Cover Image
close this bookCommunity Leadership and Self-help Housing (HABITAT, 1988, 50 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
View the documentI. Why analyse community leadership
View the documentII. The nature of community leadership and decision making in low-income settlements
View the documentIII. Why do leaders emerge and how do they relate to society at large?
View the documentIV. The impact of leadership upon low-income community development
View the documentV. Leaders and external agents: cooperation or conflict?
View the documentVI. Reaching the poor through community leaders; an agenda of points for consideration
View the documentReferences

II. The nature of community leadership and decision making in low-income settlements

12. This chapter attempts to identify the various sorts of leaders and leadership functions common in low-income settlements and to show how different types of leader emerge in different cultural contexts. First it asks who the leaders are, and examines both traditional and modern patterns of local leadership selection in order to account for and describe the principal characteristics of leaders in contemporary urban areas. The second section asks how leaders derive support, by identifying the main types of leadership legitimacy found in low-income settlements, and by examining their influence on leadership patterns and community organization. Finally, it asks why certain people become leaders, and identifies the various sources of motivation to take on leadership positions.

A. Characteristics of leaders

1. Traditional patterns of leadership selection

13. Before identifying the characteristics of leaders of low-in come urban communities, it is important to examine traditional patterns of leadership selection in rural areas in order to develop a benchmark by which contemporary structures may be evaluated. In this section, data from both historical accounts of traditional leadership and contemporary patterns in remote rural areas have been drawn upon.

14. Traditional forms of leadership selection vary greatly according to cultural context and to the functions that leaders are expected to fulfil. They may also differ significantly over local areas depending on the particular characteristics of the individual settlement. On the whole, the primary determinant of traditional leadership is ascription, i.e., leaders owe their position in local society to who they are, and not to what they do. This is particularly the case in many African and Asian countries, where appropriate leadership qualities include age, status and affiliation to the dominant kinship group or lineage.

15. A leader's functions mainly revolve around representing the community to the outside world, resolving disputes within the village and offering protection to villagers. In many parts of Africa, for example, villages are headed by tribal chiefs or clan elders. (43, 64) Age is a critical factor because political power, high social status and the ability to command trust and respect are prerogatives of the elderly in traditional African society. (12, 30, 106) Ethnicity, that is racial and cultural background, is also an important consideration, and the local headman is likely to come from the dominant tribe or clan in a given area. (8) Wealth too, while generally less important than age, kinship and prestige, is similarly a key factor, not only because it tends to go hand-in-hand with these other criteria, but also because large landowners control resources on which the local population may be dependent for its livelihood, and are an important source of employment in village communities. Both historically, and in many present-day villages in the rural areas, there is a widespread tradition of the "Big Man" phenomenon, whereby a paternalistic leader of a village offers patronage and protection for his community.(8) While a "Big Man" is not necessarily a male leader, and indeed in many West African tribes such as the Igbo, the Hausa and the Yoruba in Nigeria, women and men have traditionally held important positions in local political matters, women have tended to become excluded with the penetration of colonialism and accompanying male- dominated administrative systems.

16. In Asia, respect for age and experience, along with membership of a high-status lineage, is similarly an important criterion in traditional patterns of leadership selection. In South-East Asia, particularly, Confucian ethics, which emphasize a fundamental relationship between wisdom and old age, have led to a system whereby villages were traditionally governed by a small, elderly elite. Traditional respect for age continues to be even more important than gender in terms of status in South-East Asia, meaning that some women have the opportunity to occupy leadership roles within their local communities.(4)

17. In Latin America, traditional leaders in rural areas conform to a slightly different mould than in other continents, possibly because indigenous forms of organization were wiped out by the Iberian conquest. In this case, leaders in rural areas are often either self-imposed, authoritarian leaders, generally known as caciques, who derive their support from a combination of force and the exploitation of a "brokerage" role between the community and local government, or they are elected as municipal leaders - a task which is seen as onerous, but nevertheless a duty.

18. The above-mentioned factors are important in the following discussion of contemporary leadership patterns in urban areas, for the affective or ascriptive dimension in leadership selection may continue to be considerable where identity with, and commitment to, one's tribe or kin group is deemed more important than specific developmental objectives. However, it is critical not to mistake "traditional" values as the primary basis for local-level organization and leadership with the fact that those values may be a veneer for more "modem", political or instrumental associations. For example, although tribalism per se has been heralded by some as an important political factor in local development in the United Republic of Tanzania, in Kenya, Zimbabwe and elsewhere, it is likely that ethnic symbolism is merely employed as a strategy to mobilize support for movements which are not first and foremost tribally-oriented. One must also be careful not to equate "modem" values with "Western" conceptions of appropriate forms of community organization. In several respects, the qualities associated with traditional leadership are also found in urban areas, albeit under a slightly different guise.

