'Barefoot surveyors' flag needs in world's slums: A key to urban development?

The surveyors use mobile phones to map and document the slums' demographic data. Their work has paved the way for new partnerships between local governments and community-based groups.

Bruno Kelly/Reuters
A view of the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, July 24, 2016.

Mapping slum areas is critical if cities are to bridge the gap between the bustling, informal economies of their shantytowns and richer districts, a leading activist told a U.N. meeting to shape urban development over the next 20 years.

Rose Molokoane, coordinator for Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and a veteran South African grassroots activist, said the urban poor are too often denied a say in the economic development of their communities.

But a movement of "barefoot surveyors" – slum residents trained to use mobile phones to map and document local demographic data – is helping to flag the gaps.

Molokoane said barefoot surveyors had worked through more than 7,000 informal settlements worldwide to give houses numbers, create addresses and record demographic information on family sizes, employment and gender of communities.

"We call ourselves the professional unprofessionals," she told the Quito conference. "We have already decided that data and information are our tools."

The surveys have paved the way for new partnerships between local governments and community-based groups that allow residents to identify the services they need and want.

"We are sick and tired of people talking about us without us being there. They talk about us but then they don't let us come to their office because they think we are dirty," Molokoane said.

"They think where we live is unsafe, unhealthy, [that] there is crime and that the people that live there don't know what they want in life. We have turned the wheel around, organized ourselves.... We say that we know what we want."

Molokoane said having a formal address gave people pride and helped with access to banking.

The United Nations estimates that more than 900 million people worldwide, or nearly one in every seven people, live in slums or shantytowns.

Informal settlements, the U.N. says, have emerged spontaneously as a "dominant and distinct type of settlement" and that urbanization represents one of the great challenges of the 21st century.

Molokoane said the U.N's New Urban Agenda, which was adopted by the 193 member states in Quito on Oct. 20, was a prime opportunity to open the door to direct, working partnerships with the world's slum residents.

"The rich and the poor of informal settlements need to join hands," Molokoane said. "We want to bridge the gap between the informal and formal economy."

The U.N.'s Habitat conference, held once every 20 years, comes at a time in human history when more people are living in cities than in rural areas.

In 2014, 54 percent of the global population lived in cities but by 2050, this is expected to rise to 66 percent.

Reporting by Paola Totaro, editing by Katie Nguyen. This story originally appeared on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.news.trust.org.

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