Friday, November 05, 2010

Coproducing our future

November's coprodnet conference in Manchester left my head full of stimulating ideas and renewed excitement about what can be done through collective action.

There was a lot to take in and digest. It was also clear that the word itself is open to wide debate and interpretation. I'll leave that to other people and just share one of the stories I learnt a lot from.

A story from Harare

"We realised that we cannot just sit and wait and hope... You are planning to build a house for me and it's not a house that I will like... the people who can get the paperwork will get the house and then they will just sell it"

Five years ago Zimbabwe embarked on a clearance programme. This was not clearance in the English sense, with bland notices, tense discussions, placards and compulsory purchase orders. This was just bulldozers with the label 'Drive out rubbish'.

"There are different circumstances in different countries, but being poor is being poor".

The story from Zimbabwe was one of hope and great achievement in circumstances that don't get much worse. We heard that the Zimbabwe Homeless People's Federation were doing some amazing things:
- built a membership of over 40,000 people
- supported neighbourhood savings and credit schemes
- negotiated for land and built houses

Their story is just one of many members around the world of Slum Dwellers International and they were able to get support from this and other NGOs and universities to make a difference.

How did they do it? How did they get so many people involved? The first step they described came as a surprise to me, but then I may not have been thinking about the real problem.

1. The group had to develop recognition. The urban poor weren't seen by anybody, their settlements were given different names by the authorities and they were told (forcibly) that if there wasn't work for them, they should return to the rural areas. Before they could do anything else, they had to organise in order to establish their right to exist.

2. They then gathered and recorded information to support their case for recognition. Things like how many people lived in their settlements, its history, the names they were using, what the community wanted and needed. This meant they had their own resources to take to the table: knowledge and information.

3. They built up local savings networks. 80% of their members are women and the clubs are based on very small networks. Once the banks collapsed, they stopped taking their money to them. Now they can save a little bit of money each day and make use of a revolving fund for crisis loans and income generation ideas. Most importantly, the tiny resources of the individual can be matched with the larger fund and in turn contributions from other organisations. As well as their savings, people can contribute sweat equity and their own skills to buildings.

4. With knowledge, money, information and the pooled resources of their community, teams identify land and begin negotiating with whoever owns it. They are now coing from a different position. They stopped saying yes to any offer ("bad land" far away from from the city centre) and made the point that the urban poor had a right to live close to the business district because they didn't have cars.

5. They draw on expertise and training as and when it is needed for legal services and building design. Sometimes they pay for this themselves, in other cases it is funded by the NGOs. This means the housing they build will be what they want.

6. A fundamental consideration is health. The networks share information, teach each other and "give each other the courage" to get tested for HIV.

The network is made up of small circles who save and learn, forming a community that in turn draws on the knowledge of other places around the world.

It was a joy to talk to Davious and Catherine from the Zimbabwean People's Federation. I'm sure there's a lot more to the story, many more hurdles and problems than we had time to talk about, but it was inspiring to hear their story and see their determination to build better homes for their communities.