2. Contemporary patterns of leadership in urban areas

19. In the following discussion of contemporary leaders in urban communities, examples from "modem" rural settlements which have been the object of national development programmes have also been included. A critical difference between the analysis of traditional and contemporary leadership structures is that leaders in the latter category are more likely to be exposed to a wider range of influences and also to more bureaucratic decision- making machinery than those living in remote villages. Therefore, when considering contemporary leaders one must not only be aware of the cultural backcloth against which different types of leaders emerge and the various functions they fulfil, but also the political context in which housing and community-development projects take place.

20. As far as leadership functions are concerned, urban environments provide a wide diversity of opportunities for neighbourhood representation. Community organization and leadership may spring up around specific issues such as upgrading, (43, 58, 100) or the promotion of different group activities such as social and welfare associations. For example, in urban African neighborhoods a multiplicity of organizations can be found, such as traditional councils of elders, religious affiliations and landlord associations; or groups may be established for the arbitration of disputes within the settlement and for the protection of the community. Mbithi and Rasmusson, in their analysis of the harambee (self-help) movement in Kenya, maintain that different leaders emerge for separate phases of local development projects - initiation, organization and implementation.(55) Moreover, attention has been drawn to the fact there are two main types of contemporary leader - those whose role is "social-emotional" and those whose function is "task-related". (77) The former are likely to derive their support on the basis of more traditional values; the latter either from skills acquired through education or experience, or from key contacts with government officials and influential politicians which are used for acquiring specific community benefits. For example, in a low-income community in Madras, India, the religious leader was a high-caste elder, while the "political" leaders were younger and tended to have contacts with influential people.(66) Indeed, it is quite common in certain contexts for there to be several leaders who may or may not be in competition with each other. Despite the diversity of leadership functions in low-income settlements and the various different challenges posed by membership of urban communities, many types of contemporary leader share common characteristics.

3. Principal characteristics of contemporary local leaders

21. In the following breakdown of the key characteristics of urban leaders it is important to note that many of these factors are interdependent. For example, gender often determines the type of employment one is likely to obtain, which in turn affects income and social status. Obviously the extent to which these variables overlap depends on the cultural and economic context of different countries. This report does not attempt to demonstrate the likely interrelationships within specific regions, although their possible existence should be borne in mind. The first three categories of leadership characteristics appear to have more universal significance than the other five, so they have been dealt with in slightly greater depth in order to show the range within each type.


22. The first significant point about age is that contemporary leaders tend to be younger than their traditional counterparts. For example, in a Copperbelt mining town in what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), the tribal elders who traditionally presided over the local urban administration were gradually replaced by a group of younger, better-educated men whose basis of legitimacy stemmed from their ability to negotiate with so-called "modern" urban institutions.(30) Similar processes have been observed in India (98) and the Republic of Korea where, despite the traditional respect accorded to age in village communities, the Government of President Park in the early 1970s insisted that the local leaders of the New Community Movement should be younger than the traditional leaders and preferably in their 30s or 40s.(11)

23. Despite this trend towards relative "youth" of contemporary leaders, most tend to be in their early to late middle-age, and older than the majority of other community residents.(24,77) In Rio de Janeiro, most favela squatter leaders (65 per cent) are over 40 years old, (26) and similarly, in Kenya, the majority of harambee settlement leaders are aged between 40 and 49 years.(55) In urban communities in advanced industrial economies, there are similar patterns.

For example, in a study of institutional leadership in a housing estate in the United Kingdom, the median age of leaders was 44 years, and in a small group of up-and- coming potential leaders in their late 20s and early 30s, the local influentials tended to be older.(67)

24. The fact that most leaders in third-world communities are slightly older than non-leaders suggests that age is an important criterion in leadership selection. Comparative seniority furnishes an advantage for leaders in a number of ways. First, their age is likely to command respect from the community.(11, 18) Secondly, it will probably mean that they are more experienced and therefore more effective in dealing with external agents. Thirdly, older leaders are likely to be better-off economically which may allow them to devote their free time to community activities rather than to additional income-earning.(24)


