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Mobilising informal economy workers for urban resilience

Bradley Cleveland, 15 October 2013

Cooperatives and associations of informal sector workers could become key players in global efforts to alleviate extreme poverty and enhance disaster resilience in urban slums.

By engaging these worker-led organizations in community-based efforts to reduce disaster risk, the urban poor who live in informal settlements and work in the informal economy can exert their collective power to overcome their social and economic marginalization.

Such a strategy can transform the precarious jobs into what the International Labour Organization defines as 'decent work' that provides a fair income, job security and social protection, and promotes social dialogue.

The United Nations is advancing a development agenda to replace the Millennium Development Goals, and a new disaster resilience strategy to replace the Hyogo Framework for Action, both of which expire in 2015.

There is a growing consensus to link the development agenda and disaster framework to achieve three goals:
1. To lift workers and their families out of poverty;
2. To reduce the vulnerability of informal settlements by implementing 'no‐regrets' measures that provide both short-term and long-term benefits; and
3. To develop an inclusive participatory process that ensures social dialogue and builds social cohesion.

In the policy brief, Mobilizing informal workers for urban resilience: Linking poverty alleviation and disaster preparedness, published by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Los Angeles, I argue that these goals can be met by engaging associations of informal workers in efforts to reduce community disaster risk.

Worker‐led membership organizations can provide the political leverage to ensure the adoption of inclusive policies and practices that integrate marginalized communities and informal workers into the fabric of the city.

Investments in infrastructure and services for informal settlements represent a 'no regrets' strategy that can improve the public health and safety of urban residents, reducing costs over the long‐term.

Developing and maintaining green and grey infrastructure can reduce flooding and landslides. Restored ecosystems can serve as natural buffers against hazards, while become the source of healthy, locally sourced food.

Finally, this strategy promises to be financially sustainable as the informal workers become more productive, as new markets are developed, and local governments achieve savings from their investments in resilience through lower costs of disaster response and recovery.

  • Bradley Cleveland is an urban planning and health policy consultant based in Oakland, California. A former organiser with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), he studied urban planning initiatives in Medellin, Colombia, in 2011 as a Masters student at UCLA.
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