How to involve informal settlement communities in the development of essential services access?

21/06/2016 - Collège des Bernardins, Paris

In 2016, over 90% of global urban growth is concentrated in the developing world. In the most vulnerable countries, a third of the population live in extremely precarious conditions and stress on public access to essential services is increasing. How do local communities – and among them, urban dwellers themselves – reinvent their own territories and develop a sense of ownership of the urban space? What are the strategies developed by these populations to cover basic infrastructure shortfalls? How to involve all stakeholders in developing successful partnerships?

Debate with Laure Criqui, IDDRI Urban development research fellow and Projection network Chairperson, and Philippe de Roux, ONG Eau&Vie (Water & Life NGO) Co-Founder.

The debate is facilitated by Guillaume Josse, Urban Planner and Geographer, Groupe Huit Director.

To go further, please listen to the 7 milliards de Voisins podcast that built on this Morning Conference for the 21st June broadcast.


What is a precarious neighbourhood?

  • Call them “precarious neighbourhoods”, “informal settlements”, “slums”, “shantytowns”, “urban villages”… These categories all refer to neighbourhoods that don’t fall under traditional urban fabric and urban development schemes usually found in countries of the global North.


Rethinking the integration of precarious neighbourhoods and essential services in developing cities

  • The rise of an urbanization that does not fall under traditional planning frameworks requires us to adapt our public policy models.
  • There exists a tremendous diversity between slums, which prevents us from applying the same mental frameworks to approach them. In some neighbourhoods, the urban fabric is relatively homogeneous, constructions are permanent and several storeys high. The future of our cities worldwide could be in these districts.
  • We must change mental representations and demonstrate the crucial importance of slums for urban issues, as 43% of the next 30 years’ urban growth will be happening in these neighbourhoods, and we have the power to make this growth inclusive and positive.
  • Changing scale also requires us to change our viewpoints. We probably need to find new ways of asking the legitimate question “How to integrate informal settlement residents?”, for the simple reason that in certain cities, 90% of the population lives in these informal neighbourhoods.
  • Urban planning is not the future of slums. We have to promote a realistic urban planning that derives from what actually happens on the ground.
  • Urban planning has a lot to learn from slums, be it only on the incremental nature of change. Do we need to start by planning, developing housing and equipment, build infrastructure and finally welcome inhabitants, when slums follow the exact opposite model? Slums start with a spatial occupation, constructions, housing and finally provide equipment and infrastructure to become an actual city.


Access to essential services as the first step towards social recognition

Connecting neighbourhoods to public utility networks is oftentimes the first step towards an official recognition but also towards the opening of new rights for these neighbourhoods’ residents, including the right to once benefit of the value of their land. This point, nonetheless, remains very contentious and difficult to accept for other stakeholders.



Limits of the standpipe

  • Standpipes are an efficient short-term solution. The goal of the NGO Eau&Vie (Water & Life) is to provide emergency relief and to introduce water in these developing neighbourhoods. But the standpipe does not solve the issue of water storage, which is a serious issue in hot countries. A tremendous amount of time is lost, especially by women and children, in walking kilometres to the standpipe and back.
  • Another issue with standpipes is that they are community- managed, which tends to lead to maintenance and billing issues and can generate extremely high debts to the service provider.


The Eau&Vie (Water&Life) NGO works towards the progressive integration of all districts to the general public network

  • By collecting fees on a daily basis, then twice a week, then every week and finally each month, a habit is created and a certain discipline and understanding of the contract notion can slowly take place. When customers are capable of becoming classical service customers, Eau&Vie simply gives back the management of the network and of customers into the hands of the traditional service provider. This idea goes further than the standpipe since a continuous source of safe water is brought directly to households, in order to avoid storing water (a major cause of waterborne diseases).


Benefits of the community participatory approach

  • Residents’ participation can be a factor of social inclusion and a way to promote urban and spatial integration as well as political integration. This is especially the case if participation comes with capacity building on network management.
  • Working with these populations not only improves efficiency but also provides service providers and public authorities a powerful tool for promoting social stability by directly connecting with all urban citizens.
  • Public consultation – or any other method to involve communities in participatory decision-making – is a first step towards the normalization of informal neighbourhood residents’ relationships with public authorities. This normalization, be it a good or a bad thing, probably means an integration into the fiscal system.


Limits of the community participatory approach

  • These social groups usually hold one or two jobs, to which considerable commute time adds up.  Coming back at night to dig trenches, to join public information meetings or hygiene training sessions can be difficult if not impossible.
  • On top of community engagement, it is key to institutionalize their participation. On the one hand, public authorities or service providers must acknowledge CBOs and CSOs roles as potential checks and balances, and as legitimate stakeholders in urban decision-making processes.
  • Community participation should nonetheless be considered with care as it should not lead to State withdrawal and to the implementation of public works by the communities themselves.
  • Participatory approaches also raise other issues: on the methods of participation, on pre-existing models of mobilization and organization, but also on power imbalances, conflicting interests and contention within certain groups of stakeholders. Nothing can guarantee the internal harmony and equity of a community.




  • Guillaume Josse, director of Groupe Huit
  • Laure Criqui,  IDDRI Urban development research fellow
  • Philippe de Roux, director of the NGO Eau&Vie

Event's videos

Interview de Guillaume Josse, urbaniste, géographe et directeur du groupe Huit
Interview de Laure Criqui, chercheure en développement urbain international à l'IDDRI et présidente de Projection
Interview de Philippe de Roux, co-fondateur de Eau&Vie

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How to involve informal settlement communities in the development of essential services access?