25. Another leadership characteristic relevant to most areas of the world is gender. The great majority of contemporary leaders is male.(12, 21, 41, 55, 65, 98) This is probably due to four main factors. First, in several countries there is a long tradition of the management of public affairs by men. Secondly, men are likely to be more successful in negotiation with public bodies because they may have more experience in the "outside world", and because the personnel of bureaucratic institutions, especially in male-dominated societies, might well be male and give greater recognition to men rather than women leaders. Thirdly, there may be social stigmata attached to women working outside the home or alongside men.(58) Finally, women may be greatly restricted in their associational mobility and lack opportunities for building up a support base.(4)

26. However, in certain areas, women seem to have gained a significant foothold in urban leadership positions. For example, in Latin America, where there are comparatively high rates of female migration to cities in comparison with other regions of the world, women often occupy key roles within their communities.(21, 58, 99) This may, in part, be a reflection of the fact that the proportions of women residents are relatively higher than men in women residents are relatively higher than men in "self-help settlements", either because of high rates of female migration or because of the comparatively high percentages of women-headed, single-parent families in the region.(l7,99) Generally, women who are single have greater freedom than those who are married.(17,65) Female leaders are also frequently found in areas where women have traditionally maintained distinct, though complementary, organizations from men, for example, several leaders of harambee groups in Kenya are female, (49) although Muslim women in Kenya rarely play conspicuous leadership roles.(55)

27. However, there is no clear global pattern of variation in gender and leadership selection. In certain areas within countries as diverse as Ecuador, India, the Philippines and Spain, it is expected of women to participate in community improvement, either because they are "closer to the community"; or have more "free time", and/or participation in neighbourhood organization is seen as a "natural" extension of their domestic duties.(15,58,70,98) In other parts of these same countries, however, women are excluded. Overall predominance of men in leadership positions corresponds with the fact that most cultures are heavily male-dominated, and that only in certain cases, where the local political context allows or demands it, will women also take on leadership responsibilities.(41)

Education, occupation and income

28. The majority of contemporary leaders tend to be more educated than the other members of their communities, and to have completed at least a primary school education.(26,34,100) However, there are exceptions. For example, in the Mathare Valley, a squatter settlement in Nairobi, leaders tended to be less educated than other residents, with most of them having had no formal education.(77) Generally, however, literacy is a prerequisite of occupying a leadership position since leaders will inevitably be involved at some time in written communication, drafting and drawing up contracts with government officials or representatives from an external agency.(85,98)

29. One may also conclude that higher educational levels often go hand-in-hand with higher status occupations, for although leaders' economic activities vary widely they tend to be of higher status and better-paid than jobs held by other community members. Many leaders are either artisans or in middle- to lower- level service occupations such as government employment. (15,26,109) They are also frequently self-employed, which presumably gives them greater flexibility to engage in community affairs.(21,34) In some cases they are involved in activities in which they exercise a role of dispensing patronage: for example, in India, money-lending is often the basis on which potential leaders build their support base.(66)

30. Relatively higher status occupations tend to make leaders better-off than the majority of residents.(20,28,34,100) This is an advantage since they are often "unpaid" for their leadership duties.(11,24) Certain types of leader, however, also use their leadership role itself to enrich themselves.(21,34,98)

Skills and experience

31. Leaders are generally "skilled" in a number of ways, including the capacity to organize,(20) to articulate people's needs,(77) to negotiate with government officials and other institutions(12) and the willingness to listen which may sometimes also be considered an important skill.(11,32) Many of these skills will be acquired through earlier experience, such as involvement in other development and community-related activities.(11,109) Ethnic associations in West African cities, for example, often serve as training grounds for participation and leadership in neighbourhood politics.(36)

Resources and contacts

32. Leaders often have control over physical or economic resources within their communities, such as land, which are used either as sources of enrichment or as means of exercising control over residents.(17,20,100) Alternatively, they may have a monopoly over the political resources at the community's disposal. For example, leaders often engage in reciprocal relationships with key figures in government or political patrons whereby the leader secures certain promises and benefits in exchange for loyalty and for mobilizing residents on behalf of the patron when required.(8,20,21,43,77)

Social status

33. "Social status" may refer to inherited status or prestige derived from tribal, family or lineage affiliations. High status is an extremely common characteristic of contemporary leaders in Asia and Africa, especially for those leaders who fulfill "social-emotional" roles within their communities, such as local religious figures.(l2,66) In Africa and India, leaders are likely to be drawn from the dominant tribe or highest caste in a given area, respectively.(32,36,54) High social status tends to go hand-in-hand with wealth.(37)

Migrant status and length of urban residence

34. In urban settlements, contemporary leaders tend to be urban- born and/or long-term residents of the city.(l2,20,21) For example, 73 per cent of the leaders in Mathare Village 2 had lived in Nairobi for over 10 years.(77) Similar findings emerge for leaders in a British housing estate.(109) Length of residence obviously provides an advantage in terms of familiarity with the way in which the city system works, and experience of local issues which may prove useful in a demand-making context. Urban residence is also clearly correlated with educational level achieved which, as has been described, is frequently an important feature of leadership.

