According to the United Nations, more than half of the world’s population now live in urban environments. This is a major shift in the history of humanity. Before this, most people identified with their rural community in a scale that allowed a greater voice for individuals in asserting their rights. In the age of the megacities, the din of all those people often crowds out smaller voices. In developing contexts especially, the growth in urbanization often manifests in slums and other forms of precarious living, where conditions are poorly regulated and legal rights are ill-defined. When your house is being seized unjustly in a town of five thousand people, you have a fairly good chance of getting the attention of your community. When your house is being bulldozed in a city of five million people, it’s much more likely that your pleas get lost in all the noise.
The work of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) provides hope in moving towards a more equitable situation for our urbanizing age. The root of the problem is that urban contexts often have concentrated, moneyed interests that can simply speak louder than the disaggregated, disempowered communities at risk.
For example, in 2012 Brazilian security forces cleared some 6,000 people from an unofficial settlement, named Pinheirinho, in the state of Sao Paulo.
The land was owned by a property development company, but sufficiently vacant for a community of urban poor to settle there in 2002 in what the owner called a ‘land invasion.’ Despite not having legal rights to the land, the community quickly congealed and established its own shops, churches, and other hallmarks that tie a neighbourhood together. The property owners had the force of the law on their side, and security forces were obliged to dismantle the community.
The problem is that the voice of communities like Pinheirinho cannot speak with the same volume as the state or large commercial interests. In a certain sense it is understandable: it’s much easier to defer to the rights of the legal owner, who can argue and cooperate with the state with greater ease than the unorganized collection of people in the community. The legal owner has a specific plan and can make offers to the government that the community cannot.
SDI works to give communities like Pinheirinho organization, resources, and a plan of their own, so that they too can bargain with the government in pursuing a more secure living situation.
SDI was founded in 1996 as a federation of federations, a conglomeration of urban community organizations spanning Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The heart of their mission is to put the urban poor at the centre of strategies for urban development. Rather than having the urban poor viewed as an obstacle to building that new highway or shopping centre, as they too often are, SDI is working to make these communities agents in their own right for how their cities are going to move forward.
The Urban Poor Fund International (UPFI) is one of the main tools through which SDI operates. Founded in 2007, the UPFI funded over 150 projects across eighteen countries, spending $17.8 million in its first five years of operation. Its success has seen it grow rapidly, with new forms of assistance being pursued to continue empowering urban poor. Most commonly, the UPFI either gives “patient capital”, which helps support local organizations pursue ongoing projects with their governments (for example, long wait times can often kill a project by attrition before it begins), or “venture capital”, which helps launch new projects that the UPFI feels will set positive precedents.
SDI and the UPFI want to see outcomes that have a lasting impact. This means getting local governments to allow cheaper building materials to be considered legal, for example. A common way to clear precarious communities is to simply declare the buildings themselves unsafe due to the materials used in construction, which can allow the clearances to appear in the best interest of the evicted. By making the legal regulations themselves more realistic for the urban poor, their legal rights are strengthened. The UPFI has also worked toward creating legal agreements wherein the original legal owner and the new unofficial community agree to share the land.
Shack/Slum Dwellers International (and its subsidiary, the Urban Poor Fund International) are therefore sorely needed actors in helping to shape the way we are going to live with each other as we start moving into increasingly closer quarters. It may seem slightly disheartening that simply giving the urban poor a voice in how they will live is considered an innovative approach, but nevertheless, projects like this are progressively moving towards a more sustainable and equitable situation for our cities, reminding us that cities should be meeting the needs of the people who live in them, and not the other way around.