Out of the Garden of Eden: Moving Beyond the Rights-Based Agenda in the Urban Sector

Author:Benjamin Bradlow
Position:Research and Documentation Officer for the Secretariat of Shack / Slum Dwellers International ('SDI') in Cape Town, South Africa
The cities of the global South are the harbingers of a new
age. For the first time in history, more than half of humanity lives
in cities.1 One billion people live in slums.2 The vast majority of
this b illion is living in “informal” arrangeme nts.3 This m eans
living without legally recognized land tenure, housing, social
relationships, and economic livelihoods.4
Evictions and demolit ions s pring from th is inf ormality.
Recourse to legal protection is difficult for slum dwellers, since
formal actors such as the Stat e can, and often do, exploit this
divide. As land in urban se ttings becomes scarcer,5 the temp-
tation for both public and private landowners to evict ordinary
poor people increases. Watchdogs and legal assistance organi-
zations have sprung up in multitudes to s upport slum dwellers
to fight evictions.6 They fight for the rights of slum dwellers to
have adequate shelter, basic services, and other socio-economic
benefits. In countries such as South Africa, where the Constitu-
tion contains extensive socio-economic rights, a series of court
cases in the past decade has developed a method of defending
the rights of slum dwellers by focusing on the role of the State.7
The emerging jurisprudence has been geared primarily towards
compelling the State to deliver entitlements.8
But there are real limitations to the uses of socio-economic
rights as a language and f ramework for development. Does
enshrining the right to housing , water, health, electricit y, and
other necessitie s, assume that the governments bound by these
obligations will suddenly be able to fulfill them? Few would
make such a self-evidently n aïve case. Still, especi ally in the
urban sector, the rights-based framework predominates.9
This pap er will make three related arguments. First, legal
and advocacy methods that hold governments accountable with
respect to their socio-economic rights obligations have continu-
ing relevance. But such an approach has limited value in struc-
turing mechanisms b y which to actually deliver entitlements.
Secondly, organizations such as Shack / Slum Dwellers Interna-
tional (“SDI”) are developing methodologies that move beyond
a rights-based agenda that reacts to the denial of entitlements, to
implement proactive, sustainable alternative soluti ons to evic-
tions, and to thereby build the fo undations for partici patory,
inclusive cities. In fact, the basic legal and instit utional frame-
work produced by the rights-based approach has been a prereq-
uisite for opening the space for the alternatives that groups like
SDI work on. Finally, there i s common ground among these
approaches that can serve as a basis for increased coherence of
purpose and effort among civil society actors. In practice, this
means supporting people-centered processes to address the large
problems of urban human settlements worldwide in increasingly
more sustainable and scalable ways.
The lImITaTIons oF a rIghTs-based model
The primary limitation of a rights-based agend a is that it s
methodology enforces professional control, with special empha-
sis on that accruing to lawyers and judges. If the struggles against
forced eviction, and for basic services and shelter—the primary
sites o f socio-economic contestation in the urban setting—are
to take place in the courts, then lawyers inevitably become the
interlocutors of the poor. This is tru e regardless of whether t he
rights-based age nda is articulated by NGOs, community-based
social movements, or lawyers themselves.
Often lawyers’ involvement is necessary. The work that the
Center for Housing Rights an d Evictions (“COHRE”), various
UN agenci es, other watchdo gs, and legal aid organizations do
is indis pensable for kee ping governments accountable to their
citizens. It is a humanitarian necessity to defend the poor against
State and private sector attempts to deny rights to housing and
basic services in urban areas. Many of these groups perform key
practical functions such as strategic litigation, a dvocacy, and
documentation of the ways in which governmen ts throughout
the world exclude the urban poor and perpetrate acts of physical,
social, and economic violence. Hou sing and land evicti ons are
all too common in an age where urban human settlements are
clearly the way of the future. Because of th e pioneering wor k
that these groups have done there is space to explore alternatives
to evictions and demolitions.
shacK/slum dwellers InTernaTIonal:
an alTernaTIve approach
SDI is an alliance of community-based organizations of the
urban p oor in thirty- three countries in Africa, Asia, and Lati n
America.10 These gro ups use methodologies that spring from
the most fundamental aspects of in formal l ife. Acc ordingly,
all SDI-affiliate d feder ations s hare a few bedrock practices .