Personal dynamism, popularity and charisma

35. "Charisma" is probably the most difficult aspect of leadership to define, but it is one that is sometimes seen as critically important to the success of development efforts.(11,43,76,77,98) Essentially it consists of an individual possessing personal magnetism, impact and popular appeal. Certain authors maintain that without charismatic leadership, many development projects are doomed to failure, and although this may, perhaps, be somewhat overstated, "charisma" is obviously an added bonus to other more tangible leadership skills.(11,75)


36. There are certain characteristics of leadership common to many parts of the world. Leaders are likely to be middle-aged, male, relatively well-educated, and holders of comparatively "high-status" jobs with better than average remuneration. Wealth is often accompanied by high social status. They will probably have good access to resources and contacts, posses certain skills and experience relevant to the community in question, be long-term residents and have charismatic appeal. However, in spite of this similarity of their personal qualities, the way in which leaders acquire legitimacy varies markedly.

B. Leadership legitimacy and community organization

37. How do leaders derive support from their local community? In an attempt to answer this question it is proposed to identify the principal types of leaders in low-income communities and relate them to their basis of local legitimacy. This will also allow an examination of the degree to which popular participation for community-level improvements will be encouraged under different leadership systems.

38. There are four main types of leadership categories in low-income settlements which are briefly discussed below (see also table 1). It is important to note that these categories are not necessarily distinct from one another. For example, authoritarian leadership may overlap with traditional leadership if there is a history of narrow popular participation in rural areas, such as caciquismo in Latin America or the "Big Man" phenomenon in African villages. Similarly, political leaders may overlap with authoritarian ones. In low-income settlements in Mexico it is common for local caciques to be affiliated to, and representative of, the dominant political party.(7,20)

39. "Traditional" leaders spearhead a form of community organization common in rural areas which has sometimes more or less been replicated in an urban setting. For example, traditional councils of elders are common in inner-city areas of Ibadan, Nigeria, although they have gradually acquired new skills and contacts in order to extend their influence in an urban context.(12) However, "new skills" are not always necessary for continued support since the basis of legitimacy, as indicated in table 1, is who the leaders are and not what they do.

Table 1. Leadership legitimacy

Type of leader


Degree to which leader seeks to mobilize action and support for community level improvements


- Ascriptive

Variable, but often low

- Affective


- Self-imposition


- Pseudo-elections (if at all)

-Some derivative support acquired through contacts


- Placed or nominated by supra-local organization

Varies, but usually low

-Derivative support insofar as community perceives link with organization as useful

Community representational

- Elected (usually) democratically


40. Sometimes traditional-type leadership may exist alongside other forms of leadership as a result of the function the leader performs. For example, in a Madras housing project, a high-caste, 57 year-old man fulfilled the function of religious leader as well as settling land disputes, whereas other types of leaders in the community played political roles.(66)

41. Under "traditional" leadership, participation is likely to be low if the leader is paternalistic and handles community affairs alone. Furthermore, since his support does not depend on what he achieves for the community, he may not be disposed to promoting community improvements unless they will benefit him personally. However, as table I suggests, this is variable. In many traditional communities there is a custom of donating a certain amount of unpaid collective labour each year for the good of the community, such as the tradition of shramadana in Sri Lanka and the faena in Mexico.(31) Yet although the community may in reality participate quite actively in voluntary work efforts, the key point here is that it is a tradition, and not necessarily the result of the leader's efforts.

42. Authoritarian leaders, such as the widely-described cacique in Latin America, are self-imposed and gain their leadership through domination and coercion. They also generally derive a certain amount of external support in urban areas through their contacts with patrons. Such "derivative" support may take the form of powerful patrons visiting the community and publicly congratulating the leader for his efforts.(20) Self-imposed leaders may maintain their control through the strategic monopoly of local resources (political and economic) or through force exercised by a small coterie of "strong men".(17) Pseudoelections are sometimes held in order to reinforce the leader's legitimacy (see table 1). Under caciquismo, rates of community participation in demand-making for services and so on are usually low and strictly controlled, for if it were too successful the cacique would undermine his basis of support. However, on occasions when the leader needs to demonstrate a turnout of support or voters for his patron in order to secure the promise of a benefit for the community, then, for a while at least, mobilization of the community may be high.(21)

