Building inclusive urban reform coalitions: A conversation with Diana Mitlin

Jan 31, 2023

“We really see these reform coalitions as very key. They’re key to nurturing new ideas, they’re key to articulating ideas that perhaps are working elsewhere and making sure they’re understood within their local context. They’re key in translating frustrations into practical solutions, they’re key in holding governments to account as they go forward… So our coalitions are really a glue – a glue that makes sure that the process sticks together to build a critical mass and the moment is not lost.”
Diana Mitlin talks to Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael about her new paper on how reform coalitions can contribute to inclusive equitable urban change in the global South, her experiences of working with coalitions in Africa and Asia, the future of the urban reform agenda in African cities, and an upcoming conference being organised by ACRC.

Diana Mitlin is CEO of the African Cities Research Consortium and professor of global urbanism at The University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Cities Research Consortium, supporting research across the crosscutting themes of finance, gender and climate change.

Diana Mitlin’s new open access paper in Area, Development and Policy – “The contribution of reform coalitions to inclusion and equity: lessons from urban social movements” –  is available to download.


The full podcast transcript is available below.

Read now

Intro Welcome to the African Cities podcast. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael I am Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael, postdoctoral researcher at the African Cities Research Consortium. Today, I’m joined by Professor Diana Mitlin to discuss the role of coalition-building in facilitating inclusive urban reform. Diana Mitlin is Professor of Global Urbanism at the Global Development Institute of The University of Manchester. Diana is also CEO of African Cities Research Consortium. ACRC is a six-year investment by FCDO, to find new, operationally relevant research to address intractable development challenges in African cities. Welcome, Diana. 

Diana Mitlin Thank you Ezana. It’s good to be here. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much. Let’s have a crack at it. I had the pleasure to read your forthcoming article in Area Development and Policy Journal, which is in press: “The contribution of reform coalitions to inclusion and equity: Lessons for all urban social movements”. May you please explain to us what is coalition and what constitutes an urban reform? 

Diana Mitlin Thank you. Thank you, Ezana. So when we sat down to think about it – and I say we because although I authored this article, I think certainly the definition was very much a collective process – so we understood the urban reform coalitions that we are trying to operationalise in this way. Firstly, they’re groups of diverse stakeholders. They might include civil society, state agencies, maybe private enterprises. Frequently, they also involve people like myself, an academic. And they perceive a benefit in coming together to achieve common goals. We make no assumptions about how long they come together for. But the starting point is that it’s not a trivial engagement, it’s not a month or two months. It’s a more substantive period, a longer period of time. We see them as motivated by the benefits of alliance building. So they recognise that their individual agency objectives, perhaps their personal objectives, in the case of academics, can be advanced through collaboration. But at the same time, the benefit of a coalition – and this really, I think, is quite important – the benefit of a coalition is that individuals and organisations maintain their autonomy, so they then, they act through discussion, they negotiate to agree common goals. They often get involved in co-producing knowledge and potentially in mobilising resources – particularly, of course, when the state is involved. They develop processes that legitimate ideas and that discuss and share opinions and often form a common view on solutions to address agreed problems. Now, we recognise that in many cases coalitions are formal, they involve formal agencies, but we observe that often the coalitions themselves are informal and they often involve informal groups and they involve informal residents and people who work informally. So there’s a lot that’s informal. Of course, the informal groups may be informal elite groups, so we don’t make the assumption that all informal groups are low-income and disadvantaged. So that’s the definition of coalitions. In terms of reform, we focused initially on the objectives of the African Cities Research Consortium, which are to address the challenges of economic prosperity and poverty reduction in cities, with an eye to the climate emergency. And I’m really conscious that we don’t want to exacerbate that climate emergency. So we started with, you might say, a very lowest common denominator. What are reform coalitions that can advance prosperity and address poverty? The coalitions that we look at in this paper, the coalitions that I’ve learned so much from, have a really strong focus on addressing the needs and interests of excluded groups, low-income and disadvantaged groups. So the kind of things that they’re thinking about are ways to secure tenure, address service deficiencies, upgrade settlements, maybe develop affordable housing, think about the needs of informal workers, protecting them from market abuse, sometimes protecting them from actions the state makes to make informal trading very difficult, for example. So we have a broad understanding of reform. We see it as somehow addressing the needs of people who are disadvantaged and excluded from other processes of urban development. And we recognise that in order to really address the needs of cities in the 21st century, we need to find ways in which they can be equitable and inclusive. Back to you. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much, Diana, for the very lucid and informative explanation on both concepts and some of the issues that you raised. We will pick it up and further explore it shortly. But to take you a little bit to the background of how you wrote this article. It would be a very difficult question, but can you please briefly walk us through your activist academic journey that led you to write the article? 

