Making slum upgrading work in urban Africa

Africa's slums are growing at twice the rate of its cities. By some accounts, sub-Saharan Africa will have upwards of 332 million slum dwellers by 2015. While millions of dollars have been spent improving the conditions in Africa's urban informal settlements and the lives of the people who live therein, overall these efforts have amounted to little more than a drop in the ocean. Join our six panelists to explore the options for stemming the growth of these sprawling settlements and improving conditions in those slums that already exist: Irene Karanja of Muungano Support Trust (SDI) (Kenya); Claudio Torres of the UN-HABITAT Participatory Slum Upgrading Unit (PSUP) (Kenya); architect, urban planner, and World Bank Municipal Development Program consultant Sara Candiracci (Mozambique); Aditya Kumar of the Community Organization Resource Centre (CORC) (SDI) (South Africa); Jhono Bennett of the University of Johannesburg (South Africa); and Marie Huchzermeyer of the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa).

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

Irene Karanja Carlo Torres Candiracci Kumar Bennett Huchzermeyer


Irene Karanja

Irene Karanja — Executive Director of Muungano Support Trust, a secretariat of the Shack/Slum Dwellers International Federation (SDI) (Kenya)


Over the last 25 years, slum dwellers from cities in Africa have successfully mobilized into collections of Federations of the Urban Poor.

These federations have collected their own financial resources in the form of savings and data pools, creating citywide profiles and extensive slum censuses. Unknown to the world, slum federations have managed to produce a large volume of documented knowledge about themselves that has transformed how the government delivers important services to its poor citizens and how financial instruments can be innovated by financial institutions to serve the needs of the poor.

Using data collected from the profiles and censuses, Muungano Support Trust, a local NGO working with the federation of Kenya, has provided advisory services to the Government of Kenya and the World Bank, in order to help them intervene and provide housing solutions to over 10,000 families in the Kibera and Mukuru areas of Nairobi.

The trust has also worked with university planning schools from the local and international academia community to influence how transforming planning discourse can untrap informal human settlements from the snares of historically rigid city planning standards.

The private sector has grand opportunities to turn urban poor communities into important players within the city. Financial resources from the poor are beginning to challenge and put pressure on the private sector to innovate solutions. Federations have interventions that are facilitating this to happen.

Data collected by communities with the support and technical capacity of organizations such as Muungano Support Trust, shows that there is a missing link that government interventions are not able to fill and development assistance is failing to cover.

Insecurity of tenure remains one of the biggest challenges to improving the lives of slum dwellers in Nairobi. The government needs to release land for human settlement, whether it be public, private, or contested. If this does not happen, development aid will continue to subsidize the costs required for technical services to innovate various kinds of solutions for what are essentially locked scenarios!

Irene Karanja is the founding Executive Director of Muungano Support Trust (MuST), a secretariat of the Slum/Shack Dwellers Federation in Kenya. She is a specialist in participatory research, community organizing and capacity building for the urban poor. For over six years, she has transformed the use of participatory techniques for data collection into a major instrument for planning the upgrading of slums. She has organized a strong constituency of slum dwellers to assume leadership of these settlements through savings groups, housing cooperatives and women's associations.



Katy Fentress's picture

I would like to begin by thanking our panelists for taking time to join us. They all come from different backgrounds but hold in common a desire to understand what can be done to improve the conditions in urban informal settlements in Africa and beyond. With this conversation we aim to discuss what it would take to move from rhetoric to reality with regard to this pressing worldwide concern.

In order to kickstart the discussion I would like to ask a couple of questions that I feel might begin pointing us in the right direction:

1. Should governments have a role to play in urban African slum upgrading and what should that be?
2. Which other stakeholders have important roles play and how should these be decided?

Katy Fentress
URB.IM - Nairobi Community Manager

Ideally most African cities are christened with high levels of slums and informal settlements, so often with largely informal economies, skilled and non-skilled human capital, levels of unemployment hitting an all time high especially affecting the youth, and low levels of industrialisation.

The urban poor, for instance in Nairobi, Kenya largely reside in informal settlements and slums, are indeed a vulnerable people, to a range of situations such as lack of secure tenure, lack of better housing, lack of proper water and sanitation infrastructure. These can combine to have devastating effects on the poor, who generally survive on less than US$ 2 per day.

As a way of mobilizing and organizing communities to come together to address a common community is one of the many fast strategies to begin addressing slum upgrading. This is a model of community organization strategy practiced by Slum Dwellers International in 37 countries globally. Organized communities have organized themselves at settlement and city levels to form federation of the Kenyan Urban poor. These federations as earlier explained by able colleague, Irene Karanja, Communities have collected their own financial resources in form of savings, generation of settlement and city wide settlement profiles and enumerations and mapping. Through these volumes of well gathered and documented settlement scenarios, these communities have managed to engage and inform government and city authorities on some of the planning deficits at settlement and city levels. This has led to the change of how governments engage in the provision of basic services in informal settlements..

Indeed there are factors that are needed for a slum upgrading projects to be successful not only in Nairobi but Africa at large. The two main factors duly noted are strong political will from government and strong buy-in on the part of communities. However, to such synergy to be developed, partnership must exist between the two city stakeholders.

In my view and am sure that the panelists will tend to agree with is that, for any slum upgrading initiative must meet a real need; people must want it and understand why it is important.

In most African cities informal settlements are a mutant of failed policies, bad governance, social evils such as corruption, poor policy implementation strategy such as inappropriate regulation, unresponsive financial systems, and most importantly lack of political will from structures of government. Without significant improvements in the policy & legal front, regulatory, and financial systems, the problem of slums and informal settlements remains a nightmare for generations to come.

Poor drafted policies, some still borrowed from former colonial laws during the scramble and partition for Africa still remain a major obstacle to Kenyans living in informal settlements as they continue with their struggle in searching for security of tenure and better housing. In order to avoid the mushrooming of new slums, drastic alterations in the way of doing business in the Land and housing sectors, is well long overdue in the legal and regulatory framework, particularly with regard to the Kenyan land markets and land acquisition procedures (land registry, land valuation, and legal instruments to facilitate land acquisition). The poor often do not have the financial might to buy houses. Reviewing the housing finance system, including the access of the poor to credit and targeted subsidies for housing, could also create opportunities for the poor to feel part and parcel of our African cities.

Government can play a less authoritative role by enabling the poor get access to its services by providing and allowing for community led land-use planning or formalizing linkages with other land and housing stakeholders. Muungano Support Trust a local Non-government organization has a specific role to play on behalf of the federation of the urban poor in Kenya, which is being an intermediary between the poor and providers of housing and basic infrastructure services.

Shadrack Mbaka
Muungano Support Trust
Nairobi, Kenya

Shadrack Mbaka makes very important points for the Nairobi context, and shows us just how complex the situation is. No easy solutions. Regarding the question on stakeholders, I think it's very important to recognise how much the context varies across southern Africa and even how varied informal settlements can be within one city — and of course how fast they can change: absorb more people, shift from predominantly owner occupied to tenant occupied, etc. I would like to caution against a promotion of specific stakeholders, because so many different structures and formations exist in informal settlements.

The starting point for me would be principles. One principle is to understand what organisations are active in an informal settlement, what the politics are around these, what inclusions and exclusions manifest in these settlements, and coupled with this what trust or distrust there is of relevant government structures and why. A second principle would be to work towards building the necessary trust, as government is indispensable in an upgrading programme. Ultimately, and indeed cemented through a growing number of Constitutions in southern Africa, government has the responsibility to progressively realise a qualified right to housing, and nowhere is this more urgent than in informal settlements. If the corruption that Shadrack talks about is the cause of distrust, corruption will have to be dealt with before an upgrading programme can be successful. At all costs, another failed upgrading programme must be avoided. Usually communities are very good at predicting wastage of government funds, and they need to be listened to very carefully.

Great contributions so far. I have one point I would like to share. When we say 'the community' or 'the poor', who are we talking about? Which groups are recognised and included by NGOs and governments in upgrading schemes in African ghettos? And which groups are excluded and marginalised? Said differently, what social divisions are (re-)produced by upgrading projects and will eventually backfire on these projects (think of Mathare 4A)? I am not talking about the extensively studied and highly complicated tensions between structure owners and tenants (and/or landowners: Bondeni). I am referring to young men who are often mobilised in emerging tensions between said groups. They are susceptible to such mobilisation because they themselves are often excluded from upgrading projects. For some reasons, NGOs and governments recognise women (young and old) and older men (for instance as village elders, even if some are women) as societal actors, and at times even children, but young men are never mentioned or pro-actively included. Most young men in Nairobi ghettos are, at some moment in their young life, part of gangs.

