The developing world is increasingly urban with the number of people living in slums increasing 28% in the last 24 years. How do poor urban citizens come together as communities—both formal and informal—to gain access to public services? How do the urban poor participate in place-based communities (such as slum settlement neighborhoods) and non-spatial communities (such as religious or work-related groups or networks)? Does participation in different types of communities make a difference in the urban poor’s relationship with the government, or the strategies that they use to obtain—or create—public services, such as sanitation, transport, and security? A team of graduate students was awarded GOV/LAB seed funding to explore different kinds of urban communities in three fast-growing cities.

Outside a union council office in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo Credit: Blair Read.

In Lahore, Pakistan, Blair Read interviewed members from a variety of different religious communities—Muslims within and outside of the majority sect, and Christians. Within these groups, she also interviewed citizens who lived in formal communities who possessed housing titles, those in informal squatter settlements, and those in privately run housing societies. In all these communities, personal connections were paramount to getting services. From services ranging from dispute resolution to personal loans to services like repairing drains or policing the community, citizens use their family and friendship networks to obtain services.

In communities where citizens possessed the financial means to self-provide, they often eschewed state services in favor of private providers who provide services more reliably than their state counterpart. In communities without financial means, they relied on personal connections to state actors. For those with neither financial means nor government connections, community members often lived without access to basic services.

Two youth leaders walk through houses in the Chicken Soup Factory informal community. Photo Credit: Paige Bollen.

In Monrovia, Liberia, Paige Bollen conducted interviews in formal and informal communities, focusing specifically on one informal sub-community in the Slipway community called Garlo Estate. Though many Monrovians are part of a variety of communities, which are both spatially and non-spatially based, they generally funnel their needs for public services through their geographic communities, especially when services, like water pumps, are distributed along geographic lines. Monrovians generally rely less on religious and occupational groups to gain access to public services.

Instead, they rely on religious leaders to help them with spiritual growth and occasionally go to them with requests for personal, financial help, and rely on occupational leaders for help gaining access to government services only if the services pertain directly to their occupation. For example, a motor-bike driver would use the leader of his motor-bike union to request a renewal of his license or registration. Despite the use of occupational and religious leaders for specific problems, Monrovians overall seem to use community and block leaders for all types of problems related to government services because they are the primary gatekeepers to the government.

Ying Gao conducted fieldwork in Jakarta, Indonesia, interviewing ojek motorcycle taxi drivers, part of flourishing informal transportation in Indonesian cities. In the process, she learned about pangkalan, which are occupational communities of drivers who can be found in any street in Jakarta, waiting for passengers, queueing, or resting in the same location. The pangkalan is much more than just a group of drivers relaxing under the shade of a roadside tree. Joining the group offers various benefits for drivers, including a community fund to pay for accidents, family events to foster bonding, and a coordinator to arrange protection from the authorities and solve problems, such as turf conflict with rival services.

Motorcycle taxi drivers’ groups and street vendors share the road space they occupy in Central Jakarta. Photo credit: Ying Gao.

In this sense, the ojek pangkalan (meaning base camps) act as solidarity group for member ojek drivers, helping them to cope with the risks and difficulties of their work. The coordination among pangkalan leaders (coordinators) ensures that there are norms governing this informal public service. The widespread existence of these groups makes it possible for informal public services (in this case, informal transport) to be available nearly everywhere in the city, including in informal settlements.

Understanding how citizens juggle identities within multiple urban communities in their everyday lives and documenting how the different communities function, select leaders, or interact with government authorities can help shed light on the dynamics of informal governance in contexts of rapid urbanization. By thinking carefully about how these dynamics vary city by city, we hope to better theorize about a wide variety of urban contexts.

Blair, Paige, and Ying are second year PhD students in the MIT Political Science Department.