Transforming Settlements in Africa



When I think about sustainable urbanization in Africa, I think about partnerships. In Jinja, Uganda, where I come from, the National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda (NSDFU) has built a strong working partnership with government. In this article I will highlight some lessons about the key triggers of this partnership that may be useful for other communities and cities. My experience in Jinja also reflects what I have learned from the global Slum Dwellers International (SDI) family.

My perspective on transforming settlements of the urban poor is that such change should be a community- and women-centred process, in order to realize sustainability and bottom-up ownership. Transformation should involve mobilizing and sensitizing slum dwellers to understand the importance of change. Sensitizing communities means allowing them to participate in the planning and implementation of settlement upgrading. During that process, we have to pay particular attention to women, whose voices are sometimes drowned out by men. If the residents do not own the process, the word transformation can be abused and governments can use it to justify forced eviction and developments that exclude the poor. Mobilizing the urban poor into ‘savings groups’ is one of the major SDI strategies to reach out to women urban dwellers and help them organize to drive their own slum transformation.

So it was in Jinja. The roots of NSDFU in the municipality can be traced to a meeting held in September 2002 at Kamuli Primary School. A delegation from Kampala that included the SDI President, Federation members from SDI affiliates, and government officials from the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development of Uganda convened the meeting. The team explained that urban poor federations in the SDI network used savings to bring communities together, build their capacity to work collectively and learn from other slum dwellers in the network, thereby improving the lives of the urban poor and building partnerships with government to work towards those ends. Those gathered at the meeting agreed to test out this new idea. SDI organized exchanges to introduce Jinja slum dwellers to the work of their peers in Kenya.

Following these exchanges, the Federation spread to all divisions of Jinja municipality. When savings groups begin, they often focus on members’ livelihood issues, but through exchanges and greater exposure to Federation tools and practices, communities begin to formulate an urban agenda that looks beyond group members and towards transforming the settlements in which they live.

The early years of NSDFU, 2002–2004, were a learning phase, and the Federation participated in many exchanges to build their capacity and spark new ways of thinking about urban challenges. It was during this period that the urban poor in Jinja came to recognize that they could collectively mobilize, negotiate and lobby authorities in ways hitherto unimagined. A new model of community organization was born and women were at the centre. This new model would challenge the status quo and encourage the urban poor to feel that they were entitled to live in the city.

NSDFU members learned that saving daily and becoming part of a federation helped them accumulate needed funds and engage each other on more than just livelihood issues. They learned that profiling and enumeration could help them gather information on their settlements and generate data that was useful to the Jinja Municipal Council (JMC). In fact, they discovered that Council officials were open to participating in the enumeration process alongside them. In the end, these activities not only encourage people to save but also bring communities together to share information on pressing issues affecting them.

In the period from 2005 to 2009, NSDFU expanded its membership and the scope of its activities from a handful of loosely networked savings groups to 34 groups by June 2010. Networks were formed, the leadership was groomed, thematic committees became active and upgrading projects began. The growth of the Federation and its governance structures was principally achieved through learning-by-doing exchanges with other Federation members. During the entire process, we had to encourage women to speak up, take on leadership positions and believe that they had the answers inside them.

The Transforming Settlements of the Urban Poor in Uganda (TSUPU) programme was an initiative of the global coalition Cities Alliance, the Government of Uganda and SDI. Launched in 2009, the programme was the
 first of its kind in the country and kick-started a new phase for our Federation. It recognized the central role of slum dwellers in the urban development agenda and institutionalized spaces for engagement between communities and local governments.

One of the first major achievements of the Federation at that time was the profiling and enumeration of the whole of Jinja. Community data gathering creates a foundation for partnership because it is through this process that communities and their leaders can come together to plan for their settlement. Because we invite the local government to participate in the data-gathering process and to authorize our reports, both parties believe in and trust the data. The process also brings together communities from all over the city to think about how to upgrade. They begin to see how the issues in their settlement are connected to those facing the entire city. As a community leader, I refer to this profiling and enumeration process as the backbone of development because it informs our strategies and partnerships.