As part of my work with and academic research on gangs in Mathare and Korogocho (Nairobi), since 1998, I have also focused on the role of gangs in upgrading projects in these economically marginalised urban settings (locally labelled 'ghettos'). For instance, I have observed the rise of and I have worked together with Muungano Bondeni and Kosovo since their onset. – With gangs I mean rather fluid groups of young, mostly, men that work together to access social and economic opportunities in ways that are cast 'illegal' by law. –

To be brief, my research goes against current views on gangs that emphasise violence and criminality. Starting from the perspective of my research participants (gang members, Muungano members and other residents), I get another view. Striking is especially how important community service and development (upgrading) are for the gangs I studied. It is this emphasis on community service and development that makes gangs important for sustainable upgrading projects in Nairobi ghettos. Such projects have not yet been researched from the perspectives of gangs because it is always assumed that gangs are either irrelevant or detrimental to these projects. Yet, these groups and/or individual members have been part of multiple and large-scale projects to improve food security, sanitation, roads and sewage systems, housing, environments, and access to land.

Some gang leaders, for instance, were active Muungano members in Mathare or took up leadership positions in the upgrading project in Korogocho. By focusing on the role of gangs, my current research project aims to contribute to debates on inclusive and sustainable urban development and on governance in informal settlements in African cities. The role of gangs in urban development is a critical theme of research in a rapidly urbanising, increasingly younger and economically more and more unequal Africa. NGOs, government institutions and international development organisations normally exclude gangs. They are either not aware of local dynamics and/or these stakeholders regard gangs (of young men) as dangerous (in tune with the dominant discourse on young, poor urban men in Kenya). This has led to successive junctures of violence and years and years of delay.

Some excellent points have been raised in the debate so far. I want to emphasise Marie’s point of local Government being indispensable in informal settlement upgrading. Having worked closely with local government officials, particularly in South Africa, senior officials typically behave as ‘custodians’ of urban development and thus, informal settlements. Upgrading is dealt with a high degree of control and carefully drawn out programming of participatory processes. However, it is clear that such participatory process at the City scale are very limited in their success, usually entrenching the distrust between civil society and the state.

Elements of local government need to be examined at several levels. Firstly, induction as a young engineer/ planner/ architect into local government is frequently about policy frameworks and guidelines. Rarely is there an element of risk taking and analysing the informal settlement context. The fall back strategy for any of these young professionals in local government is to resort to the 'rule books'. Secondly, frequently it is engineers and technocrats making large planning decisions, particularly about informal settlements, based purely on technical delivery rather than participating with community structures. Thirdly, financing local projects within local government means creating long winded business plans that predominantly rely on desktop studies and technical data, rather than on social process or engagement. Fourthly, in most local governments, departments work in their silo's. For instance, engineering might put in services in a settlement which is earmarked for relocation according to the housing departments. Finally, Naomi's point of communities not as homogenous bodies but as deeply linked to power/ political structures is critical. Similarly, the operations and challenges of large metro governments like Nairobi, Joburg, Cape Town are very different than secondary City Municipalities like Thika, Stellenbosch, Midvaal etc. While these points are just scratching the surface of local government, but how do we imagine the role of local government in settlement upgrading?

In my view, the first step is to acknowledge that the scale and magnitude of informal settlements and that they are here to stay. For instance, in South Africa, it is estimated in many secondary cities that it will take over 60 years for government subsidies to reach all people on waiting list and living in informal settlements. Being honest with informal settlement dwellers about this reality is a crucial step to building trust. Coupled with this, local government to admit that they do not have the solutions to informal settlements, instead a facilitative state can dramatically allow civil society to respond with initiatives on the ground. Recently, a local government official argued that the biggest problem about informal settlements isn't about finance or government capacity but purely about securing land. True, but equally important is to recognise the rights of the citizen to access well located land and choose suitable locations based on their needs. In-situ development, particularly in post apartheid South Africa, doesn't necessarily mean a equitable city.

There is a serious need for government to facilitate informal settlement upgrading at multiple levels — addressing affordable rental stock, gap housing, proper mechanisms for service delivery, tenure and housing rights in partnership with civil society.

Indeed there is a slum trouble in Africa especially, the sub-Saharan region. The challenge is so big that I do challenge whether the facts and figures are correct or not. With all said and down, I blame the slum situation in the region to creation of disparity geographically in terms of economic, social, health and finance.

The first way to look at this is to start clearing the dividing line between the urban, peri-urban and the rural. There is over concentration of economic activities in the so called urban centres and there is 'nothing' happening in the rural areas whose activities form the backbone of most sub-Saharan nations. Until, sub-Saharan nations begin to look at ways of closing up this gap such as:

1. Empowering agriculture through small grants and ready market;
2. Empowering the local authorities and community leadership to undertake projects that would build their capacity for development;
3. Non-politisation of issues of development, so the national cake of nations are evenly distributed.

I agree with Adityia when he says that the first step is to acknowledge that informal settlements are here to stay. Africa today is the fastest urbanizing area in the world and of the world’s slum dwellers (nearly 1 billion) about 25% live in Africa! Yet, little is being done to reduce the harmful consequences of urbanization in Africa or to maximize its potential benefits. In addition, many countries have generally overlooked (or denied) the urbanization of poverty, often with negative consequences. Slums are treated as the sick and bad part of cities, to be eradicated and moved far away, or to be hidden behind nicely painted walls. But slums are a reality and represent the living solution for the majority of the world urban population. Ignoring this will make impossible either to plan for inevitable and massive city growth or to use urban dynamics in a positive way and help relieve urban poverty.

Going back to Katy’s questions, I think that the local community involvement is extremely important to understand the existing situation and thus find long-lasting solutions that really respond to the population’s needs and aspirations. However, the local government involvement and commitment are key factors in order to make these solutions happen and last. Stand-alone slum upgrading projects can have a big impact on the slum inhabitants, but unfortunately just for a short period of time, often as long as funds are available. The national endorsement and the municipal involvement are fundamental to incorporate slums improvement in the city’s vision, through the development of inclusive and integrated urban and social policies and regulations.

The second step is the knowledge on how to deal with informal settlements. They are complex realities and they must be approached in an integrated way, covering urban-housing, land, environmental and socio-cultural and economic aspects. Local officials often lack the technical knowledge and capacity on how to develop, manage and implement such interventions. Therefore, local governments need the support from the international community or professionals to develop these capacities.

Thank you everyone for your comments. This is a great discussion.

I would like to reaffirm the complementary role of various actors:

On the one hand there are, of course, the slum communities and their networks (such as SDI and their national and subnational affiliates) often supported through NGOs (such as the Pamoja Trust in Kenya). Slum communities need to participate in order to, as Sara says, design, implement and sustain inclusive interventions that correspond to the need and the aspiration of slum dwellers. I had the pleasure to review SDI and their Urban Poor Fund International on behalf of the Gates Foundation, SIDA and Norway. The result of the review was that SDI is an effective organization in mobilizing and organizing poor communities in order to identify technical solutions that work and are more affordable, negotiate pro-poor policy concessions and leverage resources from governments.

Then there are governments at the national and subnational level. As Irene points out, for example local governments need to find better ways to deliver affordable land at a large scale. Unless they are equipped with the appropriate tools—such as value capture instruments that siphon off the land value increases resulting from public interventions so that additional revenues can be used for slum improvement. Further, national governments need to empower local governments (through decentralizing powers and through building local capacities). International organizations and south-south learning may further help to build successful programs that do not depend on international aid. A private sector that really caters to the needs of the poor would aid in, for example, delivering low-cost housing and/or affordable housing finance. With the Indian labor movement SEWA we are mounting a housing finance company that is cooperatively managed and owned and that may serve as a learning vehicle eventually copied by the private sector in order to impact at a large scale.

Said that I would like to attention to another often overlooked issue, even though it is hidden in some comments—such as Irene's remark on increasing land delivery. As Sara stated Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest urbanizing region on the planet. As the new urban dwellers tend to be poorer (on average) than established communities, most of the arrivers are even less able to afford a proper home. Further, at an urban growth rate of approximately 3.7 percent per year the urban population doubles in less than 20 years. Considering both trends together (the urbanization of poverty and high urban growth) indicates the threat of an exploding slum population—unless societies find a better, more inclusive strategy for managing urban growth in order to prevent slums. (When I say "to prevent" I mean "to provide better shelter opportunities than living in an informal shack throated by eviction". I do not imply "clearance of emerging communities"—just to make that very clear.)

