‘We have not come here to beg. We have come here to say: ‘Let’s make partnership, let’s sit together, slum dwellers and city authorities and the bilaterals under the auspices of the UN. We can sit together and plan a city, a sustainable city.’ We have come here to say that, without our partnership, you cannot have the development we are talking about today.’
Jockin Arphutham, speaking at the World Urban Forum, Nairobi, April 2002
Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) was formed to enable national federations of shack dwellers in one country to strengthen the work of federations elsewhere. While they have long recognized the value of peer exchanges between countries, for them the value of involvement with the UN and other multilateral agencies is much less clear.
Birth of SDI
Evidence from around the world suggests that most cities are unable to cope with the increased numbers of their citizens who are housed in slums and shantytowns. Yet these problems cannot be wished away. Rather than waiting for governments to do something about them, the communities of the poor have got together. They have begun to save money, collect information about themselves and create solutions to their problems.
To strengthen their activities, they have created national federations. In 1996, these national federations formed an international network, Shack/Slum Dwellers International. Through community exchanges among the various countries, innovative practices found to be successful in one city quickly spread elsewhere.
SDI is a new and emerging network that characterizes the changing world in which we live. Even very poor people recognize the need to have global connectivity. International links and bonds of solidarity help them address their needs. Knowledge is power in this new millennium and the federated communities within SDI are strengthening themselves using shared information and knowledge.
The network was started to support the struggles of national federations. It was intended for peer exchanges. The next step was supporting negotiations with city authorities and national governments. This process highlighted the contradictions between community processes and the development ‘solutions’ being put forward by the larger-scale development agencies, which restricted the participation of local people, especially the urban poor.
SDI goes to the UN
Could involvement with the UN institutions be a way of exploring and addressing these contradictions? In June 2001, SDI brought a delegation of 25 people from five countries to the UN General Assembly’s special session on Habitat (referred to as UNGASS). The decision to participate was made hesitantly and the group was full of misgivings. SDI had no collective experience of making representations in such a process. Most of the groups were cynical about large conferences and their inability to make space for the voices of the poor (in whose name many such events take place). All the federation members had much to do at home. Why waste time at UNGASS?
And yet they did go. They constructed a life-size model of a federation house and a community toilet block in the main lobby of the UN. For the rest of the week, they attended the Assembly and participated in the parallel sessions.
Many outsiders saw SDI’s participation as successful. There was a comment made: ‘This is a global marketplace, and here everything is a brand whether you are a person, an institution, a cause or a movement. In this process, SDI as a brand name has got recognition.’ But that in no way lessened the sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction that most community members felt.
Was it worth it?
Sheela Patel, Director of SPARC:
‘The life-size models were a smashing success. That was the main mitigating factor. SDI was very successful in drawing attention to itself and its message. It was a team effort. But it was a week that clearly demonstrated that there is no space in such fora for the homeless and the poor and their representatives. An almost overwhelming majority of participants went home very disappointed. The excitement and recognition around the exhibition drew a positive response, but the rest of the process was strange and alien.
‘Organizations of the poor are always operating in situations of great oppression and inequality and are constantly battling the sense of invisibility. Success is about gaining resources, entitlements and recognition. This event confused us because it did not have any immediate benefits to take back to our communities.’
The SDI organizations’ most focused commitment is to mobilize and organize the urban poor. While beginning to acknowledge rather reluctantly that they need to keep a foot in the global discourse, they have deep reservations about the nature and form of that process, and the way it sucks up energies and time and people. ‘When viewed from the ground,’ says Patel, ‘this process seems totally senseless with neither clear commitment nor accountability to the poor and their priorities.’
How can the huge costs involved in participation be justified? When the federations began community exchanges, they were asked, is it not better to build a home from the money spent on exchanges? At that time, the answer was NO! Building one house will not solve the problem. The SDI network continues to demonstrate that the tangible and non-tangible outputs of exchanges far outstrip the actual costs of the exchanges.
Can the same rationale be used for this kind of participation? SDI events and exchanges create excitement that energizes community leaders to face and overcome problems in their work. This clearly did not happen at the UN. However, SDI was not an organization to let the momentum stop. Drawing on the range of earlier experiences, local groups recognized the UN as a potential resource.
UN participates in SDI
Habitat Day in Namibia, 26 October 2002, provided an opportunity for the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia (SDFN) to move forward their agenda for change. The idea of this major event was to profile the policy of the City of Windhoek, itself the product of five years of lobbying and demonstration activities. The policy permits the incremental development of land, greatly reducing the costs of secure tenure and basic services. Equally significantly, organized groups are able to buy blocks of land, increasing permitted densities and further reducing costs.
SDFN invited UN-Habitat (UN Programme on Human Settlements) to participate in the national launch of the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure in Namibia. This would be the fourth national launch, and it was to be a celebration of the communities’ achievements with their local authorities. The UN rapidly agreed.
