The Informal Settlement Network (ISN) is a bottom-up agglomeration of settlement-level and national-level organisations of the urban poor. These organised and networked metropolitan collectives engages leadership structures at the settlement-level, such as crises and development committees, block and street committees, civic organisations, and so forth, who in turn mobilises the community around issue-based community-led development planning. The ISN have successfully leveraged political capital in the metropolitan municipalities of the City of Cape Town, Ekurhuleni, eThekwini (Durban), City of Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), Stellenbosch, Mangaung (Bloemfontein) and Polokwane. ISN and its Alliance partners have undertaken pilot upgrading projects in partnership with many of these metropolitan municipalities.
The ISN has three primary objectives. The first is to create solidarity and unity of the urban poor so that they are well organised, and equipped with the skills, knowledge and scale needed to create meaningful change. Secondly, ISN is building a national urban network of the poor for learning and lobbying so that local, community-level initiatives drive any citywide or national agenda, city governments are obliged to consult communities in development plans, and communities develop the capacity to hold local authorities, especially at ward council level, to account. The final goal is to change the way our cities are planned and developed and how public funds are used so that they are inclusive, and that ordinary people are involved.
The unique community organisation methods of the ISN and Federation of the Urban Poor [FEDUP] – ISN’s primary affiliate – facilitate the developmental capacity of this structure. This is a movement of people; people in communities dedicated to making formal systems understand and incorporate their informal approaches. ISN’s governance structures are decidedly open, and consist of regional leaders grouped in “working teams” and a national coordinating team. Guided by the core principles of learning by doing, working with organised communities, building self-reliance, and building on community assets and internal capacities, poor communities are bargaining and realising citizenship to fuller extents, and negotiating for deeper democratic engagement.
ISN is spearheading the “Right to the City” campaign – which is understood as a new approach to improving the ties between socio-spatial justice and citizenship on the one hand, and improved living conditions on the other – by advancing a people-centred, participatory and advocacy-based approach to urban development. Only when poor citizens are seen as key social actors, rights bearers, and sources of knowledge can formal institutions be re-orientated to open space for co-producing situational responsive and sensitive development solutions.