Unfortunately, prioritizing public investment between improving existing slums and preventing new ones is a policy dilemma. (Of course, there is a very thin grey line between an existing and a future slum dweller but for the sake of making a clear argument here I paint a black-and-white picture here.) On the one hand, existing slum populations need help now in order to improve their living conditions. Also (if organized thanks to organizations such as SDI) existing slum communities actively demand their citizen rights and ask for pubic investment that they are rightfully entitled to. On the other hand, preventing existing slums is multiple times more economical than improving an existing one. Thus, more prospective slum dwellers can be helped with the same amount of funds, compared to assisting existing slum dwellers. That is the dilemma.

This dilemma can of course be overcome by equipping local governments with the legal powers and the capacity to use them to increase its resource base. Organized slum communities can then make sure that the improved public finances are used for the benefit of the poor. Many grassroots movements of the urban poor, beyond SDI or ACCA and their affiliates have demonstrated large successes in collective action, ranging from collective production over collective bargaining to collective confrontation. (For example see the impact evaluation of the Gates Foundation's portfolio of grants to improve the livelihoods of informal workers

Therefore, I would advocate a multi-pronged approach:

(i) assist organizations of the urban poor (such as SDI and their affiliates in Sub-Saharan Africa) to organize in order to collective action—be it the production of valuable information in enumerations and mapping, the innovation of more affordable construction strategies, the negotiation of inclusive development standards or the allocation of public resources—particularly land for development.

(ii) assist governments, especially local ones, to improve their delivery mechanism (especially for serviced land) and to find financing strategies that are available at a large scale.

(iii) assist other stakeholders, particularly the private sector, to meaningfully engage with the previous two groups, for example to build an inclusive housing finance system.

Collectively, actions taken under the three strategies will help to both improve existing and prevent future slums and, thereby, overcome the policy dilemma of allocating scarce resources between an inclusive present and a more sustainable future.

Thank you for your thoughts and comments. I look forward to it.

Matt Nohn | Loeb Fellow, Harvard | Leader, Rapid Urbanism: Global Development Planning, Finance & Design | +1 (857) 285-0681 or +49 (151) 2228 6268 | skype nohnplusultra | twitter @rapidurbanism | web

Thank you for convening this discussion, very insightful comments here. From my reading, there looks to be a rough consensus on the crucial importance of community engagement in slum upgrading, and the generally more effective approach of in-situ upgrading. There is something inherently dehumanizing and severely disruptive to community structures and individual lives in wholescale slum removal and rebuilding, the destruction of work and social lives that are the result of real perseverance and striving for improvement. And the results of slum removal don't seem to actual benefit displaced people, but rather create new real estate for other socio-economic classes.

This is something Map Kibera has mapped and reported on frequently.

There is also an excellent PBS documentary on KSUP, with commentaries, including from my co-Trustee Erica Hagen.

In contrast, in the lucky select wards of nearby Dar es Salaam that have been part of the program, in-situ upgrading has made a tangible difference in people's lives. There, rather than clearance, a selection community planned interventions are chosen, such as road paving, garbage collection points, drainage. However, it's not only the approach that differs, but the geography of slums. Dar is a predominantly unplanned city, and settlements are much less dense than the slums of Nairobi. Even with the best engagement strategy and buy in from government, it seems an order of magnitude practically and logistically more difficult to do in-situ upgrading in a relatively more dense settlement.

Even with that challenge, there are some examples of in-situ upgrading in Nairobi. I know Claudio Torres was involved in interesting such work in Mathare.

My question then to the assembled respected group here is, are there fundamental physical limits to in-situ upgrading? Is it possible to envision an in-situ process in Kibera or Mathare? And given that vision, what would it take in terms of policy and capacity to gain support from the government for such a scheme?

Thank you all for the great contributions and perspectives.

I would like to pick one from Mikel Maron's great questions...

I think the migrations of people into cities is a worldwide phenomenon and that pattern does not change as we transcend through decades. Like Aditya says, it is here to stay.

I want to suggest we turn this equation this way (which is a view that I share with Shlomo Angel)…..people come into cities to look for jobs, they find both jobs and affordable spaces to live in, they raise their kids, they send their kids to school, they start little micro businesses to keep up with urban demands and they do what they must do to survive in these cities. They begin to have what they did not have when they took the bus. They own a house, they stock the house, and collectively they generate a housing stock to house many more people coming on the bus to the city. They are the alternative provider for housing, at a rate that the government cannot keep up even if it was to have the commitment to. We have seen from the South African experience. COMMUNITIES CREATE WEALTH WHEN THEY COME TO CITIES. They are not just sitting, they are surviving and strengthening their resilience to adapt even in the absence of formal services from the state.

So what happens thereafter is that we chase them with laws, policies, rules and even subsidies, oblivious of the fact that the urban poor design their own survival mechanisms that are outside of any services offered by governments or even development actors or professions like planners, engineers and the like.

I was struck one day listening to an old lady speak in a community meeting and she said, "We don't just put up shacks anywhere, we have clear understanding of the direction of the sun, the draught and also a conviction of why we need to set the door of the house next to which neighbour. We build consensus on where the paths within the village should be. We have been doing this for 40 years here in Huruma."

What am trying to say is that informal settlements have WEALTH of knowledge, collective savings, collective bargain and a political economy that is real. Which is often not the premise to which we start our conversations on upgrading.

Recently, the federation of slum dwellers in Kenya known as Muungano wa Wanavijiji, undertook an enumeration in one of the settlements in Nairobi. The analysis done by the federation showed that there is a logic to how the urban poor build their housing stock to accommodate these densities. 1 acre of land accommodates 32 plots. Each plot has 12 housing units of 10by10ft and one toilet. Therefore every acre carries about 384 households. Each unit attracts a certain amount of rent and you can do that math.

Mikel Maron's question is, are there fundamental physical limits to in-situ upgrading? Is it possible to envision an in-situ process in Kibera or Mathare? And given that vision, what would it take in terms of policy and capacity to gain support from the government for such a scheme?

Tenure security is the first priority for residents of slum settlements because evidently communities can have the capacity to upgrade themselves in their own way and their own time. Government only needs to provide the essential basic services such as access, energy, sewers, water, technical services etc.

On physical limitations, again the federation has conducted a profile of all the slums in various counties in Kenya. It is worth noting for the case of Nairobi that there are various spots like Mathare and Mukuru Kingstone and Mariguini that are examples of settlements that settled on quarry land. It is said that the stone that was used to build Nairobi City was extracted from Mathare. Kingstone slum was a major dampsite for Nairobi about 40 years ago and therefore the toxic emissions or heat of the ground is still evident today. In this regard, these scenarios need a different kind of political will from Government to meet the costs for stabising these locations for future permanent redevelopments. Certainly the poor cannot afford the costs of such complex land.

It seems that for the majority of us contributing to this debate the meaning of informal settlement upgrading, as per Marie's query but also as a ways of summarising, implies in situ interventions with strong involvement of the concerned community and with particular attention towards the security of tenure of the broad spectrum of residents, all framed by a decisive political good will from the different levels of government.

I would like to add to our shared analysis the importance of the understanding of Informality as a relevant matter when searching for the meaning of slum upgrading and how to make it work in Africa. Informal settlement upgrading should address and deal with prevalent informality in slums' context in a manner formal housing strategies can't. This is also valid when devising the skills to be developed at all government levels and the role of private sector in slum upgrading; the latter's contribution remains in the realm of myth and, from a formal market logic, how big should be the business that will cater for the additional revenue meant to be offered to investors while, at the same time, will still provide adequate housing for the poor?

Katy Fentress's picture

The importance of providing security of tenure, enabling community mobilization and creating a facilitative State that liaises with the (heterogenous) community in order to plan upgrading initiatives, are three overarching themes shared by our different panelists and commentators so far. Interestingly the role of both international organisations and the market seem to have been minimised in many of the comments.

It might at this point be helpful to further explore the above-mentioned themes.

Please take time to consider these three sets of questions as we move into the second week of what is proving to be a very lively and interesting discussion:

1. Land Tenure:
- How can security of land tenure for slum dwellers and tenants be achieved?
- Should governments by pressed to make this a priority? How?
- How can the vested interests in the land that slums lie on be curtailed and the powerful people who enrich themselves through the creation of slum land markets be neutralised?

2 - Community organization/mobilization:
- Should it be enabled/encouraged?
- Does it pose a threat to the existing status quo?
- What interests prevent it from taking root?
- What role do INGOs have to play - do they enable and encourage community organization/mobilization or should their role be one of service delivery and infrastructure development?

