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close this bookVolunteer Participation in Working with the Urban Poor (UNDP - UNV, 64 p.)
close this folderII. Insights derived from community-based programmes
View the document(introduction...)
Open this folder and view contentsUrban informal sector
View the documentLow-income housing
View the documentInfrastructure and basic services
View the documentHealth and HIV/AIDS prevention
View the documentNon-formal education and functional literacy
View the documentWomen, gender and development
View the documentChildren of the street
View the documentImplications for VSAs


The idea of a community-based approach to working with low-income urban groups is not new; many organisations already support a range of such programmes in the urban areas of developing countries. Some of these programmes are single-point interventions, while others are integrated approaches. Most of these programmes have involved assistance from local NGOs or foreign organisations. The bulk of the finance, labour and raw material resources, however, has come from communities themselves. The common element among these programmes is that urban entrepreneurs and communities are the point of origin and their driving force. The following section provides an overview of salient issues extracted from selected community-based project evaluations and case studies in the broad themes of the urban informal sector; low-income housing; infrastructure and basic services; health and HIV/AIDS prevention; non formal education and functional literacy; and women and children.


One of the main priorities of low-income groups in urban areas is the need for more employment opportunities and income-earning support. The informal sector is where most low-income urban communities find their livelihood, realise their economic potential and develop their skills. Yet because the rigours of the market and other factors make this a volatile and vulnerable arena, it is often difficult to promote community-based programmes in the informal sector.

The "informal sector" is a term loosely used to describe income-generating activities which are not guided by formal contractual relationships, institutions, standards and guidelines, as in the "formal sector." Roughly half the total urban labour force in most developing countries is employed in the informal sector; in several Latin American countries, informal sector production may generate as much as 70% of national GDP. Two major factors account for its continued growth: rapid increase of the urban population and poor macro-economic performance, combined with structural adjustment measures that lead to retrenchment of public sector investments and payrolls.

The main characteristics of the various contractual relationships found in the informal sector -- self-employment, disguised wage-work, home-based outwork, apprenticeship, and unpaid family labour -- are low and stagnant levels of remuneration; insecurity of employment and instability of income (vulnerability on the labour market); excessively long working hours; and abysmal and unhealthy working conditions, including lack of work-space, especially within extremely low-income settlements. Trade and services tend to predominate over construction, manufacturing or administration. Other traits of the informal sector include the existence of exploitative relationships with the formal sector in terms of credit, raw materials and equipment, and markets; and work tends to take place within a hostile policy environment that leads to frequent harassment. In addition, workers are usually young, and a large proportion of them are women, who have almost no access to avenues of education or skill-development.

The urban informal sector is not entirely composed of groups from low-income urban communities, even though they do account for a majority of the individuals involved in it. Studies indicate that there are three broad categories of activity in the informal sector. The largest category consists of small-scale retail trades and services such as street vending and shoe-shining which operating at a survival level with minimal capital. A second large category consists of craft and trade activities which produce cheap goods and services, primarily for the local market. Finally, there is a much smaller category of capital-intensive units which exist on the fringe of the formal sector. In many cases, the output from these activities successfully competes with goods produced in the formal sector.

In developing programme approaches for support to the informal sector, organisations have been divided in terms of the activities and individuals which they have targeted as their primary clients. In part, this has been a function of the kinds of contributions (e.g. credit) the organisations have been willing to make, and the time-frame within which they wished the communities to become economically self-reliant. As OXFAM concluded after a review of income-generating activities in urban areas, organisations have demonstrated some ideological thrust in their support work, which may prejudice the economic viability of the groups being helped. In other words, some organisations have favoured an approach based on a liberal economic paradigm which espouses fair competition, free markets and the principle of comparative advantage. The main thrust of this approach seeks to build the capacity of a viable business community for capitalist development and enterprise promotion -- a "business-oriented" approach -- rather than focusing on principles of community, cooperation and poverty alleviation: a "poverty-oriented" approach.

