Urban issues have resurfaced at the top of the international development agenda, although this change has been slow. Following decades of failed multi-sectoral development programs, urban development as an overarching issue was side-stepped, with efforts becoming segregated to focus on specific issues – such as infrastructure, telecommunications, finance, sanitation, transportation, etc.  – rather than an integrated approach to address the larger issue of urban poverty. 

Donors and practitioners are now re-examining how they can best affect urban poverty and devise replicable, sustainable models for improving the lives of the urban poor. To this end, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation enlisted the efforts of the Development Innovations Group (DIG) to implement Urbis: The Urban Learning Laboratory, with the aim of exploring the urban paradigm and determining how to invest most effectively in strategies to combat urban poverty. Urbis pursued a dual agenda. First, it sought to develop best practices in capacitating pro-poor urban innovators; second, it sought to understand how a facility such as Urbis could potentially expand and lead to successful replication of effective pro-poor urban capacity initiatives beyond the core cities Urbis targeted. 

Through Urbis, DIG actively explored how to: (1) support capacity and strategic growth of on-the-ground pro-poor organizations; and (2) help organizations representing poor urban populations “find their voice”—that is, decisively improve their ability to influence policies and decisions affecting planning and development in urban settings. Urbis therefore developed and applied methodologies that both supported the capacity and strategic growth of NGOs serving the urban poor, as well as integrated the needs of the urban poor into planning and development processes.  

DIG appreciates the urgency of urban development, for with around than 50 percent of the world’s population living in cities, development programs can no longer ignore urban issues. The challenges in urban development, however, are largely due to the complex nature and the precarious connection between urban poverty’s various components, including land tenure, housing, legal frameworks, advocacy and empowerment of the poor. Often, volatile political situations or centralized government systems that allow little room for civic-led change complicate this already tenuous landscape. With the growing pressure of rural poverty, however, the world has witnessed unprecedented levels of rural-urban migration in recent years, bringing the urban development problem back into the spotlight. 

Urbis’ long-term vision for success included answering the questions above and strengthening the institutional capacity of NGOs and community-based organizations, as well as their ability to network with government officials and with one another to better advocate for the urban poor.  

Overview of the Development Innovations Group (DIG)

The Development Innovations Group (DIG) is a private international management and consulting firm dedicated to excellence in the fields of: financial services for the poor; urban, water and infrastructure services; and fund management. DIG has management offices located in metropolitan Washington, D.C., USA; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Nairobi, Kenya; and Dakar, Senegal. Our firm implements activities in transitioning and developing economies, as well as post-emergency settings throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. DIG is committed to expanding the frontiers of development finance and urban, water and infrastructure services through innovative programs that help poor families and entrepreneurs around the world increase their income and build their asset base.

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