3 - In-situ slum upgrading:
- Where should the financing come from?
- What role, if any, does the private sector have? How should this be decided?
- How are the priorities identified?
- What are the options when the land in question is necessary for other purposes (for example to build a railway) or poses extreme hazards to residents (for example because of land slides, floods and/or gas and oil pipe leakages)?

Katy Fentress
URB.IM - Nairobi Community Manager

Wonderful comments and rich experiences being shared, and great to hear about the cutting edge research on gangs and upgrading in Nairobi, and for Felix t highlight the rural development linkages. And great that Claudio could summarise the many comments into a few key principles. Given the huge diversity of situations, I would like to return to the importance in an international discussion like this, of articulating clear principles in relation to some of what was mentioned.

Someone asked how best to get government buy-in, for instance for a real upgrading commitment for the entire Kibera settlement. In South Africa, we have seen grand commitments of this nature, which over time have shifted into something quite different (I see some parallels in KENSUP's treatment of Kibera from in-situ upgrading to redevelopment). South Africa committed to the MDGs, but then the government officially justified evictions by a commitment to the 'Cities without Slums MDG'. UN-Habitat's call for prevention of 'slums' was translated in South Africa into a 'Elimination and Prevention of re-Emergence of Slums' legislation in several provinces, with use of unconstitutional measures such as increasing provincial governments' powers to evict and making the occupation of unused land, even out of desperate need, a criminal offense with higher penalties than during the height of apartheid!

Luckily South Africa has very clear principles in its Bill of Rights and in its Housing Act. On the basis of these, the unconstitutional legislation could be rendered toothless by the courts. But to replicate this kind of challenge, one needs such principles legally enshrined. In some countries that is still not a given, and requires a high level of lobbying.

In relation to the prevention of 'slum' formation, it is critically important that the correct principles are first put in place and are then consistently respected. Too easily, governments will resort to 'law enforcement' in a context where urban laws are completely out of date or unrelated to urban realities. The call for 'slum prevention' is actually a call for fundamental urban reform that would enable affordable alternatives to 'slums' (at the scale of existing 'slums') and does not resort to repressive measures to achieve this. As yet, I know of no 'developing world' country in which this has been achieved. UN-Habitat likes to present Morocco as the country that managed to achieve 'Cities Without Slums' and prevent new formation of 'slums'. But to my limited knowledge, Morocco did resort to repressive measures and should not necessarily be labelled as a best practice.

The 'slum prevention' debate is incredibly important and has to move into the centre-stage, lest we'll be debating smaller and larger interventions in informal settlements for another century, as important as that debate in itself remains. Where the two come together is in the principles. The urban reform that is needed to prevent the formation of new informal settlements has to draw on an understanding informal settlements and the principles that have underpinned the few upgrading programmes that have been a success. The challenge is enormous.

Gemma Todd's picture

Thank you for a great discussion! Slum upgrading is greatly needed and a lot of the points shared in the discussion show this and how new ideas can provide effective solutions. However, my concern comes from the word 'partnerships' and also what the slum has come to represent. On the one hand, partnerships seem to have become a popular word and approach within cities today. Partnerships in many ways are more effective and enable each actor to work within their area of expertise — making everything more efficient. However, we need to think a bit more about what each of the partners objectives are; what the ideas behind their intervention are; and finally, whether the partnerships used can be sustained and re-used for new projects?

On another hand, we need to look at the slum, and upgrading suggested — whether for land rights, access to services or safe housing — in relation to the city. One of the main concerns that need to be raised with slum upgrading is whether it creates new opportunities for slum dwellers to escape the negative cycle of poverty, and stigma of 'slums'. Professors such as Gareth Jones and Alan Gilbert have written how the 'slum' brand and language is not easy to shake off. The construction of the 'slum' in many ways leaves those inhabitants stuck and branded with the image of being a 'slum' dweller. I therefore wonder whether any slum-upgrading projects — in-situ or through relocation — focus specially on the slum in relation to the city? Do we need to put the social image of slum dwellers, and slums, on the agenda of slum-upgrading? If so, how?

Tariq Toffa's picture

Thanks to all panelists and discussants for the invaluable contributions that have made this an excellent discussion!

As the discussion moves toward a different area of focus and perhaps starts to wind down, and given the wealth of views already from various backgrounds/experience, I'll take the opportunity at this juncture to briefly summarise (apologies if it is overly summarised) some of the critical points of the discussion thus far.



(1) We all must acknowledge the complex decisions by poor households (Marie), and the knowledge and expertise which informal settlement communities themselves can bring (Irene).

(2) Role of gangs in urban development is critical, but government institutions and international development organisations normally exclude gangs (Naomi).

(3) Gov is too restrictive of the necessary fluidity / “facilitative state” that the participatory process needs to have (e.g. planning decisions and business plans based on technical data and technical delivery rather than on social process or engagement) (Adi, Shadrack).

(4) There is a serious need for government to facilitate in partnership with civil society (Adi).

(5) Upgrade still doesn't account for Non-Gov participations (Adi).

(6) There is little focus on training effective practitioners who can play crucial intermediary roles in upgrading but also in spatial redevelopment (Jhono).

(7) Informal settlement upgrading should be open to alternatives to conventional formal housing models (Claudio).

(8) A private sector that really caters to the needs of the poor should aid in delivering low-cost housing and/or affordable housing finance (Matt).

(9) How to engage the market logic of private sector? (Claudio).

(10) All stakeholders have a role (Sara, Matt).

(11) Context varies, therefore caution against a promotion of specific stakeholders (Marie).

(12) Stakeholders need to let go; to learn, built and innovate together (Adi).

(13) Not only a cooperating/partnering of stakeholders (governments, international community support, professionals to develop capacities), but an integrated process (of national/local government, policies, and [NGO] stand-alone slum upgrading projects), and integration of issues addressed (housing, land, environmental, socio-cultural and economic) (Sara).


(14) Financial and institutional constraints, require incremental process with participation (Irene).


(15) What is ‘Upgrade’?: Tenure rights or basic services? Land or housing? State or self-reliance? (Adi).


(16) Important to recognise the rights of the citizen to access well located land (Adi).

(17) One of the main concerns that need to be raised with slum upgrading is whether it creates new opportunities for slum dwellers to escape the negative cycle of poverty, and stigma of 'slums' (Gemma).

(18) There is over concentration of economic activities in the so called urban centres and there is 'nothing' happening in the rural (Felix).

(19) Policy dilemma between improving existing slums and preventing new ones (Matt).

(20) The urban reform that is needed to prevent the formation of new informal settlements has to draw on an understanding of informal settlements and the principles that have underpinned the few upgrading programmes that have been a success (Marie).


It is critical to be able to define the Project Team, and identify roles and responsibilities. Communities should be "partners" in this process; deserving of professional expertise no less than formal, wealthier, areas of cities are. They can neither be excluded nor can they be expected to continue to make on their own. All of this requires stakeholders to 'de-centre' their own fields as the process is too complex and multi-layered to be defined by one stakeholder/discipline.

Nonetheless, it is critical to determine who the driver of the process is, which — I recommend — should be determined by the necessary cross-disciplinary skills required for such a complex process (crossing over spatial, social, and policy). In particular contexts, it is possible that the emphasis can shift accordingly. Innovation occurs in the interaction between and acknowledgement of the value of different stakeholders.

The role of gangs for us in SA I think is a new perspective, and could be built into the social process. However, it would appear that it requires building local partnering long before any physical intervention can actually occur, and unfortunately in SA I think this would probably fall outside the scope of the "emergency" nature of the current approach to upgrading and its timeframes.

If there is greater fluidity and multiple stakeholder contribution, there must also be common terms/principles/vision/processes all agree on and are responsible to. The process is complex and different parties have different agency (social, financial, design/spatial vision), and each should respect the value brought to the process by other stakeholders.

Regarding the value of different stakeholder contributions, I will reassert Jhono's point with regard the agency of the spatial and of design — only because it's been implicit in many comments without actually being stated. Its importance lies in the fact that possibly the greatest legacy of colonial and apartheid-shaped cities (in SA) over the last century is their spatial segregation, entrenching racial poverty. The agency of space is therefore absolutely a key aspect for socio-economic integration and for spatial integration on city and neighbourhood scales (city, local area, neighbourhood, family, unit). Design is crucial within a settlement upgrading itself too, to innovate and maximize resources, so that interventions are not mono-functional — and hence limited — but serve multiple functions, and this should occur at every stage of the process.

