Joseph Kimani, Executive Director of Slum Dwellers International–Kenya.

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In partnership: supporting informal settlement upgrading from within

The numbers are staggering. According to a UN-Habitat reportOpens an external link, more than 1 billion people worldwide lived in slums or informal settlements in 2020, and left unchecked that number is expected to triple in the coming decades. Attracted by economic activity, the population of cities is rapidly increasing, but many urban areas — particularly in Central and Southern Asia, Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa — are not equipped to provide adequate affordable housing and the infrastructure to support such growth. The informal settlements that arise in response struggle to meet these needs and their residents face housing insecurity and a lack of basic services (including sanitation and transportation), as well as polluted air and increased climate and disaster risk.

In 1996, Slum Dwellers InternationalOpens an external link (SDI) began establishing a network of organizations that support community-led settlement upgrading. SDI is now active in some 400 cities across 36 countries. Joseph Kimani, Executive Director of Slum Dwellers International–Kenya, has extensive experience leading community organizing and public participation in project planning — the backbone of SDI's work "to transform slums into resilient neighborhoods and inclusive cities by collectively driving a women-led, bottom-up change agenda for securing tenure, and increasing access to basic services, housing, and livelihoods." This month Kimani spends three weeks in Ithaca at the invitation of the Cornell Mui Ho Center for Cities in order to share knowledge and deepen the collaborative work between the two organizations.

Equitable Access

Kimani explains that while it is the government's constitutional duty to ensure citizens have access to adequate and quality social, economic, and environmentally friendly services, slums and low-income areas are often not prioritized for such development. And even when they are considered, the state agencies do not involve the communities themselves in decision making, making the implementation of any well-meaning project difficult. SDI's community-first working methods turn those challenges upside down.

"SDI's approach to urban development and transformation is unique since it is based on the values of inclusivity, movement building, and equity. In order to achieve this, SDI–Kenya provides and mobilizes technical support while Muungano (Federation of Slum Dwellers) sets the agenda," Kimani notes, stressing the importance of the NGO's work being led by "the movement" rather than the reverse for the highest-impact outcomes. "Working with the Center for Cities is strengthening this approach. SDI–Kenya and Muungano seek to consolidate our experience to inform new knowledge for students while we provide a learning platform for the generation of new ideas. In other words, we deposit our experience within the university to further research while at the same time creating a platform for new learning and conversion of our work into theoretical knowledge and policy for global influence."

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