MRRtalk episode 6

Working on the long game: Understanding and addressing root causes for the lack of services in informal settlements

Episode 6 of the MRR talks explored water and sanitation service provision in marginalised informal settlements. We discussed the challenges, human rights implications and what it means for organisations working on WASH in informal settlements.


Benazir Omotto Douglas (she/her), Umande Trust

Jacqueline Cuyler (she/her), 1to1 Agency of Engagement

Our guests:
Benazir Omotto Douglas (she/her) is the Acting Managing Trustee of Umande Trust in Kenya. Umande Trust is a rights-based organisation working in informal urban settlements to alleviate inequalities of access to different resources, including water, sanitation, other human rights, as well as expand access to information and political power. Benazir has a background in Environmental Planning and Management and is a member of the programmatic communication platform where she undertakes climate change advocacy.
Jacqueline Cuyler (she/her) is the operating director and co-founder of 1to1 Agency of Engagement, which focuses on technical support to informal communities in South Africa. Jacqueline has experience working in many varied forms of design, construction and communication throughout Southern Africa. Jacqueline’s work covers settings including the mining towns of North Western Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as support for urban upgrading for youth violence prevention projects in Kinshasa.


Urban informal settlements are prevalent in most cities in developing countries and approximately one-eighth of the world’s population live in them (World Social Report 2020, UN DESA). People living in informal settlements have managed to create their homes and build culture and community life in all types of circumstances. Informal settlements are characterised by a lack of a variety of services and generally inadequate living conditions. They are often at best ignored by governments, at worst forcibly evicted. This is in striking contrast to the fact that cities rely heavily on the labour provided by residents of informal settlements.

According to Jacqueline, informal settlements are far from homogenous. In South Africa, they range from occupied land with self-built constructions to so-called ‘vertical informal settlements’ where people occupy already existing buildings, without permits.

What all informal settlements have in common is that these are marginalised spaces in which people are systematically denied a whole range of human rights. As highlighted by SWA’s Justice Begins Here campaign, challenges found in all countries such as poverty, gender inequality, poor health and the climate crisis are all heavily embedded with a lack of access to water and sanitation.

Communities that live in informal settlements routinely lack adequate water and sanitation services. The knock-on effects are devasting: The costs of accessing water and sanitation are unaffordable, forcing people to choose between these and other essential goods and services. diseases are more likely to spread, also because good hygiene is hard to maintain. Marginalised communities in informal settlements should be prioritised in the expansion of adequate service provision so they can enjoy their human rights to water and sanitation on an equal basis with more affluent communities in the cities where they live – this is a question of equality and ultimately of social justice.

“From a human rights perspective, informal settlements have a dual nature. On the one hand, they are systemic human rights violations, the effects of State actions, inaction and policies that deprive millions of their fundamental human rights […] On the other hand, informal settlements are often an incredible accomplishment, a profound expression of individuals, families and communities claiming their place and their right to housing.”
The Right to Housing and Informal Settlements, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, L. Farha, 2018


More formal and larger service systems of the city are generally inaccessible to residents in informal settlements. They are (a) not there and (b) because of insecure tenure, people are often not eligible to connect to water and sanitation services. The services that do exist are often unregulated and/or do not comply with standards.

Both Benazir and Jacqueline explained that in informal settlements they have been to, the water and sanitation solutions that do exist are systematically inadequate, unaffordable, insufficient, unreliable, unsafe, or unacceptable.

Examples include the emergency-like service rolled out in many informal settlements across South Africa, where trucks deliver water or empty latrines, are unaffordable to many users. And facilities are situated according to road accessibility for trucks, which are most often not the locations most convenient for its users. In Kenya, NGOs and communities often install pit latrines, ventilated improved pit latrines (VIPs) and container-based sanitation.


Human rights law clearly assigns the duty to ensure water and sanitation services for everyone to the state. Also, everyone is entitled, regardless of where one lives or what their status is. In practice, the situation is much different.

The human rights to water and sanitation are part of the human right to an adequate standard of living. This is guaranteed in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which also includes adequate food, clothing and housing, and the continuous improvement of living conditions. Other human rights treaties are relevant too. Read more here

We asked Benazir and Jacqueline to explain what they have witnessed in their work. Specifically, we asked: to what extent is their government aware of its duties (and acts upon them)?

Situation in Kenya

Most of the services in informal settlements are organised by communities, private parties and organisations, such as Umande Trust. Benazir explained: “When we started working in informal settlements, these places were completely neglected by the government and open defecation was rampant.”