Deliverables / objectives (tenure rights / basic services, land / housing, state / self-reliance) must come from an understanding of the context and the type of upgrade it requires (full upgrade / basic or emergency services / relocation; rural vs. urban) (incl. appropriate tenure options), and the principles relevant for these objectives in the particular context.

Tariq Toffa — Jhb, Cape Town Community Manager

Carlin Carr's picture

I appreciate all the thoughtful and articulate contributions to this week's discussions. I was really struck by Irene's point when she quoted the community member who explained the order in which they put up their constructions, paying attention to how sun and other elements might impact them. There is a wealth of knowledge inside these communities that needs to be not only be better appreciated but tapped into. For example, in India, microHome solutions has recognized the work of local masons in the community who construct these settlements. They are trusted and have networks and relationships that make building these structures economically possible and doable. mHS advocates for recognition of these existing networks of "builders" who understand how communities work and what spaces work for them. Given the recent building collapses in Mumbai and elsewhere, there needs to be greater emphasis on training the masons and connecting them with appropriate materials to make safer structures.

Also, building off of this point, what's interesting to note in India — and I don't know how this compares to the African situation — is that the settlements, such as Dharavi, are not just housing settlements. These are vibrant communities that also have thriving business and industrial sectors. Many houses double as workshops during the day, which is rarely taken into account during slum rehab projects that slap up massive high-rise structures, tearing apart this multi-use, low-rise structure. These communities actually can offer a fantastic MODEL for how cities should be developing: mixed-use spaces with low-rise, high density neighborhoods. While there are many basic services lacking in Dharavi that need to be addressed on a government level, the residents have built quite a unique area with courtyards and almost no traffic within the one-square kilometer settlement. This is impossible to find anywhere else in the city!

In other words, it's important to stop looking at these communities as eyesores — black marks upon the city — and actually begin to think about what we might be able to learn from them.

The question on how land tenure can be achieved for slum dwellers is very important. I would like to start by saying that in Kenya slum settlements are categorized according to the type of land they occupy. There are three types: Public land, Private Lands and public contested lands.

Settlements on Public Land are comprised of families that occupied vacant public land shortly after independence, when people had the new freedom to move into cities and urban towns to look for jobs. When they landed into the cities, they built their own housing because the city ordinances had neither planned nor provided housing for the determined visitors who were in the city to stay and make a livelihood. Therefore these slums have grown INCREMENTALLY over the last 50 years.

Settlements on Private lands have diverse histories. In some cases, some of the private lands that settlements occupy are lands that were initially public but turned private because various “connected” political and business networks managed to allocate themselves the public lands that were already in occupation by oblivious poor families. In some other instances, the absence of zoning made the planning regulations weaker and caused the inability to quickly protect the land that poor resided on from the aggressive forces of speculators and developers. Therefore as the character of the city was changing the planning departments lost control to the market. The other history of private lands is the whole slum lord phenomenon. The lords are a category of those who live outside of slum settlements but derive their wealth by creating informal housing stock out of any open space in the cities. These housing stock that is created by organized groups is often an INVASION. Invasions, though very lucrative to the lords, will often not provide for services such as sanitation. The community tenancy populace that attempts to organize itself to address their needs in such kinds of settlements that have been formed by informal agents (invasions) will often be undermined because the Lords will often feel threatened by any initiative by its clients to bring in government interventions, for fear of exposure.

The third type of tenure is the Public Contested Lands that are often road reserves, riparian reserves, railway reserves, pipeline reserves and electricity reserves that are not permitted for any form of human settlement because of the high risk of danger.

Given these realities, the question of the acquisition of security of tenure by communities requires a several types of approaches.

I will be sharing various approaches used.

I would like to share with you the website of a multi-disciplinary research on urban land and housing issues which took place in Maputo a couple of years ago: This is a great example of how important is the academics' contribution to the debate on informal settlements understanding and improvement. This research approaches the informal reality from a different prospective, questioning the classic international paradigm of "informal city" and looking at the urban reality more thoroughly, taking into due account the existing cultural and social dynamics, needs and priorities of the wider population. This research shows that in a reality like Maputo, the so-called "informal city", where 70% of the population lives, represents a context-based solution to the current rapid city's growth. This research gives dignity to the inhabitants of these peri-urban areas, acknowledging their fundamental contribution, pride and ownership in the city development. This research outcome should be taken into account by urban managers, international organizations and policy makers as a reference in policy and strategy formulation or in urban development programmes. In order to do so, these urban actors should start to talk to each other and work together and not in isolated silos as usually happens.

In Maputo, the Faculty of Architecture and Physical Planning in collaboration with the Municipality and the World Bank Institute, recently launched a Master’s course on Integrated Intervention in Informal Settlements, mainly attended by Local and National Government’s and by International Organizations’ officials. What I like most about this course is that it is creating an opportunity (the first opportunity in many cases) for these people to seat together and discuss about informal areas, to share ideas, different points of view and expectations, and to try to find solutions for their reality, learning from international experiences and approaches worldwide.

Going back to Mikel Maron comments about the Good Fortune movie, I think that this is not an excellent movie but a missed opportunity. The guy came to Nairobi with a clear idea in his mind and a premade film script, which wanted to show that UN Officials are bureaucrats and the poor slum dwellers are the victims and have no power in the development game. The guy had the opportunity to see in depth and eventually show an interesting slum upgrading experience, but he preferred to be faithful to his script and preconceptions, no matter what, with no respect for the good work that was going on in Kibera and for the dignity of the population deeply involved in the process. Well, it's easier to sell bad news than good news. Right?

It is great that we all acknowledge the hindrances to informal settlement upgrading i.e. policy, tenure rights, context, partnerships and finance but I feel that the most important point (as mentioned by Iren) is in the value of local knowledge. In order for us to upgrade the existing informal settlements, there is a lot of groundwork (community capacitation, empowerment, project ownership and involvement) that needs to be done.

Before any of the expected results in informal settlement upgrading can eventuate mindsets need to change, without changing mindsets there wont be any change. Capacitating communities and involving them in community development helps to eliminate, “the municipality will do it for me,” mindset that is popular in South Africa’s informal settlements. If a community has the, “I can help myself,” mindset, they are, in fact, likely to harness the opportunities available, if any, to improve their livelihoods. When we change mindsets, we will witness the new evolution of community development. However, to do away with this expectancy syndrome where residents expect things to be done for them, our role as community planners is capacitating, giving communities the relevant tools to lobby for better services and take ownership of development in their communities.

After all the above we would then pursue avenues that would assist the government to take a facilitation role, thereby addressing community needs.

Kind regards
Thandeka Tshabalala

Thank you all for such insightful reading. Tariq, thanks for bringing our earlier discussions into the panel debate.

While I agree the larger issues discussed here around the socio-economic state, policies and availability of land (whether suitable or not) lie at the root cause of many challenges in developing informal settlements in South Africa and other Sub-Saharan African countries, what remains unaddressed are dire issues in the disjuncture between those facilitating/implementing tangible development ‘solutions’ on the ground and the legislature framework — as each year millions of Rands of unused housing budget are returned to the South African National Treasury.

While there are many reasons for this money not being spent, a large element lies in the capacity of the practitioners and government officials who are not able surmount the difficulties of working between community groups, private sector and different levels of government due, mainly, to ineffectual training.

I empathise with Adi’s experience with technocrats, as many of these respected (or tender appointed) experts are expected to provide ‘guaranteed’ solutions to the immense challenge of informal settlement development, but are not experienced or willing enough to truly engage with the complexity of these environments and develop effective and sustainable methodologies of implementation.

In South Africa our professional bodies, tertiary education facilities and government institutions are very slowly responding to this growing need for spatial practitioners, government officials and government employees to be better trained and exposed to the difficulty of working in such fluid environments — but not at a rate or scale that matches the immensity of the challenge at hand.

This is not a technical problem that be solved with only better housing solutions or typologies, this is a complex and multi-faceted challenge that requires new/better ways of working and understanding with and for those in poor an unsafe living conditions across South Africa — not just informal settlements.

Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi's picture

The reality for slum dwellers in cities like Lagos revolves more around making city planners and the government see slum upgrading as an option in the first place. I agree with Claudio an important question is "What will it take to make slum upgrading work in African urban centres?" This beggars the question how to first make it an option for al cities.

Governments do need to acknowledge the presence and creation of slums as a deeper symbol of poverty and lack of adequate social amenities, seeing it less as an ugliness to be beautified only transfer the problems and more spring up in different locations. Cities where urban upgrades are taking place are one step closer to solving the problem even though more could be done. It would be great to see Lagos step in that direction for slums like Makoko as opposed to tearing them down.

