Open main menu

Slum Dwellers International

SDI, formerly known as Slum/Shack Dwellers International, is a global social movement of the urban poor started in 1996.[1] SDI's President, Jockin Arputham, is quoted as saying: " Global solidarity of the urban poor has been a long-term dream for many of us in the SDI network. This dream began to take shape in the early 1990s when shack dwellers from South Africa’s informal settlements began to visit pavement dwellers living on the streets of Mumbai. Since those days the network has grown steadily in numbers, in influence and in its impact on the everyday lives of millions of urban poor families. Practical, face-to-face learning remains the main driving force of the SDI network that now stretches from Asia, through Africa to Latin America and the Caribbean. With its women-centred savings collectives at the heart of its practice in 34 countries SDI is forging a new system of community organizing that runs in an unbroken thread from the household to the settlement, from the settlement to the city, from the city to the country and from the country to the global stage." [2]

SDI affiliates range from groups of a few hundred (at present) in Togo to more than two million in India. Some are decades old, others have been in existence for less than a year. SDI has a presence in the following countries; India, Kenya (see "Camp of Fire" project), Namibia, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Tanzania, Zambia, Argentina, Brazil Bolivia, Angola, Togo, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, and Ghana.[3] The headquarters and secretariat are located in Cape Town, South Africa, and from here the organization spreads its mandate. The Secretariat is located at the point of intersection between informal and the formal, between community organizations on the one hand and professionals, Government officials, developers, bankers, donors and academics on the other.[4]


Key methodologies and outcomesEdit

SDI claims that it makes partnerships work – partnerships between communities, partnerships with Government and with other stakeholders.[5] SDI makes every effort to ensure that the poor themselves are at the centre of urban poverty eradication strategies and actions. After 21 years SDI has a proud record of securing tenure for hundreds of thousands of its members, providing incremental housing solutions and contributing to infrastructure delivery, especially water and sanitation, in thousands of slums. It has formalized relationships between organized communities of the urban poor and Governments and ensured, as its South African partner alliance puts it, that "no development takes place for us without us being directly involved" [6]

SDI's practices for changeEdit

Central participation of womenEdit

For SDI, the central participation of women is not just an ideal but a critical component of a gender-sensitive mobilization strategy, which sees men and women re-negotiating their relationships within families, communities, and organizational forms such as slum dweller “federations”. By prioritizing the leadership potential of women, federations alter traditional male domination in communities, in ways that actually strengthen grassroots leadership. Recognising that women are often the true engines of development, SDI uses the savings and credit methodology to develop their leadership capacity, financial management skills, and confidence. By entrusting women to handle such important monetary systems, whereby they are in charge of the precious savings of their neighbours and friends, communities begin to understand the potential of women as public decision-makers and powerful agents of change. In fact, savings and credit activities, apart from their clear financial benefits, serve as a means to bring women out of the home and into the public sphere in a manner that men rarely resent.


Each day groups of women in slum neighborhoods and settlements walk from home to home, and gather small change from each other in order to collectively address the livelihood struggles they share. Through daily interactions, and weekly community gatherings, savings group members begin to articulate what problems exist within their community, creating a sense of shared identity for the women of urban poor communities. Whilst SDI does not exclude men, the reality is that the savings groups are mainly women. Women are often at the center of the household – responsible for the provision of food, school fees, clean water, and a place to sleep. By targeting the poorest women in a settlement, one can be sure that the settlement’s most vital needs will be addressed. Additionally, the structure of savings groups allows members to access short-term loans, which are otherwise largely unavailable to the urban poor. This system of savings & credit prepares communities for medium and large-scale financial management necessary in the slum upgrading projects they are likely to pursuit. Often regarded as the cornerstone of SDI, these savings groups link together to form “federations.”

Learning exchangesEdit

Horizontal learning exchange from one urban poor community to another is the primary learning strategy of SDI. Participants within the savings networks learn best from each other. When one savings group has initiated a successful income-generating project, re-planned a settlement or built a toilet block, SDI enables groups to come together and learn from intra-network achievements. The community exchange process builds upon the logic of 'doing is knowing' and helps to develop a collective vision. As savers travel from Cape Town’s Sheffield Road to Kenya’s Mukuru Sinai to India’s Pune, the network is unified and strengthened. Such learning happens not only at the street level but between towns, regions, provinces, and nations. In this way, locally appropriate ideas are transferred into the global dialogue on urban development through dialogue between slum dweller peers. Additionally, horizontal exchanges create a platform for learning that builds alternative community-based politics and “expertise,” challenging the notion that development solutions must come from professionals. In this way, communities begin to view themselves as holding the answers to their own problems rather than looking externally for professional help. The pool of knowledge generated through exchange programs becomes a collective asset of the SDI network. When slum dwellers meet with external actors to debate development policies, they can draw from international examples, which influences government and other stakeholders to listen.

Enumerations and mappingEdit

Community planning activities build political capital for communities both internally and externally. Within communities, activities like enumeration (household-to-household socio-economic surveys) and mapping create space for communities to: identify developmental priorities, organize leadership, expose and mediate grievances between segments of the community, and cohere around future planning. Such activities serve as a platform for engagement with governments and other stakeholders involved in planning and setting policy for development in urban centres. Grass-roots organisations promote community-based data gathering to enforce the interests of slum dwellers. [7] A key aspect of community planning activities is that communities own the information they collect. When they share the data with government, they are able to create new relationships — and even institutions — that make the poor integral role players in the decisions that affect their lives.

