The world faces an affordable housing crisis that threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of people (World Economic Forum 2019). Only 13% of the world’s cities have affordable housing (UN HABITAT 2016), leaving an estimated 23% of the global population living in slums (UN Population Division, 2018). This threatens the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Sustainable cities provide long-term affordable housing to residents in places they value, where they can build social trust with their neighbours and governments. Community organisations often step in to represent the needs of citizens and make claims on the state for rights and housing, giving them the ability to reshape governance mechanisms and potentially empower diverse voices in urban policy-making. In this paper, we find that across very different contexts of urbanisation, poor urban populations devise a similar portfolio of claim-making strategies — ranging from collective protest to working within government institutions — to gain a voice in local decision-making and remain in place. But these strategies vary in their success, prompting us to ask why. The reasons why some strategies lead to action while others fail to promote change provide lessons in how community organisations might proceed in order to engender sustainable governance and housing solutions.

Existing literature emphasises two main strategies that urban populations use to demand and secure housing. One body of scholarship suggests that the poor engage in collective resistance, organising mass action to demand a right to the city (Holston, 2008). These modes of protest range from everyday forms of resistance, to squatter occupations (Levenson, 2022) and other forms of large-scale mass action that happen outside the public’s view (Bayat, 2013; Scott, 1990). Yet collective action is far less common than expected and is often restricted to specific threats of eviction and displacement. A second body of literature emphasises endogenous institutional change, locating the source of claim-making to activities and procedures inside the institutions of municipal governance (Pasotti, 2009). These strategies include cooperating with state authorities to change laws, as well as pressuring city authorities to distribute resources and public services.

Social movement theorists present these two bodies of literature as decisions between whether groups pursue contentious or cooperative strategies, respectively (Tarrow, 1994). Yet this dichotomy no longer accurately describes the wide range of activities undertaken by civil society organisations to gain a political voice, as they use a range of these strategies simultaneously (Mitlin, 2018). Instead, we use the term “pathways of engagement” to capture the avenues of collective behaviour whereby residents seek inclusion in decision-making and lay claim to citizenship rights in cities. This approach contributes new insights to literature on collective action and sustainable development by emphasising the diverse modes of bargaining with bureaucrats and demands on politicians that residents use in their claims for affordable housing. Through this process, residents and governments form unlikely partnerships and develop a basis of understanding that is necessary for policy implementation. Civil society can play an important role in pressuring the state to remedy failures of the market to provide housing to low-income residents, and tackle rising inequality. It does so by connecting the individual to the collective, providing a stronger force for demanding housing. We focus on the role of community organisations (COs) as important intermediaries and members of civil society.

We argue that pathways of engagement provide a strong means of influence, potentially complementing or replacing traditional advocacy, bilateral meetings or disruptive tactics (Avritzer, 2009; Wampler, 2010). They involve bargaining between community leaders and government bureaucrats, as well as state-society links that are more informal and depend on everyday interactions. In some contexts, claims are made through participatory institutions, which can be remedies to traditional inequalities in power and decision-making (Weinstein, 2008). But COs can also be effective in environments with high levels of political clientelism, where residents must seek diverse avenues of participation through parties and connections with powerful individuals. These pathways depend on the underlying institutional, demographic and political conditions, as well as the dynamic process of bargaining and negotiation between government bureaucrats, politicians, and residents (Auerbach, 2016; Kruks-Wisner, 2018).

We apply the theoretical framework to the cases of housing provision in São Paulo, Brazil and Accra, Ghana. Using a most-different systems design, we leverage the cases of two cities that differ on key variables often used to explain outcomes of urban development: land tenure regimes, colonial legacies, state capacity and degree of urbanisation. This allows us to focus on COs’ pathways of engagement in very different socio-economic and cultural contexts, which shape the formation of COs and the opportunities available to members when making claims on the state.

We find that COs in São Paulo and Accra share similar pathways of engagement to make claims on the state, despite many variations in the political and societal contexts. These pathways include (1) Claiming rights, (2) Participation in party politics, and (3) Manoeuvring multi-level governance structures. Yet their success varies depending on important underlying factors, including the ideology of the organisation, its relationship to the state and society, and the credibility of institutions.

There is very little agreement on how to solve the global shortage of affordable housing. Part of the reason for this is that housing shortages in long-established neighbourhoods of “global” and “megacities” are rarely compared to housing struggles in informal and squatter settlements across the Global South. Housing shortages in the former are often framed as market failures contributing to an affordability crisis affecting individuals and families (Desmond, 2012), while the latter are considered state failures that affect entire communities and are experienced collectively (Weinstein, 2021). Yet this perceived difference masks an important reality: populations across diverse local contexts make similar claims of belonging and demands for affordable housing, succeeding in some cases while failing in others. The lack of comparison across cases undermines our ability to develop a generalisable theory of sustainable urban development that considers the short-term needs and demands of residents without contradicting or challenging long-term plans, especially those that incorporate environmental concerns.