Diana Mitlin Yeah. Let me let me share briefly the learning journey, as you rightly say, that I’ve been on. So the African Cities Research Consortium is tasked to think about how urban reform can take place, such that we address the needs of excluded populations in cities and help all populations advance their goals, improve their wellbeing. And it really catalysed, in my own mind, a thinking about what are the conditions under which that takes place. Now, I would hesitate to say these are sufficient conditions, but when I looked at the ways in which … when I looked at my own history and the groups I’ve worked with and how they had advanced the needs and interests of excluded populations, I was really very struck by the effort that they put into building coalitions. So in the early 90s, I started to work with some of the community organisations in South Africa and India that then came together to form SDI – Slum/Shack Dwellers International. In fact, they were groups living in informal settlements, they were groups whose agenda was always being ignored. The first ones I learned from were the ones in South Africa, who really lived alongside the civics who were representing the needs and interests of black populations in townships. So these groups were working with people who’d really been excluded. And immediately they began to think about, okay, who are the people we need to reach out to? What are the ways in which we can successfully influence the state? And then I worked closely with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. The Asian Coalition had grown up around exchanges between community groups, NGOs and academics in the Asian context. It had been catalysed by evictions that took place around the Olympics in Seoul in 88. So that was also a group that supported each other to put in place successful urban strategies, and they also worked in many cases with these coalitions. So when I look back at my history, when I look back at the groups I’ve learned so much from, I really could understand that coalitions were key to catalysing change and to supporting good ideas and good practices and good projects when they emerged. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Impressive journey. Building upon that, what’s the role of reform coalition in African Cities Research Consortium and its theory of change? 

Diana Mitlin One of the things that we really thought about when we developed our theory of change is: what are the necessary and sufficient conditions? And when we began to craft that model, we really honed in on four aspects, one of which is reform coalitions. So let me start with some of the other aspects. And, again, this was looking back at change processes that we felt were more successful. In terms of radical change, in terms of major efforts at redistribution, organised communities are really critical. The disadvantaged groups pressing for change – that might be people who’ve been left out of social protection, for example. So community health volunteers in Nairobi really got badly affected in the beginning of Covid because they were not included in the social protection measures that the government was rolling out for other programmes. So they organised, so they pressed for change and the government was convinced and began to think about ways of including them. So organised citizens are clearly key. I would also say that what organised citizens do is they change the way in which elites are perceiving their realities. So elites will respond to citizens who are organised enough to threaten their interests, they’ll begin to offer other ideas, they’ll begin to offer new policy initiatives, maybe new programming. So I think you see those things coming through, even in the experience for Addis, which I know you know so well, when young people rioted, the government also responded with employment initiatives to think how can we address these issues? Then you need really civil servants, public officials who can respond to the political imperative with practical ideas, who have been educated or who had otherwise exposure or experiences that mean that when a politician says, “I think we need to do something to address this demand, address this need”, have, in a sense, a portfolio of suggestions that are more likely than less likely to work. So you need that to be in place or else the political moment is lost and ideas and policies and programmes that are put forward are not successful. So you need those two things to be in place. Associated with that, we need to really build a momentum among political elites that they can reform and they can find ways to manage this trajectory. So, informed by their officials and catalysed by protests, they become committed to a reform process. But we really see that reform coalitions are important. Why are they important? They’re important in helping to translate the perspectives of disadvantaged groups into a language that motivates elites to look at new solutions, to believe that it is possible to find a way that can be, even if not win win – and in some cases it’s win win – at least they don’t lose too much, so they don’t respond in a repressive way. So we think that coalitions can be important there. They can really be important in engaging the officials and making sure that they are well informed about solutions, making sure, for example, when projects and programmes really run into challenges, that there is a group that could help to take them forward, that can provide new ideas, that can reassure them that it’s the best way, that can reduce the risks of action. So we really see these reform coalitions as very key. They’re key to nurturing new ideas, they’re key to articulating ideas that perhaps are working elsewhere and making sure they’re understood within their local context. They’re key in translating frustrations into practical solutions to address frustrations, they’re key in holding governments to account as they go forward. So, in checking around reforms and reporting on reforms and maintaining momentum, so our coalitions are really a glue – a glue that makes sure that the process sticks together to build a critical mass and the moment is not lost. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael That’s catalysing the reform. Some people confuse coalitions because most people associate coalitions with political party coalitions, established to run government. And there are also social movements, coalitions that lobby for certain change, such as climate change; and in the urban studies there are growth coalitions which try to revitalise inner city areas. So what are the commonality between these different kinds of coalitions and what is specific or peculiar about inclusive urban reform coalitions? 