Micro-enterprise promotion

USAID, through its PISCES Programme (Programme for Investment in the Small Capital Enterprise Sector), has one of the longest histories of large-scale support to urban micro-enterprises, generally self-employment schemes which may rely on family labour. Micro-enterprise promotion involves the distinction between (a) the pre-entrepreneurship phase, when considerable organisational and familiarisation work has to be done with recent migrants, refugees and others who are new to commercial enterprise; and (b) entrepreneur support, which targets those who have already demonstrated initiative and commercial skills, and are fully aware of their needs for further growth.

The main instrument of micro-enterprise support has been the supply of credit, usually in small doses (USAID's average loan was $387 in 1989, for example). Four basic business needs are also provided for: markets, resources (credit), know-how (technical assistance or "TA"), and supportive policies. In general, the allocation of support tends to fall along the following lines: credit -44%; training and TA -23%; institutional development 20%; and policy and regulatory reform -4%. Credit is frequently given for working capital: raw materials, tools and equipment, working or selling-space, and labour. Programme elements include: carrying out feasibility studies; outreach and promotion work; selection of clients; credit operations, which include tailoring loans and their terms, building incentives for payback, supervising and monitoring, and graduating to local financial institutions; management and technical training.

In microenterprise promotion, the role of external catalysts, such as volunteer organisers and trainers, is often critical. The major reasons for using VDWs in microenterprise schemes include recognising the importance of cooperation and community activities and the necessity of working and living closely with the community for an extended amount of time. It has been widely noted that for pre-entrepreneurial work to succeed, community development activities, collective workspace and collective marketing activities are powerful incentives. Hence, VDWs are the key to working through group structures, promoting mutual cooperation and the informal exchange of information, assisting in developing a process of empowerment, as well as reducing costs and facilitating delivery. PISCES has been handled through international and local NGOs, and Peace Corps Volunteers have been more involved in this area since 1983.

Other benefits of using VDWs include their ability to work with existing local organisations who have proven outreach into the low-income communities. Social workers, for example, need to be with the same communities for 1-3 years to help them through the pre-entrepreneurial phase. This includes training in developing a process of participation and a sense of solidarity with a view towards self-reliance (for example, on the issue of credit schemes, group members can set their own repayment agendas and evaluation, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms). Greater use of local volunteers from the community itself also presents enormous scope for this type of work.

Generally, VSAs share many qualities seen as the major virtues of NGOs dealing with microenterprises, such as being in a pivotal position between different levels and relevant groups and organisations to allow for greater flexibility and networking ability. In addition, NGOs and VSAs share many concerns: the necessity of follow-up, the need to expand outreach, targeting services according to need, and the control of their portfolio size in order meet targeted goals, while increasing selfsufficiency and promoting the reinvestment of capital. There is enormous potential for VSAs to provide these NGOs with the necessary VDW support for their work with microenterprises.

Nevertheless, microenterprise promotion barely reaches one per cent of the enterprises in targeted cities. In light of the current focus on credit schemes, financial resource constraints are unlikely to inhibit the expansion of microenterprise schemes. Rather, the success of micro-enterprise development hinges on careful nurturing in the early stages of project definition, dialogue, and hands-on support. Specialised training may also be necessary as competition with formal sector enterprises becomes imperative to continued success. Eventually, resources for this training may have to come from nation al and local sources. The nurturing required for this entire process demands substantial human resources, and it is here that VDWs find their greatest role in microenterprise promotion.

Working conditions in the informal sector

Dismal working conditions are among the most pressing problems of the urban informal sector, which affect individuals who are self-employed, wage-workers, apprentices, as well as those involved in outwork (piece-work usually at home) or unpaid family labour. In many cases, these problems are associated with the lack of primitive levels of services and utilities - the absence of which presents even higher costs to informal sector enterprises (transport, fuel, electricity, warehouses). The extreme shortage of work-space and marketing space in densely populated low-income settlements, for example, is a major setback to the potential expansion of the informal sector.

