Cases and Evidence
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Slum Dwellers International – Mutual learning for human development


SDI stands for a transnational federation whose members are hundreds of national organizations from countries across the global south.

Country (ies)

SDI affiliates – Mature Federations: Philippines, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Brasil (14) Emerging Federations: Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Bolivia. (3) New Initiatives: Pakistan, Madagascar, Liberia, DRC, Honduras (5) Allied groups: Thailand, Cambodia, Mongolia, Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia. (11) They are supported by – Different affiliates find different forms of funding, from self-saving projects to donations made by foundations, development organizations, NGOs in the North and respective national governments.


SDI operates as a transnational network of local slum dweller organizations that have come together to form federations of the urban poor. Their mission is to 'link urban communities from cities across the south to transfer and adapt the successful mobilization, advocacy and problem solving strategies they develop in one location to other cities, regions, and countries'.


SDI is a confederation of organizations from 23 countries in the global south. It was launched in 1996, and became a formal entity in 1999. It operates as a voice OF the urban poor, and not that, for the urban poor.

A network of organizations that works on urban poverty (and its many dimensions), SDI affiliates vary from a few hundreds to over a million (in India).

It grew out of three organizations, together known as the Alliance (NSDF, Mahila Milan and SPARC, in Mumbai, India). Work being done by the Alliance attracted the attention of international development workers, bringing them in contact with organizations that had similar goals in Latin America and South Africa. After a series of cross-national community 'exchanges' aimed at sharing and exchanging ideas/knowledge and innovation, SDI became a registered entity.

The affiliates of SDI share a common vision - that the State on its own cannot solve problems of poverty and under-development. Whilst the State, especially in Southern countries, has a monopoly on power, its very relationship to this power and to the local and global economy makes it a very weak instrument for the delivery of the resources and services needed to eradicate poverty. They thus seek to remind the State and international agencies of their obligations with respect to equity.

The network constantly questions and challenges the capacity of state agencies to deliver. Consequently, they attempt to organize and unite those who are affected by urban poverty into a network (that is continually expanding, as the world population tips towards the half mark of 50% of the poor being urban)that works towards ensuring that governments and multi-laterals meet their obligations, while being able to incorporate those affected in the solution making process. Between the push for neo-liberal reforms through structural adjustments and the emergence of social grassroots movements, SDI affiliates are attempting to traverse a route between the two.

The main aim of this federation is to harness and spread the indigenous information of the South (with regard to slum dwellers, and dwellings) through an exchange (learning by seeing/experiencing). Horizontal exchange is the primary learning strategy of SDI.

Most projects undertaken by the federation are based on building or improving poor urban housing and infrastructure, providing services and creating new income-earning opportunities. All affiliates, across the world, use common methods and tools to demand, create and implement their work. These are however, context specific as they need to be adapted to the particular circumstance and priority of the community.

As the network expands globally, and incorporates larger numbers, organizations and movements, it is able to increase its bargaining power. The organizations also learn from each other's experience, increase the scope of community exchanges and show a plethora of cases where it has found success in its endeavors (that can further act as an instrument of pressure on state providers to deliver).


Besides bridging the gap between civil society and the state, SDI affiliates operate on 5 different aspects that they universally undertake and promote in their respective communities/countries. Savings: All local affiliations of the SDI centre their activities around promoting a savings and credit scheme. The process is designed to maximize the contact people have with one another. Collections are made by gathering small change from dwellers by going door to door. This enables them to do a daily needs assessment as well as be able to involve every single household in the work done. Apart from encouraging savings, these women's collectives also offer access to cheap credit by issuing crisis, consumption and income generation loans.

Exchanges: Participants within the savings networks learn best from each other - when one savings group has initiated a successful income-generating project or has replanned a settlement or has built a toilet block, SDI enables larger 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.

Enumeration: This activity lays the foundation for collective action. Through the process of enumeration, federations under the SDI, organize local people to develop detailed information about their own settlements, so that they are able to broker deals on resettlement or restructuring (as the case might be) with formal institutions on a more informed playing ground.

Land Tenure: In urban settlements, no formal tenancy rights tie the urban poor to their land. Consequently, with no sense of ownership, no incentive to invest in something that may be bulldozed prevails. But with a formal address and title agreement, communities naturally begin to build incremental structures because every investment is secure. For SDI, the goal then is to create tenure situations that work for communities without subjecting them to increased market forces .

Housing: SDI tries to promote a central role for slum dwellers in participating, designing and defining the construction of their own communities. Therefore, all member of an SDI affiliate in any country (that is the slum dwellers of that community where SDI affiliates work) are encouraged to participate in land survey, learn about architectural planning, and define their own needs of space and cost of living so as to develop a contextually specific resettlement plan (which is different from many urban resettlement plans that usually ignore the needs of the poor in question – for example, the public transport system in Mumbai needed to address the issues of slum dwellers encroaching oin land needed for upgrading railways, this was only possible by the central participation of slum communities that designed this whole process. When the state began to consider redeveloping Dharavi, although it is an in situ redevelopment, there were many aspects that were not acceptable to the community and the alliance along with many others is facilitating a dialogue between the communities and the state. This in turn has implications for learning by many other organizations in SDI and will be a learning process for them.


