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Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches in Informal Settlements

Isandla Institute | 2021-11-30 | 921 views

An estimated 1.4 million households in South Africa live in informal settlements; areas generally characterised by deprivation and exclusion. Despite targeted policies, strategies and interventions, the state is yet to respond effectively, and at the required scale, to the housing needs of the urban poor.

The new Informal Settlements Upgrading Partnership Grant (ISUPG) makes it conditional on municipalities to include comprehensive and intentional strategies towards sustainable livelihoods in informal settlement upgrading plans and to intensify social compacts with relevant communities. These two requirements make it clear that informal settlement upgrading is not merely a technical exercise, nor can it be reduced to a narrow ‘serviced sites’ approach; rather, a holistic, inclusive and outcome-focused developmental approach needs to underpin upgrading projects.

By highlighting local community assets and resources, Sustainable Livelihoods Plans (SLPs) help to bring to light all the building blocks of neighbourhood development. DFID’s Sustainable Development Framework (1999) denotes five core components in SLPs, namely physical, human, social, financial and natural capital. Using the framework, municipalities and informal settlement communities can jointly determine vulnerabilities that are unique to the community, identify livelihood assets and agree on key strategies needed to realise the livelihoods outcomes identified by the communities.


Figure 1: Sustainable Livelihoods Framework (2016)

While it is undoubtedly helpful to have a policy instrument like the ISUPG emphasise the importance of incorporating a focus on sustainable livelihoods in informal settlement upgrading, in a compliance-oriented environment it’s worth emphasising that the significance of developing and implementing SLPs is not about complying with the conditions of the ISUPG.

There are at least four reasons why SLPs can play an invaluable role in informal settlement upgrading.

First, the development of an SLP can be used as an entry point to harness community participation and in enlivening social compacts between municipalities and informal settlement communities. The identification of livelihood assets requires participatory engagement and bottom up approaches to ground the process in local realities. As municipalities have generally struggled to leverage social relationships with informal settlement communities, SLPs can provide the substantive focus for meaningful social compacts and enable co-creation.

Secondly, SLPs bring into focus the socio-economic needs and opportunities that exist in a community. This allows informal settlement upgrading projects to concentrate not only on the important contribution of engineering services and physical infrastructure, but also to incorporate other aspects of development that enable an improved quality of life.

Thirdly, SLPs are context-specific, informed by an assessment of local realities, assets, resources and opportunities. This, together with the holistic focus on development, allows for better coordination and complementarity of responses, both from within government and from other stakeholders.
Lastly, both the development and implementation of SLPs are complex and require not only the coordination of plans and efforts, but also appropriate resources and capacity. This includes the capacity (and will/determination) to sustain engagements and to manage conflict and contestation, as there will undoubtedly be different expectations and views on how best to prioritise or sequence interventions.

Some of these issues were also identified by the Western Cape Human Settlements Department at the provincial Informal Settlements Support Programme (ISSP) Forum, which brings together municipal practitioners, provincial departments and NGOs to discuss lessons emerging from the implementation of the ISSP, and was held on 23 September 2021. Drawing on experiences from municipalities like Riemvasmaak and Tulbagh, the meeting placed particular emphasis on the importance of sustaining engagement and communication as core criteria of building social relations to facilitate sustainable livelihoods strategies.

While the introduction of SLPs in informal settlement upgrading is welcome, it is not yet clear how SLPs will be assessed, monitored and evaluated. Seeing that participation is the core ingredient of social compacts and sustainable livelihoods plans, greater emphasis needs to be placed on accountability, not only to the respective communities, but also to share lessons learned with the broader public in order to have a wider reach in intentionally planning for informality.

Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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