Understanding the Governance Structures of SDI. The evolution and practice of accountabilities and decision-making in a global grassroots movement.

Until recently not much has been written about social movements and their institutional arrangements, and even less about approaches to governance and accountability by and for the informal urban poor. In fact there has been a general assumption that informality and poverty equal disorganization.

From there it is a small step to a point of view that asserts that poor people create the problems and that educated professionals from the formal sector and Governments have to provide the solutions.

In reality there are huge numbers of community organizations. Their leaders are often resentful that their needs get represented by others and that the ability to voice challenges and solutions themselves is never possible. In many ways SDI is a response to this challenge.

It began in India where the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan established national networks and federated slum dwellers throughout the country.

The Indian Federations met South African Shack Dwellers in 1991. This led to a series of trans-national exchanges between urban poor communities from each country, which resulted, inter alia, in the setting up of a South African Federation of the Urban Poor.

Between 1992 and 1996 these two federations visited one another on a regular basis. Together they 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.

House Modelling exhibition - Veeplaas E Cape South Africa
Between 1992 and 1996 the Indian and South African Federations facilitated the emergence of a number of other Federations in Asia (such as Cambodia)
And in Africa - like Zimbabwe.

Resources for all interactions between the first 8 federations from Africa and Asia came from the South African and the Indian organizations.

The Indian and South African NGOs operated as a nascent Secretariat for the emerging global network.

But as the Federations grew and as they began to play increasingly important roles in community development in many countries so too did the need for a global institutional identity and governance structure to emerge.

Community leaders from the national federations chose their own coordinators to help develop their identity and build their ability and confidence to represent themselves at all levels from global to local.

From 1996 to 2002 these co-ordinators worked tirelessly to expand the federation model to other parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

As the network expanded to more and more countries a need arose for dedicated financial support for trans-national learning and solidarity. The South African alliance undertook to secure and manage these resources specifically for that purpose, thereby setting itself up to become a Secretariat for the global movement.

In 2002 SDI chose its very first Board. Federation members were (Clockwise from the top) Sonia Fadrigo (Philippines), Gunashekar Mulayan (India), Edith Mabanga (Namibia), Sheila Magara (Zimbabwe), Rose Molokoane (RSA), Arputham Jockin (India), Patrick Magebhula (RSA).
Jane Weru and Sheela Patel, from the Kenya and India NGO respectively, were also nominated to serve on the Board. Joel Bolnick and Celine D Criuz were retained as coordinators (along with Jockin and Rose) - holding that space for what, many years later, was to become SDI's Management Committee.
SDI Board members and coordinators at the time of the very first board meeting - Nairobi 2002
SDI Structure 2002 to 2006

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 which presented challenges because 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.

One of the responses, formalised in 2006 was to establish a Council, comprising three representatives from each mature federation, meaning federations that had achieved city wide or national scale and who had engaged state institutions and had co-developed alternatives to evictions and produced upgrading interventions at scale. In 2006 there were 11 such federations. The Council became responsible for electing new board members from within its ranks.

SDI Council pose for a photograph during a board and council meeting in Nairobi,

By 2006 the Board and Council were established. The Secretariat was little more than a combination of the coordinators and one administrator, but critically they now reported to the Board and Council and in turn implemented their directives.

Ever -increasing International recognition as a direct result of major interventions at country level led to the scaling up of activities and increase in financial partnerships and obligations with funders and other agencies. With this growth came a need for deeper and sharper institutional arrangements.

This led to two important developments in 2008. First SDI launched UPFI, a global finance facility for slum upgrading, managed by the Secretariat and accountable to the SDI Board.

Second, SDI introduced a Ministerial Board of Governors to oversee the governance of UPFI, along with the SDI Board. The Board included Housing and Urban Development Ministers from Brazil, India, Norway, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden and Uganda.

As a counter-balance to the setting up of UPFI and the Board of Governors and expanding the Secretariat which were necessary mechanisms for strengthening the centre, SDI made a concerted effort to facilitate and enable 5 regional hubs. These hubs in Southern Africa, East Africa, West Africa, Latin America and Asia helped build regional solidarities and strengthen local leadership


In line with SDI's principle of abdication (from professional to federation) the coordinating team gradually gave way to a Management Committee (MC), which at first comprised federation leaders only. From 2013 to 2015 it was known as the "core team".

By 2015 the MC had a completely distinct identity from the Board and Council, with MC members stepping down from these two structures. The MC was governed by Terms of Reference that had been ratified by the Board. The MC took joint responsibility, alongside the Secretariat, for the provision of support to the national federations. Responsibilities for the different affiliates were divided amongst the 9 MC members. The MC also took over SDI’s global advocacy implementation, following the strategic direction set by the Board and Council.

These institutional shifts are a clear demonstration of SDI's maturation and growth. Of course they did not materialize without challenges since institutional change and development resulted in overlaps (at different stages) between Board members, Council members, secretariat, coordinators and the management committee. This was an overlap in personnel as well as function. By 2015/6 these instruments had matured and consolidated. In particular the Management Committee increasingly took on coordinating functions in regard to trans-national learning, federation building and advocacy. As they carved out this space the Secretariat re-organized around them, and in the process the strategic, decision-making and custodial role of Board and Council became clear. The same goes for the Regional Hubs. While changes will certainly take place in the future SDI's governance structures are stable and mature because they have not followed a manual but have developed incrementally, thoughtfully and empirically.

SDI STRUCTURE - 2016 - 2018

During all these changes the structures and systems of the national affiliates were equally dynamic. Standardization has been balanced against local priorities, so that symmetries with SDI's systems have been introduced, but not at the cost of local autonomy.

Federations from the top - L to R: Bolivia, Botswana, Ghana, Liberia, Malawi, Namibia, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

The creation of multi-tiered, community-driven, bottom-up, evolving institutional arrangements is not a standardized process - and probably never will be. But SDI's perseverence and patience has produced a robust framework that works for the Federations at the same time that it meets rigorous internal and external accountabilities.

SDI Management Committee 2019. Sonia Fadraigo, Anna Muller, Gunashekhar Molayan, Rose Molokoane, Sheila Magara, Zillire Lukha, Sarah Nambozo, Joseph Muturi, Mary Lubelwa, Emily Mohohlo, Ofelia Bogatlo. (absent: Christine Mutuku, Bisola Akinmuyiwa.)
SDI Board 2019: L to R - Sazini Ndlovu, Megan Chapman, Joyce Lungu, Rose Molokoane (ex officio), Sheela Patel (Chairperson) Patrick Matsemela, Joseph Muturi (ex officio), Sarah Nandudu (co-Chair) Absent Jack Makau

In 2011 SDI initiated its own investment arm, known as Inqolobane Trust. SDI ceded initial capital to the Trust, seconded staff to run it and set up a Board of Trustees with 50% representation from SDI Management Committee.

The Trust's function is to produce revenue that it donates annually to SDI as a contribution to its overhead and operation costs. The Trust does this in two ways. First it is mandated to diversify SDI's funding streams beyond foundations, multi-lateral agencies and Governments. Second it explores and pilots commercial opportunities in informal settlements. This is a totally separate activity from SDI's project development that is primarily around developing social and political capital. The Trust's current investments are in community resource centres for affiliates (such as the one on the right which is in Jinja, Uganda), small renewable energy related initiatives and land sharing activities.

Created By
Sheela Patel

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