A focus on pathways of engagement with the state attempts to confront this challenge, and bring sustainability politics in exciting new directions. To date, the study of sustainability has often posed a dichotomy between market and state solutions, without considering the underlying political and institutional conditions.Footnote 1 This article builds on an emerging literature in sustainability studies that examines the networked and hybrid forms of environmental governance (Dryzek, 2013; Young, 2002), to demonstrate how COs engage local and national governments and ally with political parties and politicians — key factors for the successful implementation of sustainable development policies.

The paper proceeds as follows. First, we introduce our theoretical framework that explains the different pathways of engagement between COs and the state, and outline the COs working on housing policy in São Paulo and Accra. We then discuss their similarities and differences by focusing on three pathways of engagement. We conclude that civil society plays an important role in facilitating resident demands, but that underlying political factors impede the goal of universal and sustainable housing.

Pathways of Engagement and Sustainability Politics

Sustainable housing policies require people to have the opportunity to choose where they live in a place they value, and build social trust in their neighbours and government. Without these conditions, governments will be unable to implement policies for the long-term public benefit because they won’t have important buy-in from residents nor aligned incentives of those in power (Paller, 2021). A key part of this process involves uncovering how communities engage with the state to get their demands heard and needs met, and understanding when these efforts succeed or fail. We argue that pathways of engagement with the state offer ways for communities to be heard and the promise of citizen involvement in bringing about sustainable urban development. This is similar to Scoones, who argues that governance “must take on new networked forms, rooted in collective action” (2016, p200), and we assess whether or not community organisations are engaging in “new” strategies that further their aims.

We have chosen to use the language of “pathways of engagement,” recognising that organisations might take on different strategies over time as circumstances change. Firstly, COs claim rights, often to the city. A radical interpretation of “the right to the city” calls for “transformative claims and demands” (Marcuse, 2014, p.8) — a call for change in the system by which the excluded gain the privileges of opportunity, safety and dignity that elite citizens have long enjoyed. Across cities, COs take on the rallying cry of the transformative claim to the right to the city to varying degrees, influenced by the needs that brought members together in the first place and the openness of the political environment in which they operate.

Secondly, COs establish networks and alliances with political parties to gain influence and make decisions. This can happen in the form of democratic representation, but also through patron-client relationships (Auyero, 2001). As Deuskar (2019, p.2) explains: “The urban poor lack the resources to engage in corruption on a large scale, but in democracies, they do have votes, and so they engage in clientelism to negotiate for access to land and services.” Politicians and party networks are a powerful pathway of engagement to the state for urban residents.

Thirdly, COs navigate diverse institutional environments at multiple scales of governance (Kaufmann & Sidney, 2020). Cities are sites of social and institutional complexity in the form of ethnic and linguistic diversity, population fluidity, economic differentiation, overlapping institutions and complicated bureaucracies (Auerbach et al., 2018; Gore, 2015). They are made up of layered authorities and competing social institutions (Lust, 2018). Importantly, these multiple scales extend to the global sphere as international financing is an important way in which COs build capacity and support. COs have multiple pathways of engagement with the state and uncovering which ones are open is key to sustainability politics.

We point to three underlying conditions that explain which strategies organisations take, and why some are successful while others fail. First, the ideology of an organisation in terms of its interpretation or even use of the right to the city language strongly determines the pathways in which they engage (McGarry & Jasper, 2015). We expect organisations for whom the goal of transformation in the city is paramount, or those with radical ideologies, to take the pathways that are geared towards changing the structures and institutions of power from the inside out (Harvey, 2003; Lefebvre, 1995; Mitchell, 2003; Purcell, 2014). The source of empowerment may come from working within current institutions to produce change, in what Donaghy elsewhere (2018) labels inclusionary strategies of urban development.

Alternatively, indirect strategies in which influence is mediated through persuasion of government officials, voters or other actors may be the pathways chosen by organisations with a more conservative approach. For adherents of a conservative ideology, the organisation is understood more narrowly as a defender of public benefit distributions to ameliorate the challenges of housing costs. Its strategies can be progressive or reactive, depending on whether the organisation advocates new ideas or reacts to an impending threat. The two strategies are differentiated according to whether they seek change through inclusion in the decision-making process directly or by influencing decision-makers indirectly through advocacy or persuasion.

