From Grassroots Organizing to Affordable Housing: A Conversation with Diana Mitlin

Diana Mitlin of the iied discusses the importance of communicating with informal settlements, and identifies steps that civil society can take to assist those living in slums. Photo by ninara/Flickr

Diana Mitlin is a Principal Researcher with the International Institute for Environment and Development’s (iied) Human Settlements program, conducting research on urban poverty and community development. Mitlin is also an academic, teaching on Global Urbanism at the University of Manchester. An experienced NGO worker, scholar and advocate, Mitlin sat down with TheCityFix to share her ideas on urban poverty, civil society and the role policy makers play in addressing informal settlements.    

Oxfam found that the richest 1 percent will own more than all the rest by 2016. How is this affecting rapidly developing cities? 

Diana Mitlin - The biggest concern is when wealthy, elite families disengage from the rest of the city. They shut themselves off, and sometimes they push low income group into the periphery of the city. These low-income households face multiple problems accessing work and basic services. With this distance between elites and low-income households, the rich simply don’t understand the realities of the urban poor and they become very fearful of them, which causes immense problems.

You’ve done a lot of work on affordable housing in Namibia and Asia. What are some successful strategies for supporting low cost, urban housing?

(DM) - The starting point is that city authorities have to realize that they can’t solve the problem on their own. There are better solutions when they work with low income groups. It might mean better solutions in terms of finding ways in which people’s own incomes and assets can contribute to government resources and improve the housing that is provided; it is a better house since it’s jointly financed. City authorities have a critical contribution, but only when they start to work with low income communities as partners, not as beneficiaries.

Housing can seem very costly, but it’s actually quite cheap. Most places in the world—when you take land costs out—you can build 20 square meters for 3,000 US dollars. This is a family self-building, finding ways to source low-cost materials, providing their own unskilled labor, and bargaining with their skilled neighbors when they need construction skills. These low costs mean that finding ways in which such incremental development can take place is really important. By incremental I mean small changes; for example, people can just improve their floor, improve walls, borrow 200 or 300 dollars from a loan fund, do the improvement, pay it back and take the next loan. For that, it’s key to put in place loan funds that people can borrow from to improve their housing.

Informal settlements often struggle to be recognized as legitimate. How can civil society and governments improve communication with slums?

(DM) - I think civil society organizations do most for communication when they support the organization of communities, enabling local groups to discover themselves and their priorities. I work closely with a network called Shack/Slum Dwellers International. This network of grassroots organizations does much to help low-income communities document life in their neighborhoods: how many families, how many water points, how many toilets, schools and clinics. With these details, all the households sit down together and decide on their priorities. Then at the district and city level, all these communities, with their information about their living conditions and priorities, can come together and decide what they want to say to the local government. When communities are not organized, I guess you could say it’s a bit like your office: when one wanders in and says “I need to reorganize these desks, but there’s going to be a really good desk here” and then some bright person says “oh that’s just perfect for me.” They take it. But if the communities are organized, it’s more like “oh thank you for this desk, let’s sit down and have a discussion about it.”

One of the really good ways to improve communication is to not have meetings in the city hall but to have meetings in local communities—so then immediately you probably have several hundred people who take part. You do the meetings in the city hall you have a small number, but when it’s in someone’s neighborhood it’s like their home: they’re much more vocal and talkative.

What is the role of grassroots organizations in improving the conditions of impoverished urban neighborhoods?

(DM) - They have three core roles; sometimes they play all three, sometimes they specialize. One role is in self provisioning. So for example if there’s no drainage, grassroots organizations can assist communities to get together and dig a drain and maintain it. Secondly, they may get involved with the local government, trying to find ways in which they can fit with the local government’s development plans, liaising with councilors, finding ways in which government funding can be spent more effectively. Third, they may often play a role as a kind of protest group. So they may be very critical of local government positions and they may try to create alternative options that work better for local families.

You wrote in a 2012 blog post that “The real issue is universal access to affordable basic services.” Is there an organization that has made progress on this issue?

(DM) - One of the most impressive programs is sanitation in the Karachi and Orangi Pilot Project, and that is a very clever system because it is very affordable for households and it addresses their needs. They can get back the cost of the sanitation investments within a year because resident health improves, so they spend less on direct health-related expenditures. The problem with a lot of services is that they’re just too expensive. So, for example, one of the common ways that people are accessing water in Sub-Saharan water is in water kiosks, but if you buy WHO recommended minimum amounts of water you may be spending 10 percent of your income on water.

What is an issue that we still don’t know a lot about and that you are interested in exploring in the future?

(DM) - One of the trickiest issues is what is actually going with urban land development. It’s clear that a small number of people are making an awful lot of money with urban land. Much of urban land that is changing hands does not involve international companies—it involves local elites, lots of shadow companies. Just imagine if in Washington, DC there were no land controls and no one had information, the potential for someone to just say “oh that’s a really nice bit of real estate, and I know that person is away, or I know that they’re caught up doing something else. Let me just take over that land.” So what’s going on in rapidly growing, increasingly prosperous cities that have extraordinary valuable central land? What is evident is that most citizens continue to be disadvantaged.

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