Slum change management

projects to improve slums often meet resistance -- and require careful stakeholder collaboration


For decades, projects to bulldoze slums and relocate residents to high-rise dwellings seemed like a straightforward housing solution for people living in shantytowns from Kenya to India to Brazil.

But this top-down approach disrupts informal economies and disconnects people from jobs and the relatives and neighbors with whom they had shared and bartered to survive. It also triggers protests, as seen in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil earlier this year after favela residents refused to accept alternative housing and make way for a 2016 Summer Olympics park.


“You don't want to be perceived as directing the work that people can do for themselves… The key is having that local voice.”

—Dave Hampton, re:ground LLC, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

And with slum populations climbing globally—to more than 860 million people in 2013 from 725 million in 2000, according to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat)—new approaches are necessary.

Many project sponsors are now trying to employ more creative and collaborative slum redevelopment efforts focused on stakeholder management. In Kenya, the national government has tapped rehabilitated criminals working at the Youth Reform Self-Help Group to help oversee housing construction projects and other efforts to improve infrastructure and services in Nairobi's sprawling Kibera slum. The largest slum in Africa, it's home to at least 800,000 people.


Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya

Paritosh Sawant, CEO of the real estate development firm Om Shiv Group in Mumbai, India, says a major challenge for slum redevelopment project teams is winning the trust and support of skeptical and often marginalized residents. Respecting communities and enabling residents’ autonomy is essential.

Om Shiv is participating in a slum redevelopment program sponsored by the state of Maharashtra (which includes Mumbai) through which developers buy property and build new housing. (The state's Slum Rehabilitation Authority wants to make Maharashtra slum-free by 2022.) Challenges the company has faced during its project in Mumbai, which began in 2011 and is slated to end in 2017, include persuading slum landowners to sell property and dealing with residents who are “very insecure about placing their trust in the developer,” Mr. Sawant says. They think “the developer is going to make a handsome profit at their expense without them getting any part of it.”

To keep slum projects in India on track, he adds, sponsors must respect local customs—to the extent of being willing to contribute financially to religious festivals and marriages of slum dwellers. When government approval processes drag on for years, these kinds of stakeholder management techniques can help maintain local support for delayed projects.

“Patience is a very important virtue,” Mr. Sawant says.

The earthquake that struck Haiti in early 2010 left more than 1.5 million people homeless, swelling the size of the country's slums. Since then, UN-Habitat and other organizations have launched projects to help improve earthquake recovery efforts in slums. For example, UN-Habitat and the Haitian government have partnered on a two-year project to upgrade slums in the cities of Cap-Haïtien, Milot and Les Cayes, which is slated for completion in December.

Despite clear needs, however, projects to improve slum conditions can create resentment among residents. Whenever possible, projects should involve residents speaking to each other instead of to foreign organizations viewed as managing and directing the work, says Dave Hampton, who worked in Haiti from 2010 through 2012 as a program manager for J/P Haitian Relief Organization and Architecture for Humanity.

“You don't want to be perceived as directing the work that people can do for themselves. When working with Haitian engineers and contractors, the key is having that local voice,” says Mr. Hampton, principal of re:ground LLC, an international development consultancy based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

That's challenging at times: Deferring to local customs can be at odds with what project leaders view as best practices. For instance, pit latrines are common in areas of Port-au-Prince where running water is scarce. Relief workers upgrading a neighborhood in the city “went to great lengths to explain alternatives to pit latrines like composting toilets,” says Mr. Hampton. “But the community decided to go with pit latrines because that is what they were comfortable with.”

Other project challenges can include helping Haitian team members to understand why common construction practices such as using low-quality concrete blocks without adequate reinforcing bars can be dangerous. In one instance, a local worker improperly poured concrete for a lintel above the door of a residence being converted into a health clinic. “We said, ‘This is why you have problems with buildings falling down during earthquakes,’” he says. “The lintel was removed and rebuilt, and once the Haitian masons saw that detail a few times, they got it.”

Sponsors of slum improvement projects looking for private funding face distinct challenges, says Steven Segerlin, project principal —global services, urban planning and infrastructure, Stanley Consultants, Washington, D.C., USA. He worked as a project manager on a US$25 million UN-Habitat slum upgrading program in Ghana, Tanzania, Sri Lanka and Uganda executed between 2009 and 2012. Winning private funds to provide working capital requires accurate budget forecasts for equipment, materials and other construction and operations costs, he says. The risks—such as theft of electricity and water by slum dwellers tapping lines—can scare funders away.

Successful ventures in areas such as power generation or water delivery have tended to start with pilot projects backed by governments or NGOs, which prove that cost overruns in challenging environments can be avoided, he says. “If you don't get the numbers right, nobody wants to take the risks to try to support them,” Mr. Segerlin says. “In these developing nations, there is no protection for startups if they fail.” —Chris Burritt


“If you don't get the numbers right, nobody wants to take the risks to try to support them. In these developing nations, there is no protection for startups if they fail.”

—Steven Segerlin, Stanley Consultants, Washington, D.C., USA




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