Governments in the South tend to have a more top-down approach with poor people. SDI has been able to overcome this by promoting a more participatory and collaborative approach to working with issues of the urban poor. Success
Each SDI affiliate has its own success story. In Tanzania, for example, between 2004-2010, they are 5000 members strong. Last year, it was able to act as a bridge between policy makers and urban slumdwellers, bringing them together for a conference to facilitate dialogue between the two. It included undertaking activities like staying in the same hotel etc. – small steps that lead to promoting a sense of equality and community between both parties. In India, the Alliance has been able to involve poor people in designing their own resettlement areas, and then involving them in construction of the same, all with the support of the government. Sustainability
The core values around which SDI affiliates operate is sustainability. These partnerships to encourage horizontal learning from one another have essentially promoted the idea of building sustainable communities with the urban poor in the global south (despite the different governments, policies and economies of each country). In a sense then, the federation of SDI shows how sustainable action can be undertaken, irrespective of the state and institutions that run it. They also show case how the 'similar' contexts of the urban poor in 'disimilar' contexts of the cities across which they live allow SDI members to work with issues and undertake action that is common to all (savings scheme, enumeration etc.) Impact
The positive impact on members of the SDI transgresses beyond the core-working areas. For example, the process of making poor people more awareness on issues of livelihood promotes an inherent sense of hygiene. SDI also promotes its work by actively involving women of the slums – bringing them together on a common platform that enables them to also work other issues of women's health, education, domestic violence etc.

SDI affiliates, in their work with other formal institutions are at points, dependent on the will of policy makers, despite the 'soft' power they empower slumdwellers with. However, even the negative aspect of this power dynamic has been overturned in many instances by the SDI affiliates by undertaking, for example, the purchase of land through their own savings. SDI affiliate, Tanzania was able to purchase 30 acres of land for resettlement with their own savings.

Aid Effectiveness

The case story of SDI is interesting because it helps understand the synergies of SSC in two parts

1. Borne out of an alliance in Mumbai, India – it is now over a few hundred organizations strong (across the developing world). All members of this federation have undertaken work based on common principles, that has been adopted to a context specific nature (depending on the need and urgency of the community) – and bringing back their learning and success stories – standing out as a prime example of how South South Cooperation can help enhance development.

2. More importantly, in the context of aid effectiveness, SDI is supported by both governments, and non governmental institutions in the North (and the South) – showcasing how funds can be channeled into effective capacity building processes when they involve those who are receiving the fund directly. Leadership
SDI affiliates have local, community, and organizational leaders. And are supported by academics, support groups and governments across the world. Both, national leadership and ownership is supported. Coordination
Since the federation of SDI works on harmonizing and coordinating with each other's experiences and learning from all members, there is an active effort to continue communication across state, national and international borders on SDI activities. At the same time, because each SDI member has different priorities – depending on the needs of the communities they work with, they undertake action independently. Managing for Results
As mentioned earlier, SDI activities promote ownership. When poor people find incentive to be responsible for their own housing, the sense of ownership works as a monitor for results.

At a more formal level, the NGO employees, the government officials involved and in some cases, the media, all act as monitors of ongoing activities.

Further, since the case for better housing can be made on successes of the past, SDI members must ensure managing success in order to continue with their activities in tandem with government authorities.

Capacity Development

The different processes by which SDI builds capacity have already been mentioned above. However, to reiterate, the SDI is able to build capacity at
• Individual level – by involving every single, or as many houses in an urban slum dwelling to become part of the causes.
• Organizational – SDI leaders are borne out of the community, supported by professionals and other academics. Systemic – By acting as a bridge between the communities they work with, and the government, SDI affiliates are able to undertake change that is systemic when it finds success in, for example, resettlement that allows both parties to come on board with an idea, and have a decision that both are, satisfied with.

The federation of SDI has also brought about other trans-national networks and affiliations working with cities, housing and the urban poor. The Cities Alliance is an example of one (

Overall enabling environment
The SDI has been able to
• Effect policy environment. The development of an action plan for cities, as undertaken by the Cities Alliance for example.
• Put into place, new housing policies and proposals (that reflect that actual issues of poor people)
• Incorporate the otherwise poor disenfranchised people into the process of policy making.
• Building community understanding (the urban poor have been encouraged to understand their own roles and responsibilities with respect to their livelihoods).
• Create a pool of collective knowledge
• Change government priorities in certain cases.



Budget (Optional

Each SDI affiliate operates on their own savings and budgets. SDI groups receive grants and loan finance from a wide range of agencies including local foundations and financing agencies, local and national government sources, embassy and consultant funds, corporations, northern NGOs, northern foundations, bilateral agencies and multilateral programmes.

Name of Primary Contact Person

Surabhi Tandon

Title of Primary Contact Person

Consultant, ICRIER


New Delhi