The Bartlett


Transforming informal settlements to protect residents' rights

From its base in Freetown, the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre is working to ensure residents' rights in informal settlements across the country.

Fisherpeople and fish sellers in Portee Rokupa – one of the economic activities analysed by SLURC livelihood research. Credit: Julian Walker

Since its inception in 2015, the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC) has set about shifting the way Freetown thinks about informal settlements. In just four years, it has helped get informal settlements recognised in the National Land Policy, in the country’s New National Development Plan, and in the ongoing preparation of the Mayor’s Freetown Transformation Plan (2018–2022).

It has provided public access to more than a thousand documents relating to urban issues and become a sought-after research partner, involved in seven new projects with international consortia, attracting more than a £1m to fund the next five years of the centre’s work. And it has achieved this by building the capacity of the urban professionals and communities within Sierra Leone itself.

With funding for the first three years from Comic Relief, the SLURC was set up by Dr Andrea Rigon and Dr Alexandre Apsan Frediani at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU), in partnership with Dr Joseph Macarthy and Braima Koroma at the Institute of Geography and Development Studies, Njala University in Sierra Leone. To date, it has involved more than 30 staff from across The Bartlett and UCL, and more than 100 students.

To appreciate the centre’s achievements, it is worth understanding the context: Sierra Leone’s civil war from 1991 to 2002 displaced a third of the population. Its fragile post-war recovery was undermined in 2014 by the Ebola epidemic, which killed about 4,000 people and slowed the economy. The country ranks 179th out of 188 on the Human Development Index, while its maternal mortality is the highest in the world.

Research session on gender and livelihoods in Freetown. Credit: Julian Walker

Locally-relevant research

From the beginning, the founders were clear that the centre needed to be an autonomous structure, invested in Sierra Leone, and capable of continuing to shape positive change on the ground. Breaking with the norm, local researchers would not be paid individually by overseas universities – drawing them away from the business of their own institutions – but contracted to the SLURC, which would be able to set a locally-relevant research agenda when partnering with international scholars.

This was crucial, believes Rigon, who won a UCL Public Engagement Award for his work on the project. “To understand how epidemics like Ebola spread and the urban conditions that increase that type of risk, for example, you need to be embedded in the local context. At the time, people weren’t researching these urban issues.”

But the logistics of establishing the centre were complicated, he says. “University systems are largely designed for Europe and North America, so it’s not easy to set up and build facilities in Sierra Leone.” As a result, the SLURC is an organisation controlled by Njala University and the DPU (Rigon and Frediani sit on the board), and civil society in Freetown to “ensure that the voices of local people are always present in shaping research agendas and advocacy goals”.

“A university like UCL draws on resources from – and its students come from – all over the world. So it has a responsibility to do it in a way that doesn’t take away agency from local entities. How to do that is a very challenging question for higher education institutions,” says Frediani. He describes the centre as a fantastic learning journey “about how we work in international partnerships and how we create equitable relationships – what we call ‘partnerships of equivalence’”.

Mapping livelihood sectors of informal settlement residents. Credit: Julian Walker

Today, the SLURC is run by an Executive Director (Macarthy) and a Director of Research and Training (Koroma) at Njala University. The DPU provides access to international networks; the local academics connecting it to networks on the ground in Freetown and across Sierra Leone.

Brokering relationships

Rigon says that was always the vision: to create a research capacity able to generate knowledge that was locally relevant – and manage it to make sure it was available to urban actors who could use it to change things. “We found that there was lots of knowledge but it wasn’t being shared, it was one institution’s competitive advantage over another when applying for funds. And research was being repeated: so people were being asked the same question again and again, without seeing any impact.”

The SLURC started sharing what it had. Gradually, it brought together existing knowledge into a database and made it available to everyone. This independence has enabled the centre, in a very short space of time, to become a broker of relationships. It’s arguably its most powerful role. “Groups of residents in the city see us as a partner, as someone who is advocating with them,” says Frediani. “To be able to create that space between government, grassroots organisations and NGOs, in what is a competitive environment, is a key achievement. We’ve been able to create a more nurturing environment for conversations between different stakeholders that were not being had before.”

Training was the most powerful way the SLURC did this. It brought together government officials, NGO staff, university lecturers and people from the local communities, and got them to carry out research together in the local settlements. And they did it in the rainy season. “They got soaked together, laughed under the same umbrella,” says Rigon. “These were people who didn’t understand why they were in the same room together at first.”

Neighbourhood planning through participatory photography workshop. Credit: Alexander Macfarlane

By the end of the training – and the SLURC has done lots of this – people are making plans to visit each others’ churches. The impact has “really changed the discourse in the city about informal settlements” says Rigon, getting the message home to governments that informal activity is the backbone of a city like Freetown and their policies on eviction and demolition damage “so many people’s livelihoods that it could become a threat to national security and economy”.

Community ownership

The message has been supported by key research projects. Frediani points to a peer-reviewed report funded by IIED International, which looked at how humanitarian responses in urban areas – in the wake of the Ebola crisis and environmental disasters – had an impact on community empowerment. “Targeted research in this field hadn’t been done before. It was a nuanced way of looking at how to include communities in humanitarian responses.”

In a partnership with Architecture Sans Frontières UK, the SLURC developed a methodology to capture the community’s concerns and aspirations for their neighbourhood. The community neighbourhood plans that resulted from this participatory process now fill a gap in an otherwise top-down planning system that previously didn’t have a mechanism for local residents to feedback on the municipal area plans. They are now recognised in national policy, and Frediani says that they are already seeing communities using their plans to negotiate where infrastructure and development should go in their neighbourhood.

While the SLURC can’t take the credit for all the positive changes happening in Sierra Leone, its impact is visible on the ground and the international stage. In 2016, the centre travelled with the former Mayor of Freetown, along with his team, to the Habitat III conference, brokering a number of international contacts for the city. Frediani says this kind of relationship building is critical to carrying out meaningful work and “not easily factored into a research bid”. The city’s new Mayor, Yvonne Aki Sawyerr, has embraced the centre, recently visiting UCL for a week of talks.

Research session with resident of an informal settlement in Freetown. Credit: Julian Walker

“One of the things we’ve learned from SLURC is that it’s not just about building capacities in the Global South but our own capacities to be able to do this work – globally, but also locally, in London,” says Frediani, who was recently consulted by UCL’s Public Engagement Unit to share lessons learned to develop the unit’s targets.

In 2019, a delegation from UCL, including the university’s then Vice-Provost International Dame Nicola Brewer and Vice-Provost for Africa Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, visited Najala University to celebrate five years of the SLURC partnership.