Slums and Service Delivery for the Urban Poor

Informal settlements or slums are home to an increasing number of the urban poor. The lack of basic services, from sanitation and waste removal to water and electricity, has resulted in untenable conditions. Moderator Judy Baker and three urban poverty experts share innovations in infrastructure, services, public-private partnerships, and programs that also give slum dwellers a voice in planning decisions. Join the conversation in the comments below!

Judy Baker, Moderator and Lead Economist, WBI Urban Practice, The World Bank.

With the rising number of urban poor living in slums in developing countries, new solutions are needed to deliver basic services to these residents. While cities provide opportunities for many, city life can also present conditions of overcrowded living, inadequate access to basic services, congestion, unemployment or underemployment, lack of social and community networks, stark inequalities, crippling social problems such as crime and violence, and particular vulnerability to health problems, economic shocks, and the risks related to climate change and natural disasters, particularly for the poor.

New residents need jobs, safe housing, and access to basic services. To accommodate these demands, many cities struggle to keep up and often fall short. This is in part due to resource constraints, but also due to capacity constraints, lack of urban planning and management, and lack of political will.

Meeting this challenge will require new thinking and innovations in service delivery through the use of ICT, new partnerships and new financing opportunities, an expanded role for NGOs and the private sector, and new technological solutions. There is also an important role for better urban planning and management to anticipate the influx of new city residents and their needs.

We will kick off the conversation with innovative approaches shared by Sheela Patel, Chair of Slum/Shack Dwellers International; Tereza Herling, Municipal Ad-Secretary of Urban Development of the City of São Paulo, Brazil; and Melanie Walker, Senior Program Officer, Global Development Special Initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Please join the conversation to share your ideas.

Sheela Patel, Chair of Slum/Shack Dwellers International.

I have worked for the last 30 years facilitating policy and practice to demonstrate that the most important and foundational aspect of addressing urban poverty issues is secure habitat with basic amenities. To me the most important aspect of a transformation agenda to address any aspect of poverty is developing demand at scale from the people who are locked in poverty, to participate in design and execution of the transformation we seek to develop from the outside. SDI (Shack Dwellers International) represents the laboratory for creating that critical local, national, and international voice of the urban poor to engage with their mayors, politicians, technical professionals, city and state administrations, and global development agencies to produce that engagement.

In a digital world, it's like putting into place the operating system for all other software and hardware to be developed on. Thirty years ago, and even today, the deep connection between secure habitat, governance, and access to land is not given primary focus. So let's get serious and put into place not only the vital ingredients essential to get this process rolling, but then develop the design architecture of roles, relationships, technology, and all such elements to produce the inclusive development that we all aspire to facilitate.

It's time to take stock of the manner in which the poor, without access to safe habitat and amenities, survive in cities — how they make choices, and the implication of those choices — before proceeding to build castles in the air; before we, as the development community, start building our strategies without being grounded in reality, as governments and development agencies have done for the last several decades. In the absence of global and national acknowledgement of rapid urbanisation, the large numbers of the poor in cities are unable to avail themselves of market-developed housing and all public housing — which is too meagre to serve the large numbers in need, and which gets appropriated by better-off groups. This leaves encroaching on land and building housing incrementally as the only option. Defending these neighbourhoods — and often losing the battle — creates the biggest development paradox: the proverbial leaking bucket, where assets created by communities, state institutions, and global development investments in health, education, and livelihoods, continually erode.

The capacity to engage, to co-create and co-produce is the innovation I wish to bring to this discussion. This capacity is lacking in all actors, including the urban poor, as each stakeholder is locked into a belief system which makes what they do the most vital aspect of transformation. Yet all actions are interconnected and no one stakeholder can produce transformation, yet change in one stakeholder can bring about change in others. Reconciling with informality of habitat and livelihood are the big elephants in this discussion, which have to be addressed head-on.

Tereza Herling, Municipal Ad-Secretary of Urban Development, City of São Paulo.

Between now and 2030, UN-HABITAT estimates that the number of people living in cities will reach 5 billion inhabitants, out of a total of 8.1 billion worldwide. The major part of this increase will take place in the countries of the global South, especially in Asia and Africa. According to UN-HABITAT, the urban population will double in the poor countries by 2030, and the number of residents in irregular settlements will reach 3 billion people by 2050. In this sense, cities represent a field of opportunities for poor people, but also face the challenge of providing adequate housing conditions to all their citizens.

In Brazil, people living in cities now make up more than 80% of the total population, 25% of them in precarious or irregular living conditions. São Paulo is the biggest Brazilian city, with more than 11 million inhabitants, 3 million of them living in irregular settlements or slums.

In 2006, the Municipal Housing Secretary made a technical cooperation agreement with World Bank to implement a group of planning tools to face these challenges. The most important implemented tool was HABISP — a comprehensive housing information system published on the web that enables the technical team to prioritize investments and actions in slum upgrading and land regularization programs. There are about 3,000 irregular settlements and slums mapped in the system, with all information on infrastructure, risk areas, and socioeconomic and health conditions. The HABISP implementation gave technical support to the preparation of the Municipal Housing Plan, which prioritizes investments from 2009 to 2024, in a range of four administrative periods of four years each.

This upgrading in the municipal housing planning processes made it possible to integrate financial resources and local actions to leverage the impacts of investments and gain social support from the local residents, as the Municipal Housing Plan was debated and the priorities defined with the residents' participation.

Melanie Walker, Deputy Director for Special Initiatives, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

When it comes to urban utilities, most of us take it for granted that we can turn on a faucet, flush a toilet, flick a light switch, or put our trash in colored bins. But all these services depend on an enormous installed infrastructure that is not extended to the urban poor.

This failure to extend the grid arises because informal settlements are places where private investment has long outrun public infrastructure. These settlements are outside the official municipal planning process, so they grow in places with no grid. Then too, when poor people are the customers, government cannot recover in service fees the new infrastructure installation costs. As a result, in most places, service delivery to the poor living in informal settlements is provided solely by the private sector, via value chains and systems that are people-based, not technology-based.

Via informal but sophisticated value chains, small operators provide water, electricity, solid waste collection, and even sanitation. Because these services are essential, slum dwellers buy them, for cash, even though they are unpredictable, of dubious quality, and expensive per unit of service.

Not exactly a win-win situation.

For slum dwellers to form co-operative or pro-poor utility value chains, Sheela Patel (one of our co-panelists for this discussion and chair of Slum Dwellers International) has pointed out the most important first step towards service delivery in informal settlements: community engagement. This is more than demand aggregation; it is business-model creation. Community members become service providers, protectors, repairers, conservers, and even innovators.

For example, consider a local Bangladeshi group called Waste Concern in the city of Dhaka. Over the past few years, we’ve worked together to expand a model for decentralized solid waste management, which we call Integrated Resource Recovery. The system starts at the community level with source segregation of waste (households, markets, businesses) and ends with different sources of revenue for each of the partners. Recyclables are sold in bulk markets, organic waste moves into the agricultural markets as either compost or fertilizer, and biogas is created from other solids and food waste. Remarkably, this works economically. Collectors, sorters, vendors, and processors get paid for their efforts and working conditions improve. Cities get cleaner. Landfills get smaller. Less unnecessary waste is released into the environment — no more burning valuable materials or informally dumping on someone else's property.

Once the informal business models and value chains are set up, solid waste recycling becomes a profitable business, and when that happens, it can attract external scientific innovation. Recycling technology is advancing by the day. Raw materials are becoming more valuable. Cheaper bandwidth makes informal networks easier to set up, manage, and scale.

Could this be a win-win-win option for service delivery? Maybe.