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Policymakers have a lot to learn from slum dwellers: an Accra case study

More and more people are being drawn into slums in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. Shutterstock

A significant portion of people who migrate from rural to urban areas across Africa end up trapped in slums, where living conditions are characterised by overcrowding, poor housing, limited access to water and sanitation, and insecure tenure. Many of these informal settlements are largely treated as a nuisance by authorities. This condemns millions of people into helpless poverty.

But not all informal settlements are helpless. Many host remarkable community driven initiatives to make the environment liveable. A collection of initiatives like this in different areas has shaped up into a movement generally tagged self-organisation. The concept refers to a collective, bottom-up activity by residents who use social capital to address common challenges where they live.

We have been doing research in informal settlements in Ghana’s capital Accra over the past four years. What we’ve found are pockets of bottom-up residents’ initiatives scattered across the city’s many informal spaces.

Our study zoomed into an informal settlement called the Abese Old quarter of La Dadekotopon District. The study looked at how self-organisation in the area is shaping up. We also explored how the organisation could be engaged by authorities.

There are good lessons for other cities across the continent. For example, we found that policymakers and civil society were aware of initiatives in slums, but had done little to support them. This meant that the creativity, community spirit, and enthusiasm of slum dwellers to taking initiatives on their own were being stifled. In addition, local authorities have not taken advantage of collective creativity and local responses as a learning avenue for addressing the challenge of slums.

Informal urbanisation and self-organisation

Each year, about 10 million people are added to the urban population of sub-Saharan Africa. And two-thirds move into slums.

Urban informal settlements dominate urban development across the continent. Many invariably turn into slums.

Instead of writing off these settlements as hopeless, authorities need to find a way to harness their self-organisation initiatives. One way of doing this, for example, would be for policymakers to identify with local people initiatives that could benefit from financial and technical support. This could make living areas more sustainable and liveable.

There are signs of change. Self-organisation has emerged as a novel strategy for people living in informal settlements. It is now being embraced by those designing policies to address the many urban crises facing slum dwellers. This applies to Accra too.

Following the pockets of residents’ initiatives scattered across many informal areas in Accra, Ghana’s recently designed urban policy recognises the value of self-organisation and social capital in slum communities. For example, they encourage residents to organise themselves into cooperatives and associations to take responsibility for neighbourhood improvement programmes.

But this step hasn’t been followed through with the support that’s needed. For example, district development plans have yet to factor in strategies for building on existing collective initiatives and activities.

Rising informality in Accra

Accra is an interesting city to focus on because of its unfolding wave of economic activity. This has largely been facilitated by Ghana’s newish oil finds. After more than a decade of unsuccessful exploration, Ghana discovered oil in 2007. Commercial operations began in 2010.

Accra has been the main beneficiary. When it comes to housing there’s been a growing trend of building upscale commercial and residential units. At the same time there’s been a surge in slum life. Official estimates show that 38% of Accra’s population lives in slums. Other research suggests it could be as high as 45%.

At the same time settlements for low-income earners have been deteriorating. Overcrowding, limited access to basic facilities like water and sanitation, and poor housing conditions have become part of daily urban life.

A myriad of factors contribute to new informal settlements developing and people being denied meaningful accommodation. Factors include rising land values as well as uncontrolled rents. And limited investment in affordable housing doesn’t help the situation. It perpetuates slums in both inner and peripheral areas of the city.

Social capital

Our research shows that residents of the Abese old quarter have been able to use events such as local festivals as well as traditional rituals and weekly clan meetings to build social capital and develop capacity for self-organising.

Residents have also been able to pool together minimal resources, local skills and the talent of artisans to help themselves. Some of the initiatives they’ve undertaken include:

  • Constructing a sewer line to address the poor sanitation in the settlement

  • Designing and building a community toilet to address the lack of facilities in most house

  • Modifying their houses. Examples include reconstruction, changes to roof and walls, by introducing new, durable, locally accessible building materials to address structural weaknesses, poor housing conditions, and overcrowded rooms.

  • Establishing a community based system for managing communal facilities. Each clan-house appoints a caretaker into a group responsible for maintenance and issues management reports to community leaders.

Many authorities are realising that initiatives like this are producing positive outcomes. But they need to translate this into practical local support.

The first step is for authorities to recognise the value of what slum residents are doing in their neighbourhoods. The next step would be to build on these collective activities rather than supplanting them.

In our view, this approach has the prospect of providing sustainable, bottom-up and contextual solutions to the challenges of slums. It must heed the call to focus on what people are already doing through their local networks, ties and relationships. After all, what people do for themselves they value; and what they do together they preserve.

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