Informality in the SDGs

Goal 11 of the SDGs explicitly focuses on urban areas. It places local authorities as key partners in making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Yet, “in order for SDGs to become effective policy tools, (…) the availability of reliable and robust data at comparable scales is crucial” (p:1).

Based on a pilot study conducted by Mistra Urban Futures to assess the measurability of the newly adopted target and indicators, a recent article by Arfvidsson et al show how the notion of informality needs to be particularly recognized by local authorities as an intrinsic urban phenomenon in African Cities.

Focusing on the cases of Kisumu and Cape Town, the article shows that alternative forms of data collection need to be mobilized. Otherwise, assessments will remain constrained in a dichotomous vision of distinct formal and informal spaces within cities. This binary vision still prevails in some countries. It is also problematic because it comes to measure what is measurable –the formal- rather than what is actually relevant for the SDGs.

This article enriches the debate on the “data revolution” needed for the post-2015 development agenda, in order to “strike a balance between universally and locally appropriate definitions (p:3)”. The UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) actually advocates for new means of collecting data at the local, national and international levels.

In the case of informality, there are clear discrepancies between local definitions. This might eventually hinder cross-country comparisons and a global and pertinent evaluation of the targets.

The authors look at how informality is addressed across three themes: slums and informal settlements, transportation, and waste. With regard to informal settlements, the authors call for an adjustment of the definition by using the term inadequate housing instead of slums, as inadequate housing is not only found in areas described as slums, a term which besides carries negative connotations.

For waste and transport, the key challenge lies in the recognition of informal practices in data collection. Recognizing their valuable contribution to development is the only way to “improve the reliability of the data collected” (p:12).

In a nutshell, the article advocates for a comprehensive and integrated vision of urban issues in Africa, in order to incorporate “all relevant segments of actors in the relevant spheres” (p:13). This will be made possible through a rethinking of the role of informality in SDGs, as well as key investments and innovation in data collection systems, especially at the local level.

Article available from the African Geographical Review, (Open access)

Image, Central Business District of Kisumu, Richard Portsmouth (flickr).


Publication Type Journal Article
Publisher African Geographical Review
Year 2016
Author(s) Helen Arfvidsson, David Simon, Michael Oloko & Nishendra Moodley
ISSN 1937-6812
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