A new SHLC paper on mental health calls for a shift towards a place- and context-specific neighbourhoods approach for policymaking

New Publication In Cities and Health 

Neighbourhoods in southern cities primely undergo organic transformation with minimal planned interventions, influencing mental well-being significantly. Yet, national, or city-level health policies often overlook neighbourhood-specific challenges, hampering the effectiveness of interventions. The lack of understanding of how local planning affects health makes achieving SDG 3 difficult. Despite rising concerns about mental health in the Global South, the literature on health and planning neglects space-sensitive neighbourhood studies essential for addressing the crisis.

In this paper, Dr Shilpi Roy and Dr Tanjil Sowgat present findings from the SHLC dataset, which examines the health, education, and built environment of rapidly urbanising cities. Through a cross-sectional study involving 14,222 households across 272 neighbourhoods in 13 cities spanning seven countries, the paper establishes a correlation between place and the mental well-being of citizens in rapidly urbanising Asian and African cities.

Better coverage of neighbourhood services, improved waste disposal services, quality neighbourhood health facilities and educational opportunities, high family solvency, safety, trust in neighbours, dwelling satisfaction, and habits of exercise are found in this paper to be the most influential attributes for good mental well-being. However, institutional attributes, like political leadership for neighbourhood management and neighbourhood-level associations, are less likely to be associated with good mental well-being. The paper finds that diverse physical and social attributes of neighbourhoods influence mental well-being.  Yet, the relative importance of different neighbourhood environments varies significantly from context to context, as does the importance of one attribute over another.

Often, investments in the southern cities are concentrated on improving a neighbourhood’s objective physical environment, but the perceived physical aspects of the neighbourhood are more crucial than the objective physical qualities such as educational opportunities, health facilities, open spaces and an environment that encourages physical activities in the form of exercise. Similarly, the urbanisation process is claimed to be related to the changing social fabric of the neighbourhoods, possibly due to its contribution to the deteriorating nature of the perceived social environment. The perceived social environment of the neighbourhood is critical for improved mental health and well-being of the residents. Since southern cities have wealth and income disparity among the residents and neighbourhoods, as shown in the study, plans must focus on equitable distribution of resources when investing for good mental well-being. As the significance of influential attributes varies among neighbourhood wealth categories, this paper recommends that a shift towards a place- and context-specific neighbourhood approach for policymaking can best address the mental well-being in rapidly urbanising cities in the Global South.

Shilpi Roy & Tanjil Sowgat (06 Feb 2024): The neighbourhood effect on mental well-being in the Global South, Cities & Health, DOI: 10.1080/23748834.2024.2303565

Urban Segregation in Dhaka, Bangladesh: SHLC Animation

Watch SHLC’s animation on Dhaka to understand the importance of neighbourhood planning in addressing alarming social segregation in the city.

Burgeoning Dhaka, Bangladesh’s vibrant capital, grapples with the paradox of rapid urbanization and stark inequality. While its 10 million residents pulsate with life, essential urban services and opportunities remain elusive for many. Low-income communities languish in unserviced peripheries, while religious minorities seek solace in isolated enclaves.

This unbridled expansion, devoid of planning, fuels a pernicious segregation. Roads and basic infrastructure bypass areas at the city’s edge and leave them lagging far behind the city’s core. Affluent enclaves rise; their isolation stark against increasingly visible pockets of deprivation. If unchecked, this segregation risks plunging Dhaka into urban chaos and widening the chasm of inequality.

This animation by SHLC’s Tanjil Sowgat, Shilpi Roy and Irfan Shakil sends a message that the path forward lies in sustainable neighbourhood planning. Equitable access to services across all neighbourhoods is paramount. By tackling poverty and prioritizing equitable development, Dhaka can harness its growth not just for a selected few but for the good of all its residents.

For more findings on urban segregation in Dhaka, see the work on

Neighbourhood Segregation in Dhaka

Urban Sprawl in Dhaka: SHLC Animation

Watch SHLC’s animation on urban sprawl that highlights the importance of peri-urban level neighbourhood planning in addressing livability, environmental, and urban service challenges caused by uncontrolled industrialization and urbanization in the Dhaka region.