Nevertheless, there are examples of successful community initiatives to improve working conditions. Arising out of credit schemes, three women's groups in India (Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad, the Annapurna Mohila Mandal in Bombay, and the Working Women's Forum (WWF) in Madras) have established excellent reputations in working with low-income urban groups to help them improve their working conditions, using credit schemes as an entry point for organisational assistance. Assistance in organisation has been one of the major requirements of groups struggling for higher wages, such as the workers in Nipani, India who assemble local cigarettes or "beedis." By developing links of solidarity, workers, women's groups and others have been able to establish multi-purpose consumer cooperatives, dispensaries etc., and, more importantly, to develop a process of local participation to address their self-defined concerns. In this process, VDWs were key catalysts in assisting groups in organising themselves to address their concerns, which extended beyond those of their workplace.

A similar example is the work of the Church Missionary Society Friendly Taxi Drivers' Association in Lagos, which was able to organise itself to address work-related and other concerns of its members. Starting with an urgent need to have a common stop-off point where they could count on support facilities, which developed into the Lagos Taxi Park, the Association has been able to expand into areas of credit and storage, and establish marketing stalls and various forms of mutual support. In other situations, motivated and committed VDWs have been key in the organisation of Mobile Creches, operating in India's major cities, for the welfare of migrant worker families - particularly through infant and child care facilities for working parents, which also deal with issues of nutrition, pre-school and adult education and family planning.

In all these examples, there was a direct correlation between the success of the initiative and favourable government policies. It is clear that governments could do more through favourable legislation, extension of credit facilities, provision of training, technology and marketing outlets, as well as directly improving community services for the informal sector, to create a conducive environment to improve working conditions. In addition, NGOs and VDWs could play a greater role in organisational assistance to self-help initiatives and awareness-raising of community rights.

The ILO experience

Increasingly, UN-system projects are focusing on micro-enterprises which lend themselves to a combination of entrepreneurial training and a package of business advisory and credit services. These types of micro-enterprises, rather than those involved in trading and service activities, are seen as clearly amenable to growth and thus capable of transforming themselves into formal sector profit-oriented enterprises through productivity augmentation, technological transfer/adaptation, capital accumulation and skill development.

Within the framework provided by the World Employment Programme, the ILO since 1982 has actively sought to encourage the self-help initiatives of artisans and other workers in the informal sector to improve their income levels and living standards. ILO has also directed greater attention to encouraging the development of micro-enterprises undertaken by women and unemployed youth, even those with no formal education.

One such programme, notable for its participatory approach, is the "Programme to Support Urban Informal Sector Enterprises in French-speaking Africa" in Mali, Togo and Rwanda. This programme took two years (1982-83) to develop a suitable approach to issues of collective concern to individual artisans, which was to become the mainspring of further organised action. Three more years (1984-86) were devoted to strengthening nascent organisations encouraging self-management and providing technical assistance relevant to production needs. The final phase of the project involved the consolidation of CBOs so that they could develop a credible partnership with local authorities and institutions. At the same time, the central associations of these CBOs in capital cities were strengthened in financial and operational autonomy.

A major lesson from this and similar experiences shows that bottom-up participatory work requires time to take root so that it will become sustainable: flexibility is of utmost importance. This type of approach cannot be rushed to suit bureaucratic requirements such as project deadlines or tightly-defined expenditure schedules. Many institutions which initially embark on community-based organisational work find their that their endeavours fail, largely due to institutional impatience.