Other challenges include that budgetary decisions are often made in favour of roads and lights, with a general lack of prioritisation for water, sanitation and hygiene services. Forced evictions and poor planning lead to communities being cut off from services altogether. Existing initiatives for upgrading informal settlements are problematic, as people are relocated with the aim of moving back once the upgrade has taken place. As is common, people are reluctant to move far away and often eligibility for moving back is unclear, which causes human rights concerns.

The Government particularly neglects areas that are not government-owned, or that are not assigned as land for occupation. Here, cartels – illegal competitors controlling the services and prices and investors – take over and dictate service provision on their own terms. This means that residents are at the mercy of cartels regarding the type of services, their availability and their affordability. For example, water points are only open at specific times, and residents need to pay much higher prices for their water and sanitation than people with formal service provision.

Ending on a positive note, according to Benazir the government has adopted a pro-poor policy within its Water Policy – and although much more needs to be done, the Government seems to take increasing responsibility for improving services in informal settlements. Improvements are needed in terms of regulation (availability, pricing, quality) of WASH services provided, and a redress mechanism to address governance issues around WASH needs to be established to reduce exploitation of residents. Education around WASH needs to be done to enable both citizens and duty-bearers to understand the pivotal role it plays in their lives.

Situation in South Africa

South Africa has a strong legal basis for the human rights to water and sanitation as it provides for these rights in its constitution. Also, the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme (UISP) was developed with three policy objectives: ‘tenure security (recognising and formalising the tenure rights of informal settlement residents); basic services provision, and participative processes to address broader social needs’ (V. Roaf The policy was meant to deal with the processes and procedures for the in situ upgrading of informal settlements. In situ upgrading is based on the notion that states should uphold the right to remain in situ whenever possible and desired by residents. According to Jacqueline, the UISP policy hasn’t been implemented fully in practice yet.

Generally, the Government of South Africa is relatively well aware of its responsibilities. Because the responsibility is so clearly assigned to the State, it is in fact prohibited for anybody else to provide services once it has formally recognised the settlement – creating problems when the Government is inactive. All too often there is no Government service provision and organisations like 1to1 Agency of Engagement have their hands tied.

Jacqueline told us about an even bigger issue: the many places where people live on privately owned land. The government does not feel any obligation to provide people with services who are residing on privately owned land. And residents are not able to force the owners of the land to provide access to services.


As explained above, the government is the main duty bearer of the rights to water and sanitation. Yet, in many places where the government clearly fails to bear those duties other parties come in to bridge the gap left by the government, effectively relieving the government of its duty and risking to purport the neglect of informal settlements.

Civil society organisations working in informal settlements find themselves in a catch-22 situation: It is important to support ‘better than nothing’ services in informal settlements. At the same time taking up this responsibility can purport the neglect of informal settlements.

Benazir explained that in her experience, most services provided by a non-profit organisation or the private sector are usually better than what the government would offer, due to the former’s robust community engagement processes. This engagement in particular often means that non-profit organisations or the private sector offer a better service. Nonetheless, it would be problematic when these actors would ignore the necessity to involve government as the primary duty bearer, as this is necessary to overcome the systematic neglect of informal settlements by the government.

She explained that it is important to support residents in becoming more aware of their rights and to support them in their mobilisation. The construction of Bio Centres by Umande Trust has helped communities to interact and obtain necessary information. “When communities feel that they are part of a movement, they are able to attract resources, are able to raise capital to put in infrastructure in their locality.” For an organisation like Umande Trust, it is then crucial to combine this work with advocacy for the implementation of the human rights to water and sanitation, Benazir told us.

Jacqueline explained that 1to1 Agency of Engagement – among other things – supports communities to hold service providers and the government accountable. “Our government issues tenders to service providers, which are private companies. Our organisation finds those contracts and gives them to residents so they can hold the contractors responsible”, said Jacqueline. They also encourage communities to get involved in budgeting, and support budget submissions at the municipal level, using data collection as a basis. This way they seek to hold the government accountable for its responsibilities.


For all informal settlements in the world, providing something is better than nothing – but the provision of adequate services should really be part of a bigger picture approach:

The human rights to water and sanitation in informal settlements must be considered simultaneously with other human rights at stake. Only then can an adequate standard of living be realised. Initiatives on health, housing, education, and other areas cannot function in silos and every aspect needs to be considered as being one piece of a larger puzzle. One example; since generally people in informal settlements need to survive on very little income, it is crucial that WASH services consider the affordability of other vital needs, such as housing, education and food.

Lastly, organisations that want to take rights seriously need to consider what this means for them especially in their relationship with government: Their initiatives should ultimately be guided by the question: How to best get government responsibility up and running and improved?