Partnerships SDI federations cannot address informal settlement challenges on their own, but they can catalyse change. The key to reaching community driven development at scale is the inclusion of external partners. SDI engages with governments, international organisations, academia and other institutions wherever possible to create relationships that benefit the urban poor. By opening space for slum dwellers to engage in international advocacy at the global level, and by drawing international partners into local processes through key local events, opportunities are created for key partnerships to develop that can impact at both the local and global level. Ultimately, the aim is to create situations in which the urban poor are able to play a central role in “co-producing” access to land, services, and housing.

Slum upgradingEdit

There is not, and never will be, a one-size-fits-all approach to upgrading of informal settlements. Each settlement is unique in its challenges, but there are common themes. Informal settlement upgrading is not simply “site and service” or the provision of a “top structure” house. Upgrading is any intervention that improves the physical conditions of a settlement, which in turn enhances the lives of its inhabitants. The most critical emphasis is that this process should happen in situ, where communities already exist. Relocations should always be as a last resort. However, in situations in which they are unavoidable, such as in flood planes or along railway lines, the federations work to ensure that decisions are made in conjunction with the community. SDI projects do not deliver land, services and incremental houses as ends in themselves, but do so as a means to draw in politicians and policy makers in order to challenge and transform institutional arrangements and policies. For SDI this is not only a matter of delivery but also one of deepening democracy.[8]


SDI works closely with the following international agencies: UN Habitat (especially its Global Land Tools Network Program, where SDI co-chairs its International Advisory Board);[9] Cities Alliance (SDI currently serves on its Executive Committee;[10] Union of Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) with whom it has launched the high-profile "Know Your City" campaign.;[11] the Santa Fe Institute with whom it is developing a data platform of informal settlement information.[12] SDI has an advisory board made up of slum dwellers from India, Philippines, Kenya and South Africa, housing or urban development Ministers or high officials from South Africa, Uganda, India, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Norway and Sweden.[13]

SDI'S commitment to work with local and national Governments, bi-lateral and multi-lateral agencies is based on the principal of militant negotiations.[14] This approach comes from a perspective that the problem of urban poverty cannot be addressed at scale without direct collaboration between organised communities of the urban poor and formal actors in the sector, especially local Governments. However certain human rights activists and academics have interpreted this as proof of co-optation by state institutions and international agencies and undermining more rights-based radical social movements.[15] To underscore this critique reference is made to SDI's links to these formal institutions and not to its practice and its outcomes. This includes claims that SDI is supported by a number of prominent World Bank intellectuals such as Arjun Appadurai.[16] Its role on agencies such as Cities Alliance is also cited as proof of a neo-liberal orientation.[17]

Financial support for SDI projects, trans-national learning, global advocacy and the Urban Poor Fund International (UPFI) comes from community savings as well as a range of international donors including but not limited to; Swedish Sida, MFA Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Misereor and the Skoll Foundation.


As a network of networks of communities of the urban poor, SDI is committed to grassroots solidarity at the global and the national levels.[18] It has partnerships and memoranda of understanding with Habitat for Humanity, and the Association of African Planning Schools.[19] It retains cordial links with other international networks such as WIEGO and the Huairou Commission.[20] In October 2009, SDI made a statement in solidarity with Abahlali baseMjondolo when a militia affiliated with the ANC attacked the movement in Kennedy Road informal settlement in Durban. However prior to this SDI was accused of supporting the controversial KwaZulu Natal Elimination and Prevention of Slums Act. This accusation of guilt by association was based on nothing more than SDI's working partnership with the Provincial government and the housing department.[21] Even when the strategies and terrain are different, the struggle is just the same. Certainly the goals are the same: secure tenure, basic services, affordable housing, inclusive cities, effective redistribution of resources and the support for communities to lead these struggles.


  • Numerous SDI country affiliates have been awarded the UN Habitat Scroll of Honour. SA Federation (1995); Sheela Patel (2000). Rose Molokoane (2005). Namibia Federation (2013)
  • Numerous SDI members have been selected as Ashoka Fellows: Joel Bolnick, Anaclaudia Rossbach, Jane Weru, Andrea Bolnick.
  • Celine D Cruz (India) received the Yale World Fellowship in 2003
  • Jane Weru (Kenya) has won the Rockefeller Innovations Award in 2011
  • Sheela Patel (India) received the David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award in 2009
  • Sheela Patel received the Padma Shri award, the fourth highest civilian honor in India, in 2011
  • Jockin Arputham (India) received the Magsaysay Award in 2000
  • Jockin Arputham received the Padma Shri award, the fourth highest civilian honor in India, in 2011
  • Jockin Arputham received the Skoll award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2014
  • Rose Molokoane (South Africa) won the Outstanding Achievement Award at the Woman of the Year Awards in London in 2007
  • In 2014 SDI and Jockin Arputham were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.


  1. ^
  2. ^ SDI annual Report 2012
  3. ^ Slum Dwellers International: SDI Synopsis Misereor Archived 2007-01-27 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ SDI annual Report 2012
  5. ^ SDI annual Report 2013
  6. ^[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ Mitlin, Diana, Knowledge is power, in: D+C 10 (2016), p. 24. [1]
  8. ^ See for instance Satterthwaite and Mitlin - Reducing Urban Poverty in the Global South, Routledge 2014
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-10-10. Retrieved 2015-05-12.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  14. ^ see for example SDi Sect Coordinator speaking at Skoll World Forum: The 21st Century City: Future Opportunity or Future Threat? | SWF 2014 at
  15. ^ see for example. Marie Huchzermeyer, (2011).Cities with ‘Slums’: From Informal Settlement Eradication to a Right To The City In Africa University of Cape Town Press, Cape Town
  16. ^ See for instance Culture & Public Action edited by Vijay Rao & Michael Walton, World Bank, 2004, Washington
  17. ^
  18. ^ SDI Annual Report 2012-13
  19. ^
  20. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-05-08. Retrieved 2014-05-07.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  21. ^

External linksEdit