The first is women-led dail y savings schemes organized at the
street level, which bui ld financia l and social capacity w ithin
communities. Such a savings method al lows these communi-
ties to engage with formal financial actors such as the State and
banks to leverage further resources for development. Whereas
out oF the garDen oF eDen:
moving beyonD the rightS-baSeD agenDa in the urban Sector
by Benjamin Bradlow*
* Benjamin Bradlow is Research and Documentation Officer for the Secretariat
of Shack / Slum Dwellers International (“SDI”) in Cape Town, South Africa. He
has also worked as a journalist in Johann esburg, South Africa, and Philadel-
phia, United States, with a particular interest in urban community development
and governance.
FALL 2010 48
the savings component of traditional microfinance is geared
generally toward s livelihood activities, the social and fi nancial
implications of SDI daily savings are much more political.11
Another activity, known as “enumeration ,” is the practi ce of
community-led information gathering, which builds the capacity
within poor communities to engage with formal actors, often the
State, around planning and policy implementation in slum areas.
This activity is, similarly, about bringing communities together
around information in their own community to achieve political
Social movements co ver a wide range of forms and pur -
poses. Mo re traditional soc ial movements, in cluding those
involved in liberation struggle s, are fundamentally opposed to
the State. They contest the State in the courts and in the streets.
A l iberation or revolution-orien ted social movement, aims to
overthrow the State. Other social movements are focused on
resisting dispossession, and therefore mainly pursue challenges
in the courts. These cases tend to demand that the State be the
sole prov ider of solution s to socio-econom ic problems. Unde r
such a framework, people’s movements may be effective tool s
for advocacy, but the poor remain passive constituencies waiting
for services to be delivered from above.
SDI-affiliate d groups move beyond such passivity. They
seek out partnership wi th the State; however, this partnership
is not to create pliant constituen cies for government program s.
Instead, these poor people’s mo vements serve to open up the
institutions and resources of the State to participation and co n-
trol by people themselves. It is a qu intessentially bottom-up,
reformist agenda. These peopl e’s movements seek to “co-pro-
duce” delivery of servi ces and implementation of socio-eco-
nomic guarantees with the State.
Such a battle is not just in the streets, but also in the home,
which is of course where it begins. Firstly, SDI federations orga-
nize with women at the center. They do this because they find
that women are equipped t o manage money, livel ihoods, and
family—in short, th e home. As Rose Molokoane, a leader of
South Africa’s Federation of the Urban Poor and an SDI coordi-
nator, often says, “WOMEN stands for Well-Organized Men.”13
Secondly, in the communities in which SDI federations operate,
the home’s informality itself is the fundamental challenge to the
status quo. A poor person lives on a piece of land in a city and
needs to find a solution for shelter. The upgrading of in formal
settlements and the livelihoo ds of slum dwelle rs begins with
people taking action to erect an illegal shack. As SDI federations
increasingly demonstrate, the capacities and met hodologies for
upgrading lie in the hands of those who have already begun cre-
ating their own solutions.