Fueled by unaffordable living costs in the main city, population boom, and uncontrolled industrialization, Dhaka has been sprawling rapidly since 1991. Unplanned neighbourhoods in the peri-urban areas are choked by congestion, narrow roads, overflowing garbage, and inadequate drainage and sanitation. In the sprawling areas, nature’s balance is thrown off kelter as farmland and wetlands give way to concrete jungles, disrupting the ecosystem.

Since sprawled areas cast a long shadow over Dhaka’s future sustainability, this animation by Tanjil Sowgat, Shilpi Roy and Mahamudul Hasan calls for a more inclusive form of governance for rapidly transforming peripheral regions of Dhaka.

For more findings on urban sprawl in Dhaka, see the work on

Sustainability Challenges for Sprawling Dhaka. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0975425321997995

Uncontrolled Industry-Driven Urban Sprawl Creates an Unliveable Peri-Urban Dhaka. http://www.centreforsustainablecities.ac.uk/news/uncontrolled-industry-driven-urban-sprawl-creates-unliveable-peri-urban-dhaka/

The Studio ‘IV’ Module – Kigali, Rwanda

Lead Applicant

Dr Josephine Malonza Mwongeli


The project was part of an Architectural Design studio iv module, titled ‘Cultural Contexts’ based on the evident urban informality and the pressing housing challenges in Kigali, while at the same time reflecting on 2020’s world Habitat day theme ‘Housing for all: A Better Urban Future.” In line with SDG 11.1 on Adequate Housing, the module designed to inspire students how cultural values can be prioritized to better support and guide sustainable housing design decisions. Students had the chance to involve real clients- a selected community in Kigali - through a participatory design process.

  1. Community interaction: Students were given the opportunity to interact with a real site and its community. With this they were able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the houses, as well as better understand the daily needs of the community members.
  2. Developing design interventions: Students synthesized their findings from the community and in an iterative design process, developed new housing designs based on the community’s needs.

  3. Testing community engagement tools: Throughout the community workshop, various community engagement tools were tested (such as surveys, a street café, etc.).


Students were exposed to context-sensitive housing design, which is a key to alleviating the risks of urbanization. They were able to suggest innovative interventions for; nature-based solutions, mitigation strategy against natural risks such as flooding, effective urban planning aimed to promote healthy communities, improving the overall quality of urban living, and to accommodate growing urban populations in a n inclusive way.

The workshop, which took place in the Akabahizi cell of Gitega sector, Nyarugenge district, showcased the need for improved Housing development and management practices in unplanned settlements towards a more people-centred approach. In total, there were 185 participants. These consisted of 150 community members, two community leaders, 25, Year 3 students, four Year 5 thesis students, two field assistants and a studio coordinator. The workshop ran from 9:00am to 02:00pm.

It also made an inspiring case for enhancing public participation and fostering the co- production of knowledge with all stakeholders in the policy and national planning processes. It was the first large gathering during the COVID-19 period, and was granted permission by the government due its educational value to both the students and the local community.

The workshop provided students with a pedagogical experience in which they were granted the opportunity to interact, learn, and utilise their skills in the community. The assessment of the final trimester examination was graded based on the responsiveness of the students’ design interventions to context-specific challenges.

Project Outputs

Students were able to meet 150 community members where they reside (Akabahizi cell),  helping them to unpack cultural and contextual values in informal/unplanned housing. In this way, they were able to better interpret community needs and propose efficient design interventions, with and for the community. 

Being on the site physically allowed students to visually locate context-specific challenges and opportunities for sustainable housing in the selected site. They were able to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for future housing. Some of the identified points were:

Strengths & opportunities:

  • Strategic location (proximity to city centre, Mpazi river, Nyabugogo main bus terminals, and the Kimisagara marker and commercial centre, ultimately lowering the cost of transportation for community members)
  • Presence of growing informal businesses
  • Availability of basic utilities such as water and electricity.

Weaknesses & threats:

  • Informality of plots (plots are small, irregular, and not in compliance with the city masterplan).
  • Poor hygiene; inadequate water and waste management.
  • High petty crime rates
  • Accessibility challenges due to the lack of proper paths and roads.

Following the workshop, students were encouraged to apply their thoughts on the communities’ health and wellbeing, which is believed to be a significant building block of resilience in African cities. 

