Finding a New Perspective on Urban Resilience

A final blog post from Clara Ganemtoré, one of the first participants in SCIs Affiliated Researcher Program (ARP). Clara recently completed her Master’s degree in regional and urban planning at the London School of Economics. Below is the second of two posts covering the results and insights that came out of her research into Dakar, Senegal. The first post in the series can be found here.

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During the time I spent in Pikine I witnessed a wide variety of individual and collective strategies for dealing with the everpresent risk of flooding. Looking back at that experience, it is clear to me that “local knowledge, local action” does lead to resilience — social resilience that is.

But it does not appear enough to transform the institutions that govern people’s lives.

The residents I encountered do not wish for a tougher skin to be all they have gained from a decade of “self-learning” and local organizing. They want better; they want a permanent solution to the floods. And for that to happen, appropriate government intervention in the form of the construction of a drainage system, with provision for proper sanitation in the suburbs, and transparent allocation of housing to flood victims is urgently needed. Integrating local initiatives into the provision of those long term solutions is a complex endeavour, one for which I could not find any definitive models. I leave you however with these reflections.

Legitimacy and scale of intervention

Vulnerable communities are not waiting for anyone to take action for them. They are already out there, actively working for their own well-being. But what they can do is limited in time and scale.

The urbaDTK project is attempting to go beyond temporary relief; however restructuration indirectly impacts neighbouring districts with which residents of DTK have no legitimate negotiation power. On the one hand local initiatives have been the main relief to residents. On the other hand, the legitimacy of the public institutions with the mandate and capacity (thanks to international donors) to deliver long-term solutions is being eroded as they are circumvented by residents because of their inefficiency.

At the heart of the debate is financial capacity to act.

Local actors (CADDTK), once established, solicit external support (urbaMONDE) to fund their ventures. Central government agencies (Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Hydraulics and Sanitation, etc) also solicit external support (World Bank) to fund their ventures. The result: flood risk management in Dakar has become a lucrative business. Flood victims now equal both more votes and more donors.

Subsequently, the very nature of public goods, being non-excludable and non-rival, has become distorted as multiple actors compete to provide those goods and access to adequate urban infrastructure continue to be determined by where one can afford to live.

Process vs. Outcome

One of the insights from this research was seeing how local initiatives have transformed local actors into essential decision makers. While government response remains slow, a “people-centered” approach has been adopted with the inclusion of social components and a consultation process in restructuration plans of Fondation Droit à la Ville and APIX for instance.

But is it enough for local actors to have a seat at the table? Furthermore how many can be allowed at the table without impairing effective decision making?

There has been a multiplication of actors at the local level, due to injection of funds from external organizations. This makes any attempt to implement a participatory approach to flood risk management increasingly complex. Consultative platforms are being duplicated at every level of social mobilizing and political organizing, with little transformation in the function of the institutional structures these platforms were meant to affect.

A Change in Narrative

There is a saying that it is the little things that matter the most in the end. What this research has shown me is the significance of a little thing called perspective. How you think of a problem and its answers depend not so much on the “facts”, but much more on how the “stories” behind the facts are framed and the voices behind those stories.

A lot of emphasis is put on poverty as a major roadblock in less developed countries.

I saw something quite different. People, despite being poor, are resourceful even in the face of natural disasters. The barriers to effective flood risk management are not necessarily poverty, but rather institutional inertia, lack of strategic vision and overreliance on “expert” knowledge as the most “valuable” knowledge.


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Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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One Response to Finding a New Perspective on Urban Resilience

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