Innovations in Sustainable Urban Services Driving Development in Low Income Countries

By Jeffrey Szuchman

Jeffrey Szuchman is a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow in the Policy Office at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). He works on issues related to demographic trends and development.

Apr 30, 2013 | Urban Sustainability | 5 comments

Over the next decades, most of the world’s urban growth will take place in developing countries. By 2035 cities will house 2 billion poor people, many of whom will live in slums with little or no access to basic services such as sanitation, water, or health services.

Urban trends portend a bleak future for many, but in a number of urban areas in developing countries, new technologies and partnerships are empowering the urban poor to demand more of their governments, and in some cases to provide their own services. From Kenya to India to Indonesia, community mapping technology is enabling the urban poor to identify precise need and demand access to services. Elsewhere, new forms of partnerships between NGOs, local service providers and local communities are matching need to opportunities to sustainably improve livelihoods.

Community mapping brings invisible communities out from the shadows

The potential of community mapping programs has been clear since the Map Kibera project set out to map the largest slum in Africa nearly four years ago. Using consumer-grade GPS and freely available platforms like OpenStreetMap, an alliance of Kenyan organizations trained local youth to map their own community. They meticulously filled in a large blank spot on the map with evidence of their homes, landmarks, and networks. In the process, they shed light on what had been an invisible community. The initial project has since grown to encompass a citizen journalism network, and a platform for direct reporting by Kibera residents through SMS or directly through the Voice of Kibera website.

Similar citizen mapping projects are having community impacts elsewhere. Solo Koto Kita has compiled mini atlases of 51 neighborhoods in Surakarta (Solo), one of the most densely populated cities in Indonesia. Informed by extensive interviews with residents, the atlases highlight education levels, access to water and sanitation facilities, housing, poverty, and health services. Data at this level are not collected by the city or national governments, and as a result, the voices of the poor are not always heard by wealthier residents of neighborhoods. These maps and atlases help to inform the local participatory budgeting process, which can prioritize issues that better reflect evidence-based assessments of local needs, rather than vague perceptions or elite opinion.

In India, the NGO Prayasam led a youth-initiative to map a Kolkata squatter colony on paper. The goal was to convince authorities to provide clean water by visually communicating the absence of access points. With the help of ChildCount+ and the Bay Area Video Coalition, which matches social issue documentary teams with technology mentors, the project has grown into a high-tech initiative to vaccinate 100% of the population against polio by identifying and locating newborns and children who need the vaccine.

Partnerships for sustainable service delivery

While the Prayasam partnership model provides technical support for local initiatives, public-private partnerships foster investment and revenue-generating services that target the poor. In the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, Sanergy is growing a system of low-cost off-grid infrastructure that provides safe and affordable sanitation. Sanergy’s network of sanitation centers is franchised to local entrepreneurs who charge fees for use of toilets. Waste is collected and carted to a processing facility where it is converted into electricity and commercial-grade fertilizer. The electricity is sold to the national grid, and the fertilizer is sold to commercial and small hold farmers. In the first six months, 60 franchisees ordered over 80 toilets, 40 toilet operators were trained, and over 100,000 users visited the toilets, generating daily revenue for operators from $1.00-$3.30.

Sanergy’s model, which engages the urban poor in helping solve the very problems that the urban poor experience is one that we at USAID particularly support. We are committed to helping cities provide sustainable pro-poor services to manage the realities of increased urban growth. This is the aim our forthcoming policy on Sustainable Urban Service Delivery in an Increasingly Urbanized World, which emphasizes, among other development principles, citizen participation, geographic focus, and public-private collaboration. We are now revising the draft based on feedback that we received following a period of extensive review within USAID and—in a first for the Agency—by the general public. Stay tuned, as we expect to launch the final policy within the next few months.

Discussion

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5 Comments

  1. Jessie Feller

    Jeffrey – thanks for this. Fascinating read. I didn’t know about Sanergy before your blog post. Impressive initiative. Closing the waste loop and providing a higher quality of life for slum dwellers is a win-win. Do you think this model will be replicated in other countries? What is impeding Sanergy from scaling further? It seems like this model could translate to many other cities and countries.

    Reply
    • Jeffrey Szuchman

      Thanks Jessie. I agree, this is a very promising model. Sanergy has received a Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) grant from USAID’s Office of Innovation and Development Alliances to help build its franchise network in Nairobi and construct a waste-processing facility. DIV’s rigorous and iterative evaluation process will help ensure that the company identifies and mitigates impediments to scaling further.

      Reply
  2. Gordon Feller

    Jeffrey:

    Your blog post here is very helpful.

    It got me thinking about William McDonough’s newest and most important book, “Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability–Designing for Abundance”. McDonough’s earlier book, “Cradle to Cradle”, made the case that we all need to rethink what we do with the stuff that we make and the stuff that we consume. “Upcycle” takes a close look at just the kinds of initiatives which look and sound much like Sanergy. To build on what you’ve outlined here i’d strongly recommend reading the new book.

    Reply
    • Jeffrey Szuchman

      Thanks Gordon. I will certainly give it a read. I think it is significant that these types of solutions are as relevant for addressing the challenges of the industrialized world as they are to helping to lift the world’s poorest out of extreme poverty.

      Reply
  3. Chris Baulman

    I am very encouraged by this development in “low income countries”. “New technologies empower urban poor to demand more of their governments, & to provide their own services” – a real “meeting of minds”

    Although I live in one of the richest countries in the world, some people here are homeless and, even in public housing (which now has a waiting list 10 years long and growing) many people live in poverty. The conviction here that we must grow our own national wealth even more to be able to address this poverty seems totally unsustainable to me, and I fear that developing countries looking on at our “progress” are inclined to follow our example. Surely “localism” mentioned in this article provides a more sustainable model for development.

    With belief in the idea that we must think globally and act locally, I have also been developing a use of the internet to enhance “localism” in my own neighbourhood. I would like to be able to show that localism could even be a more effective & attractive option in a country that would seem to already have everything that glitters. If we are to lead anything, it will have to be by example!

    I provide the following links to what I have arrived at –

    Tenants could be socially included & increasingly valued for their community activity. (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Affordable-Housing-A-Tenants-perspective/129632927187873?id=129632927187873&sk=info … )

    An online platform to collaborate on anything using an easy template for success, no leaders required? EMPOWERING! http://www.createvillage.net/Village

    And to these, thanks to you I will now add –
    “New technologies empower urban poor to demand more of govts, & provide their own services” http://cityminded.org/innovations-in-sustainable-urban-services-driving-development-in-low-income-countries-6996

    Regards
    Chris Baulman

    @landrights4all

    Reply

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