Stationary left over from the workshop was used by the students throughout the academic year. The workshop inspired a practice-relevant syllabus for the module, which will be applied in upcoming years.

Future Activities

The university would like to repeat this engagement annually, subject to funding. We would like to involve different groups of students and possibility varied categories of neighbourhoods from urban to rural, as well as formally planned, mixed abd unplanned settlements. We would also plan to conduct a similar community workshop in the secondary city of Huye to have a comparative analysis between living in large and small cities.

Capacity Strengthening

Researchers involved were able to learn new tools for community engagement such as the usage of surveys, street Cafés, speech bubble posters, and group discussions. 

An academic paper (Formalising the informal:  Community-based housing solutions in Kigali) and policy brief (Community-based housing solutions in Kigali) will be published, with co-authorship of the two research assistants. This was a great opportunity for them to dig into and expand their research and writing skills.

Students were able to benefit from the pedagogy and learning directly from the community. The workshop activity not only gave them an opportunity to learn more about the different weaknesses and opportunities for informal housing here in Kigali in correlation with the community’s needs, but it also gave them skills and experience for any similar projects in which they may engage in the future. 

Community members feel appreciated and integrated in decision making around housing interventions. Some testimonies from members of the community as well as our team were collected. 

  1. Akabahizi cell Executive Secretary "Community members have grass root knowledge that city planners may not have, and hearing their opinions, worries, and suggestions can help the city to identify problems and identify solutions that will better satisfy the residents' housing needs."
  2. Module instructor " It is not an option (out of choice) but mandatory for any planner/developer to use inclusive community participation strategies to guarantee inclusivity and ownership of communities, as end users, in not only the planning process but also the implementation phase"
  3. Woman 40 year old "Before this meeting with the university students, we thought that we did not need playgrounds for our children as they have those facilities at school, but we are now convinced that we need children playgrounds in our neighbourhood"
  4. Woman 35 years old "My focus group discussion does not agree with the university students' proposal for shared kitchens... this will cause conflicts in the community; for example if I am cooking meat and my neighbour is cooking beans, there will be some jealousy that can lead to hatred and conflict"
  5. Man 38 years old "I like the fact that university students are thinking about solid waste management along the slope. This is really a big issue in our neighbourhood. some people don't pay waste collection fees and are used to dumping their waste in the river Mpazi .. it is not always their fault, sometimes they don't have money"

The university’s engagement with this community will be ensured, going forward.

City Report: Neighbourhood Characteristics and Inequality in the City of Kigali


This report presents the city of Kigali’s neighbourhood characteristics and identified inequalities among the rich and poor neighbourhoods. The indicators of the study include housing and amenities, income, migration, education, health, neighbourhood safety and satisfaction, as well as impact of Covid-19 on families. Data are derived from the survey conducted in the city of Kigali from May 2021 to July 2021 as part of the SHLC research programme.

Authors: Vincent Manirakiza, Jonas Kato Njunwa, Leon Mugabe, Pierre Claver Rutayisire, Manasse Nzayirambaho, Gilbert Nduwayezu, Josephine Malonza, Aimable Nsabimana


Remarkable differences and inequalities were evident in the neighbourhoods studied in Kigali. The majority of residents from the middle- and high-income neighbourhoods live in their own flats and detached houses, whereas residents in the lower income group neighbourhoods dwell in cluster houses in complexes with a high population density. The main explanation for this disparity is that mortgage finance is still limited and not affordable to many urban residents. As such, mostly low-income earners use their own family savings to build their homes, usually in an unplanned fashion. Consequently, such unplanned neighbourhoods have crowded living conditions with shared toilet facilities, usually associated with communicable disease transmission. Disparities between neighbourhood categories illustrate that there are aspects of life where the well to do are at an advantage; and that in matters of education and healthcare, services are available to all despite variation in their quality where for the rich it is mainly private and for the others public. This study helps to understand the living conditions of the city residents from the bottom to the top of the economic spectrum. In particular, it permitted not only the analysis of the progress made by the city of Kigali in improving the livelihoods of people, but also in depicting the inequalities among the various strata of urban residents. Income inequality is a common urbanisation evil in the world, from which Kigali is not exempted. Despite the disparity, in terms of dwelling categories, the high rate of housing ownership and predominantly detached houses, can be an indicator of relative liveability and quality of life. However, this is a threat to sustainable urban planning as it is the cause of rapid spatial expansion which is related to high rate of mobility.

