Urban Sector NGOs comment on Human Settlements Draft White Paper

By Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC), Development Action Group (DAG), Habitat for Humanity South Africa, Isandla Institute, People’s Environmental Planning (PEP), Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU)

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The National Department of Human Settlements is currently in the process of developing a new White Paper on Human Settlements. This process offers a unique opportunity to address the shortcomings of existing policy and to influence the future of human settlement development in South Africa.

We – a collective of six urban sector NGOs – have a vested interest in the outcomes of this process. We are thus committed to engaging critically with the discussion document developed by the National Department of Human Settlements, and to advocating for the adoption of a more progressive version that recognises the role of communities, and informal settlement upgrading in human settlements development.

On 4 February 2016, we shared an initial commentary on the discussion document at an engagement hosted by the Western Cape Department of Human Settlements. It summarises our collective position and is intended to serve as the foundation for a more in-depth submission:

Commentary on the discussion document ‘Towards a policy foundation for the development of human settlements legislation’

1. The document ‘Towards a policy foundation for the development of human settlements legislation’ seeks to provide a comprehensive approach to the complexities of human settlement development and planning, based on a detailed analysis of the achievements and limitations of current HS programmes.

Positive features of the document are, amongst others, the acknowledgement that by and large, communities and civil society organisations haven’t been meaningfully involved in processes of human settlement development to date. This admission brings attention to the need for well-designed participatory processes and partnership approaches. The explicit reference made to spatial planning, and its roles in the creation of sustainable and integrated human settlements, is also appreciated. The recognition of the importance of monitoring and evaluation as a strategy for tracking government’s progression towards the realisation of its goals is also considered to be a positive step towards a more grounded and accountable practice.

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2. However, in our considered view, the proposed solutions to address the shortcomings identified are not dynamic enough and are insufficiently rooted in local practice around human settlement development. The document also does not reflect the depth of inequality or the seriousness of the current fiscal realities, and what these factors are likely to mean for the human settlement sector. Instead of the ‘business as usual’ approach, we expect the new policy to reflect more deeply what a ‘business unusual’ scenario means for human settlements policy and practice.

3. Our main concern is with the state-centric orientation of the document and the centralising tendencies that the document reflects (implicitly and explicitly). While we appreciate that a public policy document will be inherently biased towards the roles and responsibilities of the state, other stakeholders (including local communities, NGOs and the private sector) are an integral part of human settlement development processes. The document fails to adequately reflect what a partnership approach entails for human settlements policy and practice.

Even in its state-centric orientation, the document reflects a predisposition towards national government (and particularly the department of human settlements) as the critical actor in transforming human settlement realities. National government undoubtedly has an important role to play in determining human settlement outcomes, providing policy guidance, developing coherent programmes, providing effective fiscal instruments, addressing institutional blockages, and monitoring progress, amongst others. However, it is primarily at the local sphere where the complexities of human settlement development need to be navigated.

4. We believe that the primary objective of a policy on human settlements needs to be local enablement – enabling local actors (municipalities, communities, civil society organisations, private sector, etc.) to choose the institutional arrangements and programmatic responses that best suit local conditions, and enabling other spheres of government to offer the necessary oversight and support in this regard. Municipalities are not merely implementation agents of national human settlements programmes; they need to assemble the requisite partnerships and processes to effectively manage the challenges, trade-offs and contestation inherent to human settlement development, and to do this in an accountable and transparent manner.

Co-planning and preparing for informal settlement upgrading plans

Co-planning and preparing for informal settlement upgrading plans

5. The role of communities in determining the development agenda, implementing development strategies, and monitoring development interventions must be reflected in the policy vision and intent. The document is disproportionately concerned with the ‘culture of entitlement’, implying that (poor) citizens lack a sense of responsibility about their own development. This individualised notion of citizens as ‘responsible consumers/end-users of public services is problematic, particularly as it is not complemented with a recognition of the agency of civic actors and local communities in human settlements processes (including planning, implementation, maintenance, co-financing and self-help options, and monitoring and evaluation).

Instead, the new policy should work towards enabling communities to participate as active citizens, and to co-create – in partnership with government and other stakeholders – sustainable, integrated and resilient human settlements.

6. As organisations with a particular interest in informal settlement upgrading, we are especially concerned with the weak articulation of informal settlement upgrading as a core human settlements strategy. The suggestion that only those settlements located close to job opportunities will be considered  for upgrading is both exclusionary and short sighted. Economic opportunities are not static and over time may show movement across a city or town. Moreover, instead of focusing exclusively on job opportunities it would be more helpful to develop proactive approaches in support of local livelihood strategies.

Informal Settlement Upgrading

Informal Settlement Upgrading

7. Signatories to this commentary will make a collective effort to develop a more robust submission that deals with the following issues:

  • Deeper understanding of the role of communities and institutional arrangements required to support meaningful community participation and co-creation approaches to human settlement planning and development
  • Financing mechanisms, such as community savings schemes, and self-build approaches that enable communities to participate in the housing market
  • Strategies for releasing and managing well-located public land for human settlements development
  • Partnership modalities for human settlement development, including the roles and responsibilities of government and other stakeholders
  • Outcome-driven monitoring and evaluation strategies that shift emphasis from compliance to the achievement of progressive goals

8. In the meantime, we call on the national department of human settlements to publicise what its ‘extensive consultative process’ (as noted in the preamble) entails, to commit to further and deeper engagement with all relevant stakeholders (including civil society organisations and community groups) in the finalisation of policy and legislation on human settlements, and to be transparent and accountable in how it deals with comments received during the course of the policy development process.

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