Stories from PSJP: Ford Foundation

Ford Foundation Peace and Social Justice Program, Global Civil Society Portfolio (GCS), New York City, USA
Written by Andrew Milner

‘We the invisible’
You work for an NGO that is trying to improve the access to health and education of the poor and vulnerable. By and large, you are doing well. But one day, the municipality bulldozes the homes of those you are working for and you realize that in the face of such summary and categoric action, your good work and your good intentions come to nothing. This was the stark truth that faced Sheela Patel, one of the founders of what came to be known as SPARC (the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres) and Chair of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI).
Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) is a network of community-based organizations of the urban poor in 33 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It was launched in 1996 when ‘federations’ of the urban poor in countries such as India and South Africa agreed that a global platform could help their local initiatives develop a voice to present alternatives to evictions while also influencing the global agenda for urban development. But to understand its history, it’s necessary to go back a little further. In 1984, a small organization began working with pavement dwellers in Mumbai out of a small office in a garage behind a public dispensary in Byculla, Mumbai. The trust of the pavement dwellers was hard won but as rumours of evictions circulated, the office became a focus for discussion and planning. With the full involvement of the communities, the organization undertook a census called ‘we the invisible’ to forestall evictions and to draw attention to the plight of some of the most vulnerable people in Indian society. This was the genesis of the movement that evolved by degrees into SPARC and SDI. It also pioneered a method of work which has proved widely successful. SDI and its affiliates use the federation model developed by SPARC, National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) and Mahila Milan, the three organizations who came together to form an alliance after this first initiative. Its foundation is an organizing strategy based on taking surveys – ‘enumerations’ – with settlements, organizing people around the concept of ‘count to be counted’. Through savings groups of women’s collectives in neighbourhoods, women are made central to local decision making. Those involved from particular neighbourhoods are then linked together into federations.

The achievements of SPARC/SDI have been considerable. The alliance now works with 70 cities and state and national governments in India, while SDI’s work is spread worldwide. Community leaders from SDI affiliates participate in events and policy discussions with international and national politicians and technical professionals and represent the views of the poor. Its work in infrastructure, housing and relocation now informs the practice of many international agencies who commission SDI to undertake its ‘enumerations’.
Strength in being ‘vulnerable but equals’

One of their strengths has been their modesty and their rootedness in the communities they serve. As Sheela Patel remarks, ‘saying we were not experts but would explore this challenge together made us vulnerable but equals.’ In India, SPARC helped initiate ‘crucial and critical mechanisms’ for services like admission to schools and public hospitals, ration cards for subsidised food and bank accounts, they helped manage crises at police stations, and through this, the pavement and slum dwellers learned to cope with the procedural challenges involved and to teach other federations about them, a sharing of knowledge which was the basis of the early associations which grew into the larger whole. Lisa Jordan, formerly of Ford points out that there is ‘very little difference between who staffs the offices and who is a shackdweller: ‘Those who are living the reality of poverty are the ones who are telling their own stories.’

Enter the GCS
The Ford Foundation’s Global Civil Society Portfolio’s (GCS) work was concerned with strengthening global civil society groups in the belief that, as globalization reshapes the world, such groups have an important part to play in promoting democracy and social justice in a number of ways – holding public sector bodies to account, for example, and representing the views, the values and the aspirations of those who are unseen and unheard in global forums. Too often, however, such groups become dominated by those who are as remote from the marginalized communities they claim to serve as governments and multilateral bodies are. One of the ways, therefore, in which Ford Foundation (GCS) promoted the strengthening of global civil society was by helping to diversify civil society voices and equipping citizen organizations and grassroots networks to speak for themselves in global forums.

The Ford Foundation proved a crucial prop to the development of SDI and its work and the relationship between the two been a sympathetic and enduring one. Ford understood that SDI was building something really important, something ‘critical for understanding how we live in an age of globalization,’ in Lisa Jordan’s words. The first Ford grant, in 1989 was to rejuvenate the modest NSDF network which was of 8 cities at the time and which grew to 20 cities during the life of the grant. Other grants followed which, among other things, consolidated this process and helped develop scalable projects in housing, sanitation and relocation.

The importance of trust in the funding relationship
Perhaps the most important element of all of the relationship was the trust that underlay it, which is shown by what follows. During the course of the relationship, SDI went through a gradual process of institutionalization and growth, which Ford was instrumental in supporting. Lisa Jordan, who administered the SDI grant at Ford from 1999 recalls that, at that time, SDI didn’t ‘look or feel like an international NGO’. Instead, it was a ‘good set of activist leaders who understood how to work with poor people – who had passion and energy about poverty and a vision about what poor people needed.’ This informality was at the same time a great strength, as noted earlier in this account, and a potential limitation, in that it was an obstacle to their becoming a global entity, powerful enough to have its voice heeded by policy-makers. Lisa Jordan describes them as being ‘very shy’ about becoming an organization because they were concerned about the danger that institutional needs might overwhelm members’ needs, a concern which she found very understandable.

The Ford programme was unusual in that it supported movement building. However, in order to become a powerful voice, SDI needed to attract larger pots of money to support a bigger network. Lisa Jordan’s view was that this would require a stronger institutional base. It says much about the relationship between Ford and SDI that this was not a bone of contention between them, but a process of dialogue. Jordan remarks that there was ‘enough trust with each other to have conversations about the future’. Sheela Patel’s recollection accords with this. Ford facilitated the process of building an institution ‘by not being prescriptive and allowing elements [of the institution] to develop when the federation was ready.’

Overall, feels Sheela Patel, Ford’s support ‘served to develop and incubate what we believe to be one of the important innovations in urban development which is the federation model, and to give us a free rein to evolve it while we worked with communities and their federations, national governments and international actors.’ For Lisa Jordan, the programme’s support has helped foster a ‘very steady, smart strategic growth within SDI,’ so that they are attracting the attention they deserve from the private sector, policy-makers and from professionals and bilateral and multilateral organizations. At the same time, they are serving greater numbers of the poor on the ground through means such as communal toilets, better housing and shops and banks in their neighbourhood.

A few statistics illustrate the scale of this:
• the acquisition of $30 million in land which benefits 104,000 families;
• The creation of 52,000 units of housing valued at $142 million;
• The creation of 607 toilet blocks with 7,300 seats;
• Influence on global policy through service on the boards of a number of international institutions, including the Slum Upgrading Facility of United Nations Habitat, the consultative Board of Cities Alliance, and the Millennium Development Goals Task Team on Improving the Lives of Slum Dwellers.

GCS’ support for SDI/SPARC illustrates a symbiosis between funder and grantee. SDI/SPARC was not dragged kicking and screaming into the meeting rooms of the influential. It was encouraged and supported, but it wasn’t pressed to do anything it wasn’t ready to do. From the other side, Ford had the sensitivity to identify an initiative of great potential, to stand by it and to patiently assist its development into a major force.

Case study compiled for Cairo Meeting of the Social Justice Funders Group, 2009 by Max Niedzwiecki
Program Officer Memorandum and other internal documents produced by Lisa Jordan of the Peace and Social Justice Program, Ford Foundation
A conversation between Lisa Jordan and the author on 7 August 2012
Correspondence between Sheela Patel and the author around the same date.