There are many organizations that practice decentralized, horizontal forms of democracy. These democratic practices differ significantly from the democracies that often serve as the norm for all democracy: electoral constitutional governments. Unlike elected representative governments, these organizations reject rule by college-educated, specialized experts to find ways to keep governance accountable to those who have little power in social relations, economic life, and national political systems.
Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and their offshoot organization, Know Your City, are organizations that have worked intentionally to decentralize their practices and resources, their knowledge base and their governance. Since 1996, this network has helped to create a global voice of the urban poor, engaging international agencies and operating on the international stage in order to support and advance local struggles. Nevertheless, the principal theatre of practice for SDI’s constituent organisations is the local level: the informal settlements where the urban poor struggle to build more inclusive cities, economies, and politics. By bringing together the urban poor in 32 countries and hundreds of cities and towns across Africa, Asia and Latin America, the Slum Dwellers, SDI has expanded to many countries: Ghana, India, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Philippines, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, among others.Organizationally SDI consists of a Secretariat, a coordinating team, a Board and a Council of Federations. The Secretariat has an administrative and management function. It is accountable to a Board and a Council of Federations made up of nominated grassroots leaders from affiliated Federations. The Board also nominates a Coordinating team that serves as an executive, responsible for overseeing the implementation of SDI programs.
SDI is committed to supporting a process that is driven from below. The Secretariat facilitates, and sometimes resources, horizontal exchange and information sharing programs among member Federations. These exchanges also produce a strong sense that expertise is found locally among the urban slum residents, and not just among professional policy and “development” experts.
Sheila Patel writes in her document, “Understanding the Governance Structures of SDI,” how accountability by and for the informal urban poor works in SDI. It began in India where the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan established national networks and federated slum dwellers throughout the country, and then expanded to work with South African slum dwellers in 1991. From 1992-1996 the two federations worked together to establish developed a set of methodologies that provided realistic alternatives to evictions and, by extension, practical and sustainable ways of mobilizing and organizing the urban poor. This period they also worked with urban poor from other countries to establish similar organizations, as in Cambodia and Zimbabwe. Starting in 1996, the emerging federations began to select coordinators and to expand to Latin America.
In 2002 they selected their first international Board for the transnational organization, and began to develop an emerging management committee. By 2006 pressures had intensified from external funders and other organizations to centralize. Patel writes that “As SDI grew at settlement level, at national level and globally, the financial requirements increased and external agencies needed to feel reassured that the organization could fulfill its expectations and commitments. This called for greater centralization but principles of decentralization and subsidiarity are fundamental to SDI's bottom-up structure. Decentralization demanded a much wider base of leaders to assist federations with increasing demands and expectations. Subsidiarity posed special challenges to a Secretariat that was becoming increasingly professionalized and accountable to external agencies - especially foundations, bi-lateral and multi-lateral agencies.” The SDI response was to establish a Council with three representatives from each fully-active federation in different countries, and to draw on this Council for Board members going forward. Then in 2008 SDI launched a funding organization of its own with a Board of Governors to administer the funds, with members of the Board of Governors including National Housing and Urban Development ministers from representative countries.
At the same time that this centralization took place, SDI also established five regional hub organizations to strengthen local leadership and regional ties. To practice its principle of abdication from professional to local federation management, they also worked from 2013-16 to establish a Management Committee to retain accountability to the national federations. These efforts have taken time, yet they work against the centralized structures demanded by outside funders and other civil society organizations to retain a decentralized structure with local accountability.
There are several other ways in which SDI governs their own affairs without following the centralized practice of their home governments, including those national governments where they are based that claim to be democratic. First, a careful adherence to peer-to-peer exchanges between urban poor community members in different locales and even different nations prevents “experts” from effectively becoming a governing elite. This practice blocks the emergence of entrenched policy specialists who often pursue their own narrow interests rather than the interests of marginalized and impoverished community members.
Local funding of initiatives through savings plans prevents s the centralized distribution of tax monies and other resources from being monopolized by elected leaders distant from the urban slum communities and their interests. SDI’s goals are to serve the poorest of the poor, which centralized national governments have often not been able to serve effectively. Even areas that practice democracy through elected governments have found that wealth and power inequalities remain, and democracy does not mean a reduction in inequality. So if informally organized urban slum communities wish to take their lives into their own hands, SDI provides one means to do so.
Note: Thank you to Jamie Helberg for research assistance on this post.