Second, the organisation’s relationship to the state and society shapes the claims they make. Though an organisation’s ideology may largely determine a blueprint for action (Blyth, 2002), its relationship with the state may also shift and create new means of engagement. In part, this relationship depends on political opportunities, as argued by Tarrow (1994) and others (e.g. McCarthy, McAdam & Zald, 1996), in which the repertoires of social movements evolve alongside changes in political leadership and policy options. For instance, factors that reshape this relationship may include the employment of organisational members within the government (Abers, 2019); insider access to officials forged through personal relationships; working collaborations in formal institutions; and general trust in the judicial system and the government bureaucracy. Political opportunities can change over time, resulting in incentives for organisations to reshape their goals and tactics. When an allied administration is in power, access to decision-makers and mutual agreement on policies should improve the influence of COs and their tendency to rely on inclusionary pathways of engagement. Conversely, when an adversarial party holds office, the pathways of engagement may shift towards indirect strategies in which they use protest, occupations and other confrontational activities to disrupt the status quo and induce policy and programmatic changes.

Further, the organisation’s relationship with social elites and social institutions — from highly supportive to largely hostile — may influence whether the organisation seeks to engage in advocacy campaigns, demand substantial policy changes or run candidates for office. Here, the influence of the private sector on government officials also plays a role in the opportunities COs view as possible routes of persuasion or direct engagement.

Finally, the credibility of institutions creates the possibility for direct lines of communication between government and civil society (Mayka, 2019). Institutions, including courts, legislatures, elections and bureaucratic agencies, must be viewed as at least somewhat impartial and trustworthy to open a pathway of engagement with the state. Judicial institutions, through which organisations make direct claims to secure property rights, enforce housing regulations, and implement inclusionary zoning laws, are only valuable to the extent groups consider them viable mechanisms for achieving goals. Further, participatory institutions provide the opportunity for significant voice for previously marginalised groups, but to do so, there must be buy-in among actors to ensure there is substantial power and resources allocated to the institution (Wampler, 2010).

Clarence Stone (1989) famously argued that in order to generate change, strategies must shift who has the “power to” put into practice development goals. Pathways of engagement that upset the status quo power structure create the greatest potential for transformational change. At the same time, more conservative, indirect strategies may produce results in the form of immediate benefits to improve citizens’ access to city life. We argue that these collective choices are often strategic on the part of community organisations given their existing political and social environments.

Housing Challenges in São Paulo and Accra

Brazil and Ghana are two of the most urbanised countries in South America and Africa, respectively. Brazil transformed from a country with 31% of its population living in cities in 1940, to more than 80% by 2000. São Paulo is its most populous city, estimated to be home to 12 million people. It is Brazil’s financial centre, contributing 10.7% of the country’s GDP. Yet, the city struggles to provide sufficient affordable housing to its growing population. To confront these challenges, civil society organisations in São Paulo have long fought for the creation and implementation of participatory institutions and a legal framework that prioritises the rights of low-income citizens across all levels of government.

Though the pace of urbanisation has been slower in Ghana than in Brazil, more than 50% of its population now lives in cities. Ghana’s capital, Accra, grew rapidly during the colonial period between 1877 and 1957 as economic investments pulled many residents from the countryside, and again in the past 20 years after the country signed structural adjustment policies. The population of Accra is officially listed as 2.27 million, though it is estimated that more than 4 million people inhabit the city. Growth has contributed to a massive shortage of housing.

These significantly different political and societal contexts provide us with a useful most-different case design to assess the impact of pathways of engagement on sustainability initiatives.

Our study draws from comparative field research. Maureen Donaghy made a number of trips to São Paulo between 2012 and 2016 and met with housing movement leaders, researchers, academics, and government officials to understand the ways in which movements working in the city centre carry out strategies and achieve results (Donaghy, 2018a, 2018b).Footnote 2 She observed a range of activities undertaken by housing movements and conducted semi-structured interviews to understand leaders’ motivations and strategic actions. Jeffrey Paller conducted extensive field research on governance in Accra between 2009 and 2017 (Paller, 2019). This included ethnographic research in three poor urban neighbourhoods, semi-structured interviews with activists and politicians and focus groups with community leaders and housing advocates.Footnote 3

Community Organisations in São Paulo

The current urban reform and housing organisations in São Paulo developed during the fight for democratisation in the 1980s. Since then, COs have influenced the adoption of programmes for new housing construction, created new policy alternatives and inserted themselves into the large policy community focused on housing in the city (Lopes, 2012). Over the past decade, the main COs for housing, particularly in the centre of São Paulo, included the União dos Movimentos de Moradia (Union of Housing Movements, UMM) and the Frente da Luta por Moradia (Front for the Housing Struggle, FLM). The UMM-SP, founded in 1987, unites smaller community movements that work with the homeless and residents of favelas, cortiços (tenements), occupations and other informal settlements, while the FLM primarily organises occupations of abandoned buildings (Barbosa, 2015; Borges, 2015). The primary goals of both organisations included preventing residents being removed from informal settlements or occupations; generating more housing for low-income residents in the city centre through expropriation and renovation of existing buildings and construction of new units; and directing the creation and implementation of new master plans for city planning. Given the job opportunities and other public services the city centre could provide, in the past decade redevelopment has been a major driver of this activism. Organisations constantly see themselves as fighting against the neoliberal, market-driven model of development and towards the insertion of government in financing and construction of viable solutions to the shortage of dignified housing (Barbosa, 2015).