For my city the issue as earlier stated is how to make this an option and a viable one. Attempts by private firms to support and improve conditions is the Makoko floating slum such as redesigning building structures to make the sturdier and safer, building a floating g school , devising safer methods of getting proper basic amenities have all met resistance from the city. Definitely private citizens can play important roles but when the city is opposed to such there is very little the private sector can do.

Picking on the summary from Tariq and following comments, its critical to visualise a framework for communities to participate in a developmental agenda predominantly led by market driven strategies and poor state support:

Are state driven participatory forums effective to gather proper input from communities? In my view, clearly, these forums are not about building relationships with communities but rather about ticking boxes on engaging with people...
Should we discussing about partnerships between local governments and community/ community networks? Even though partnerships are being hailed as the next avenue for developing more inclusive cities, it is a double-edged sword. While it can demonstrate a strong alternative to 'formal participatory spaces' it can dilute the power of civil society. Regardless, in my view there is a strong need for setting such partnerships at the City level that can build different forms of relationship between citizens and local government. In particular, one challenge that we have frequently encountered in many African countries (and Asian countries), is access to finance. For instance in South Africa, the flow of Municipal funds is so highly regulated that it doesn’t allow a more innovation for resource flow. I hear the points about spatial and design practitioners, but innovative solutions around design are generally usually good for ‘pilots’ and somehow never ‘up-scale’. In this regard, I think it is becoming critical to situate development at the centre of design and planning, yet deeply grounded in finance mechanisms that can augment city assets and up-scale community based projects.

Academic sector is simultaneously going through a transition. Its clear that comparing the amount of academic research being generated is far greater than the number of critical upgrading projects that can be analysed. Thus, number of key intellectuals and research institutions are now playing a role of practitioners. This dual role appears to give the ultimate cusp of action based research. This is questionable at many respects — firstly that academic semesters are limited in timeframe, and yearly change of students doesn’t allow the same continuity or relation ship building that’s required. Perhaps my views are cynical, but there is a serious need for academia to engage communities, yet situate their research amidst local politics. Based on theoretical facts and not accounting for complex politic divisions on the ground has frequently led to communities becoming polarised or protesting.

Jorge Bela's picture

First of all, this week's special covers one of the most intractable problems in urban developments: how to improve conditions on slums. A common theme in several of the pieces is the need to allow slum residents participate actively in any project geared to help them. Irene points out at the benefits of mobilization. She points out to a very interesting idea: self analysis, as better knowledge about themselves empowers these communities at the time of cooperating with the government NGOS in the processes of analysis and policy formulation. In this sense Sara points out at the need to define a clear vision and to follow up on it: this is much easier if the communities are mobilize and more aware of their problems. Furthermore, Johno points out at the fact that often technical practitioner lack the ability and knowledge needed to really understand the problems, and this usually leads to oversimplistic or inadequate solutions.

Claudio reminds us that keeping the status quo has a cost that should be factored it. In the same line of thought reminds us of the need to go beyond the logic of the markets at the time of solving housing problems. All too often housing problems fall short, creating huge waitlists and not having an effect in the growth of the informal settlements. Slum upgrading is the only way to relieve these problems. Still, Marie remind us that the solution can never be to "wish away the reality of urban informality," perhaps the only long the long term solution to this reality can be a fairer distribution of the benefits that the prosperity bring during prolonged periods of economic growth.

María Fernanda Carvallo's picture

Throughout the discussion we have identified the urgent need to improve urban settlements, however the status of informality and irregularity of land tenure is an important element to be solved to improve the lives of the settlers. In Mexico City is the case of Milpa Alta a municipality which is home of the most vulnerable people; in this town different organizations are involved through social empowerment strategies to empower the village and guide the development of self-management strategies to solve social problems, however the project has not had sufficient impact because the land where the projects have been developed is classified as soil of conservation. According the approach of "sustainable livelihoods", the risk of being displaced due of land tenure insecurity doesn’t allow the community to invest in improvements for their locality. In this sense, the government should ensure security of tenure trough the investment of social basic services in slums in array that people can build their livelihoods.

The years shortly after independence (1960’s), urban areas experienced exponential population growth as a result of people seeking jobs in the promising cities. As we have seen, the city authorities lost control over these situations and are only trying to do so now. How tragic?

The Kenyan federation of slum dwellers has been collecting profiles of slum settlements including the status of land they occupy. This has been a powerful way to curve out a strategy of how the poor can begin to approach the authorities with their proposals….instead of the other way round.

One major tenure-break though that has happened thus far, is the negotiation of the slum dwellers with central government for a land share solution in Kibera and Mukuru. 10,000 families residing on public-contested land have managed to secure 33% of the land for resettlement at government cost.

In other areas, the Planning Departments of the city have responded to the aspirations of the poor by making resolutions to consider certain community led upgrading sites such as Kambi Motto, Mahira, Ghetto and Gitathuru slums in Huruma, Nairobi, to be Special Planning areas. The objective of these resolutions is a realization that the formal planning regulations do not accommodate the reality of the densities of families is urban spaces.

I want to continue to reiterate the need for community organization, which is the core of who drives these processes. Communities have got to want to resolve their circumstances so urgently for any successful transformation to happen. I am just remembering that the success of the above mentioned examples of upgrading have been the journey of years of a struggle though complex political economy, rigid bureaucrats, politicians, market forces and many other complexities that threaten the dream of a majority.

So how do communities sustain these organizations amidst these strong forces? In our experience, collective resources of their own savings and data have sustained the community organization. The weekly meetings and the collective savings for upgrading have sustained the vision.

Savings play a significant role in upgrading, especially where upgrading is driven by collectives of the poor themselves. And, this is what defines those who are looking for security of tenure and those that are only looking for structures to rent for a short time. As I mentioned in earlier conversations, the informal city, which forms 60% of the city, has been built using a do-it-yourself building process, which is outside of title and even financial credit. Therefore you have to applaud this kind of city evolution. In an event of slum upgrading, the drivers of these community driven upgrading is often those who are used to the do-it-yourself but this time, they have pulled their savings together to begin to improve the neighborhoods collectively. These kinds of collectives have defied the traditional myths that NO TITTLE, NO SERVICES!! Even without tittles, collectives of the poor are beginning to put pressure on the state to extend services to their neighborhoods. In Nairobi and Kisumu cities, the utility companies negotiated with community savings groups to develop formal water infrastructure in slum settlements.

Katy Fentress's picture

Thank you everyone for contributing to making the conversation so rich. Thank you also to those who have taken it upon themselves to sum up the lengthy arguments that have been put forth. The discussion has been extended for one more week so this gives us the space to explore some of the issues that have been raised so far.

Over the course of this discussion it has dawned on me that the national conversation throughout South Africa on informal settlement upgrading is more alive than it is in the other cities that we have covered (mainly Nairobi, Maputo and Lagos) . Why do I say this? Because in my reading of some of our South African commentators’ views, there appears to be a bigger emphasis on “project teams”, on “practitioners”, on "Housing Acts" and on the “agency of space”, which from the perspective of the other cities seem to be concepts that have yet to make it onto the agenda (you have to have a government or academic sector that is willing to raise these issues and train the practitioners in the first place).

In Nairobi it is difficult to speak of official “project teams” because with the exception of the KENSUP program that was mentioned above (from which we have not heard anything in a couple of years), there is a paucity of government-lead slum upgrading programs currently underway.

Why then is the conversation more alive on the national arena in South Africa than in Kenya, Mozambique and Nigeria?

Also, if community mobilization is so essential for the success of slum upgrading, what is holding community mobilization back?

Following from Thandeka’s question: what would it take to change the mindsets of slum dwellers (enable them to mobilize), middle class Africans (encourage them to care) and governments (encourage them to step up their game)?

Finally referring back to Aditya’s last comment, I think it would be worth exploring the existing gap between academic research and critical ongoing practice and what steps should be taken in order to close it...

Katy Fentress
URB.IM - Nairobi Community Manager

I believe everyone would love to know the silver bullet for slums and slum dwellers. But the question that bothers is really the identity of these 'slum dwellers.' The statistics proving the increase in the number of slums and slum dwellers in Africa are very true and worrying especially in the wake of 'Africa rising.' But it is most stark that African governments have made it the key focus to attain 'middle income' economic status, quantifying this 'growth' as GDP. This is notwithstanding the fact that the inequality divide may be huge and widening. Poor people in many african countries do not even feel part of this growth. It is left to politicians and economists to judge.

