THE INFORMAL SETTLER

THE INFORMAL SETTLER: HOW HECTOR SHONE THE LIGHT

Kelvin Campbell Uncategorized 0 Comments

Our upcoming publication, ‘Make Massive SMALL Change’, looks at the world through the eyes of 12 people in different parts of the world. These are people who want to make a big difference to their communities. We will show how they have battled through difficult times to make Massive SMALL change. We have woven into some imaginary plots the narratives of some real people with real projects in real places. These are simple stories that tell of complex problems and could be set anywhere. They provide the background to the Massive SMALL Sourcebook to be published in Easter next year. Let’s imagine how they see the problem:

STORY 1.
THE INFORMAL SETTLER
Hector C, Venezuela

Hector calls himself ‘just a family man’. He lives in an informal settlement in Caracas. There is a basic water supply and sanitation system but the settlement is not electrified. Hector has struggled for ages to make things work. He used his own sweat equity to build a basic shelter for his family. He improves it a little whenever he can afford to buy building materials.

At first Hector and his neighbours worked together to build their settlement. They organised themselves well. But as they became more settled they looked to the newly formed local council to take over the running of the place. Things began to change.

What used to be done by people collectively became sub-contracted to others. People became apathetic and social problems grew worse. The settlement is now riddled with crime. Hector has heard that the government has received a report called Spotlight on Crime. The report, written by a local university and funded by large engineering company, claims that crime can be reduced by raising the level of lighting on the streets to the point the criminals will go elsewhere. Armed with this report, the government has raised funds from an international development bank to put in streetlighting to overcome the problem.

Hector has seen how the government has done this type of big fix in other parts of the city before. He is worried that this will be just one more top-down infrastructure project that goes wrong. New, tall floodlights will make the neighbourhood feel like a prison camp. The government is concerned that if it puts in ordinary street lighting, people will tap into it in illegally to steal electricity for their homes. Putting fences around the base of the tall light columns is intended to prevent this happening.

Hector always knew that top-down systems would be need to put in place as the settlement became more established. But those systems are not working, and the local government is moving further away from its people.

Hector sees the problem as a failure of the system on all fronts:

  1. The system does not reflect any real understanding of local issues. There is no effective local democracy.
  2. The system does not respond to the basic human dynamics that have been at work in this settlement since the outset. People have gone a long way to solve their own problems. Why doesn’t the government recognise this?
  3. The system focuses on the symptoms, not the underlying causes of the problems.
  4. Abstract reports by vested interests come up answers without understanding the questions.
  5. The system looks for big solutions. It can not deal with the finer elements of urban complexity. It is a big blunt stick.

Hector wants to see if he can find a different way of getting things done.

The government finally announces that it will be installing new tall mast lighting in Hector’s neighbourhood in Caracas to combat crime. Borrowing from the university report, it is called the ‘Spotlight on Crime’ project.

The community is enraged about the lack of consultation. Posters appear in windows. ‘It’s not darkness that creates crime but the lack of education for our children,’ they say. A ‘Shine a Light’ group is formed, with Hector as its spokesman. A delegation approaches government to demand a different approach. Government says that it is too late: the contract has been signed.

Hector listens to a TED talk by Allesandra Orofino, founder of Meu Rio, Rio de Janeiro’s largest mobilization network. He reads about Himanshu Parikh and Julia King’s work in India on slum upgrading. It seems that infrastructure projects can be used to build social capital and unlock community action. Hector is inspired: there is another way after all. He shares the knowledge with an old friend in government. The government finally relents and reluctantly forms a working group, hoping that people will see reason and that opposition to the project will dissolve.

The working group and the government agree the basic rules of engagement. ‘We will, if you will,’ becomes the principle. They sit down together and agree how the funding for the streetlighting project can be used to create the biggest impact.

The community organises itself around the challenge. Bonded together with a simple purpose, people use their own creativity to find a solution. First they set up a neighbourhood watch. Crime starts to fall.

Let’s tackle crime by helping our children to learn, they say. Instead of shining a light on an empty street, lets shine it on a book. The government replies: it can’t be done. This is a streetlighting project.

A compromise is suggested. Let’s try something different and see if it works on one street. We’ll do the work ourselves, the community says. We’ll learn by experimenting. They hear about an electricity meter that can be mounted on the front of every building on the street. They agree to start by mounting the lights on the fronts of the buildings and lighting doorways first. This will provide all the streetlighting that is needed. At the same time each house will receive one internal light free: a light to shine on a book. The children will be able to do their homework at night instead of hanging out on the streets.

The project works. People are so excited that they start fixing up the fronts of their dwellings. They don’t want their new light to shine on an unpainted door. Front windows are decorated. New plants appear in the front yards. A street party is held in the neighbourhood for the first time. Crime continues to fall.

The government is finally convinced. It rolls out the programme to other streets. Local businesses are offered the maintenance contracts for keeping the lights working. Some people pay for a smart meter to get additional lighting on a pay-as-you-go basis. Chidren do better at school, the local economy grows and crime falls to the lowest level in the city. The whole project comes out at an unprecedented 30 per cent below budget. Maintenance costs are slashed. As a result of every dollar spent by government, an average of 20 dollars has been spent by every local resident in upgrading their own homes.

Hector is asked to talk about the success of the project at the Our Cities conference in Rio de Janeiro. He reflects:

  1. People dealt with causes, not symptoms.
  2. People are ingenious, given the opportunity.
  3. The project gave people the incentive to act in a way that achieved a positive social outcome. It was a simple solution and everyone could play a part.
  4. The community was bonded together by feeling that it was their own project.
  5. Every neighbourhood can build social capital (social assets like voluntary associations, community networks and social facilities) if something sparks the process.
  6. The neighbourhood is now transitioning from an informal settlement into a real piece of town. ‘But it could have been a prison camp,’ Hector says.

In summing up Hector says, ‘Governments alone cannot effectively tackle the increasingly complex problems of rapid urbanisation. We must mobilise the latent creativity that exists in people. In this way we can, harness the collective power of many small ideas and actions to make a big difference. To release this potential, we must trust people to do the right thing’.

These stories are available through or Kickstarter initiative that finishes on the 9th October 2015. Please pledge here

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