenario, taking potentially ill-advised decisions that may harm people/populations/adjoining communities in the long-run.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Mike Slingsby's picture

I would like to start by putting the discussion in a wider context. It is important to distinguish between “consultation”, where designs, projects and programmes are designed by other people and urban poor communities are asked to choose what they like, or to make comments and, “participation” where communities are develop their own designs with technical support from local builders and community architects.

Too often we consult people on designs we have prepared rather than creating space for them to participate in developing their own designs.

As I said in my opening statement, we need to ask ourselves the question “Who is participating in whose project? Are people participating in our project or are we participating in the people’s project?”

The ACCA/ACHR Community Architects ’Network supports the process of people participating in the design of their own projects..

John and I are both involved in developing a Pro Poor Slum Improvement Project in Bangladesh, which has as one of its pillars a housing finance facility for urban poor communities. By bringing together community leaders from the project towns, we were able to demonstrate to hard-nosed National Housing Authority engineers the fact that with a little technical support community people are very well able to come up with very practical and realistic housing designs and site plans. All that was needed was to create a space for this to happen.

I was earlier involved in a DFID funded Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction project in Bangladesh where we tried to look more broadly at the process of community participation.

Communities were mobilised through the formation of Primary and Savings Groups of about 20-25 households, Community Development Committees (CDCs), Clusters of Community Development Committees and in some cases Town Federations. The Clusters of CDCs are made up of about ten CDCs and cover three Wards, although there are variations between towns.

Community Development Committees undertook a Community Action Planning process soon after their formation and these community action plans, a reviewed annually, formed the basis for physical, social and economic development activities in their communities. Through this process we can see that members of urban poor communities “participate” in their own development.

Clusters of Community Development Committees were formed, made up of about 10-12 CDCs as mutually supportive groups. These Cluster CDCs were supported to prepare development plans for their cluster and eventually these cluster development plans formed the basis of town development plans. Cluster leaders gained experience in “planning” for their cluster and contributing to urban poor development plans at the town level.

The next step was for community leaders to gain “management” experience so that when the project withdraws its town team, community leaders able to take over many of the functions under taken by the project. These functions would include the writing of project proposals, obtaining funds for their implementation, managing project implementation and participating in the management of the proposed town level urban poor community development fund.

The community leaders would form a Town Community Management Team (TCMT) for this purpose. The TCMT could be registered as a society, trust fund or other legal entity.

We rarely support community leaders to develop management skills and as a result community organisations, which are the vehicles for participation, fall apart once the project comes to an end.

In order for the Town Community Management Team to maintain credibility it needs access to funds. This is where town level Urban Poor Community Development Funds play an important role
Organized urban poor communities would become members of the trust fund and would elect executive directors. The Urban Poor Community Development Funds would give loans to the communities which could be used for common purposes such as infrastructure improvements or on-lent by CDCs to individuals for housing improvements, businesses or other purposes. The CDC would act as guarantor.

One of the earliest examples was the Urban Poor Development Fund in Phnom Penh which has developed over more than 14 years into a national programme and has been renamed as the Community Development Fund.

There are some ways in which we can move away from seeing urban poor communities as partners in their development and not as beneficiaries, waiting for goods and services designed by others to be delivered.

As another component of community empowerment and participation is need based cross community associations. The associations are complimentary to the community based groups and provide leadership opportunities for association members. They may be trade based, such as an Egg Producers Association whose members may be able to benefit from bulk purchase of feed and chickens and marketing.

An association of garbage collectors and recyclers will provide opportunities for obtaining higher prices for salvaged materials, some processing of those materials and opportunities for addressing health, education and welfare problems of members.

Associations may be formed around health issues such as those with diabetes whose members may benefit from bulk purchase of medicines and mutual help with coping strategies. An Association of families who have disabled members may help each other access government and NGO programmes as well as providing mutual support. Tenants may form associations to enable them to negotiate rents and improvements in security of tenure with land owners.

The formation of Associations is an important part of preparing for post project sustainability as it will bring people together on the basis of finding solutions to common problems independently of the project.

The Associations also create opportunities for people to develop leadership skills and they act as a counterbalance to the purely community based structures.

Rakhi Mehra's picture

Thanks for the comment Michael. I'm no expert on democracy either although as a student of political economy I would say that there is always a risk of being overly consultative or engage in prolonged processes of consensus building leading to a paralysis in decision-making. This is quite common in the social development sector and I've seen it myself in organisations where I've worked. Here the leadership should clearly define the criteria/principles for decision making and be able to steer a process- voting as a tool and major vote may not necessarily be the appropriate outcome.