Low-income housing

Housing is a major concern of low-income urban groups, for which there are several examples of successful community initiatives to meet the need. An excellent example is the FUNDASAL Housing Programme of San Salvador, which received funds from the World Bank. In the late 1970s, the FUNDASAL Programme was building 1400 units a year. FUNDASAL integrated housing construction with community organisation and cooperatives through a two-pronged approach: i) progressive development: construction of each unit in stages dictated by the resources of the beneficiaries: and ii) mutual help: all participating families collaborated by working in groups of twenty to build the initial units. To achieve this, the project relied on a large number of social workers (one for every 150 families) and an organisational structure where every 25 families elected representatives to a central community board. In this way, housing was used as a vehicle for social change, which was considered vital to the broader institutional commitment to the social development of the groups involved and Salvadorean society as a whole.

Another successful example, and the most impressive in terms of its comprehensiveness and scale, has been the Villa El Salvador Resettlement project in Lima, where community self-government was integrated within a very large site-and-service scheme. In this case, it was the government which encouraged community participation in the form of neighbourhood groups through the help of SINAMOS, a state agency.

A major obstacle in obtaining efficient and accessible urban land markets for low-income groups is the inequitable distribution of land, often owned by politically influential families. An innovative solution to this problem is a much-referenced land-sharing case in Bangkok. In this situation, inhabitants of illegal settlements, fearful of eviction, were able to successfully negotiate a compromise whereby they gave up part of the land they had occupied in exchange for security and the right to stay. This example has inspired several similar agreements.

In general, most self-help and participatory approaches to low-income urban housing problems have involved the free provision of land, as in Bangkok and Lima, described above. It is useful to note that while some projects may refer to community participation, they evoke a cost-sharing scheme without capacity-building steps. The Dandora Site and Service Schemes in Nairobi and Lusaka, funded by the World Bank, are two examples where the emphasis of the project was on cost sharing (of the financial and technical project components) and finishing the project, rather than capacity-building. This differentiation should be kept in mind when developing strategies which emphasise participation and building upon local initiatives.

Infrastructure and basic services

UNICEF has been particularly successful in developing projects to address basic service needs in a participatory manner. Targeting children and women, UNICEF started developing a specific strategy for low-income urban groups over twenty years ago, in 1971. Since then, the programme's priorities have remained: malnutrition; addressing the different needs of women; pre-school, day care and early childhood development; responsible parenthood and family planning services; support for abandoned and disabled children; and water and sanitation. Its basic principles emphasise community participation at all levels.

Community groups and individuals should be involved and supported by government in problem identification, planning, establishing priorities and carrying out and administering community level actions.

Services provided should be simple and low-cost at the community level, with referral services extending into the existing formal service system when required.

Community workers should be selected by the community, should undergo simple training, and have the support of the government personnel and services.

Services should be planned and carried out to respond to special features of both the low-income urban communities as well as overall urban environment.

The Hyderabad Urban Community Development Project in India is often cited as a successful example of community participation in meeting basic needs. It began in 1967 (UNICEF involvement started in 1976) as a process of strengthening local voluntary organisations and establishing slum (Bastee) welfare committees. It worked through local government, which had set up an Urban Community Development Department (UCD) to support the local community development workers. UNICEF provided cash grants for the projects and UCD salary support, and recruited volunteer social workers and other volunteers to organise activities.

One of the most successful examples of community involvement in a basic services project is UNICEF's Baldia Soak Pit latrine construction project in Karachi. With the help of Karachi University staff working as an NGO with the Municipal Corporation, demonstration pits were dug in extremely low-income areas with the support of a UNICEF subsidy and volunteer labour. Much effort was given to community organisation with the assistance of a female social worker and the formation of a sanitation committee. Users eventually bore the cost of construction (labour and materials) and the project was most successful when the community women undertook increasing responsibility for it.

The Orangi Pilot Project, organised by an NGO, is a similar example of another successful sanitation project in Karachi. Twenty to thirty households, located along the same lane, formed the organisational unit for the project. Here as well, costs were borne by the users (apart from a subsidy for the project team) and finances and maintenance of the soak pits handled by the lane organisations. Managers from the lane were nominated by the households, and women played a key role in the project's success.