The early 2010s brought considerable new interest in private investment in the city, which only increased the pressure to remove citizens living without title on public and private properties. The movements’ goal of preventing removals of residents depended first on using legal institutions to enforce existing laws regarding tenure. Relying on the court system, individuals, communities and the organisations that represent them generally sought the assistance of the Defensoria Pública (Public Defender) to mediate their claims against removal. But public pressure organised by the movements outside of the judicial system was also a large part of the process to confront eviction notices (Rodrigues, 2012). Networks among individuals, neighbourhood associations, movements and NGOs are critical in facilitating access to the judicial system for low-income citizens dealing with housing insecurities and evictions.

The organisations were also involved in efforts to pass new laws regarding land conflicts, by lobbying legislatures at the federal, state and municipal levels and by participating in housing and urban policy councils across levels of government. For example, the UMM-SP was involved in a campaign for a new provision stipulating that those being evicted should have access to a public defender before the order is carried out. In the Municipal Council for Housing — a tripartite participatory governance institution including representatives from social movements, the private sector and government — the UMM-SP generated a resolution regarding the mediation of land conflicts. COs also worked with faculty and students from the University of São Paulo to create an Observatory on Removals in which they catalogued and monitored the experiences of communities throughout the city.Footnote 4

In addition to preventing displacement, another goal of the UMM-SP and the FLM was to create as many units as possible for low-income residents through a mix of renovation of existing buildings and new construction within the city centre. The targets of their efforts during these years were officials from the Municipal Secretariat for Housing who controlled the implementation of construction programmes including Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House My Life—MCMV).

Both organisations used occupations of abandoned buildings as a means of providing central, affordable housing as well as coaxing the government into renovating city centre buildings into permanent dwellings. They called for more investment at the federal level, but also greater contributions of money from the state and municipal governments. Once members of the FLM undertook an occupation, the focus was on negotiating with the city government either to allow the new residents to stay in place, for the government to renovate the abandoned building, or for rehousing elsewhere. They called on the municipal government to expropriate buildings whose owners had not fulfilled their tax obligations and so enable low-income residents to reside in the buildings. Rather than constructing new units with new materials in areas likely needing service connections, renovating buildings in the city centre provides a sustainable model for low-income housing and urban revitalisation.

Alongside numerous other civil society organisations in Brazil, for the past three decades the UMM-SP has invested a great deal of time and energy in participatory councils, particularly in the municipal level Council for Housing and Council for Urban Policies, as a means of influencing policies in the city centre. But in the mid-2010s the UMM-SP also returned to the strategy of occupations with more coordination and intensity than in the past (Barbosa 2013, 2015, 2018). For instance, under a conservative municipal administration, the UMM-SP staged 16 occupations in the city centre (Barbosa 2013). Even with a change in 2013 to the generally aligned Workers’ Party (PT) administration, the UMM-SP and allies continued with occupations. The Council for Housing remained a vibrant site for deliberation as members across government, civil society and housing movements had gained experience from over 15 years of its existence to negotiate and understand each other’s positions.

Lastly, in the 2010s, the organisations in São Paulo sought to influence future development to promote inclusion in the centre through the city’s master plan. In 2014, the movements participated in public forums, carried out mobilisations and staged an encampment in front of the municipal legislature to push forward their agenda for the city’s new master plan. One means by which the movements sought to influence implementation of the master plan was through the Participatory Council for Urban Policies. According to Osmar Borges, leader of the FLM, even though participation in the councils was not their primary strategy, the FLM recognised the practical importance of these institutions (2015). As pragmatic organisations, they used inclusionary strategies to achieve greater voice in decision-making and secure rights from within the state, while also complementing this with indirect strategies that involved bilateral negotiation, protests and occupations.

Community Organisations in Accra

Housing organisations in Ghana developed strategies for affordable housing in the context of state-directed planning and intense political party competition. The main housing organisations include the Ga Mashie Development Association (GAMADA), People’s Dialogue on Human Settlements (PD) and Amnesty International (AI). These organisations focused exclusively on slum issues: GAMADA and PD linked with international funders like UN-HABITAT and Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) to experiment with slum upgrading, while AI fought against forced evictions. All three organisations have a conservative ideology with respect to housing, not attempting to disrupt the political status quo. PD and AI’s ideology is based on “housing as a human right”. By contrast, GAMADA serves the interest of the native Ga ethnic group and prioritizes a “city for indigenes”. The relationship organisations have with society — often based on ethnic affiliation and settlement status — helps explain the strategies they take to pursue development.