Slum dwellers have many problems to tackle, but the first and foremost must be their own acceptance that they exist and that they face unique challenges. They must especially be assisted to understand that the challenges they face are not ordinary challenges caused by providence but are consequences of political decisions in their own countries. This discovery and 'acceptance' can only be determined scientifically by processes that would help them see themselves as quantifiable and therefore qualifiable. No one would qualify the existence of a people who do not exist officially but only as 'encroachers' or 'squatters' except the people themselves. In a world where existence and importance is pegged on one's ability to express who they are and what they want, development actors working in slums must do everything to help slum dwellers come to terms with their identity; this knowledge will help them develop many strengths among them self-esteem and public confidence that every poor person needs before they can begin the walk out of poverty.

It is really not about 'housing' as it has been simplified by many actors including governments who seem to have concluded that the problem of slums is a problem of housing. All human beings would prefer some dignity given a choice. All African cultures and traditions value dignity, even in the midst of poverty. Slum conditions rob families of this right. They know deep down that if they could, they wouldn't live in the slums. Theirs is not about where they live, but how they live. Any human being given enough incentive and means, would improve their own environment. Slum upgrading projects have failed to see this perspective and have decided upon focusing on and promoting the city's 'aesthetics.' In most big cities, slums are seen as stains in the beautiful mosaic of the city. An eyesore especially to tourists and investors that our leaders would rather not want to show.

But the rise of slums is also a barometer that all is not well for many African governments. There is an increasing pride, acceptance and identity formation about slums by slum-dwellers. One whose main object however still distant and fantastic is that of economic justice. Gradually, projects that build on this desire do well by carving out pockets of this potentially explosive solidarity. The rise of 'main-street' journalism has caught the main-stream media off-guard. Slum-dwellers are increasingly telling their own stories and relying less on the corporate-owned media which for decades have kept them a guarded secret except for occasional sensational stories of extreme human situations. They have been 'the other' face of Africa, a face of poverty, pain and suffering that is not shown to investors and tourists but to donors and philanthropists. It has been too long in the closet. When the boil of poverty reaches its bursting point, the beautiful cities will reek of its filth and character. It is a sociological fact.

It is therefore better for development actors to agree on common entry points and development plans rather than act like the legendary blind men with the elephant. Each defining the elephant by what they have touched and felt. Empowerment must be true, one cannot teach another how to fish when they wont let go of the harpoon.

My 2 cents.

I might be joining the conversation too late, but I was nevertheless hoping to add a point to this vivid discussion.

Full disclosure: I study city planning at UCBerkeley and worked in South Africa as well as Kenya as a journalist and international development consultant. Therefore, the point I'm about to make is not only still a challenge to me but might also be an unpopular one. It gives (at least some) power to the market.

Please do give insightful comments (feel free to tear it apart).

community knowledge+policy+market=jobs=slum prevention

community knowledge: Irene (echoed by Carlin and Thandeka), early in the discussion, explained the importance of existing knowledge, wealth and data.
policy: Throughout the discussion, the buy-in of the public sector in addition to community ownership crystallized.
prevention: Both Matt and Marie made the important argument for preventive action, pointing out that it is "multiple times more economical than improving existing ones."
market: ?
jobs: ?

As Katy has pointed out, the market (and international organizations to a large extent) has been left out of this discussion. Is there a place for it?
In my own work, I grapple with this question, given the incredibly high un- and underemployment in SSA's increasingly "young-ing" informal settlements. Leveraging the wealth of knowledge and skills and making them profitable for slum dwellers is the key here. One solution I am investigating at the moment is "microwork" or "Impact Sourcing." It involves the market (to provide low-skill tech jobs), the government (to regulate employment practices) and--most importantly--the brainpower of slum dwellers.

My questions to you are:
1. Would this type of approach work to improve living conditions in informal settlements?
2. Would the impact focus on the short- or the long-term?
3. Would it turn into a sweatshop rather than transit employment to more sophisticated and lucrative employment?

Thanks very much to the organizers and participants for sharing such a wealth of experience on this critical issue.

Focus on Land in Africa (FOLA) is developing a section on urban poverty and we welcome your contributions. See Also, you might be interested in this brief and slideshow on Using Land Policy to Improve the Lives of Liberia's Urban Poor (

Bee Wuethrich |
Communications & Outreach Specialist
1424 Fourth Ave., Suite 300, Seattle 98101, USA
T: 206-257-6155 | F: +1 206-528-5881

widya anggraini's picture

My apology for joining such interesting discussion so late. I overwhelmed with the amount of information from African countries and I believe we share similar problems in this issue. However, every country has different slum characteristic in term of the history and efforts to solve problems in slum areas. Slum in Jakarta appeared initially in 1960s when people started find a living in big city. At the beginning, flow of people from rural to Jakarta benefits the government for cheap labor during massive development in Jakarta. But then, population growth became so uncontrollable and within 25 years, Jakarta population tripled as well as numbers of squatters. I agree with Marie to state that slum prevention is vital and now it’s the time to mainstream the issue.

For Jakarta case, government is the main actor in slum upgrading activities. Some approach involved forced eviction and included police but there are also cases where initial discussion and agreement took place before eviction. Either way, I saw main flaw lies in the general attitude of Indonesia who saw that slum is only government problem, so we wait for the government to take action. I will say that governance today no more government area only but also private and communities. So, change of mindset and attitude is required.

I agree that International donor plays important part in slum upgrading and maybe activities in slum prevention, but how many countries they could cover while almost in very big cities we have to deal with this issue. I probably prefer to see civil society as the guard and play bigger role in solving slum problems. Civil society includes state and non-state actors. In the case of Jakarta, I saw little involvement of non state actors and mainly this is about mindset. Moreover, it also because lack of capacity of slum community to voice their need and want, and at the same time they also powerless compare to, let say, market who wants to take over their places to turn into mall or office space. I probably want to see more people living in slum who are able to define what they need and able to collect data and present it as policy draft for government. To be at this stage, mentoring from strong Ngo or International donor could be an option. In Jakarta, this part has been initiated by university students who came to slums as part of their final projects.

widya anggraini

I would like to pick up from profound points made by Christina Gossmann.

When we speak of the Market, I get a sense that we should also be talking about it as a macro issue as much as it has always been addressed as a micro issue (commonly referred to as micro credit, micro activities etc!). For instance, the lack of efficient transport systems means that people will settle closest to their jobs regardless of the inhumane conditions they have to make do with. If you look at the settlements in Nairobi against a 3-year timeline, you will notice how space quickly fills up and now shacks are being constructed as multi-storey to accommodate the huge demand for affordable housing near jobs. Settlements such as Kia Mutisya, Mariguini, Kosovo slums etc, that touch the Nairobi CBD are bursting out of their seams with huge densities. If the Market and Government investments on infrastructure can improve the inter-connectivity within and without the city, then people do not have to live where they work.

Currently, Kenya is trying to rehabilitate the city commuter railway routes to deal with this connectivity issue. We hope that the big cities being constructed in Kenya, such as the Konza city will anticipate the patterns of urban sprawl with the same rigor that has gone into creating the detail of the city.

The comment on the International organizations and the role they play or better still, their participation in these conversations is very key. Many conventional NGO’s do not want to take the risk of engaging in complex issues like land tenure or urban development in urban areas because, the funding runs out half way into a process of tenure or housing acquisition. Many bilateral partners may not be aware of how complex these realities of urban poverty are. Its no wonder that many movements of land right nature struggle to get consistent funding. SDI is one of those.

Going back to the conversation on the Market. From the perspective of poor communities, the Market is a double-edged sword. On one hand the urban poor communities are in need of financial options to draw from private sector while on the other hand, the market has Bigger and more Aggressive EMERGING players. What do I mean? Urban poor challenges are not only about economic costs but rather, they also have political costs associated too. See, all slum settlements or informal commercial areas are situations that are being tolerated. There is someone who is negotiating with authority, with the armed police, with the threatening developers or whatever powers that exists in order NOT TO BE EVICTED. And these are the nuances of patronage by politicians.

The other side of the sword is our urban reality as a continent, which I refer to as the emerging aggressive players in the urban space. These players are the growing middle-class that is emerging out of young people with disposable income and attractive savings, splitting from their families and creating a new demand for new housing. The private sector is essentially thriving on this bracket. The effect of this middle class force on the poor is the ease to which poor communities are quickly and forcefully evicted from their settlements to create new sites for middle class estates.

Therefore I see Christina’s point as an to attempt to create opportunities for the younger population from the low income bracket to increase its livelihood opportunities and possibly enjoy urban products too.

