False budget choices for informal settlement dwellers

2 min readMar 25, 2021

One of my colleagues likes to talk about the classic categories of spend in local government as:

  • Keep the lights on: maintain existing service levels, maintain water, sanitation and energy infrastructure, roads, street lights, etc.
  • Keep up with growth: invest in new infrastructure and capacities to keep up with growth in population and economy
  • Catalytic/Aspirational and transformative projects: a percentage of the budget to long-term, catalytic projects, as well as alignment of the rest of the budget with transformative outcomes. (I’d add that these days this is often diverting resources towards a “burning issue” or unexpected crisis)

As a person living in an established suburb, I know that in my area the budget will be:

  • “Keep the lights on”: annualized maintenance of formal, permanent assets and infrastructure like streets, street lights, substations etc
  • “Keep up with growth”: improvements to bulk infrastructure, paid for in part if not substantively, with the development contributions of private developers. (Development contributions isn’t code for some sort of underhand payment, its a legitimate levy charged to new developments).
  • “Catalytic”: this may include something like new BRT infrastructure, or a large land-release programme.

At no point am I going to be told that this year they cannot keep the lights on because they have to keep up with growth — they’re not going to (or haven’t yet..) stop servicing street lights in order to expand capacity at a substation.

They might say that a local improvement district must now take care of the local park, because at a metro-budget level, the parks budget is being prioritised to another area in more need — of getting a park in the first place.

And they might not actually implement the improvements to bulk infrastructure despite collecting development contributions, but that's another story.

As a resident of an informal settlement, however, budgets frequently look like this:

  • “Keep the lights on” is either non-existent because the settlement I live in is not recognised, or on private land, or has grown too fast; or the services are temporary and contracted out (e.g. chemical toilets)
  • “Keep up with growth” is funded purely from the state — national transfers and city revenue
  • Catalytic might include new housing projects or spatial transformation projects

Its quite likely that the budget for “keep the lights on” will decline (or not increase year on year despite need), and the argument given is that budgets are being prioritised for bulk infrastructure and catalytic housing projects (this Asivikelane assessment of the eThekwini budget is a useful example).

Residents of informal settlements should be given equal right to have a budget that ensures access to basic services (“keep the lights on”), while investments in infrastructure and housing projects to keep up with growth occur. They should not be forced to choose between the three categories, but have a fair balance across the three, just like the rest of the citizens do.




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