Regarding deferring or trusting an expert opinion on matters of urban development (as we would do for a cases of medical surgery etc) is an important point to note and I would agree with you at large- it's the process adopted that is key.

To give you a real case - we saw a community (a registered resident welfare association RWA) vote in favour of converting a park into a car parking lot in South Delhi. Despite a majority vote by an elected and registered body that may not be the ideal option for the community/neighbourhood in the longer run.
That is where the expert hand comes in - the urban planning polices, guidelines and frameworks have to be designed beforehand and more than just consultation/participation - it should be an interactive design process where there is time and room for informed decision-making with data/facts.

We faced a similar situation where households/commuinty were resistant to invest in earthquake-safe construction in a high risk zone of Uttra-khand despite the technical view of the engineering team. After 4 months of 'interaction' and addressing concerns on costs, aesthetics and maintenance leading increased awareness of all parties - an acceptable solution was proposed where structural safety was not compromised.

Not sure if I was clear in my response but I agree that expert advise is often thought of as a top-down approach and dismissed. It is not necessarily true that all bottom-up approaches by themselves make the right decision. Thus the role of a facilitator/intermediary organisation is important to ensure the right communication, principles of engagement are adopted that involves informed decision-making by all.

Gayatri Singh's picture

Hi Rakhi, I was in Haiti without internet (unexpectedly) last few days, so only seeing your comment now. Here are some examples of innovations in ICT.

(a) Have a look at São Paulo's use of HABISP (summary here: This is one of the few examples I know of that is making a concerted effort to connect citizen participation with Municipal governance.

(b) Have a look also at the special issue of Environment and Urbanization (April 2012), that includes several case studies that highlight where, when and how participatory approaches have worked in the urban upgrading context and why (including work by ACHR, SDI, and others): I am sure there are updates on some of these projects now as well.

As Diane has already explained, participatory mapping can be a great planning tool. However, more thought is needed to how the mapping itself translates into a planning tool that is used by local governments. Two things are key-- one, the presence of a facilitating civil society partner to facilitate community led data collection, and two, ICT innovations that allow the data collected by communities to be made accessible in a form that allows it to be utilized in the planning processes and updated over time. While the first is being successfully implemented in several places, we could do more to improve the second.

Mapping using very high resolution satellite imagery or ariel photos is an upcoming field and is being increasingly utilized in several cities to identify the extent of informal settlements at a citywide scale. These approaches are still in development and do show promise. The major barriers are the cost of satellite imagery and the cost of software for analyzing. These costs and technical expertise needed mean that international organizations, CSOs and governments are hesitant to promote these methods on a larger scale. I think we need to think about the creation of open source tools to analyze imagery as well as arrangements with mapping agencies to provide subsidized satellite imagery. Digital Globe has one such arrangement with Open Street Mapping and US Government to provide free imagery for humanitarian disaster assistance planning. Given the complexity of built environment in urban areas and the lack of good intra-urban data, we need to begin advocating for greater (and cheaper) availability of satellite imagery and development of easy-to-use tools to facilitate urban planning.

Carlin Carr's picture

Many thanks to all our panelists for a vibrant discussion on innovating in participatory development. The conversation brought out some interesting model initiatives, such as Thailand's Baan Mankong program, which centers government loans for slum upgrading on community savings groups. A key to the program's success, says Diane Archer, is the built-in flexibility to meet community needs.

While Thailand has made good progress with their slum upgrading program, other panelists expressed frustration over rhetoric of community engagement not translating into action. Rakhi Mehra told us about new policies and programs in India that increasingly include participatory planning, but have not materialized much.

Gayatri Singh provided us with some insight into a few challenges in the consultation process, saying that one of the most undiscussed barriers is that local government administrators and city planners need a better toolkit for successful engaging with communities in decision-making processes.

John Arnold brought up the complex issue of land tenure being an important part of the discussion on community-led upgrading. Rakhi agreed that this is an important issue but suggested that a "clever legal arrangement" might do the trick in the absence of any good, straightforward answer.

We were left with some interesting broader questions on whether democracy can be too engaging, stalling movement on important issues as consensus is built. Rakhi argued that there does need to be some vision in the process and sometimes communities need to be made aware of the benefits of taking a direction they may not initially be familiar with. Mike reminded us that at the heart of participatory development is the voices that are being impacted in the process. "There are some ways in which we can move away from seeing urban poor communities as partners in their development and not as beneficiaries, waiting for goods and services designed by others to be delivered."

Thank you, all, for a thoughtful and engaging discussion, and I hope we can come back in a year from now with more promising and inspiring examples from the work you are all engaging in on the ground.

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