PD and AI emerged in the era of Ghana’s economic and political liberalisation, during which the attraction of foreign capital while acting in accordance with norms of human rights was vital to organisational survival because they required international financing. But to achieve success, these organisations also had to establish ties with central government agencies like the Ministry of Rural and Local Government as well as the city government, or Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA). PD also emerged from a very contentious political moment: the attempted forced eviction in 2002 of the slum neighbourhood Old Fadama, nicknamed Sodom and Gomorrah by locals (Braimah, 2010). The city government sought to redevelop the surrounding area into a tourist attraction (Grant, 2006). As in São Paulo, the goal of preventing removals of residents relied first on using legal institutions to enforce existing laws regarding tenure. Relying on the court system, individuals, communities and the movements that represented them generally sought the assistance of the Centre for Public Interest Law (CEPIL) to mediate their claims against removal. But the Court ruled against the residents, prompting Farouk Braimah, the Executive Director of PD, to organise an NGO that would engage in direct negotiation as well as public protest.

With financial support from Slum Dwellers International — which receives large contributions from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other international funders — PD added new resources to mobilise residents in the form of a community-based organisation called the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor (GHAFUP) and the Old Fadama Development Association (OFADA), made up of local leaders. These groups collectivised the struggle through protest and meetings in which government officials, activists and concerned citizens met to discuss current challenges and solutions. Most importantly, PD served as an intermediary between officials from the city government and the residents. PD sought to use its position as powerbroker to negotiate fair terms for potential relocation and compensation, while maintaining a public narrative that any relocation must happen “with a human face”.

In addition to fighting evictions, the movement sought influence in city decision-making as well as control over everyday governance and development initiatives. Over time, PD strengthened its relationship with the state, especially ministries at the national level. More importantly, this approach demanded that residents had a voice in the process. Bolstered by international financing, AI and PD organised many stakeholder meetings in the attempt to come up with a proper process of relocation of squatters (Stacey, 2019). AI joined the “housing is a human right” initiative in 2009 when it started to focus on forced evictions as violations of human rights. Though it engages in indirect strategies when it is felt necessary — notably when there is a new eviction threat by city authorities — it is also heavily engaged in the development of legal institutions and national policy-making to promote the right to housing.

One place where the COs had long-term institutional effects was in the design of the National Housing Policy, launched in 2015. This includes pro-poor housing policies as well as human rights protections against forced eviction. Over the past 5 years, the primary goals of PD and AI have included preventing removals and forced evictions of residents in informal settlements, constructing sanitation facilities and other income-generating activities for the urban poor and directing the creation and implementation of the National Housing Policy.

Three Pathways of Engagement

We now explain why community organisations in São Paulo and Accra adopt the claim-making strategies they do, and why they succeed or fail. In both urban contexts, COs claim rights, participate in party politics and manoeuvre multi-level governance structures. These pathways are not mutually exclusive. The form these activities take depends on the ideology of the organisation, its relationship to the state and society and the credibility of institutions.

Claiming Rights

One important way that urban populations engage the state is by claiming the right to the city. Claiming the city is a powerful way to mobilise residents, by focusing on the exclusion of populations based around property values (Trounstine, 2018), Not-In-My-Backyard activism and first-settler status (Paller, 2019), or including migrants and newcomers based on ideals of fairness and justice to an urban future. Populations do this by demanding affordable housing with adequate public services, as well as asserting control over urban space. In addition, citizens might make claims to the urban commons based on the value created by past generations, wanting to protect the access and enjoyment that they have long held in the city (Kohn, 2016).

Claiming rights forces state bureaucrats and politicians to listen to the demands of city-dwellers, often opening a space for deliberation and dialogue with members of the organisation. But the different ways that populations claim rights varies across contexts. COs in São Paulo adhere to a more radical ideology oriented towards transformation, enabling them to use their strong relationship with the state to claim rights to the city. In Accra, on the other hand, internal divisions across housing organisations undercut a pro-poor coalition to claim rights to the city because organisations cannot agree on the rights of migrants, demonstrating the possibility of exclusions inherent in civil society itself.

In São Paulo, housing movement strategies have been built upon the long-term struggle for more participatory institutions as well as the long tradition of collective mobilisation. For several decades, movements in the city have stated their goal broadly as the right to “dignified housing”, as guaranteed by the Constitutional provision they fought for in the 1980s, with the right to the city increasingly framing their rhetoric in the past 15 years. The struggle over the past 30 years to put into place participatory councils, laws to enforce Brazil’s right to housing and inclusionary zoning meant that strategies shifted towards making sure the ideals of these instruments were implemented (Hirata, 2012). This meant engaging with the legal system, though they also still needed to motivate policy-makers to comply with the provisions as written.