The Federation grew rapidly in scope and skill during this time. Today the Federation in Jinja has more than 4,000 members and 48 savings groups. It has implemented upgrading projects all over the municipality in partnership with the local government using the Community Upgrading Fund and its own Urban Poor Fund. It has a large building materials workshop and training site where members learn to make and sell the materials used in upgrading, capturing the value-chain for enhanced sustainability of the effort.

My experience with the Federation suggests that before NSDFU began organizing communities in Jinja, community engagement with the Council could be characterized as follows:

  • The Council was seen as a provider rather than a partner.
  • The Council was not considered accessible to the urban poor.
  • Community organizations utilized self-help rather than municipal development.
  • The urban poor were not perceived as having a role to play in planning.

After NSDFU mobilized its members using SDI practices, things changed. It built collective capacity through the formation and federation of savings groups, and initiated community-driven data gathering through enumeration and profiling. The Council came to recognize NSDFU as a partner capable of addressing the information lacuna in the urban setting.

Pilot NSDFU upgrading projects dealing with housing, sanitation and community halls showed that the urban poor also had the capacity to use information to identify and implement projects to address specific challenges. The projects demonstrated that communities could design upgrades that met their needs using skills and materials from within the community, and could maintain and replicate these projects with minimal government assistance. With mounting pressure from the grassroots and the national Government, it became necessary to address slum issues, and the Federation stood out as a strategic partner that the Council could work with. This approach resulted in joint initiatives for participatory planning, including the Joint Working Group, Municipal Development Forum
and Community Upgrading Fund, which recognized and institutionalized the productive partnership between the Federation and JMC. Improved relations have ensured that the urban vision of NSDFU and the Council—and more importantly, the implementation strategy for that vision—become increasingly harmonized.

As a result, it can be observed that JMC has become more accountable to the urban poor and planning has become more participatory. The Council and the urban poor have identified and are implementing concrete strategies for engagement. Practice is changing and a space has been opened up for learning, with clear pathways for influencing policy.

I always say the 'roots' of the relationship with our Council are now evident. No one can shake that relationship. It is there. They have seen the Federation grow. They know our history. This example from my hometown of Jinja shows that at least three key triggers have contributed to strong partnerships between JMC and the urban poor, and these triggers can serve as lessons for others.

Lesson 1: A critical mass of slum dwellers creates a force that councils cannot ignore. An organized critical mass of people creates a force that can forge its own agenda and then negotiate and partner with others to implement it.

Lesson 2: This movement also needs a critical mass of women within it. The federations work hard to ensure that the majority of members are women and that they are encouraged to take up leadership positions. Our experience shows that this promotes greater accountability to the community and its collective interests.

Lesson 3: Programmes that legitimize the role
of organized communities in urban planning at multiple levels of government and open spaces for engagement between communities and government create an enabling environment for a progressive urban agenda.

Lesson 4: Pilot projects can demonstrate the practicability of the ‘community participation’ concept and highlight the capacity of the urban poor in a way that slum dwellers and local government appreciate.

As communities of the urban poor, we need to see a New Urban Agenda that recognizes some of these tried and tested ways of building strong partnerships between communities and government. This is the only way we can implement change on the scale required to lift close to a billion people out of poverty. Communities are ready to play this role, but we need governments and development partners to commit themselves to institutionalizing the implementing roles of communities. We know it can be easier to hire consultants to gather data, to plan and construct projects, and to formulate city plans, but we also know that this will not change our cities or make them more inclusive, sustainable and equitable. We need true partnerships to accomplish such goals.

On a personal note, I would like to add that before I became involved with NSDFU I did not express myself as I do today, and I probably would not have been asked to contribute an article to a United Nations publication. Prior to working with the Federation I would only be found in the kitchen, preparing meals. I didn’t realize that I could also contribute to the development of my city and my country. I didn’t realize that I could bring an idea to the forefront and have it be discussed and accepted.

Now, when I tell my children that I’m going here or there, they say, “Are you leaving us again?” But they appreciate the fact that their mother is travelling to discuss pressing issues. My children are proud of me, both as a result of my work with the Federation and what it has enabled me to become. I’ve grown as a person become more willing to express my opinion. I no longer fear any government office or official. If I have an issue to discuss, I raise it without hesitation, even in large crowds. I simply put my issue on the table.