Diana Mitlin That’s a really interesting question. And I must say, once I recognised the propensity of coalitions – when I look back at these initiatives that I’d learned so much from, successful reform coalitions – I really became aware that there was this much wider literature. So, these kind of party political coalitions you talk about, when no government has a majority and they have to form a coalition government, that’s clearly something that many people read about and hear about. That is a long way from our kind of coalitions. That is a very formal agreement, generally, where they know exactly what the terms are and they have to deliver together. That’s not so similar to what we’re talking about. The growth coalition literature is interesting and it really emphasises the importance of the state. I think in the context of the work of the African Cities Research Consortium, we are very conscious that of course states have not been so significant in the African context. They’ve often been dismissed. There’s been a move to reduce the value of the state, although I think we can see a little bit more recently the state’s come back in. But what you see out of this great coalition literature in the US is that the state is so important and it’s important in a way that is often hidden. It’s important for these companies, these entrepreneurs in the US, who want to reduce their risk, who want to make sure that they can access the land they want, when they need it, and make sure that basic services and infrastructure are in place for their industrial endeavours. So what you see is, regardless of the rhetoric about the state not being so important, you really see the urban context. The state is really very, very significant because it’s managing activities, managing what business needs and managing what citizen needs. When you have economic agglomeration taking place, there are often costs as well as potential rewards to that agglomeration. Making sure agglomeration works is very much what the state does. And actually I realised in one of Stone’s early papers – Clarence Stone, who wrote a lot about growth coalitions – that he also recognises the potential of disadvantaged groups, community groups, residents’ associations, to use these spaces. Although he also says that in many cases they’re not powerful enough to do that. So these are not coalitions that come together to advance the business interests. They’re really coalitions that come together to address citizen needs and the needs and interests, as I said earlier, of more disadvantaged groups. There is a similarity, and I really wondered when I looked at the propensity of these groups, these social movements, residents’ associations, informal traders’ networks, to use coalitions, if they’ve been watching what business does, if they’ve been watching what private enterprise does and think, “Oh, that’s a good idea, we should go talk to the mayor”. So I think some of that might be going on. They might be replicating some of those strategies. But there are some very distinct differences. I think some of those differences you can really see when you look at one of the examples I discussed in the paper, the MDFs in Uganda – Municipal Development Fora. And one of those that I worked with, I have worked with quite a bit in the past, is the one in Jinja, not one of the cities in the African Cities Research Consortium. We are working in Kampala in Uganda, but Jinja is a case, as an example of a reform coalition where I really learned a lot. So this is a coalition that meets monthly. It’s generally chaired by the town clerk and co-chaired by someone from one of the community groups. So we meet, they meet in the council chamber. The different groups involved, the public officials attend, councillors attend, community groups attend. There were business interests also in the meetings in which I took part and I took part in meetings over a number of years. There are business interests, both from the informal businesses and from the formal businesses. There are youth representatives and there are certainly women’s representatives. So there are groups of people who come together. Now, one of the things, a business interest actually, was that the taxis, when they worked at night-time, were lining up in the street and other people complained, other traders and residents complained that the taxis were not so convenient when they lined up in the street. So the Fora in Jinja worked out that one reason why this was the case was the taxi park didn’t function well at night because there were no streetlights. So, collectively, the Fora tasked the local authority to provide streetlights, which meant the taxis could go back to where they normally work from in the daytime, and the costs to other residents and businesses at night-time were reduced. And that’s a bit of an example of how these processes function. So if it was a large taxi firm, a corporate taxi firm, it might be conducting all these things behind closed doors. So it might be working with officials to make sure that there were streetlights, such that their business interests could be developed. But these are groups who are not powerful enough to do that, but a Fora that legitimates those kinds of claims and provides a platform where these problems can be identified and discussed, enables the problem to be resolved and makes sure, because of the frequency of meetings, makes sure that the actions to address the problem are reported on and the state is held to account. So the public nature of the platform means that even groups that are not very powerful in the urban context have a chance to represent the needs and interests, to hear, to voice their perspective, to have the views of others who weigh in, how can we address this problem, and then local government to move forward. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much. It was a really interesting example and there is a lot to think on that. Would you care to give us more examples, a similar example, like the Municipal Development Fora, where disadvantaged groups managed to influence much more inclusive reform? 