alTernaTIve meThods In acTIon:
eXamples From cape Town and naIrobI
Against the threat of eviction and demolitions, com muni-
ties have organized around their own knowledge capacity to first
face down the threat, and then to create the space for dialogue
with government that leads to the upgrading of informal settle-
ments in their current location (in situ) or else a truly negotiated
relocation. The case of the Joe Slovo community in the flats of
Cape Town, South Africa, is a prime example. A legal battle that
lasted several years succeeded in 2009 in staving off imminent
eviction.14 Subsequently, sustained engagement with the State
has only come about through the kind of c ommunity organiz-
ing measures used by SDI federations.15 For instance, early in
2010, the community completed an enumeration process, which
surveyed every household on a wide range of social indicators.16
This process of information gathering has assisted significantly
in o rganizing the community to be strong advocates for t heir
own priorities as they negotiate with the Cape Town metropoli-
tan municipal government on how to upg rade the settlement in
situ.17 As a result of this engagement, a communal toilet block
plan is now in the constru ction p hase an d many more resi-
dents are set to be ac commodated in formal housing than th e
municipal gover nment h ad ini tially planned.18 Elsewhere in
Cape Town, a citywide Informal Settlement Network (“ISN”) is
partnering with the metropolitan municipal government to pilot
similar pe ople-led informal settlement upgrades in at least ten
A similar success story is unfol ding in Nairobi, Kenya,
where the parasta tal K enya Railways Corporatio n has long
desired to evic t many residents of the famous railway slums of
Kibera and Mukuru.20 The SDI-affiliated federation, Muungano
wa Wanavijiji (the Keny an Ho meless People’s Federation ),
organized residents to co unt themsel ves in a mass ive house-
hold enume ration conducted a round 2005.21 This enumeration
convinced the railway company to del ay the eviction .22 Then,
SDI facilitated a learning exchange with an affi liate fe dera-
tion i n Bombay, I ndia, known as the Nati onal Slum D wellers
The learning exch ange illustrate d the Indian feder ation’s
successful approach to facing down a similar threa t a de cade
earlier. In the 1990s, the Indian federation had enumerated tens
of thousands of railway line slum dwellers.24 This enumeration
served as a community-driven tool for negotiating with govern-
ment about both the pace and scale of relocati on, as well as in
planning for developments to accommoda te those wh o would
be displa ced.25 In Bombay , the community enumeration maps
show the astounding history in vivid detail: who remained, who
are waiting to enter permanent housing, and who are now living
in housing developments that were designed and partly built by
community members themselves.
After visiting the Bombay railway lin e through the SDI-
facilitated learning exchange, the Kenya Railw ays Corporation
agreed that a new enumeration should take place in the affected
Nairobi communities and that it would serve as the basis for
similar plans for relocation and in situ upgrading.26 The new
enumeration was completed earlier in 2010.27 Now development
plans are in negotiation with community members firmly seated
at th e negotiating table.28 This is an excellent examp le of the
“co-production” ethos. SDI federations are demonstrating varia-
tions on a theme: in the cities of the global South, there will be
“nothing for us, without us.”
These methodologies are by no means exhaustive. SDI has
a specific set of tools to facilitate processes that mitigate evic-
tions and upscale inclusive processes for city planning and basic
service deliv ery. Other organizations are also invol ved in sup-
porting organized communities of the poor towards similar ends.
Community-led programs have fundamentally al tered govern-
ment policy and practice on human settleme nts in pl aces like
Pakistan (Orang i Pilo t Proj ect)29 and Th ailand (Community
Organizations Development Institute).30 These initiatives focus
on the co- management of finances and planning between orga-
nized communities and government institutions.
The challenge for civil soc iety actors today is to suppor t
urban poor communities not just in their struggles to fight evic-
tions; support must also be forthcoming for poor communities’
efforts to build and redefine relationshi ps with governments so
as to change t he very i nstitutions that have long made force d
evictions possible. This is a difficult task, fraught with potential
contradicti ons, unavoi dable setbac ks, and certain disappoint-
ments. But through these processes, the people who populate the
slums of cities like Nairobi and Bombay, Cape Town and Lagos,
Rio de Janeiro and Cairo will escape their all-too-frequent status
as victims. Governments and other formal actors make the poor
into victims when they forcibly eject them from their homes and
destroy their livelihoods. We all run the risk of victimizing th e
poor if we forget that their solutions, their local expertise, and
their capacity for survival and ingenuity will form the foundation
of inclusive processes that realize human rights. It is their o wn
potential t hat civil society professionals must work to amplif y
in order to change the troubling global picture for h ousing and
human settlements in our cities.
The time has come to consider how the rights-based agenda
has revealed its own limitations. It is time to consider how we
can continue to articulate the rights framework in a way that
maintains relevance to people’s struggles. As the “co-produc-
tion” methodology g ains increasing acceptability and scale, we
can think about socio-economic rights under a new rubric. There
is now scope for conceiving and protecting overarching guaran-
tees, such as the rights to dignity and participation, which are at
the heart of “co-production.”
Organized communities of the poor are demonstr ating that
socio-economic r ights cannot be deliv ered without new under -
standings of t he governanc e structures intended to g uarantee
these rig hts. State and non-State professio nal actors are there-
fore tasked with opening up the spac e for poor people to influ-
ence and alter these institutions. This means translating informal
practice into for mal language and b ridging the gaps b etween
informal a nd formal technical expertise. As we come to terms
with our new urban age, we must grapple with the implications
of the routes we take t o make change in the world. In order to
move beyond the limitations of socio-economic rights in theory,
we are now tasked with supporting the developmental method-
ologies of the poor that turn these into practice.
