Empowering the slums.

When one hears the term “slums”, any number of things can come to mind. One might picture the abysmal living conditions of the working class during the Industrial Revolution. Images from the Oscar winning movie, “Slumdog Millionaire”, may come to mind. Others might just think of the current slang term “slumming it”.


Kisenyi, Kampala. Picture from flickr, December 2013

Or you might be one of the 1 billion people who thinks of home.

According to the United Nations Settlement Programme, also known as UN-HABITAT, that 1 billion could increase to 3 billion by 2050.

While UN-HABITAT is working to help governments around the globe deal  with the issues surrounding slums, there is also an international grassroots organization working in these areas; Shack/Slum Dwellers International- A Global Network of the Urban Poor.  This organization uses unique tools to empower the urban poor and help them find their voice.

Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) is a network of community-based organizations of the urban poor in 33 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It was launched in 1996 when “federations” of the urban poor in countries such as India and South Africa agreed that a global platform could help their local initiatives develop alternatives to evictions while also impacting on the global agenda for urban development”

SDI believes having the urban poor at the center of urban development is only way to deal with growth and create inclusive cities. They believe that starting at a community level and building trust with local officials will help.

“When local authorities engage with informal settlement communities, residents become active partners in upgrading their built environment. When communities and authorities learn together and produce developmental outcomes together, they are able to reach many more communities than the top-down initiatives that some countries attempt.”

Having the community be active partners in the planning process is a goal of planning, regardless of what scale, and SDI has a unique way of getting population involved.


Freetown in Sierra Leone. Picture taken July, 2012 by Loraine Gendron.

Becoming a member of Shack/Slum Dwellers International first requires a level of savings. These savings groups have to come from the street or community level. It allows the poor to pool their resources to create a “federation”, which is an agglomeration of the savings groups. These federations take their resources to local officials and use it as leverage to gain external contributions. This helps take pro-poor initiatives to scale. SD’s Urban Poor Fund International works alongside these national funds to support local initiatives that build capacity through practice.

SDI is also aiming to empower women through their savings and credit program. They feel women will be instrumental in changing the conditions of the slums.

Mbare market, Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture courtesy of Flickr, December 2013.

Mbare market, Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture courtesy of Flickr, December 2013.

“In SDI’s experience, it is always women who dream of

tree-lined streets, brick houses, and safe places for their children to play.

And women are willing to save incrementally to turn this dream into a reality. Thus, women’s savings and loan schemes are the foundation for all collective action.”

In the developing world there is an unequal relationship between men and women. SDI hopes to build trust in women by allowing them to manage funds.

“By entrusting women to handle such important monetary systems — whereby they are in charge of the precious savings of their neighbors and friends — communities begin to understand the potential of women as public decision-makers and powerful agents of change. In fact, savings and credit activities, apart from their clear financial benefits, serve as a means to bring women out of the home and into the public sphere in a manner rarely resented by men.”

An important and unique aspect of the Shack/Slum Dwellers International is their community-to-community outreach program. Communities are able to reach out and visit one another, to help learn and grow from the successes and failures of one another

“Community-to-community exchanges allow participants to see themselves and their peers as experts, thereby breaking isolation to create a unified voice of the urban poor. . . The pool of knowledge generated through exchange programs becomes a collective asset of the SDI network – so that when slum dwellers meet with external actors to debate development policies, they can draw from international examples, forcing government and other stakeholders to listen.”

Nairobi Settlement Profiling. Picture courtesy of Flickr, December 2013.

Nairobi Settlement Profiling. Picture courtesy of Flickr, December 2013.

Under-representation is an ongoing issue for many of the world’s poor.  Often times, people feel overwhelmed and under-educated on the matters surrounding planning. Shack/Slum Dwellers International empowers the urban poor and gives them a voice. They are allowed to learn from themselves and others like them. A little pride can go a long way in changing how a community treats and invests the area they live.