The change we want to see for urban slum dwellers


September 25th, 2018

Last week the World Bank released an update of its ‘What a Waste’ report. It highlights how over 90% of waste in low-income countries is openly dumped or burned. This affects everyone, but impacts poor people the most. Rubbish is rarely effectively collected in their neighbourhoods. It causes pollution (including 5% of global climate change emissions), acts as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other diseases and blocks toilets and drains. It can exacerbate the impacts of flooding. Landslides of waste dumps have buried homes. The situation is only likely to get worse as the combination of urbanization and population growth, together with growing consumption, will lead to a 70% increase in global waste in the next 30 years.

The release of this report coincides with the meeting of our global leadership team, and with re-vitalising of a crucial internal hub drawn from expert staff from across the world, to provide greater leadership and collaboration in our actions.

Practical Action has been focusing on supporting urban poor communities for nearly 20 years in our programmes in Africa and South Asia. Our teams on the ground have witnessed these changes first hand, and have built up expertise over time on how to work effectively in these contexts with multiple stakeholders: helping slum communities to ensure their voices are heard, and local authorities to be better able to respond.

Our work over the last few years has focused on basic services: water, sanitation, hygiene and solid waste management. This is because we know that improvements in these issues makes a dramatic difference to the day-to-day realities of women and men. It helps them live healthier lives, less burdened by the struggle of inadequate services and unpleasant, dangerous conditions. It helps restore dignity and ensure they feel included as part of the city. But also it can be a ‘gateway’ to helping them go on to solve other problems they face. We know that there are challenges for urban Local Authorities, who can be poorly staffed and resourced, struggle with effective community engagement, and lack knowledge of the latest appropriate technologies, financing mechanisms or ideas for partnerships.

On the positive side, the existing informal sector already plays a huge role in delivering essential services in sanitation, water supply and rubbish collection and recycling (as work by WIEGO shows). The World Bank report suggests there are 15 million informal waste pickers in the world, and that if supported to organize this work can be transformed to provide decent livelihoods and support municipalities in delivering a good service. They can be at the heart of the circular economy, and models of green and inclusive growth.

Practical Action’s work has strong, concrete evidence:

Linking our areas of work

Practical Action is also increasingly trying to see the links between different areas of our work – for example linking our work on solid waste management with energy (biogas technologies), or with our work on improving soil organic matter (composting of faecal sludge and kitchen waste).

In our global strategy, we remain committed to improving the lives of urban poor communities. We are aiming to support the achievement of the SDG goals of universal access to these services in the towns and cities we are working in across Kenya, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

Our unique approach works with existing systems and stakeholders, puts poor people at the heart of everything we do, and identifies how the right kinds of technologies can be part of positive change. In a fast-changing world, we need to be agile to respond as these challenges grow. We need to find new ways to walk with some of the world’s most vulnerable people and communities through engaging positively with the private sector, and inspiring local authorities and national departments to be pro-poor in their thinking, actions and financing.

Internally we are committed to doing even more to promote peer-to-peer learning to challenge and inspire staff as they discuss compelling stories, exchange learning, plan together, and gather our evidence to engage effectively in national and international policy dialogues.

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