The new issue of the journal, "Environment and Urbanization” published on Friday reveals how organisations of the ‘illegal’ urban poor have made themselves relevant to city governments by mapping and documenting their informal settlements and the people and businesses in them.
The papers show that the urban poor are often better able than government departments to produce up-to-date, detailed data about their settlements through surveys and mapping.
This kind of activity means the poor get their voices heard and respected, and could work with governments to help solve the problems they face.
The latest issue of the peer reviewed journal Environment and Urbanization accessed information papers from Ghana, India, Mexico, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
“A billion people live in informal settlements but because they lack formal addresses and identification documents their governments do not consider them as legal citizens,” says the journal’s editor, Dr David Satterthwaite.
“This means being denied public services such as health care, education, sanitation and even the rule of law. It makes it hard to open a bank account or protect homes and possessions.”
To overcome these challenges, residents of informal settlements in Africa, Asia and Latin America have organised their own surveys to map and document their communities.
In most cases, this has helped the communities to get official recognition and political legitimacy. It has allowed the communities to communicate their needs, in terms of basic services, and assert their rights to land on which to live.
In some instances, it has also led to positive changes in local or national policy – such as when governments agree to upgrade informal settlements in consultation with communities, rather than bulldoze them as has been the pattern in the past and still happens in many places today.
Some of the success of the stories described in the journal’s papers comes from the fact the research was done by the communities themselves, and not imposed by outsiders with their own agendas and fleeting interest in the settlements.
The experience of the last 20 years show how community-led documentation and mapping helped them support their negotiations with governments and generate new knowledge that helps the residents think about their priorities and their own resources and capacities.
“To live in an informal settlement — a slum or a shanty town — is to be ignored and invisible, but the one billion people who call such places home are a vital part of the solutions to today’s challenges in urban environments,” says Satterthwaite, who is a senior fellow at the IIED.
“As the papers in Environment and Urbanization reveal, around the world, the residents of such settlements have shown that by documenting their communities they could work with governments to improve conditions there.”
The journal includes papers from Ghana, India, Mexico, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
Ghana’s write-up christened “If in doubt, count”: the role of community-driven enumerations in blocking eviction in Old Fadama, Accra", was authored by Braimah R. Farouk of the University of Ghana, Accra, and Mensah Owusu of University College London, respectively.
The paper describes the community-driven enumerations undertaken in Old Fadama, the largest informal settlement in Accra, which has long been threatened with eviction.
It indicated that after meeting with members of shack dweller federations from other nations, residents formed the Ghana Homeless People’s Federation in 2003 (now known as the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor (GHAFUP).
It stated that together with the NGO, People’s Dialogue on Human Settlements, they supported the first community-driven enumeration in Old Fadama in 2004 to counter the threat of eviction, by showing the large scale of economic activities in the community and the gap in accurate population data.
This was followed by further enumerations, in 2006–2007 and in 2009, to counter new eviction threats from new city governments. These enumerations increased the residents’ confidence, empowering them in terms of engagement with city government.
The paper indicated they also changed government’s perspective on informal settlements and helped shape policy away from forced evictions towards participatory relocations or rehabilitation.