Diana Mitlin There are so many examples, some of which I touch on in the paper. So one of the ones I learnt early on from the work of CODI, the Community Organisation Development Institute in Thailand, really was around the needs of waste recyclers and these waste recyclers were coming, obviously collecting waste and bringing it to be sold. And they sold to businesses higher up the recycling chain. And one of the problems was that they often got cheated in that transaction because the scales were loaded against them. So the community groups working with the municipality were able to put in place a centre where they could come and get their waste fairly weighed, so they got a better price for it and at the same time they got health services provided alongside that, because recycling waste can be quite difficult. You might get, for example, cuts from tins have been dumped in the waste. So having health services alongside business services becomes really important. So these kinds of things become possible once you have groups that come together and really work very constructively to address those problems. In the paper itself, we look at one city in Thailand, Nakhon Sawan, which was identified by those working with CODI as useful to explore because they’ve been so successful at upgrading informal settlements in the city. So CODI, which is a national government programme, encourages these kinds of coalitions with a really quite formal aspect at the city scale when groups become working with them. Community groups ask to work with CODI because they’re living in informal neighbourhoods and they want to upgrade those neighbourhoods. CODI supports those groups to gather data and work constructively with their municipalities. So the example in the paper talks about how these groups have come together, how the mayor has been committed to this process in this town, and how as a result they’ve really been able to upgrade many of the informal settlements, part supported by CODI, part supported by the community and part supported by the municipality. So that’s a further example. One of the other examples, which is a slightly different strategy, is the work of the Urban Resource Centre in Karachi. Now, the URC is not in itself a coalition, but it’s really tried to use knowledge and research and a platform which enables low-income groups to come together to blend organisation and knowledge, to engage elites in the city. And, in so doing, it’s catalysed coalitions around particular issues. So one of the coalitions, I think that it catalysed – a coalition using our definition, not the language of the URC – one of the coalitions it catalysed was a group who challenged evictions to establish the Lyari Expressway. The Lyari Expressway was a plan to put in a road which went straight through neighbourhoods where low-income groups were living. And really, as a result of documenting the difficulties that communities would face from this programme, they were able to modify the plans of the municipality, in order to reduce the number of evictions. So those kinds of things – those kinds of platforms, the kinds of ways in which knowledge can be presented, communities can organise to articulate and amplify their voice – become important in influencing the choices that elites make around development in their cities. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much. Very interesting and makes it a much more concrete understanding of urban reform coalition. But these platforms, or these coalitions, they bring on board different stakeholders with different capabilities and with different relative power – for example, state officials’ plans or civil society organisations. How to ensure that disadvantaged groups are heard or their concern is seriously taken care of? What lessons could we draw that they are properly included or empowered in that process? 

