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By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

One of the key challenges of urban poverty is to find people-driven solutions to housing finance. An innovation of many federations in the SDI network has been to develop what are known as “urban poor funds.” All federations in the alliance practice daily savings as a means for community organization. These savings can often be used for various kinds of micro-credit as well, though their primary purpose is, as a general rule, to bind communities together, get them to unite around their own problems and their own resources.

But any member of a saving scheme can withdraw their savings at any time. There is nothing keep that person in a saving scheme except their own ties to their community and their specific scheme. The money always remains theirs. Federations that have been around for some time — what is known in the SDI lingo as a “mature” federation — soon realize that in order to develop at any kind of scale, they need to search for ways to come up with a committed, revolving finance facility: the urban poor fund.

Though an urban poor fund operates in different ways in different countries, the basic idea is the same. Each federation member commits a non-refundable amount of money that will initiate the fund. In South Africa, just to give one example, this commitment has a value of approximately US$100. The idea is that these funds that come from organized communities of the urban poor will attract more from outside sources like governments, donors and the private sector. Then, the fund can begin giving out loans to federation members to build houses, start businesses, buy land, and install services. If the loans are repaid then the fund “revolves,” meaning that the money can be loaned out again to someone else. For an excellent summary and analysis of the different kinds of urban poor funds that exist within the SDI alliance, a paper by Diana Mitlin, our colleague at the International Institute for Environment and Development, is a worthwhile guide: “Urban Poor Funds: development by the people for the people” (pdf).

It is a powerful tool for development that really puts organized communities of the urban poor at the center of their own development. So what happens when the fund essentially vanishes — nearly overnight? Sounds devastating. But this is exactly what the Zimbabwean Homeless People’s Federation experienced when their fund, called the Gungano Fund, fell prey to the cruelties of hyperinflation that wrecked the Zimbabwean economy in 2008.

Federation members were determined to keep it going. Still anxious to continue repaying outstanding loans, members developed a system they called dombo-to-dombo (stone-for-stone), where instead of repaying in money, they repaid in material supplies for which they calculated an approximate worth.

With the introduction of the US dollar and South African rand as replacement currencies for the Zimbabwean dollar, the federation is now looking to restore the Gungano fund. I had the privilege of being part of a two-day reflection meeting that the Zimbabwean federation held in Harare at the end of January to discuss how to take the fund forward. My colleague Louise Cobbett and I have a full report of this meeting up at the main SDI website which goes through all of the issues raised and resolved around the fund and how it ties into the greater work of the federation.

It takes the kind of unity forged through savings, information gathering, and — in the case of the Zimbabwean federation — the common traumas of economic hardship, disease, and state-directed violence, to address such a difficult, innovative facility like the urban poor fund with the creativity and seriousness I saw at this meeting. With “urban poor funds,” “community development funds,” and similar terms becoming buzz words in the so-called “urban development sector,” the urban poor themselves are providing some of the most creative, effective examples of how these can actually operate.

There is little both as hip and worrying to people interested in international affairs as China’s relationship to Africa. Beyond a fly-by-night visit by Barack Obama, it’s one of the only reasons the rest of the world will pay any attention to the continent.

Of course, the reasons for the African interest among Chinese businesses and government officials boils down to the same reasons most non-Africans have always cared about Africa: money and resources.

Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson notes that Africa’s resources are not only in vogue among the Chinese, but perhaps more broadly among the BRIC countries. Those BRIC countries that have managed to navigate the current economic crisis relatively well (of the four countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — Russia is almost definitely suffering the most) boast of decoupling from the developed world’s economies, and the opportunities their independence allows:

With aid and investment drying up from Europe and the West, it’s wise of the BRICs to fill the void. More than good business, it’s proof of the BRICs claim that they’re in Africa for the long haul. Guess who wins that game?

Still, most of the attention is coming from China — who else is going in deep enough to bail out Zimbabwe when no one else will? This has led to a lot of speculation in English-language press that there’s basically just a new colonial boss in town. Nothing encapsulated this view better than French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s chilly reception at a funeral for Gabon’s president Omar Bongo. Bongo was the quintessential French colonial stooge in the “post-colonial” African setting, the “epitome of françafrique,” writes The Economist. He even managed to arrange for the firing of one of Sarkozy’s ministers, overseas aid minister Jean-Marie Bockel, who had dared to call for the end of the excesses and patronage relationships of françafrique.

As France and other western states muddle along in trying to fashion a post-colonial world order that still affords enough of the practical benefits of colonialism, China the basically the only contender for the top of the heap of this world order. The attractiveness of China to Africans is partly a matter of the fact that the Chinese are just not the West, writes William Wallis in the Financial Times:

Europe still sees Africa as a burden. The Chinese, Brazilians, Indians and others see it as an opportunity.”We have a competitive advantage,” says Gu Xiaojie, China’s ambassador to Ethiopia, with a certain amount of glee.

“My own experience is that they [African governments] are uncomfortable dealing with developed countries. They think they [Europeans] want to impose their own ideas and they have a long [mutual] history that is violent and bitter.”

But China’s star shines brightly beyond the fact of who it is not. Quite plainly, it is often the only major economic power that seems to give a damn. Shortly before I left Philadelphia for Johannesburg, I had a discussion with my former professor in Chinese history during which I mentioned that the Chinese may be running roughshod over African workers and communities in the course of their projects in the continent. Her response was simple and, honestly, hard to refute: Who else is paying attention?

Howard French notes that both political and financial attention from China is in easy supply. Top political leaders visit the continent every year, including a visit by Hu Jintao concurrent to my discussion with my professor in late February / early March. Moreover,

from Angola and Congo and from Nigeria and Mozambique, the big news in Africa has recently been measured in big business deals, and this story could almost be summed up as all China, all the time.

A Shanghai-based housing developer argues that Africa is a key plank in China’s grander geopolitical strategy in China Safari, a new book on China’s role in the continent written by two French journalists, Serge Michel and Michel Beuret.

“I’m going to be honest with you, China is using Africa to get where the United States is now, and surpass it.”

This may be overstating the case. While the view from Africa may make this plausible, the view from China may look quite different.

Jeune Afrique recently had a large report on China in Africa, and took a much more skeptical view than most of the writing from English-language publications, perhaps reflecting a greater overall disillusionment with outside influence in Africa among those in the francophone world. In an interview with He Wenping, director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, reporter Pascal Auaralt asks if there might be a lack of knowledge about Africa among many Chinese. He does not exactly defend her countrymen and women. She points out that there are only 20 students in her program, the largest African studies program in the country.

Ridiculous. The Zimbabwean government is claiming that a recent SABC documentary about prison conditions in three Zimbabwean prisons contains footage from other countries. Almost simultaneously, the government arrested three prison wardens for allegedly providing secret material for the documentaries. It’s hard to take seriously claims of a desire to “re-engage with the West” in the midst of continuing this kind of repression. I’ve got a video and article about the SABC program.