City without limits: keeping pace with the urban poor

Article, 18 November 2008

Celine D’Cruz, coordinator of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), talks about her work with IIED

Imagine this. You share your source of drinking water — a single standpipe — with 50,000 other people. Your toilet is an open drain. You often wake up thinking this is the day you might be evicted from the home and the neighbourhood you have painstakingly built.

This is reality for many of the people living in the world’s slums, shantytowns and other informal urban settlements.

But what is less publicized about the ‘bottom billion’, as some call them, is the quiet revolution spreading through a growing number of their settlements. Teeming with positive energy, these are communities passionate about self-help, sure of their own needs and adept at finding workable solutions to meet them.

Celine D’Cruz is in the thick of it. D’Cruz coordinates Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), the international network of urban poor federations that is driving this social transformation. It’s her job to support federations through Africa and Asia in negotiating with government for basic amenities, finance for housing and land security.

SDI federations meanwhile devise and run their own ingenious savings schemes and are expert in key areas such as affordable house construction, water and sanitation. Through the SDI network, they share knowledge, experience and skills across borders — from the favelas of Brazil to the katchi abadis of Pakistan.

Mumbai-born D’Cruz, a veteran in the field and a former Yale University World Fellow, bridges the gap between community leader and professional through her work with SDI.

Describe your job. What do you find inspirational about it?

A large part of my work is to make sure that while we scale, we continue to maintain quality, with respect to our work ethics, values and principles. I like feeling accountable to the community leaders I work with. We inspire each other and we both grow together. They keep my feet on the ground and they give me the permission to also interfere with parts of their life.

My biggest kick is to see these leaders shine and radiate that feeling of confidence to others in their communities, both women and men — and to be able negotiate confidently with city authorities. To have community leaders who do not follow the steps of their politicians but who are able to build a collective leadership that is also accountable to their constituencies. This is what inspires me to continue to do what I do.

How have you collaborated with IIED?

I was a resident fellow with the Human Settlements group at IIED in 2004 for six months. This helped me better understand IIED's role as a research organization. IIED has a skill set very different from SDI and therefore this relationship has been very symbiotic and useful to both.

We have benefited tremendously from the research and documentation of our work and similar case studies around the world. We are just beginning to explore a relationship with the Climate Change group, and Human Settlements is helping us bridge this gap to see how we can benefit from this new learning.

We are jointly exploring how best to include vulnerable communities in this dialogue and to make sure we do not just jump on to the next bandwagon.

What have the collaborative outcomes been?

There have been a number. One is the creation of the International Urban Poor Fund. This self-governed, self-managed, expanding financial facility provides capital to national urban poor funds who are members of SDI. They in turn provide capital to savings federations — communities in informal urban settlements engaged in self-help housing and infrastructure projects.

IIED has also supported our negotiations with Northern donors, not just for funds, but also to educate them on urban issues based on solid research and data from the ground.

And finally, IIED has opened up new spaces for dialogue and learning—the World Urban Forum (WUF) is one such example where IIED has supported us to refine our participation.

Where do you see your partnership with IIED taking you in the future, given emergent issues such as major urban growth?

Since we complement each other’s skills, IIED will continue to play a more strategic role in the urban research arena. IIED will continue to be engaged with the International Urban Poor Fund.

A lot of learning will need to be documented during this process and I see IIED playing an important role in synthesizing and consolidating this learning for us and other professionals and funders interested in working with the urban poor.

Anything else about your partnering of IIED?

IIED is always so gracious in the way it does business with us. It lives to its values of having an equal relationship with its partners. It never ever dictates to us what our agenda should be. It opens up new spaces for us and then backs off and allows us to explore and build on these new relationships.

IIED plays an important role in two major areas: managing information and managing the finances of the urban poor fund which is an international fund. It has been our experience that both information and money have an element of control and power but IIED has never misused this power that we have entrusted to them.

IIED is also very professional in the way it conducts itself and that really helps cut out the clutter. IIED is a good role model to describe, what a relationship can be between a Northern and Southern NGO, between a research and grassroots social movement.

Celine D’Cruz spoke to IIED staff writer Barbara Kiser.