Health and HIV/AIDS prevention

WHO, like UNICEF and other organisations such as UNFPA, has espoused a community-based approach to the problem of low-income urban groups for many years. Its principal strategy for this work is emphasis on Urban Primary Health Care (PHC), which draws upon many of the same features as the regular rural PHC approach. The principles for community participation are similar to the ones described above. Aside from the difficulty of securing community participation in health-related work, there is a further issue which complicates this work, and the lives of low-income urban groups: the epidemic spread of the HIV/AIDS virus in developing countries. Awareness of the magnitude and socioeconomic impact of this pandemic has grown only recently.

According to WHO estimates of the 20 million people worldwide infected by the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV), about half of them are expected to develop AIDS within the next few years. Almost 85% of these people live in urban areas. Studies show that low-income urban groups are particularly vulnerable to this virus.

While women and men are affected in almost equal numbers, HIV prevalence is higher among women in the high fertility 15-20 age-bracket. Infant mortality rates rise sharply through infected mothers and foetal transmission. The impact of HIV/AIDS on low-income groups is disastrous. The most productive adult members are the first to disappear, and the economic burden on survivors - particularly orphaned children and the elderly - becomes untenable. In one small African city, it is estimated that the epidemic will have produced 120,000-160,000 orphans by 1995. Even community support arrangements will be unable to provide for such a large number of destitute children.

An associated problem is the spread of AIDS-related diseases, such as tuberculosis. Unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in low-income urban settlements create a conducive environment for the rapid spread of highly-infectious diseases. Estimates show that communicable diseases have quadrupled in some cities with the onset of HIV infection.

Another indirect impact of HIV/AIDS is the burden it presents on the provision of general health services. Persons with AIDS continue to absorb a greater proportion of the total health care resources available. The pandemic has also seriously affected the outreach of child immunization, nutrition programmes and diarrhoea and TB prevention.

The strain on the maintenance of community-based social welfare structures in low-income urban settlements will soon become intolerable. It is with concern for these individuals and others that UNV, in cooperation with UNDP and WHO, developed its community-oriented programme for using UN Volunteers in HIV/AIDs-related work. Based on a mixed-team approach which uses UNV Specialists, DDS field workers and local community workers, UNV has found that VDWs can play a substantial role in strengthening NGO and community-based activities through training, coordination and resource mobilisation, focusing on social aspects and prevention measures to deal with the epidemic. In Zaire, for example, various church groups such as the Eglise du Christ au Zaire and the Red Cross, small women's groups such as Mamans Catholiques and Maman Kambangiste, and even farmer cooperatives and youth groups -are all working to address counselling needs, develop group information sessions, and find ways of alleviating poverty and extending family incomes beyond extremely low levels. VDWs can play a key role in further extending these "self-help" efforts in addressing concerns related to HIV/AIDS.

Non-formal education and functional literacy

It is paradoxical that relatively few case studies in the area of education have been included in the growing number of reports on programmes of support to low-income urban groups. Yet in both Latin America and Asia, much of the organisational work of local NGOs and PVOs, in some cases church-inspired, has heavily emphasised literacy and adult education programmes in low-income urban areas. These programmes have served to raise awareness of a sense of community, have enabled women to find a stronger voice in decision-making; and have imparted basic skills, through training, which can be put to immediate use in the informal sector.

UNESCO, in its long history of support to functional literacy and non-formal education programmes, has predominantly focused on rural areas. There may be an assumption that the educational needs of low-income urban groups require no special methodologies or techniques, although the nature of urban community concerns, outlined above, seems to indicate that special organisational efforts may be necessary.

The need for special emphasis on the educational needs of women in low-income urban areas should be a priority as well. Studies have shown that when women have access to education, family planning can take root; infant and child mortality rates decrease; literacy and nutritional levels rise among children; and family welfare improves through greater wage-earning potential. Promoting the socio-economic role of women is an essential step in confronting community concerns and encouraging a participatory approach to solving them. There remains enormous scope for greater VDW involvement in working with communities, and especially women and children, in meeting educational needs.