Diana Mitlin That’s a really serious question, because, of course, there is a great power imbalance. Indeed, it is the power imbalance that motivates urban social movements and residents’ associations to form coalitions with groups that they think might be friendlier to them. So I think we should recognise that, in a sense, coalitions are not a grand plan from someone like me, an academic. It’s an observation about what’s going on on the ground, why at least some of these groups are interested in forming coalitions. I think that understanding the problem in that way is instructive in understanding what are the power imbalances and how do groups address them. Let me just start with an example from Jinja. So, in fact, it’s an example in which our students at The University of Manchester got drawn in. So there was an upgrading being discussed in a neighbourhood in Jinja. But the upgrading plans were very dominated by those who owned land in the neighbourhood. They lived in the neighbourhood, but they owned a house, a little bit of land, and they rented rooms to tenants. So the tenants were being left out of the process and that was of concern to the Ugandan Slum Dwellers Federation, which was one of the community participants in the Fora. So the Ugandan National Slum Dwellers Federation drew in the students from Manchester, who were visiting the Federation in Jinja, drew them into documenting the ways in which tenants were being left out. They’d asked the students to accompany community leaders when they talked to different tenants and just write down what they were hearing. And then they used the students a further way. They asked the students to present to the Municipal Development Fora about their observations around the neighbourhoods that they visited. So the students shared this observation that they’d accompanied community leaders who talked to tenants, and the tenants had represented their frustration about being left out. So this to me is a good example of how some of the power disparities are addressed. It doesn’t solve the problem entirely, but really, as a result of that, everyone at the Fora became aware that this neighbourhood, about which upgrading was being discussed, was not being very inclusive about who was being considered when the plans were being put forward. So I think that’s really one example. So the coalitions are used as a platform in which voices can be heard. I think the second way in which coalitions are used – and this is tricky, I have observed, it’s tricky, it’s around data. So communities often gather data to demonstrate the scale of the problem. This is a strategy, a tactic used by SDI, Slum/Shack Dwellers International, at the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. And both of these groups encouraged communities to collect data, for example, about how many people are living in informal settlements, about how many people don’t have access to street water, to municipal water, how many people might be unable to access streets at times of flooding. They might be cut off from the city, although they can be really close to the main road, but, obviously, if you’ve got a drain, the drain’s flooded, it’s impassible. So they collect data around this. And, again, the coalitions provide platforms at which data can be presented. That data helps elites understand the challenges in their city differently. It often helps officials who are often lacking information about the scale of need and also the nature of need, exactly how people are being disadvantaged. You know, for example, is the problem that there’s no access to water or is the problem that there is access to water but there’s no water in the pipes for quite considerable periods of time? So that data is really important. I think they are also used as platforms through which organised communities can present their own solutions. So of course when groups of people come together and identify problems, it’s not long before someone says, “Oh, but we have to find a way to address this need”. So that often comes up in these discussions, and communities can then suggest ways that might work better for them. They may be, for example, suggesting a way to manage a toilet block. Again, going back to the example of Jinja, one of the things that’s happened in Jinja is that their own communities have built community sanitation blocks and actually the municipality has also built community sanitation blocks. And the community use that space to explain how they thought they could build more cheaply and how they could help the municipality to develop their blocks more cheaply. So they become platforms in which communities can express need, in which communities can address the scale and nature of that need, and also where groups can express solutions. That does not mean, of course, the power is equal. Communities, I would say, are often broadly positive but are also frustrated. And this really goes back to something I mentioned at the beginning of our discussion. The organisations remain autonomous, so frustrated communities often organise outside of the coalition at the same time as participating in the coalition. And one of the examples that we also look at is work that’s gone on in Nairobi. We’ve drawn collectively in the African Cities Research Consortium on the experience of the Mukuru special planning area. And I’ve also learned an immense amount through observing how different groups in Nairobi have come together to advance a plan in this area, neighbourhood, with privately owned land, to think about how things can be improved. Now, even as the communities were engaging in the Mukuru special spatial planning area in the debates, meetings, consultations that took place around that, they were also organising demonstrations to protest against evictions. So it wasn’t that they had to buy into everything that the Nairobi City county government was proposing. The county government participated very actively in the local Mukuru special planning area. They didn’t have to agree with everything the county government was doing. They still had space outside of the coalition to protest. And that seems to be important in understanding how community groups manage power within and beyond coalitions. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Interesting. This is iteratively using contention, collaboration and co-production. One thing that is key in your examples is that the organisation of these disadvantaged groups is very much important. But there is always, as you have touched upon in Jinja and in different places, that there is a conflict of interests, particularly in the informal settlements, between structure owners, tenants, land owners. So how to overcome those conflicts of interest and build solidarity? What further example can you provide us? 

