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More patience, less protest: the new politics of the urban poor 

20 Augustus 2013 05:50:26

More patience, less protest: the new politics of the urban poor

A new book published shows how poor urban communities across Africa and Asia have developed powerful new approaches that have enabled millions of people to get better housing and services, and —beyond this — social justice and inclusion in political processes.

Their efforts and experiences stand in stark contrast to the images of popular protest that have erupted in large cities – as in Egypt and Brazil – in recent months. And as the book’s authors note, these quieter, more patient approaches to the problems of poverty and injustice appear more likely to bring benefits in the long-term.

Reducing Urban Poverty in the Global South by David Satterthwaite and Diana Mitlin shows that unlike the street protests that capture media attention, the people living in the “slums” of Africa and Asia realised that their realties required a different way of doing politics.

“Social movement leaders observed the lack of progress in the post-independence period and decided that they had re-design their strategies to increase the likelihood that equitable and inclusive cities were to be part of the political agenda,” says Dr Mitlin.

“They rejected demonstrations and public protest because they knew that such a critical mass could not be held on the streets for long – but had to return to livelihood struggles,” she adds. “They rejected revolutionary change – and contesting the seat of government – because they recognised that history shows that those who secure such seats rapidly join the political elites. And they recognised that there was little point in making claims and defining entitlements to a set of urban development policies which have delivered little in terms of pro-poor development.”

Instead, an alternative approach has emerged simultaneously in diverse countries over the past 20 years as groups of low-income urban citizens from informal settlements have joined forces to develop their own solutions to previously intractable urban development problems.

Through less confrontational tactics than mass protests, these groups have ensured that governments recognise the urban poor for what they are — legitimate citizens able to sit around the table with mayors and ministers alike to determine new development options and help implement them.

As a result millions of urban residents are now organized in neighbourhood associations that come together in city federations to negotiate with local government for financial redistribution and investment capital, alongside pledging their own time and effort in improving their localities.

The book begins by discussing the most widely-used conventional approaches to urban development, and explores the ways in which these have been used by a range of development agencies including national and local government, and civil society.

The authors then describe the alternative approach that has emerged, illustrating this with five case studies of programme interventions that have adopted similar strategies to address urban poverty and advance the cause of the urban poor. These include international funds that support their priorities and are accountable to them.

“These show the capacities of urban poor organizations and federations not only to develop far more effective solutions in dozens of countries but also to work with local governments to do so at scale,” says Dr Satterthwaite.

The final two chapters analyse the approach and its underlying politics – and look forward to what this means for action to address urban poverty in towns and cities of the global south in the 21st century.

The new book, published by Routledge, is the sequel to one Mitlin and Satterthwaite wrote in 2012. The previous volume argued that governments and aid agencies have failed to tackle urban poverty because they have failed to understand it (see Book challenges policymakers with new portrait of urban poverty).