Claiming the right to the city was less possible in Accra because of the underlying land tenure regime and a public narrative that framed certain neighbourhoods as illegitimate squatter settlements. A complicating factor in the housing policies of urban Ghana is the role of indigenous chiefs and their control of land. In neo-customary land tenure regimes that are prevalent in West Africa, host populations claim ancestral rights to the land based on their indigenous or first-comer status (Boone, 2014). The Ga people are the indigenes of Accra, and Ga families control ownership rights and make claims to state resources as first-comer entitlements. This has significantly hampered COs because a loud and vibrant Ga nationalist movement has mobilised against migrants and squatters, especially in Old Fadama. Residents in informal settlements knew they were squatters on the land, therefore chose to make claims for state resources rather than ownership in the city. This demonstrates that there are competing interests within civil society — often between COs — that undermine sustainable housing initiatives.

To complicate matters further, the Ga nationalist interest group has significant influence inside the city government. The Ga nationalist coalition is closely aligned with GAMADA, which utilises indirect strategies to gain as much influence as possible in city government. The consequence is that a pro-poor housing agenda directly conflicts with indigenous claims to the land, forcing housing rights advocates to work within a limited framework that appeals to customary land claims. It also undercuts a powerful pro-poor coalition that could place pressure on the government to take the needs of all Ghanaians and their housing needs seriously.

The result is that COs have two related but rival ideologies — “housing is a human right” and “city of indigenes” — which shape competing relationships with the state. This forces poor urban residents to seek inclusion in Ghana’s democracy via different pathways. For example, GAMADA bolstered its connections to the city government and sought in situ slum upgrading for neighbourhoods with large numbers of indigenes, like Ga Mashie and Chorkor. It sought international financing from UN-HABITAT, among others, but captured these resources for specific indigenous neighbourhoods. Therefore, the major goal of this movement focused on urban renewal, seeking renovation of public markets like Salaga Market, the James Town Harbor and the construction of multi-storey buildings that could accommodate a growing ethnic population. These conservative claims are based on tradition and historical grievances.

The phrase “housing as a human right” entered the fray with the voice of AI — influenced by international organisations — but a “right to the city” narrative never caught sway on the ground. The movement used more indirect strategies as it sought to change public opinion. Because its relationship to the city government was much weaker, and came into direct conflict with the indigenous population, it was forced to make appeals to politicians at different levels of government, offering electoral support in exchange for protection from eviction. The advocates have made it clear that they are willing to work within the institutional structures in order to secure the tenure of their constituents, but also stress that residents should move and relocate to land that the government sets aside for them. While they see themselves as partners in the urban development process, they are not leaders who seek structural transformation. They advocate “housing as a human right”, but stop short of demanding a claim to the city as do organisations in São Paulo. In summary, the ideology of the organisations strongly influenced the types of claims they made, while their relationships to the state and society also shaped the means by which they solicited resources.

Party Politics and Leadership Changes

Housing organisations must be creative in their lobbying and bargaining with government officials. Rather than outright hostility or protest, they use their personal and professional connections with politicians strategically in order to seek influence. Importantly, partisan alliances are an important pathway of engagement for movement leaders to shape the decision-making process.

Alliances with the administration in power, insider access and trust all defined the movements’ relationship with the state in São Paulo. Traditionally, movements in São Paulo have allied with the Workers’ Party (PT), which ran the city government from 2013 to 2016. Even under a relatively friendly administration, however, the process of occupations increased, according to Borges of the FLM, because the organisations needed to ensure the government moved forward with their promises. When the FLM staged an occupation, the administration would take the initiative to call for a meeting and negotiate to see what they could quickly put into practice. Even under a more conservative administration, in 2018, leaders still felt they had considerable access to officials in the Municipal Secretariat for Housing, though less influence on the implementation of programs (Rodrigues 2018).

The organisations’ lack of trust in the judiciary to act fairly shaped the multifaceted nature of their strategies. They viewed the judges as being in the pockets of elite property owners and real estate speculators rather than being concerned with the social function of property. Their aim in engaging in occupations was to bring attention to judicial bias, in order to motivate intervention by other government actors and put pressure on judges to uphold existing laws.

The COs’ relationship with the state was also ultimately influenced by the state’s relationship to the private sector. According to the investigative website Pública, in the 2014 municipal elections real estate and construction companies accounted for 57% of campaign contributions in the city (Belisarío 2014). These companies had their own interests in promoting high-end housing in the city centre and minimising the proportion of less profitable, low-income units in any new development. The power of the private sector motivated the organisations to engage in electoral politics in order to elect candidates who were less engaged with business, but in reality they also knew that there was only so much they could do to compete with the city’s profit motive. The presence of the private sector on the Municipal Council for Housing at times also reduced the incentive for the movements to rely on it as a means of policy change when government and private sector votes aligned (Sousa 2013). When governments are more aligned with the private sector, as under past and current administrations, the organisations tend to have less trust in the administration and less faith in the participatory process.