India: Handbook of Urban Statistics 2022


SHLC India team at the National Institute of Urban Affairs has published a Handbook of Urban Statistics 2022. It includes summary statistics for each State and Union Territory (UT) on the following topics:

  • Urban Demography
  • Access to Housing
  • Access to Basic Amenities
  • Public Expenditure on Urban Development
  • Employment

Team Leader: 
Debolina Kundu
Hitesh Vaidya
Tania Debnath
Biswajit Kar
Devarupa Gupta
Sayak Dutta
Pragya Sharma

SHLC Event Group Picture

Urban Neighbourhood Sustainability and Impacts from Covid-19 Workshop 15th-16th of February 2023

SHLC Event Group Picture

The University of Glasgow hosted a two-day long workshop as part of the Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC).

SHLC was set up in 2017 as a GCRF-funded international collaborative research project to address global urban challenges and grow research capacity in Africa and Asia.

The workshop, on the 15th and 16th of February 2023, focused on Urban Neighbourhood Sustainability and Impacts from Covid-19, had two aims:

  • To share SHLC research findings with partner teams, University of Glasgow researchers and wider international research communities
  • To identify future research directions and facilitate further research collaboration between current SHLC team members and other international and University of Glasgow researchers.

SHLC Event Opened by Sara Carter

The event was opened by Professor Sara Carter OBE FRSE, Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Social Sciences, at the University of Glasgow.

Professor Debolina Kundu, Co-investigator for the SHLC project, shared her thoughts about the event:

“It was a great experience to participate in the two-day SHLC event among colleagues from three schools of the University of Glasgow – Social and Political Sciences, Education and Health and Wellbeing and the international partner teams of SHLC, which many a times we refer to as the extended family of SHLC.

This meeting was the first in-person meeting after COVID 19 pandemic, and probably the last one under the current funding, which made the event even more important for all of us. It was a learning experience for me to listen to the presentations, especially those based on the primary research of 14 cities and interact with scholars from so many countries.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Professor Ya Ping for his excellent leadership and Professor Keith, Professor Osborne, Professor Michell and other colleagues for engaging in this project. The session on ‘future research and collaboration’ was very insightful. I look forward to engaging with the University in the future collaborations.”

SHLC interactive workshop session

Professor Shilpi Roy, Co-investigator for the SHLC project, also reflected on the event:

“This long-awaited international workshop showcased fascinating findings from our large-scale neighbourhood studies in Asia and Africa. Through this event, SHLC created an excellent opportunity to learn from leading urban researchers in the field. We hope new insights on neighbourhood inequality, health, and well-being will inform contextual knowledge and targeted policies and interventions. Possible future collaboration between the global north and global south would also contribute to tackling pressing urban challenges.”

Download content from the event

Click here to see the full programme and further details about the event.

The Urban Century: Trends and Patterns of Urbanisation in Asia and Africa


The dawn of the twenty-first century unfolded with the world entering the ‘urban age’ with more than half of the global population living in urban areas. It is believed that this century is going to be an ‘urban century’ as more people will be living in cities compared to rural areas. The period is also marked by a southward shift in the mean latitude of the world’s urban population. The current century will be characterised by Asia and Africa accounting for a mammoth share of the global urban population in the present century. As per the UN population estimates, in 2020 Asia and Africa accounted for around 70 per cent of the global urban population. The figure is estimated to increase to 75 per cent by the middle of the twenty-first century. This report brings fresh understanding the macro scenario of urbanisation in Asia and Africa with a special focus on India. It also highlights the regional differences and determining factors behind the process of urbanisation in this region.