43. Positional leaders are attached to an external institution, be it a political party, a trade union, a religious organization, or faction of any of these, where the aim of that organization is to foster grass-roots support among the urban poor.(28, 45, 66, 78, 108) "Positional" leaders derive their legitimacy either through the status conferred by the supra-local organization, or through the support of residents who perceive the leader's links with the organization as useful.(20) Where leadership legitimacy is mostly dependent on the local community, the desire to mobilize residents for community benefits may be high, since it will increase the popularity and credibility of the leader. However, where legitimacy is weighted, as it often is, towards the external institution, then the leader will have to comply with the orthodoxy and ground rules of that organization. In- this case he will seek to reduce the level of mobilization and the demands that are directed towards the external body.(20,28)

44. Then there are freely-elected/community representational leaders. The term "freely-elected" does not mean that the whole community has participated in elections, nor does it imply that the leadership is representative of all groups within the settlement. However, this category of leadership is probably the only one where the needs of community residents are important criteria for selection. The source of legitimacy is the community itself and not inherited status, force nor political contacts. "Freely-elected" leaders are chosen for instrumental reasons, namely to achieve improvements for their settlements. Therefore they are likely to involve residents in mobilization efforts in order to press the relevant agencies for goods and services. However, there is a progressive reduction of mass mobilization as services are gradually acquired due to the fact that the leader's role becomes less critical to the community. Leaders may combat this by deliberately dragging their feet in order to extend their usefulness as representatives.(100, 103, 108)

C. The motivation to take on leadership positions

45. Having discussed the characteristics of leaders in low- income settlements and their bases of support, it is time to ask why certain individuals are motivated to take on leadership positions in their communities. Certainly leaders are often subject to physical, verbal and slanderous abuse, and it is often a thankless task. So why do they become leaders? The review suggests that the reasons for taking on leadership of low-income settlements generally involve a combination of one or more of the following factors, although overall, motivation is generally weighted towards advancing one's personal prestige and/or personal economic gain.

1. Leadership as obligation

46. Certain leaders may feel obliged to become community representatives, either because of their widespread popular support, or because privileged status in certain cultural and ideological contexts carries with it the obligation to provide for, or protect those who are less fortunate. As an example of the first point, in Sirswadi Village, Maharashtra, India, a woman who was very popular among the residents was made leader, despite her reluctance to take on this responsibility.(98) As an example of the second, in low-income communities in Bangkok, leadership positions are almost exclusively dominated by better-off residents, mainly because it is expected that richer people should make sacrifices for the sake of their communities.(24) In some societies, every senior male citizen is obliged to take on leadership duties at regular periods in his life, even though most are not eager to do so.(50)

2. Leadership as a means to political and/or social advancement

47. Another key motive for adopting leadership positions is to acquire prestige, social status, or a springboard for future political careers.(6, 20, 21, 27, 28, 32) Many leaders exploit their broker's role between the community and the outside as a mechanism by which to develop their own interests or to advance socio-economically.(27, 35,57, 69) Full-time political careers often materialize for leaders as a result of either cooption or incorporation into the wider political machinery, or by making formal and informal contacts which serve to further their personal political interest.

3. Leadership for altruistic reasons to quicken the local development process

48. Some leaders genuinely seek to improve the conditions of their communities and adopt leadership positions in order to hasten the arrival of goods and services for their followers. Gender may be important here. For example, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, men take on leadership functions primarily for economic reasons while women do so mainly for non-pecuniary motives.(58) Obviously, a leadership position is in part desirable because it allows women to get out of the home, hut women are also generally more altruistic because they are most concerned about the plight of their children. Certainly, it is, in part, women's "incorruptible" image which facilitates their participation and/or helps to get them elected in the first place.(57.5X)

49. The motives for taking on leadership positions usually overlap, hut it is important to note that the process of external intervention in low-income communities itself can modify a leader's originally altruistic motive to one more concerned with individual gain. This is because it is generally the leaders and the better-off residents who benefit most from development programmes.(16,37) After evaluating leadership and community-development programmes in various parts of the world, Dore concludes:

"The relevant question is the balance between self-interest on the one hand and, on the other, the desire to do a good job to benefit others, a balance which all too often gets tipped decisively towards the first."(27)

This survey suggests that this is probably an accurate reflection of the motive for most leader involvement. Yet, as is shown in the following chapter, pressure to fill positions of leadership often does not emanate from the community, but from outsiders.