The relationship between COs and the city administration between 2013 and 2016 was relatively strong in terms of communication and access. Since 2017, despite shifts to the right across levels of government, similar pathways have been maintained thanks to continued open communication and access to municipal officials.

Given the inability to claim rights to the city, COs in Accra emphasised their constituents’ position as voters in Ghana’s democracy rather than as citizens of Accra. All three COs sought clientelistic inclusionary strategies, attempting to change the policy from within the participatory structures of government, but serving only narrow patronage bases. The COs often competed for limited funds and represented very different constituencies on the ground — distinguished by host-migrant and ethnic group status — demonstrating the importance of the relationship between state actors and distinct populations in society.

Importantly, political party realities dictated the different ways that the housing organisations made claims on the state. In the early stages, PD and AI relied on reactionary strategies, arising in direct response to a threat of eviction or removal.Footnote 5 Because of weak relationships with the state, strategies from 2000 to 2017 changed depending on the regime in government, as well as who was the parliamentarian that represented the residents.

Perhaps the most difficult period for COs was from 2000 to 2004, when a New Patriotic Party, centre-right government governed the country and controlled the parliamentary seat, while most residents supported the opposition and did not have a pathway to engage the state. During this time, residents in Old Fadama lost a court case brought on by the 2002 forced eviction directive, demanding that the residents leave the land. The tension between the government and the residents softened during the election campaign of 2004. During the primary campaign, the opposition candidate made strong inroads to Old Fadama in efforts to win votes. The party inaugurated new branches in order to increase the number of delegates. The opposition parliamentarian’s victory in 2004 also affected the COs, providing a new avenue for residents to have their voices heard. Perhaps more importantly, it enabled a platform of engagement for the CO leaders to influence policy — or at least slow the eviction. Over time, PD strengthened its relationship to the state, motivated by its role as a powerbroker between a portion of the residents — those that joined its tertiary organisations GHAFUP and OFADA — and potential contractors of the city government.

Leveraging his role as de facto representative for Old Fadama residents, his close personal connections to Northern leaders where many of the neighbourhood’s residents come from and relying on his political savviness, PD Executive Director Braimah established close ties with the Ministry of Water Resources, Works & Housing, Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development and the Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora Relations, as well as the mayor of Accra (Braimah, 2010). A plan was put in place to resettle the residents, making PD the de facto organisation that would control the process on the ground and giving its leadership control over funding and selecting recipients. In the meantime, PD urged residents not to build permanent houses, wanting to signal to the metropolitan authorities that it was ready to relocate. There were also rumours that the then Vice President was in charge of negotiations but could not broker a solution in a timely manner.

The 2008 elections changed these tactics. The incoming government appointed a new mayor, and there were internal disputes over what to do about the neighbourhood. The mayor, who allied with indigenes and had alliances with the Ga chiefs, promoted eviction and demolition without supporting compensation. The chiefs viewed the squatters as trespassers on their land and city, and an impediment to potential kickbacks on development deals. The President, on the other hand, urged the protection of human rights and “eviction with a human face”. When John Mahama became President in 2012, rumours spread that his brother had plans to redevelop the area, sparking new fears of potential eviction.

From 2008 to 2016, the National Democratic Congress extended its organisational machinery even more, expanding from 11 local branches to 27. Without the capacity to demolish all the structures at once, the mayor targeted outer sections of the neighbourhood. Activists and movements consistently tried to strengthen their links to the governing party, seeking inclusionary strategies for a narrow segment of the population.

In São Paulo, administrative and leadership changes leading to the presence of allies or adversaries caused the organisations to reflect on their pathways of engagement, while recognising the need to prioritise inclusionary strategies under any administration for the possibility of influence they may have regardless of who is in power. In Accra, housing organisations relied on informal alliances with politicians to remain in place, but without formal representative structures, they were unable to secure the housing security and public services they needed. In both cities, organisations capitalised on party politics to sway elections and leadership changes to recalibrate their expectations and modify their pathways of engagement.

Multi-level Governance and Implementation

Housing organisations seek influence at different levels of government and create pathways of engagement that can help them stay in place and gain control of urban space. In Brazil, the majority of funding for housing programmes comes from the federal and state levels to be managed at the municipal level. Over the past decade the MCMV program led to the construction of millions of new housing units across the country, though in the city of São Paulo, it was never enough for construction in the speculative city centre market, especially for the lowest-income citizens. As such, the movements initiated an effort to earmark a portion of the MCMV program to fund projects led by housing associations, now known as “MCMV-Entidades”. The belief of the movements in community ownership of projects in addition to partnership with the PT administration of then President Rousseff motivated the constant pressure for MCMV-E.