Authors: Debolina Kundu, Tania Debnath, Swastika Chakravorty, Pragya Sharma and Biswajit Kar (all are members of the SHLC India team at National Institute of Urban Affairs India)

Executive Summary

The dawn of the twenty-first century marked the world entering the ‘urban century’, which was accompanied by a southward shift of the mean latitude of urbanisation. In contrast to Europe and North America, which had a long history of urbanisation starting soon after the industrial revolution in the 1800s, countries in the global South started urbanising mainly in the second half of the twentieth century. Among the regions in the global South, Latin America started much earlier and has already become predominantly urban. On the contrary, Asia and Africa are the two least urbanised continents. However, in absolute terms, 2.4 billion people lived in the urban settlements of Asia in 2020, which is estimated to rise to 3.5 billion by 2050. It is projected that they are going to have around 90 per cent of the additional urban population in the next three decades (till 2050), which brings them to the centre stage of the global urbanisation trajectory. Asia alone is projected to contribute an additional 1.1 billion urban population in the next three decades, and Africa is likely to contribute 0.9 billion in the next three decades. Unlike Africa, where high fertility rates is driving urbanisation, Asia’s urbanisation is predominantly fuelled by rural-urban migration, in-situ urbanisation and expansion of urban areas.

The demographic weight of these two continents, especially Asia, is expected to have an overwhelming effect on the changing dynamics of planetary urbanisation, with Africa continuing to urbanise at a faster pace as compared to Asia. Growth rate of urban population in Africa is projected to be 3.1% and 2.8% in 2030s and 2040s compared to Asia’s figures of 1.3% and 0.9%, respectively. Moreover, the two least urbanised regions in these two continents, i.e. Eastern Africa and Southern Asia, are expected to experience the highest urban growth and rural-urban transition in the next three decades.

Although both the continents are expected to play a crucial role in promoting urbanisation in the coming decades, the Asian trajectory will be very different from that of Africa. Whereas Asian urbanisation is characterised by population concentration in megacities, African cities are yet to experience such urban concentration. Asian urbanisation, which has been top-heavy with population concentration in big cities, will continue to be so even after the slowdown in urban growth in this region. By 2035, six of the ten most populated megacities of the world will be in Asia, and Delhi will be the most populated urban agglomeration with 43.3 million people. The expected sluggish growth of megacities could be attributed to the lack of growth of unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in these cities. Unlike East Asian Tigers, which have reaped the benefits of its demographic dividend, many Asian countries, particularly South Asia, would urbanise without harnessing the economic benefits of their demographic dividend. South Asia is going through a rapid decline in fertility and projects to reach the peak of youth bulge in 2028, before regions like Southeast Asia, West Asia and Central Asia, which indicates the urgency of a balanced regional development policy for this region.

On the other hand, African countries will experience urbanisation associated with persistently high fertility rates, distress-driven rural-urban migration and a lack of economic vibrancy in cities. Africa will continue to have an increasing size of its working-age population (15-64 years) and add 2.1 billion working-age population by the end of this century. Urbanisation in Africa, currently with few megacities, will follow the Asian experience with the rise in the number and population of megacities. However, contrary to the Asian counterparts, most of the new megacities of the continent will be ‘places of consumption’ in place of ‘growth engines’. In short, rapid-paced urbanisation in Africa in the coming decades will be

Furthermore, Asia and Africa are poised to be the epicentres of urbanisation, without a corresponding increase in their income levels. Much of the urban growth will be concentrated in the countries with very low urbanisation and income levels and poor infrastructural base. As overcrowded Asian megacities have crossed the threshold of reaping the benefits of agglomeration economies, Asian countries need to focus on the development of secondary cities to take benefit of their demographic dividend. On the other hand, African countries need to focus on infrastructure investment and developing high-value-added manufacturing activities to interlink the process of urbanisation with growth. India is expected to become the most populated country in the world by 2023. However, the country is currently experiencing a slow but steady pace of rural-urban transition. However, it is projected that India’s pace of urbanisation will speed up in the coming decades, owing to sectoral diversification resulting in in-situ urbanisation.

Also, Indian urbanisation will continue to be top-heavy. Also, the country is going through a demographically favourable phase with a bulging economically active population. By the year 2025, India will peak its youth bulge. This demands immediate creation of jobs to stop demographic dividend transforming into demographic disaster. Also, the big city bias is going to affect the growth of the secondary cities, which have a high potential for employment generation. To take advantage of India’s demographic dividend, India should focus on education and health, skill development, infrastructural development and the creation of a regionally balanced urban system.

Conceptualizing Economic Inclusion for Street Vendors

This blog was authored by Dr Graeme Young.