Chris Baulman's picture

Hi all — this is proving to be a wonderful conversation with great dedication from all!

Glad to realise "stemming the growth of these sprawling settlements" was clarified to mean making things better for existing settlers & newcomers, rather than attempting to hold back the tide, although no doubt some rural people could be subsidised for a time to stay on the land. It also seems to be mostly recognised that whatever is done to integrate some people into the mainstream economy, the main concern is for those who will never do so … those who stay in slums because they have no option, rather than for those who can capitalise on their conditions.

Whether most slum dwellers would have to wait "60 years" or a bit less for a service model to reach them, it’s also clear that the best way forward is for people to help themselves rather than imagine funding will be available, & they have proven to be very good at helping themselves — when the authorities both get out of the way or can be persuaded to actually be supportive with zoning for example that will secure the land for housing, & with building regulations that accommodate the reality that people need to build by hand with found materials on unserviced sites.

Another area where government has an important role is in one of the most important things agreed upon — security of tenure. "Tenure security is the first priority for residents of slum settlements because evidently communities can have the capacity to upgrade themselves in their own way and their own time."

I am heartened to see that the usual proposals to somehow fund ownership have not been built up. Undoubtedly ownership, if gifted by government would immediately increase security (or would more typically come only after a very insecure 20 years of paying a mortgage), but however it is achieved, ownership by one group ultimately creates wealth for them, but it creates poverty & exclusion for people who become slum dwellers. The ownership model is a two edged sword & slum dwellers are the result of it.

I see much more potential in Government as landlord where tenants pay rent based on their income. This keeps increasing land value with government, provides an income to help cover costs & encourages spaces to be occupied by those who need it for shelter rather than by profit takers. It also avoids the gentrification that happens with many other upgrading measures. What we wouldn’t want is "an ugliness to be beautified only (to) transfer the problems and (have) more ugliness spring up in different locations".

For a vision of this potential see … this could transform the social image of slum dwellers & put government support on the agenda. (paraphrased)

"These communities actually can offer a fantastic MODEL for how cities should be developing: mixed-use spaces with low-rise, high density neighborhoods".

As with ownership, the leadership sword is also double edged in that if you promote it you also promote followers and you alienate softer voices, the very ones who are stuck in poverty because of their lack of such initiative and capacity. Anyhow, leaders don’t generally stay if they can make a more profitable life elsewhere, & so the slum dwellers are left like lost sheep. These are the stayers with whom we need to connect, not those who claim to represent them, convenient as that method of “consultation” may be for NGO’s etc. The stayers are surely our target here.

The self organising community where everyone is heard is an ideal which, until the advent of wireless technology, has relied entirely on irksome meetings where leaders take over & are further empowered by being in demand for consultation. With wireless connection readily available on cheap mobiles now, open & transparent collaboration, planning and action is becoming less of a dream. But it has needed a free app. so people wouldn’t have to rely on leaders to interpret & organise the inputs. This app. is almost ready for trial & could make manipulation of participatory processes impossible. It also makes knowledge & information sharing between cities & countries easy.

Being organised is only part of the solution. If government is to play a supportive role it will need to be convinced that the slums, which, like the poor “will always be with us”, can be a positive part of the city. Only then will government provide security rather than trying to clear them out & spread the problems thinly so as not to be seen.

But before people will invest themselves in achieving the laborious improvement of their slum, they do need to trust the government.

To this end, NGOs should agitate vigorously for government to declare its commitment to human rights, backing this up with supportive zoning & building code reforms. However government reluctance to get behind the principle of a right to "shelter" is even evident in rich countries who defensively declare that providing shelter must depend on availability of funds, which depends on other urgent budget priorities. This is a straw man if the "right" is examined more closely, because while having to provide someone with free shelter is questionable, having to provide them with space to erect their own shelter is not … and it’s not a budgetary dilemma either.

"Our role as community planners is capacitating, giving communities the relevant tools to lobby for better services and take ownership of development in their communities.

After all the above we would then pursue avenues that would assist the government to take a facilitation role, thereby addressing community needs."

Chris Baulman

Chris Baulman's picture

I meant to give a link to the "collaboration tool" that I referred to in my previous post.

It is designed to initially encourage chit chat on local issues as a way of getting used to connecting on line. Without pressuring them to go further, if someone finds a common cause with another person, the CreateVillage technology will support any steps they might need to take for an outcome — identifying goals, tasks, breakdown of steps, timetabling .. a simpler & more intuitive & permanently inclusive open "project" collaboration tool. It's designed to put the power of the professionals into the hands of totally unskilled neighbours.

Find someone to chat with and have a try — it will serve any goal from collaboration on. A simple party to the highly complex, like a community garden or a joint building project.

I would welcome any feedback you feel like giving

Chris Baulman

Dear all, sorry for my late adding to our conversation. It has been great to get to know each of you and to get a glimpse of your ideas. Hope we'll find further platforms to continue this debate.

Here are my last ideas, trying to connect them to what has been stated by all contributors:

I see Marie's quest for urban reform as one for an urban economics' reform, in which slum upgrading and slum prevention are represented by the measures than will render unprofitable the current wild business of slums.

About land, I would like to quote a technician's metaphor when referring to land readjustment during a workshop as a ways of 'unlocking the value of land'. Maybe not for him, but for me this means to manage to equate the value of land to zero, nil. To forget about the big business we should be doing. To concentrate us more, in line with Gemma's opinion and considering Marie's warning on repressive measures, in slum dwellers than slums.

Adi and Jhono's plea for field work for everyone involved in this matter reflects the need for more understanding on urban poverty. For sure we all are on this. Work in progress.

And, as a final thought, I'd like to share with you a story that taught me a lot about the possibilities for a private sector involvement: during my time working with NGOs in urban poverty projects in Nairobi we were implementing a child malnourishment programme with WFP. As the programme was being stopped because urban malnourishment was not a priority for WFP, we were going around the health centres partnering for food distribution explaining the situation. One of these happen to be in Sinai slums, the slum that blasted in an oil explosion some years ago killing more than one hundred people. As this slum is nearby the main industrial area of Nairobi, the WFP official was encouraging the health centre director to look for the help of the surrounding industries to keep the programme going on independently. She said most surely the industries will be happy to help their workers' families. The director told her that they have already tried to bring them in, but the only thing they got were cookies from the big factory next door. She said, if they were willing to help, they could at list give contracts to the Sinai residents that were providing them cheap casual labour. So, I thought, the cookies, more than charity, were intended to open a market. No citizens but customers. Even poor customers are big business.

Thanks to all

Katy Fentress's picture

In the final section of this discussion we find that the role of the market has proved somewhat contentious while that of the inhabitants’ of slums has remained more clear.

Kepha underlines how pride and identity formation can result in an “explosive solidarity” that can drive projects to do well (a different take on what Gemma was saying earlier regarding the slum dweller image of “brand”), while Christina approaches the community as a retainer of knowledge, wealth and data to be leveraged in partnership with the market and the government. Chris on the other hand points to a need for self-organising communities to network amongst themselves while trusting the government to provide a supportive role.

With regards to the government, Kepha and Irene underline its implicit role in the creation and perpetuation of slums, while Claudio reiterates the need for urban economic reform in order to render unprofitable the business of slums. Claudio's call is echoed in Chris's comment about lobbying the government to "declare its commitment to human rights" and showing it's serious through "supportive zoning and building code reforms".

While no one argues that slums are not the result of the convergence of specific political and economic interests, the market presents itself in different forms (major market players, industry, landlords, slum lords, micro enterprise) and it is unclear whether the different levels of overlapping interests compete and can, or will, prevent things from improving. It seems apparent that left out its own, the market will not provide solutions to slum upgrading, especially as long as land is viewed as a valuable asset to be exploited. As a result, it would be interesting to follow-up on Christina’s work and understand whether there are instances in which a socially-conscious private sector can help with the creation of low-skill tech jobs.

While this discussion has officially drawn to an end (although anyone is welcome to comment further on the issue in the comment section below or as a specific answer to one of the previously posted comments), there are many interesting questions that have been raised that merit further analysis and debate.

Perhaps in future it will be possible to follow-up on some of the specifics that have been discussed (land tenure, role of government, community mobilisation, private sector involvement) with further discussions. In the mean time all of the above topics are in fact addressed at some length on the different city and subject hubs.

For now I would like to thank everyone who has participated and to encourage the creation of more discussions on the topic both online and off.

Katy Fentress
URB.IM - Nairobi Community Manager

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.