Working with the urban poor – organizations between formality and informality – Part 2

P1060544by Sylvana Jahre und Tursha Mitha

For Part 1 of the blog entry read here


These organizations working with the urban poor and especially with migrants and refugees in the inner city of Johannesburg are only fragments in the wider landscape; therefore this study is not able to provide general claims. However, the interpretation of the empirical data reveals important results. The main question throughout this study was how different organizations relate to governance and how marginalized communities

In Johannesburg it was striking that most of our interview partners and their organizations were linked through a wider network. The Migrant Help Desk itself is part of an urban policy. It consists of two main elements: The Johannesburg Migrant Advisory Council (JMAC), whichis mainly a forum for politicians involved in issues around migration politics. It involves also other stakeholders with specific expertise in the field of migration such asthe national departments of Home Affairs and Foreign affairs, the Gauteng provincial departments of Housing and Social Development and others. The second element is theJohannesburg Migrant Advisory Panel (JMAP). It was launched as part of the JMAC and is working under this organizational umbrella, bringing together migrant organizations and NGO’s in order to advice the city. The panel comprises representatives from 30 organizations as well as officials from a number of Johannesburg City departments with the chairperson Pastor Thomas-Rene Kitutu Z’ikossi the founder, president and CEO of Christians for Peace in Africa. The installation of JMAC and JMAP therefore serves as an umbrella (or vacuum cleaner) for the majority of organizations working with issues around migration in Johannesburg. The ADF’s aim is to challenge the government on the one hand, advocating for Human Rights of migrants and refugees, but work hand in hand the city of Johannesburg when needed. The person from ADF that was interviewed reported about a competition between city and NGO. The NGO is then forced to subscribe under the city with their projects including an increasing dependency on orders and instructions from the City of Johannesburg. This processes described by the ADF demonstrates exemplarily the formalization of informally (or independently) working NGO’s.

???????????????????Additionally, the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) as well as the African Diaspora Forum (ADF) evaluated the governing policies around issues of migration and refugees (JMAP and JMAC) as rather ineffective, not being able to provide actual help for people in need. Aurelia Segatti (ACMS) reported that it took four years for the City of Johannesburg to draft the policy, without a plan, and most importantly without budget. From an academic perspective this policy must be appraised as more reactive than proactive. Thus, like in Berlin, the formal, embedded in governmental structures is not able to reach the communities in the way informally working organizations can do.

Conceptually this analysis provides some ideas for community power studies. It underlines the academic shift from “power over” to “power to” (Morris 1987: xiii) in terms of giving marginalized communities a voice and providing a platform for action for change. However, this may have opened a space for negotiations, but in practice there is still some distance to “power as capacity to act and cooperate with others becoming intuitive and pervasive. Power as domination remains the most commonly used form of power, unequally distributed and thus exclusionary and limiting of participation” (Pearce 2012: 4). Community organizations, especially when working with more informal patterns are able to open up ways that transform power into social action for change. On the other hand it was also obvious that especially in terms of funding those ways can be narrowed or even cut off, making organizations dependent from the governmental system.

Further studies need to be done that include the analysis of the communities and their views.



Morris, P. (1987): Power: a philosophical analysis. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Pearce, J. (2012): Power in Community: A Research and Social Action Scoping Review.



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