Seventy-six percent invisible

Nora Lindstrom, Lilongwe Community Manager
Lilongwe, 5 November 2014

When discussing the land and housing situation in Lilongwe, there's one number that gets thrown around a lot: 76 percent. According to the 2009 Lilongwe City Development Strategy (CDS), that's the percentage of the city's residents who live in sub-standard housing or informal settlements. The two are not identical — particularly in terms of tenure security — but what the CDS is getting at is that two-thirds of the capital's population live in areas characterised by poor quality housing, with limited access to clean water and sanitation, and significant challenges with regards to waste management, roads and accessibility, electricity, sewerage, as well as access to schools and health facilities. So in essence, whether you live in an informal area or not, the user experience for the majority of the city's residents is the same.

In large part, the reason so few of Lilongwe's residents have been able to obtain access to formal land and adequate housing is due to the city's strong annual growth rate, estimated at over four percent. As elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, this has been 'jobless growth' in the sense that urbanisation has not been accompanied by commensurate industrialisation bringing employment and prosperity. Simultaneously, institutions entrusted with the responsibility to provide public services have been slow and lacked resources in responding to the city's growth.

Some efforts have been made in the past to improve living conditions in poor settlements. In 2010, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation "announced a $27.2 million commitment to fund a range of urban development projects that bring together city governments and community organizations from five fast-growing African cities," including Lilongwe. Malawi's capital was set to receive $2.6 million for a five-year effort to "improve the general livelihood of Lilongwe's informal settlements through a detailed survey of the needs of their residents and a range of interventions aimed at upgraded service delivery."

In 2013, however, the project more or less quietly folded after two years of local infighting. The Foundation is said to have concluded that the City Council was unable to successfully carry out the project, and pulled the funding, giving the Council three months to finalise activities. Only two settlements, Mtandire and Chinsapo, ultimately benefited by virtue of strong community organisation, and the project had little lasting impact on policymaking in the city.

The reasons for the project's failure are systemic; the City Council lacks the appropriate institutional structures to address urban development. This has not gone unnoticed: the 2010 Study on Urban Development Master Plan for Lilongwe prepared by JICA notes how a key problem in Lilongwe is the "insufficient level of urban planning and development management administered by the relevant authorities, particularly the Lilongwe City Council." Indeed, since the Gates Foundation debacle, there have been no formal upgrading efforts in the city.

On a positive note for the 76 percent, however, the master plan also indicates that a key strategy to address the challenges posed by urbanisation in the city is improving living conditions in so-called 'unplanned settlements'. As a reflection of this, the clear majority of the city's poorer settlements are located on land zoned as residential in the Lilongwe 2030 Land Use Plan.

In the void left by government inaction to address urban poverty, this official vision of the inclusion of informal areas into the city's formal structure helps legitimise the efforts of local actors. These include organisations such as the Lilongwe Urban Poor People's Network and the Centre for Community Organisation and Development, who work at the grassroots level helping poor communities identify and address their own needs. These are not multi-million-dollar donor-funded projects, but given the current status of urban management in Lilongwe, small-scale grassroots efforts to improve living conditions for the city's residents may prove to be a more sustainable way forward.

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