Diana Mitlin I think that’s challenging. Definitely challenging. There are many different interests in low-income neighbourhoods and among groups who work in the same trade. Indeed, often groups, of course, who work in the same trade, they may collaborate in some regards – so for example, people who sell fruit and vegetables may come together to go to the wholesale market, but then they divide up the goods and each sell on adifferent point within their neighbourhood. So they collaborate, but of course, at some level they are also competing with each other. People who live in informal settlements, as you said, you may have conflict between landowners and tenants. You may have conflict between some people who are doing economic activities, for example, workshop, or Shebeen, which is an informal bar, and residents, who don’t want noise or pollution. So there are lots of challenges and complex. I think it’s very difficult for coalitions to respond to groups that are not organised, I think even … I don’t mean formally organised, they can be informally organised, but unless they have some capacity to come together to represent themselves, to identify a collective need and interest, then if they remain very fragmented and atomised individuals, then they’re very weak. And  I think it’s hard to see really how outcomes address the needs of those groups.  It’s very challenging. And I think it’s important that more powerful players think about that problem. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s a problem that we can pass on to organisations of people living in informal settlements and traders’ organisations. They cannot be held to be responsible for making a process fully inclusive. It’s a collective challenge. It’s not a challenge just for them. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael True, true. Moving on, the other challenge, particularly in the big and capital cities of the global South is land value. The land developers, landowners tend to dominate urban planning and governance decisions. And, together with this, there is also a narrowing space of participatory urban development and a reversal in local democratisation. In this context, how the coalition inclusive reformers could flourish? 

Diana Mitlin I think there are definitely circumstances that are more favourable and circumstances that are more challenging. I also think some of that, some of where this lands, is the skill of the leadership within the more disadvantaged groups, which can manage a difficult political context quite well. Let me illustrate what I mean. I think, firstly, in the case of developers, that’s one challenge. Often developers are primarily interested in inner city land rather than land on the periphery. One of the things that I drew on in the paper, I’ve drawn obviously on a range of literature, and there was an example from policy councils in Brazil that I actually found very fascinating and it really resonated with my experience. So this paper discussed experiences with policy councils in two Brazilian cities and was somewhat pessimistic about this, because they said that when they get to talk about inner city land, the community groups are excluded from the process. The favela associations, they’re not included in that, that’s the developers. But at the same time, that still leaves a lot of land in which there was a much more collaborative and constructive engagement about how the municipality, through the policy council, could support favela upgrading. So I think that if disadvantaged excluded communities become so powerful that they’re challenging for inner city land, that might be very difficult, they might well conflict with developers. But, for the most part, developers are rarely that interested in low-income neighbourhoods. So that’s rarely that big a problem. Let’s move to this other group, this landowners group, and I think they may be difficult to manage. There’s a lot of differences in context. Often they’re small landowners, rather than large landowners, and the state is in many cases an important landowner. One of the advantages of the coalition is it can work out what land the state owns and it can table that land very publicly, which can restrict the ability of the state to do private deals. But that’s a lot of work. This is where I think in part it depends a little bit on the strategy, the strategic capabilities of community leaders. They need to really organise themselves. They need to collect data on who owns what land. They need to find a way of presenting that in a reasonably neutral fashion, and they need to manage the process, if, for example, different people claim ownership of land and want to use it for other purposes – either transport infrastructure, arguing that that’s in the public interest, or some other kind of infrastructure. So it’s tricky to manage this. I think that even governments that are deeply hostile to a more progressive urban agenda may face challenges to their legitimacy because they’re so exclusionary, in which case community groups have to really try and negotiate the space that opens up to them and find ways ways to build that space. So, for example, communities that can demonstrate successful upgrading are in a much better position to then claim the next piece of land. The Muungano Alliance, who are one of the community groups that really triggered the Mukuru SPA process, they had successfully upgraded another neighbourhood in Nairobi that was with public land and done a development called Kambi Moto in the neighbourhood of Huruma. So they were more able to draw support from the county government and indeed from other stakeholders because they could show, okay, if you compromise on Mukuru, if you agree, that people can stay in Mukuru, people have a right to infrastructure, then you can have in time a neighbourhood that is developed, may not be formally developed as someone sitting in New York might design a neighbourhood, but it’s still got services, it’s got people who are stable, with secure tenure, and they could actually take people and show them Kambi Moto. So that ability to take small steps, to demonstrate success in one area and then to use that success to build a momentum for change – that is really important. And the coalition is important because it becomes a platform through which progressive change can be demonstrated and gain greater legitimacy because it gets tested out with the people who sit on that coalition. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael True. And in your examples, the issue of community-led data is critical. And is it possible to share with our audience what is the instrumental role these coalitions provide for organised, disadvantaged groups in legitimising the data they collect about their settlement, by planners and officials, as well as build their capacity to effectively collect information about their settlements. Because most of these informal settlements are invisible in the official statistics. 