Our project, “Promoting Inclusive Governance for Informal Workers in Cali, Colombia,” was built on a simple assumption: that inclusive economics requires inclusive politics. This, in some ways, might seem rather obvious. But it can have profound implications for how we think about informality and urban governance as it suggests that if informal workers are to benefit from development, they must be able to participate in making decisions about the policies that have a direct impact on their livelihoods. Exclusion, at its core, is a political issue. Inclusion therefore is as well.

It is important not to be too prescriptive about what, exactly, political inclusion will lead to in practice. This is precisely what should emerge from the political processes that informal workers participate in, and must be specific to the needs, desires, and values of those participating. Still, as our new report discusses, it is possible to outline some core components of what might constitute economic inclusion for street vendors, a key segment of informal workers in cities in the Global South. Six are particularly notable, and these can broadly be classified in three categories.

The first of these categories encompasses essential livelihood requirements. Most fundamentally, economic inclusion means having sufficient income to meet household needs. Informal workers often live in conditions of poverty, and street vending is no guarantee of economic security, particularly when the earnings derived from it must support multiple people. An important complement to adequate income is access to social programs that provide vital public services and forms of public support. These can take many forms, including, but by no means limited to, employment insurance, housing provision and subsidies, and high-quality and publicly funded education and healthcare.

The next category relates to the ability of street vendors to conduct their activities. This means three things in particular: being able to rely on supportive, fair, and consistently applied laws and regulations; having access to space in cities to conduct trade; and having access to financial resources, such as loans and grants, on terms that are fair and reasonable. Informal workers’ activities, by definition, fall in at least some ways outside of legal and regulatory structures, a fact that makes them vulnerable to various forms of harassment, repression, coercion, exploitation, and neglect. They must be able to enjoy basic protections and benefits to be able to work in decent conditions.

But economic inclusion means more than simply allowing street vendors to engage in their activities in more favourable circumstances. It also means providing access to opportunities for formal employment. Many people who engage in informal economic activity do so out of necessity rather than by choice, and while it would be wrong to assume that all informal workers would prefer a formal job, adequate opportunities must be available for those who would wish to take advantage of them. Accommodating or even supporting informal workers is no substitute to the pursuit of full employment under decent conditions.

Such a multidimensional understanding of economic inclusion suggests that there is considerable scope for the state to improve the lives of street vendors. Again, what exactly a state should do to promote economic inclusion should come out of a political process, but whatever the specifics might be, it is likely that a new social contract will need to be established between informal workers and the state, one that rests on a foundation of a concrete and enforceable set of rights that ensure that informal workers can live and conduct their livelihood activities in dignity, free from poverty, and unencumbered by a hostile or indifferent state. None of this should be taken to suggest that politics should be removed from the governance of informal economic activity; in fact, this governance needs to be re-politicized, providing space for diverging, sometimes conflicting, interests to be addressed and more sustainable, just, and inclusive policies to emerge through processes of dialogue and debate. Divisions—between vendors and the state, between vendors and formal businesses, even between vendors themselves—are unlikely to disappear, as political allegiances, class, competition, values, individual or group interests, and personal circumstances will inform understandings of justice and views of how social, economic, and political life can and should be structured. But a better future is still possible. That is the promise of democracy.


We are particularly grateful to our colleagues in Colombia for the great efforts that they put into this work, which was funded through SHLC’s Capacity Development Acceleration Fund. SHLC has been funded within the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) grant ES/PO11020/1.

Promoting Inclusion for Street Vendors: Reflections on Our CDAF Project in Cali

This blog was authored by Dr Graeme Young.

International projects that seek to address complex problems can, unsurprisingly, encounter unexpected challenges. Adaptability is often a virtue in efforts to effect positive change, particularly when prospects for success are, despite one’s best efforts, so dependent on external circumstances. One should expect one’s best-laid plans to be disrupted, and for events to unfold in a way that is confounding, sometimes profoundly so. Progress has never been easy. It would be naïve to expect otherwise. 