Two thousand members of SDFN attended the launch, together with visitors from other cities, NGOs, private sector staff, political leaders, and SDI members from Asia and Africa. The joint participation of federations under the banner of SDI gave the international team a focused identity, and their collective presence was a recognition of SDFN’s achievement. Countries that were only beginning to organize themselves had an opportunity to see how to strengthen and motivate their own groups.
‘It is a great occasion having the Prime Minster and shack dwellers under one roof to celebrate the event. This is a demonstration of how we can share responsibility. We urge the government to join hands with SDI. The government makes the legislation and policies but without implementation they are like a beautiful queen with no one to marry her. We are all united in our quest for cities without slums.’
The next day, the Deputy Minister of Regional, Local Government and Housing hosted a reception for the UN guests, foreign delegates and local representatives of SDFN and its support NGO, the Namibian Housing Action Group. The Deputy Minister said that SDFN was a valued partner of government and handed over a cheque of N$1 million for the Federation’s loan fund.
Although the launch took place in Namibia, the benefits were not limited to that country. For example, a meeting between Zimbabwean local authority officials and the City of Windhoek shifted the position of both politicians and officials from the City of Harare. The Chair of the Housing Committee commented after the meeting: ‘Now I see the value of progressive housing. I can see how people can quickly upgrade their homes.’
The success of the event in Namibia did not emerge by luck or accident. SDI was involved in the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure from the beginning. The first national launch took place in Mumbai (India) with the Government of India and the National Federation of Slum Dwellers in July 2000, and subsequent launches added to the experience of the SDI network. By the time of the Namibia launch, community leaders and support NGOs could see the potential benefits of a high-profile event with UN involvement and how they might be maximized.
What value was the UN presence?
In its short life, SDI has had multiple engagements with the UN. The problems with the UN General Assembly’s special session on Habitat described above have been repeated on numerous occasions. The content is alienating, the global discourse bears little relationship to problems on the ground, there is little to be gained immediately for individual participants or federations, and the costs of participation are high. For an organization that believes that change has to be driven from the bottom up, and that a critical factor in successful pro-poor transformation is the centrality of the poor themselves, engagement with the UN is fraught with difficulties.
However, the Namibian example shows that the UN can play a significant part in securing pro-poor policies and practices. Anna Muller, Namibian Housing Action Group coordinator, feels the UN presence helped make the case for the kind of policy changes that the Federation needs and enabled them to work in partnership with the Habitat Committee and draw the Committee into supporting a pro-poor agenda. The UN presence was also critical in adding profile and significance to the event, and so drawing in senior Namibian government officials. Even in a country where relationships between government and federation groups are strong, UN participation thus makes a difference. The high-profile nature of the event also helped encourage government officials from other countries to take part with federation groups.
Achieving the Millennium Development Goals
The Millennium Development Goals challenge development agencies to secure an improvement in the quality of life for at least 100 million slum dwellers. The grassroots organizations and their federations that make up SDI have a critical contribution to make. Without local organizations, the UN and other multilateral agencies can do nothing; they have no capacity to make people listen. Will they facilitate the active engagement of poor people’s organizations? Or will the urban poor continue to be treated as objects whose needs should be addressed?
Jockin Arputhim, Nairobi, April 2002:
‘We are talking about the “city without slums”. Is there anybody in the world who thinks that we can have a “city without slums” without the participation of slum dwellers? Today, for the first time, there are more than 100 slums participating in this kind of meeting. It is always somebody else making the presentation of slum dwellers … But all the strategies that are working today are from slum dwellers. Slum dwellers can give you the experts that you want.’
1 Jockin Arputhim is President of the National Federation of Slum Dwellers (India) and President of SDI.
2 Generally speaking, Shack Dwellers International is used in Africa and Slum Dwellers International in Asia. This simply reflects the names by which the groups identify themselves.
3 Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, Mumbai.
4 The Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia is one of the founding organizations within SDI.
5 Established by the Namibian government to realize the Habitat Agenda – an agreement coming out of the Second UN Conference on Human Settlements in 1996. In fact the UN had a housing adviser in place in Namibia during the first years after Independence. The adviser helped to open doors for SDFN and helped to ensure that the broad housing policy favoured community groups.
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History of SDI participation in the United Nations
January 2000 SDI invited to partner the UN Centre for Human Settlements in its Global Campaign for Secure Tenure. First official involvement of SDI with the UN.
July 2000 Launch of Campaign in Mumbai with SDI Federation. Government officials attended as guests of the UN and SDI.
October 2000 Launch of the Campaign in the Philippines.
November 2000 Launch of the Campaign in South Africa.
June 2001 Special Session of the UN General Assembly.
April/May 2002 World Urban Forum in Nairobi.
October 2002 Launch of the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure in Namibia.