Diana Mitlin Yeah. Thank you. And I know of your own interest in data. I mean, you are absolutely right, of course, many informal settlements are made invisible, they’re invisiblised, it’s not accidental. It’s easier to ignore the voice of the residents if they are made/rendered invisible. So that’s a big problem. I think also one of the things that is often not given sufficient attention is the ways in which low-income and disadvantaged people have their agency taken from them because they are made to feel inadequate. They are made to feel that they’re less capable. They’re made to feel that their problems are their own responsibility. So there is a very toxic psychology often associated with that level of disadvantage. So how does data collection help that process? I think one of the things I’ve observed is that as communities start to collect data, they start to recognise how much they know about their neighbourhoods. So, it sounds crazy in a way, but just the process of bringing people together, me listening to you explain what access to services you’ve got, you may be listening to me when I explain what access to services I’ve got, doing that with 50 or 100 neighbours, you find that you gather data and you are very confident about your data because it’s your lived experience. You don’t feel inadequate in any sense. You feel absolutely confident that if someone comes from a university and asks you about this, you’ll be able to say “this is exactly how it is. And Diana, or Ezana explained it to me thus”. So you’re confident about the ground. And then when they bring that to a coalition, to a platform where they share a table with officials, with other academics, with potentially enterprise leaders, with other community groups, maybe NGOs, maybe professionals, and people say, “oh, that’s amazing. I didn’t know that”. Or people recognise the value in what they’ve done, and in many cases the officials say, “I should know that. But unfortunately we don’t have the resources to collect that data”. Or “the census, it was good in the formal areas, but the people who are doing the census, you know, we know they didn’t do the informal areas properly”. So they get recognition. So, on the one hand, they’re doing something they’re very confident about. Their expertise can be challenged, but they’re confident they can meet those challenges. And then they have recognition that there’s a public value to the information they’ve collected and that  builds their confidence. It builds their capabilities, but perhaps more than their capabilities, it gives them a recognition as individuals that they have something to contribute to the public interest and that gives them power and they start to become more confident, They become bolder in what they offer and they get more recognition. So it sets off this virtuous circle, really a virtuous cycle where they they are able to grow and to dialogue more effectively and to press their needs and interests. They articulate better their needs and interests. So data is powerful because communities can produce it, produce very high quality data, and it’s a recognised public need. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Perfect. You can talk about this forever, but just we need to wrap it up. But as a final question, what do you, as a person who has researched urban reforms, urban development, what are your recommendations on the future research agenda on inclusive urban reform? And together with this, I would also like to add about the conference that ACRC is organising in June 2023. ACRC is organising a conference on inclusive urban reform coalitions. So what’s the objective of the conference in advancing our understanding about urban reform coalitions? 

