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Slumming it with the NGO jet-set

The national Housing Department and Slum Dwellers International (SDI) hosted a workshop in Durban last weekend focused on building partnerships between slum-dwellers and various governments.

From this talk-shop emerged the Durban Declaration, which, according to SDI president Jockin Arputham, will serve as a “rallying point for lobby and persuasion” at the World Urban Forum, a biennial meeting established by the United Nations to examine issues of urbanisation. It will be held in the Chinese city of Nanjing in November.

It is a commendable document fed by government officials and representatives from SDI affiliates from several countries of the South, including South Africa, Brazil, India, the Philippines and Malawi.

Among its seven points, the Durban Declaration calls for greater accountability among stakeholders, including government, aid agencies, non-governmental organisations and shack-dwellers.

It also calls for a “fostering [of] development with, and not for, the urban poor”; “more inclusive planning processes” and consultation between governments and the poor; “dialogue rather than prescription and militancy” and the support of “learning and exchanges” between the various stakeholders so that NGOs, governments and grassroots organisations “learn from each other”.

This, Arputham hopes, will deepen role players’ understanding of one another in a sometimes volatile terrain and influence a more pro-poor approach from donors and governments. It is another step towards alleviating an urban slum crisis that UN-Habitat estimates will see 1,5-billion people living in squalor by 2020.

Yet there was an underlying sense of hypocrisy amid all the back-slapping at this initiative to give a “voice to the poor”.

The gaseous emissions make the pervading stench around Jadhu Place in Durban, which has three flush toilets for more than 3 000 people, smell like designer eau de toilette.

What use is it to try to convince other governments and donors to be more sensitive to, and inclusive of, the poor when — in the very city in which this call to arms is being formulated — there are serious fractures between existing legislation and the reality on the ground?

In a breakaway session on “Upgradings, Relocations and Alternatives to Evictions”, attended by a Kenyan government official, about 20 South African provincial housing representatives and a mere two shack-dweller representatives, the government suits were adamant that local municipalities would not evict shack-dwellers without a court order.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Mahendra Chetty of the Legal Resource Centre says he has dealt with four such unlawful attempts this year alone: “In two cases we had to proceed to court with litigation and in the other two the situation was averted. The municipality is always threatening eviction of shack-dwellers and in my experience people who are evicted hardly ever seek private representation to fight it.”

Chetty says he has on various occasions asked for details about the municipality’s housing plans and “hasn’t seen anything as yet”.

The lack of voices from outside government in the workshop’s “Evictions” breakaway was reflected in a single, vague call included in the Durban Declaration: “Minimise the conditions that lead to land invasions and evictions through appropriate and inclusive planning processes and legal frameworks, including consultations with the affected parties.”

Arputham feels that the dialogue between the SDI and government has seen the shack-dweller federation “co-opt government” to make gains.

Yet moving away from a rights-based approach does have its drawbacks. Patrick Hunsley of the Federation of the Urban Poor (Fed Up), an SDI affiliate, believes that dialogue comes with a degree of compromise: “You have to understand government. A people’s process cannot exist completely in a government process.”

It was rather telling that the local shack-dweller movement, Abahlali basMjondolo, refused to attend the workshop. Its president, Sbu Zikode, says the “talk shop” will not change things on the ground and how the municipality deals with shack dwellers.

He has a point. The issue of a more inclusive approach to the world’s slums was discussed at previous World Urban Forum meetings – and is still being discussed.

While talks about talking with the “poor” contain a layer of sincerity, the foul taste of a jet-setting NGO class which travels the world eating up donor funds for talking is difficult to wash out of one’s mouth.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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