Just over half the world’s population (3.6 billion people) now live in urban centres, and by 2030 numbers are expected to rise to 5 billion. “Virtually all of the expected growth in the world population will be concentrated in the urban areas of the less developed regions” (UN DESA 2012:3-4). Currently 828 million people live in slums and this number is predicted to increase to 889 million by 2020 (UN Habitat 2010b:8-9). There has been some success in efforts to improve the lives of slum dwellers, but this has not kept pace with growth.

Infrastructure and basic service delivery fails to keep pace with growth, and slum areas remain neglected. Inequalities are stark in cities, not only in terms of access to services, but also in housing, incomes and employment, and more.

Beyond material needs, the urban poor are also under-represented in decision-making at the city level. Their precarious legal status leaves them open to eviction and is often given as a reason for their neglect by city authorities. Slum dwellers are seen as a problem that needs to be eradicated and cleaned up – and not as part of the solution. This is despite the enormous contribution that their (often informal) work makes to the economy of the city as a whole.

Practical Action has had programmes working with urban slum dwellers since the early 1990s, and our strongest programmes are currently in Kenya, Bangladesh and Nepal, with exciting work beginning in India and Zimbabwe.

Panoramic view of Kibera
Land rights are a major issue for the citizens
of Kibera

We have worked extensively on mobilising slum communities to help them plan, prioritise their needs, and engage with Local Authorities and other stakeholders (such as utility companies) to ensure these needs are delivered. In all this work we are seeking to ensure that slum dwellers themselves are able to play a leading role in discussions with authorities. We go beyond simply planning, to ensuring that priorities are delivered in ways which include poor communities in making choices about design of technologies, how they will be built, and on-going maintenance.

Our recent work in 6 towns in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka has demonstrated the value of city-wide approaches, bringing slum dwellers from an entire city together for a stronger voice and to press for their collective needs. This has led to significant successes in terms of increased allocations of municipal budgets, greater recognition and security of tenure, and practices of inclusion being embedded in the day-to-day business of the municipalities.

On the ground we are working in partnership with SDI Federation members (in Malawi and Nepal). Globally we are taking these issues forward through our membership of the World Urban Campaign and our support for an Urban SDG.

Some of the main policy issues we are working on include:

  • Demands for data to be disaggregated within urban areas so that inequalities between urban slums and the rest of the city become more evident.
  • Setting of realistic poverty lines that reflect the costs of living in urban areas.
  • A vision for cities which is inclusive of a vibrant, diverse population where everyone’s contribution is recognised and valued (including that of the informal sector). Slum dwellers need to be seen as part of the solution to sustainable cities, not part of the problem.
  • National systems which give Local Authorities sufficient finance, capacity and decision-making powers to allow them to meet the needs of the poorest of their citizens, but which also hold them accountable.


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