Diana Mitlin So thank you. The first question is easy for me because I don’t think it’s for me to say. So one of the things that we’ve tried to do with the idea of urban reform coalitions is encourage different participants at the city level, but also in the African Cities Research Consortium domains, to think about coalitions. Our domains bring together people from different sectors with different ideas and different experiences to address core challenges within African cities. We have eight domains: one looking at macroeconomics, one looking at microeconomics, one looking at land and connectivity, one at housing, one in informal settlements. And then three more socially oriented domains, using capability development; safety and security; and health, wellbeing and nutrition. So in the cities and the domains, we’ve really asked people to think about the significance of coalitions within their cities, in their areas of specialism. So I think the idea has landed well. Indeed, earlier today I was discussing with Professor Shuaib Lwasa, who built up the Urban Action Lab in the University of Makerere in Kampala. Shuaib is now based in the Netherlands, but he’s still closely aligned to the Urban Action Lab, which is a good example of an academically nurtured coalition, a platform to bring together different voices and perspectives in dialogue, to address challenges and advance policy programme practice. So Shuaib has really also been thinking about: how do I understand this concept of a coalition? How can I use it to work out how to address, in his case, his specialism around climate change, mitigation and adaptation? So the simple answer to the question about future research needs is that we will be considering it in these different spaces within African Cities. People are not obliged to use it, we’re asking them to think about it. Is it a useful way of understanding how to catalyse urban reform, create change and embed change, ensure change is living change, able to adapt to changing contexts and new challenges and new voices. So the agenda will come out of that. Now, as you said, we have the Hallsworth-funded conference coming up, where we’re going to be looking at a wider range of experiences with coalitions. And that to me is really a chance to test out the way the African Cities Research Consortium is contributing to and refining this concept with other people who’ve also thought about coalitions in the urban context and also use the concept to really try and think about either how reform has happened, and why it’s failed or been successful, or how reform might happen and what’s going to make the difference between a good idea and something that actually transforms the lives of a majority of urban citizens. So the conference will give us a chance to really draw on a wider set of expertise and knowledge as we think about this concept going forward. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you. I’m also looking forward to it.  I have finished the questions that I highlighted, but let me give you an opportunity for you to say something that we have never discussed. 

Diana Mitlin I hadn’t thought about that question. I would say, I think, where I sit, it’s really important to recognise the diversity of efforts around coalition building. In some cases, they’re driven by interest from the state. So some local governments, for example, really take very seriously the challenge to be participatory and think about how they can catalyse a platform that draws together other voices in ways that those voices are not dominated by the state, no? That  people can talk and reflect and think about how to plan and how to implement in participatory ways. In other cases, coalitions are catalysed by frustrated urban social movements who, as you suggested, want to move from contention or want to have more strategies in contention. They want to find ways to collaborate, ways to co-produce, ways to share maybe frustrations before they manifest themselves in demonstrations and street protests. And then in some cases, they’ve been nurtured in academic institutions, like the Urban Action Lab, who recognises that if academics are going to really move beyond academic walls into thinking about policy and programming, that a first step is such a platform that brings together different voices. So I think  one observation that I would make is that while it’s very much up to different researchers, different uptake specialists, community groups involved in the African Cities Research Consortium to work out where this agenda goes, I think for me it’s always important to recognise that our efforts have to be diverse, that to create robust innovation really means nurturing difference and looking at the different approaches that different domains take, that different cities take, and understanding the strengths and weaknesses within those different approaches. So thank you. 

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much Diana Mitlin. It is interesting. 

Diana Mitlin Thank you. 

Outro You have been listening to the African Cities podcast. Remember to subscribe for more urban development insights and interviews from the African Cities Research Consortium.

Sign up to ACRC’s e-newsletter for future updates:

Header photo credit: Chris Jordan. A mural in Mukuru kwa Reuben informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya.

Note: This article presents the views of the author featured and does not necessarily represent the views of the African Cities Research Consortium as a whole.

The African Cities blog is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0), which means you are welcome to repost this content as long as you provide full credit and a link to this original post.

Creative Commons License