In the slum dweller communities of Uganda — where over 60 percent of the urban population lives – the purported benefits of urban agglomeration are not being felt. Despite rapid urbanization, urban areas are characterized by rising unemployment and inadequate access to basic services. Rather than waiting passively for the benefits of urban agglomeration, Uganda’s slum dwellers have adopted a proactive strategy that is harnessing the potential of collective action.
The strategy is one that has evolved within the Slum Dwellers International (SDI) network. It involves the clustering — or federating — of community saving groups into urban poor federations. The National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda (NSDFU) is one of 33 federations in the SDI network. Founded in 2002, the NSDFU today comprises almost 500 savings groups and approximately 38,000 members. Savings are used to bring people together, build their capacity to act collectively, and build organizational capacity and trust.
When savings groups begin, they often focus solely on livelihood issues and income generation. But, with time and greater exposure to SDI rituals, such as enumeration and peer-to-peer exchange, communities formulate an urban agenda that looks beyond group members and toward transforming the settlements in which they live. This is when benefits to service delivery begin to accrue as part of a collective upgrading agenda. The spatial proximity of urban savings groups allows for the agglomeration of collective capacity necessary to create a critical mass of urban poor to hold public officials accountable, to collaborate with municipalities and leverage their savings. This critical mass is required to make community participation more than a platitude and aid more effective, and it is uniquely possible in the urban setting.
The positive externalities of this agglomeration of collective capacity are not hard to see. The NSDFU is the key community mobilizer in the Government of Uganda’s Transforming Settlements of the Urban Poor in Uganda (TSUPU) program. The NSDFU has capitalized upon the opportunities of this Cities Alliance-funded program to expand from Jinja and Kampala to Arua, Mbale, Mbarara, and Kabale. Within this national program, the NSDFU has demonstrated that organized communities can: improve urban governance by organizing citizens to demand accountability; improve urban planning by generating information on slum populations; improve living conditions for members and non-members alike through slum upgrading projects; and improve the environment by upholding their responsibilities to keep cities clean and maintain public services.
Over the past 10 years, the NSDFU has constructed sanitation units and community halls the slums throughout the country. Last year it began extending clean water and improving drainage, while in Jinja it has commenced construction of a low cost housing project. In almost every case projects were built upon land provided by municipal council, demonstrating true partnership.
The increasing returns to scale for the agglomeration of collective capacity are also evident. The more the federation grows, the easier it becomes to negotiate with government, mobilize members and savings, leverage funds, and implement projects. Because the NSDFU is part of SDI, the returns to scale also benefit tremendously from the growth of the global urban poor movement.
Contributed by Skye Dobson, Uganda Program Officer, Slum Dwellers International