From 2015 onwards, as Brazil dealt with fiscal crises at all levels of government, the movements began a multifaceted campaign to ensure that funding would not be cut for housing programmes, especially in the third phase of MCMV. And after the impeachment of Rousseff in 2016 and the election of an ideologically conservative mayor in São Paulo in the same year, public pressure only increased in an effort to keep housing in the forefront of the minds of the public and government officials.

As mentioned above, housing organisations relied on large-scale participatory governance at multiple scales. They presented an option for engagement even to reluctant participants, but the reason the institutions existed and continued to function was the persistence of the UMM-SP and others that believed deeply in the need for structural change through inclusion in formal institutions. Barbosa, an attorney and leader in the UMM-SP, explained that they must have the capacity to know the right time to negotiate, to have a vote or deliberate in a council, and when social pressure is key to shaking up the institutional agenda. But, while he recognised that deliberative spaces would not solve all problems, he believed the struggle would be even slower without them, and the housing movements needed to have equilibrium between more cooperative and contentious activities (2015).

COs in Accra also creatively manoeuvred a multi-level governance framework to make progress on housing policies. More importantly, populations relied on these diverse pathways of engagement as a form of representation. These pathways did not always line up with the formal boundaries of electoral constituencies. For example, urban residents in Old Fadama turned to the then Vice President of the country because he came from the same region in the North that they did. Residents of Ga Mashie turned to the local Member of Parliament because he was an indigene, but also because he was closer to the President. As the city has grown, the Greater Accra Regional Minister took a much greater role in everyday governance, centring power in the national government far more than the decentralised metropolitan assemblies.

Since 2000, housing organisations have fought for change at different levels of government. They used inclusionary strategies by participating in stakeholder meetings at the Cabinet level to ratify the National Housing Policy. The indirect strategies of the movement provided new avenues of participation for the residents; they also helped shift public opinion toward the needs of the poor. The threat of forced eviction, as well as elections every 4 years (and local elections in between), provided significant political space to persuade government officials and politicians.

Perhaps most importantly, these strategies had the effect of perpetuating the status quo: allowing residents to squat and live in Accra without formal recognition but not removing or demolishing their structures. The achievements of the COs included the inclusion of human rights language into housing law and policy, the cancellation of eviction notices and tacit acceptance of squatters as tenants (but not owners) of property and initiating public service projects for the urban poor, especially in terms of sanitation. In addition, the organisations influenced plans the government had to upgrade the city (Bank of Ghana 2007). In both Accra and São Paulo, organisations were adept at working across levels of governance, even as the policies and programmes brokered with multiple actors often remained more aspirational than reality.

Imagining a Sustainable Future

This paper argues that even in very different contexts, organisations use similar pathways of claiming rights, engaging in party politics and navigating multi-level governance structures in their fight for sustainable housing options. Contrary to much of the literature, we suggest that clientelist claim-making strategies can provide an important avenue of engagement with the state to demand urban citizenship. This approach allows us to disaggregate “civil society”, instead focusing on the political alliances, social identities and leadership characteristics that impact collective action. We give agency to the activists fighting for change on the ground, while also highlighting that they make strategic choices within a structural and institutional environment.

These findings suggest that COs working on urban issues across the world might have similar incentives and face comparable constraints, despite different histories of urbanisation, state capacity, land tenure arrangements and rates of urban growth. This finding also points to some important scope conditions under which community organisations in Ghana and Brazil both operate: high levels of democracy, freedom of association and political party competition. In this way, political variables are crucial to the decisions that community organisations make, as well as the likelihood that cities become inclusive and potentially sustainable.

The next step would be to assess COs operating under different political contexts, where levels of democracy, freedom of association and political party competition are much lower (e.g. in China, as Ren, 2020 documents). We speculate that under these conditions, organisations might be much more likely to seek alternative claim-making strategies. In addition, the case of Accra demonstrates the importance of land tenure in complicating pro-poor housing policies. More work is needed to examine where and why pathways of engagement may differ.

In summary, the paper demonstrates that civil society can be an important avenue linking the individual to the collective in the fight for sustainable housing policies. But it also shows that civil society is not a unified actor. Rather, it is made up of COs that cooperate and compete depending on their interests and ideologies. While pathways of engagement provide the necessary avenue for residents to seek inclusion in decision-making and lay claim to citizenship, civil society includes its own internal politics that can impede a truly sustainable future for all.

Ethics Approval

The research project was approved by the University of Wisconsin’s Social and Behavioral Sciences IRB (#2013–0130) and Rutgers University IRB.