Integrated slum improvement: what could that mean?

We set up Urban Research because we believe that development interventions in slums are often “siloed”. And that's a problem. For example, faecal-oral diseases have major negative impacts on child health in many slums, and it’s likely that breaking transmission of these diseases requires interventions across multiple areas, including sanitation, drinking water quality, food hygiene, primary healthcare and drainage. (And it doesn’t stop there: if you want to improve drainage, for example, you probably also need to improve solid waste management, so that the drains aren’t continually blocked with waste.)

Finding solutions to these problems is challenging. Siloed intervention has powerful drivers. Many development organisations are specialised in specific sectors (water and sanitation, for example, or primary healthcare): this specialisation makes sense, because nobody can be expert in everything. But is can lead to siloed interventions. Meanwhile, funders have teams and budgets for specific sectors, and those teams must fight internally to maintain their budgets. There are few incentives for funders to support cross-sectoral work, or to work closely with other sectors.

On top of this, the entire development sector is driven by a need to demonstrate high “numbers of beneficiaries”. So there are strong incentives to do things which have low cost per beneficiary. Conversely, there are few incentives to make major investments in across-the-board slum improvement, at much higher cost per individual beneficiary.

Given all these drivers pushing in the wrong direction, what are possible solutions? That’s challenging, but here are three ideas:

1) Funding approaches that bring specialist organisations together into consortia: this approach values the sector-specific expertise of specialist agencies, but favours a cross-sectoral approach with wider slum improvement aims.

2) Deliberate efforts by specialist agencies to develop close partnering relationships with other specialist agencies, or with wider agencies. There’s a great example of this from Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), who’ve partnered with Arquitectura Sin Fronteras to align sanitation improvements with tenure regularisation and street widening in a slum district of Mozambique's capital Maputo.

3) A third potentially useful approach is research focused on driving cross-sectoral action. For example, detailed analysis of decision-making networks in municipal governments. But more fundamental research can also be useful, aiming to better understand how different types of improvement may impact on key outcomes: an example here is research aimed at understanding how faecal pathogens move through slum environments, enabling better judgements about what can work to break transmission pathways.

In short, there are multiple incentives working against integrated slum improvement. But perhaps there are ways of overcoming that, and moving towards an approach which focuses on what slumdwellers really need, and which then applies sector-specific expertise in pursuit of that.

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