How does CatComm's work fit in? We work towards the ultimate goal of building sustainable cities and communities, recognizing this requires we also work to promote social justice and institutional accountability.
If CatComm were a tree, SDG 16 would be our trunk and SDG 11 our canopy.
Rio’s extreme inequality makes sustainability in any sense impossible. The promotion of justice and institutional accountability is thus a critical step towards a livable city. In Rio we are viscerally aware that a sustainable city cannot be built without a foundation of social justice.
“Strong” institutions are not necessarily the goal—institutions must be dependable, transparent, and accountable. Central to our mission of cultivating sustainable communities is the guiding principle that communities should be aware of—and empowered to claim—their rights.
We undertake a number of activities across our whole organization to support this goal:
Our vision is the community-led sustainable development of Rio's favelas and ultimately a creative, inclusive, and empowering integration between Rio’s informal and formal communities.
Oftentimes, policymakers and observers alike assume that solutions to informality must be formal. We believe that both formal and informal development frameworks are part of a sustainable urban future, and that informal solutions for sustainable development can be powerful drivers of creative and necessary change. In fact, we work closely with favela organizers in developing all of our programs and base our organizational model on favelas themselves.
Our programs are designed through an Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) approach, always working to support and leverage our community partners' efforts—hundreds of favela community-led groups already developing sustainable, grassroots solutions across Rio. This is how we develop effective grassroots models, based in the qualities of informality, which are then shared beyond Rio through thousands of friends, partners and collaborators at organizations around the world, in a constant dialogue and process of collectively "scaling by example."
Telling it like it is, and recognizing the qualities that are there
RioOnWatch is our award-winning, hyperlocal-to-global, narrative-shifting bilingual community news site and the heart of CatComm’s communications strategy. It reaches some 50,000 readers each month in 150 countries while 70% are in Rio de Janeiro. The site's editorial line reflects our commitment to realizing the potential of favelas as vibrant, sustainable communities through:
Communities can and should take control of their own development
The Sustainable Favela Network is a grassroots network with over 500 participants that work together to recognize, strengthen, and multiply initiatives promoting socio-environmental sustainability and resilience across Rio de Janeiro’s favelas through:
Guaranteeing consolidated communities with a strong sense of belonging can ensure their way of life
The Favela Community Land Trust (F-CLT) program studies, advocates for, and works towards Community Land Trusts (CLTs) as a land tenure security strategy for Rio’s favelas and other informal settlements worldwide. A CLT is a community-managed nonprofit association in which residents may own their home, but co-own the underlying land via the association. Collective ownership of land prevents developer speculation, forced evictions, and keeps decision-making in community hands. Individual ownership of homes maintains families' ability to invest in, inherit and sell their own homes. The F-CLT program works through a 150-member Working Group composed of community leaders and technical advisors from all of Rio's relevant public and nonprofit agencies working on land rights. Together, we:
As we shift the narrative and become increasingly aware of the assets that come with informal development, we can build on these assets through recognition and support for grassroots organizers who realize these qualities. And as communities become embedded with locally-produced assets, often non-monetary in nature, the F-CLT model can be used to codify and guarantee those assets are maintained, rather than lost to speculative interests.
The SDGs are effective nudges for established actors like governments and corporations but where does this leave community-driven development?
At CatComm, our roots—those that nourish our work on behalf of social justice and accountable institutions (SDG 16), and those that nourish our approach to sustainable urban and community development (SDG 11)—are deeper than any SDG.
With this goal, the aim is to promote residents' autonomy and their ability to decide on development strategies at the community level.
Traditional "development" brings both positive and negative change to informal settlements, with no clear certainty that the positives outweigh the negatives. Residents may benefit from expanded access to infrastructure, but wider streets and losing evicted neighbors may produce a less humane architecture, for example. Or formal recognition of individual land rights may be followed by speculative development, bringing with it the displacement of those very long-time residents said recognition was purportedly intended to serve. A previously rich community fabric may be atomized, losing the collective assets produced over generations.
Thus, we propose a Community Control and Autonomy "localizing SDG" that recognizes the value of insurgent urban planning, tactical urbanism, Community Land Trusts and other mechanisms to ensuring communities control their own development, which of course is always balanced with other SDGs such as SDG 10 on Reduced Inequalities.
With this goal, the aim is to ensure that policies that impact communities are realized in accordance with residents' actual needs and demands.
For development that hinges on public investment, true channels and mechanisms to incorporate community input into decision-making are necessary. These would constitute the "partnership" and "delegated power" rungs on Sherry Arnstein's Ladder of Citizen Participation. Too often, public officials base decisions on political or public relations calculations, and not the true needs or demands of residents, using "manipulation" or "consultation" as a vehicle to "participation". When this happens, by engaging, residents in effect wasted their time and lent artificial credibility to the descisions made (e.g. a visually-impactful cable car that supports a politician's corporate allies in the construction industry, as opposed to an underground sewerage system that would dramatically improve the health of the population).
Designing and implementing programs closely with residents is necessary to building long-term, sustainable communities, particularly in informal settlements where generations of self-build have produced complex and dramatically unique outcomes with qualities an outside observer would have trouble identifying.
Thus, we propose a Direct Channels to Government "localizing SDG" that promotes policies that operate on the upper rungs on Arnstein's Ladder, such as participatory budgeting or Brazil's Minha Casa Minha Vida—Entidades self-built public housing program.
With this goal, the aim is to ensure that representations of communities such as favelas beyond their borders are fair to their realities—their assets and challenges—rather than falling back on broad generalizations, focusing solely on violence, or featuring primarily outside voices.
Local and international media play a critical role in shaping public opinion of informal settlements. While limited incomes commonly result in the squatting that produces informal settlements, and state neglect and lack of opportunity can make these communities easy targets for organized crime, many informal settlements are self-sustaining centers of commerce and vibrant incubators of culture, among numerous other qualities. Building accurate and nuanced narratives on favelas is particularly important because the historic narratives were produced by outsiders who knew little of these communities and benefited from their neglect, and because public officials typically base their policies towards these communities on public opinion. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, there is a direct relationship between a century of stigmatization and the current acceptance that police helicopters shoot down into favelas full of unarmed civilians.
Thus, we propose a Fair, Nuanced Media Representation "localizing SDG." In the absence of proper research, community contacts, or recognition of the impact of their words, many reporters fall back on damaging stereotypes. Capturing complexity and nuance is a difficult but hugely important responsibility of both individual journalists and the institutions they write for.
Catalytic CommunitiesPO Box 42010
Based in Rio de Janeiro and with a US 501[c] charitable status, Catalytic Communities (CatComm) is an empowerment, communications, think tank, and advocacy NGO working since 2000 in support of Rio’s favelas at the intersection of sustainable community development, human rights, local-global networks, communications, and urban planning. CatComm supports and empowers residents of informal settlements, evolving strategically to support their needs as they arise.