Our project, “Promoting Inclusive Governance for Informal Workers in Cali, Colombia,” provided ample opportunities to reflect on the significance of circumstance in international development work. As the title suggests, what our project aimed to do is to find ways to allow informal street vendors in Cali to be involved in making decisions about the policies that shape their livelihoods. Street vendors, in Cali and in cities around the world, are a uniquely marginalized group, and a lack of political power often compounds economic vulnerability by denying opportunities for representation and voice, leading to policies that are inappropriate, inadequate, negligent, or even harmful that vendors have little ability to change. The key to addressing economic vulnerability, we therefore believe, is political empowerment, and the way we decided to put this into practice in Cali was to try to set up a participatory policymaking process that would be inclusive, sustainable, and, we hoped, replicable beyond the city. That the extent to which it would be possible to facilitate the political and economic inclusion of street vendors would always depend on the right political conditions is, in theory, unsurprising; that these conditions could change so significantly is, in practice, more remarkable. Yet for all of the practical challenges that this posed, it helped to highlight important theoretical points about the conditions that must be present to allow for political—and thereby economic—inclusion in the informal economy. We have explored these in detail in our new report, but they perhaps deserve further comment here.

First, and most fundamentally, open, democratic structures and processes must be in place for any meaningful form of inclusion to take place. These must not be taken for granted. Colombia, where our project was based, is a democracy, if an imperfect one. The processes that could possibly facilitate meaningful forms of inclusion for informal workers are evidently absent, but the broad institutional structures that exist are more conducive to allowing these to emerge than they are in more authoritarian states. Democracy is not a binary concept; it can always be improved, in Colombia and elsewhere. Such improvements are essential for the empowerment of informal workers.

Basic state capacity is also essential. If political inclusion is to lead to economic inclusion, the state must be able to implement the policies that arise out of political processes. But while the ability of the state to effectively govern informal economic activity should not be assumed, it should also not be assumed that poor governance is always the result of incapacity. The absence of a well funded, well functioning social safety net can certainly limit effective governance, but it might also be the consequence of poor governance itself. And some forms of improved governance, such as ending the punitive use of force against informal workers, have nothing to do with state capacity. The simple and unfortunate fact is that some governments may have little interest in inclusion, and some may indeed have a great deal of interest in the continued marginalization of informal workers. This serves as a major impediment to creating more open and durable decision-making structures. It also makes them even more necessary.

Beyond these basic conditions for political inclusion, two more stand out. The first of these surrounds having suitable institutional spaces that make dialogue and cooperation possible. Second is the political will to promote—or even just allow—inclusion, to create and sustain the processes in which inclusion occurs, and to act on their outcomes. This final condition, unfortunately, disappeared during our project, first as a result of how the state responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was already underway when our project began, and later due to the protests that swept through Colombia from April 2021. While COVID-19 obviously had a profound impact on the priorities and activities of governments around the world, the relevant authorities in our project did not act in ways that were responsive to the needs of informal workers or seek to include them more meaningfully in decision making. The protests likely diminished trust further and at least temporarily suspended the possibility for collaboration. Significantly, they were, at their core, the result of long-standing failures in governance, further underscoring the importance of more open and responsive politics that represent and respond to people’s basic needs and interests. An opportunity exists for something better. The question is whether governments will take it.

The four conditions for political inclusion outlined here are, sadly, rarely found together, a fact that explains the appalling record of the treatment of informal workers around the world. And, as our project shows, even where and when they may be present, they can be impermanent and imperfect. But this is no reason for despondency: research, organization, and advocacy can still take place, alliances can be built, and ideas can be developed, shared, and adopted from elsewhere. Our project engaged in many of these activities, conducting a survey of street vendors, sharing and analyzing proposals put forward by vendors’ organizations, and holding a workshop on informal work and public policy to explore these themes in a broader international context. In short, preparations can be made for when the right conditions return, and these conditions can be encouraged by the right forms of political engagement. Change does not happen overnight. To build something sustainable, something that becomes so ingrained in the fabric of political life that it cannot vanish so suddenly and capriciously, takes time. Efforts to promote inclusion for informal workers are only beginning. Further setbacks will come, but they cannot, and will not, deter us.


We are particularly grateful to our colleagues in Colombia for the great efforts that they put into this work, which was funded through SHLC’s Capacity Development Acceleration Fund. SHLC has been funded within the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) grant ES/PO11020/1.