1 un habitat, State oF the worlDS citieS 2008/2009 – harmoniouS citieS
xii, 11 (2008), available at http://www.unhabitat.org/pmss/getElectronicVer-
2 Tackling Tenure Security in Slums through Participatory Enumerations,
global lanD tool networK brieF 1 (Mar. 1, 2010), available at http://www.
3 un habitat, the challenge oF the SlumS – global report on human
SettlementS 2003 xxvi, 11 (2003), available at http://www.unhabitat.org/pmss/
4 un habitat, State oF the worlDS citieS 2008/2009 – harmoniouS citieS,
supra note 1, at xii, xiii.
5 See Mahbubur Rahman, Sustainable Housing Trilogy, the Daily Star
(London), Sep. 1, 2008, available at http://www.stwr.org/health-education-
shelter/sustainable-housing-trilogy.html; Joe Nam, Idle Urban Land Could Be
Taxed, new viSion (Uganda), Aug. 5, 2010, available at http://www.newvision.
co.ug/D/8/220/727892; Press Release, Global Property Guide, Most Expensive
Real Estate Markets in 2009 (Feb. 6, 2009), available at http://www.global-
6 See, e.g., center For houSing rightS anD evictionS, http://www.cohre.org/
(last visited Oct. 17, 2010); Socio-economic rightS inStitute in South aFrica,
http://www.seri-sa.org/ (last visited Oct. 17, 2010).
7 See, e.g., Gov’t of the Republic of S. Afr. v. Grootboom 2000 (11) BCLR 1169.
(CC) (S. Afr.) available at http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2000/19.html; Abah-
lali Basemjondolo Movement SA v. Premier of Kwazulu-Natal 2009 (3) SA 245 (D)
(S. Afr.), available at http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZAKZHC/2009/1.html.
8 See, e.g., Nokotyana v. Ekurhuleni Metro. Municipality 2009 (4) BCLR
312 (CC) (S. Afr.), available at http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2009/33.
html (compelling the municipality to provide a minimum of basic services to all
informal settlements).
Endnotes: Out of the Garden of Eden: Moving Beyond the
Rights-Based Agenda in the Urban Sector
9 See, e.g., center For houSing rightS anD evictionS, http://www.cohre.org/
(last visited Oct 17, 2010); Socio-economic rightS inStitute in South aFrica,
http://www.seri-sa.org/ (last visited Oct. 17, 2010); houSing anD lanD rightS
networK-miDDle eaSt anD north aFrica, http://www.hic-mena.org/pnews.asp
(last visited Oct. 2020).
10 Savings, Shack/Slum DwellerS international, http://www.sdinet.org/ritual/
savings/ (last visited Oct. 14, 2010).
11 Id.
12 Enumeration, Slum DwellerS international, http://www.sdinet.org/ritual/
enumerations/ (last visited Oct. 14, 2010).
13 Habitat Agenda Partners Take Centre Stage at GC Dialogue, un habitat
(Apr. 18, 2007), http://www.unhabitat.org/content.asp?cid=4714&catid=364&t
ypeid=6&subMenuId=0 (last visited Oct. 26, 2010).
14 Residents of Joe Slovo Cmty., W. Cape v. Thubelisha 2010 (3) SA 454
(CC) (S. Afr.), available at http://www.saflii.org/cgi-bin/disp.pl?file=za/cases/
ZACC/2009/16.html&query=joe slovo.
15 Benjamin Bradlow, SDI Bulletin: Beyond a Legal Framework for “Mean-
ingful Engagement” in South Africa, ShacK/Slum DwellerS international
blog (Mar. 11, 2010), http://blog.sdinet.org/?p=83.
16 Id.
17 Id.
18 Id.
19 anDrea bonicK, community organiSation reSourceS centre, From the
politicS oF proteSt to the politicS oF reDreSS 3 (2009), available at http://
20 Jack Makau, Stops and Starts in Kibera, ShacK/Slum DwellerS interna-
tional, http://www.sdinet.org/news/31 (last visited Oct. 15, 2010).
Endnotes: Out of the Garden of Eden continued on page 71