Women, gender and development

In the community-based programmes described above, there is an underlying assumption that programmes must be gender-sensitive and include the participation of women in them. Yet often the project's original design was not explicit about the concerns of women and their potential role. In all the successful programmes, however, women came to play a key role and the project design was amended in practice. Conversely, programmes which had minimal impact did not include attention to gender-related concerns, nor did they focus on the development of leadership skills among women.

There are many examples of successful projects which focused specifically on the concerns of women, such as the project entitled "Civic Awareness and Life-related Skills for Girls and women," implemented by CERID, an NGO in Nepal. An evaluation of the project revealed many positive results in targeting women: increased solidarity of women's groups and greater participation of women in community activities; more joint learning and sharing; and an improvement in services, such as childcare.

Concerning the participation of women in informal sector employment (normally in the lowest occupational categories, with young girls as the last link in a chain of subcontracting), there are interesting findings related to women and credit. Studies reveal that women are often better credit risks than men, and that working capital and consumption loans are particularly important. Other cases found that financial stability and a steady source of family income are sometimes more important than business or profit expansion; for women entrepreneurs, the transition point from trading to manufacturing and marketing is vital; group formation and consciousness-raising are critical first steps in any project; there should be a focus on subsectors where women already play a dominant role; educational courses must take into account prior obligations of women; and labour-saving technologies have an immense impact in lightening the daily chores of women. It is also important that employment needs are matched by access to basic services such as health and nutrition programmes, good sanitation and education.

The characteristics of, and issues related to, women-headed households (WHH), need greater attention. The majority of households in low-income urban areas are women-headed, especially in Latin America, and increasingly in Africa. The inter-related issues of urban migration, employment, and child-care, for example, need to be explored in more depth to better address these concerns. Time constraints and labour demands may dictate that project activities must be near the home; credit-schemes involving financing and repayment schedules must be tailored to individual cash-flow patterns.

Children of the street

There also remains enormous scope to work with street children in addressing their needs and concerns. Albeit resource-constrained, numerous local NGOs, especially in the Central and South American regions, have already done much work in this area. In one project, for example, an NGO is training children to perform Primary Health Care work in low-income communities in Bombay. UNICEF and UNESCO, with specialised NGOs, are developing joint programmes for urban disadvantaged children in Africa. UNV has also started its own programme to work with street children in Central America, where VDWs will work closely with NGOs and other UN agencies to design projects to meet the inter-related concerns of these children: vocational training and income-generation; non-formal education: healthcare and HIV/AIDS prevention; prevention and treatment of drug abuse: and the special concerns of street girls.

Implications for VSAs

The community-based approach used in all the programmes described above is highly labour-intensive in skilled and committed individuals, whether they work as community animators or technically qualified professionals in a training capacity. Flexibility in time and project design are also key, as well as the need to ensure that an actual process of participation, not consultation, is involved.

According to one study on community participation in urban projects in developing countries, the key component is professionally trained staff to assist communities in developing their own projects. Resources to start the projects are often of secondary importance, according to this study, especially since many projects, initiated or supported by NGOs, recognise the need to encourage self-reliant development without dependency. Consequently, project funds were most frequently spent not on physical infrastructural materials, but on the adequate payment of professionally-trained staff to assist the community in developing their projects.3

3 Caroline Moser: Community Participation in Urban Projects in the Third World.

In summary, the human resources in community-based work, especially in low-income urban communities, are extremely important. For VSAs, the implications which follow are significant. The high cost involved in providing professional or other trained personnel for community-based projects means that there is enormous scope for the use of volunteer development workers, including international and national VDWs and community volunteers. Avenues for using VDWs in community-based urban programmes and strategies for involvement will be explored in more detail in the following chapters.