Regularisation of informal settlements in Latin America: when civil society influences policy-making processes

By Felipe Bosch, Editor at Le Grand Continent and Co-founder of the Groupe d’études géopolitiques’ Americas Programme

The pandemic has shed light on the unavoidable need for concrete answers to the challenges of urban informality. The “best practices” discourse tends to oversimplify policy-making processes aimed at providing such answers. While regularisation policies are mainly associated with technical prescriptions imposed from a top-down perspective by international organisations, a detailed study of them in Latin America, based on a comparative case study of Mexico and Argentina[1], elucidates how bottom-up solutions to development problems might arise.

It is true: since the 1970s, through their recommendations, international organisations have had an incredible influence on policy-making processes for the regularisation of informal settlements. With the rise of neoliberal restructuring, these processes evolved from an exclusive focus on granting legal security of tenure to comprehensive packages of urban integration measures. However, it is essential to understand regularisation policies at the national level in relation to their specific socio-political contexts; in other words, to understand them as governance strategies. As such, the challenges of urban informality acquire a privileged position on the public and political agenda when threats emerge to the political system’s stability and/or when the latter endures low levels of legitimacy. It is possible to discern how civil society might take an active role (or not) in (re)formulation by building an initial theoretical model of the fragmented and conflictive institutional environments in which these kinds of policies are constantly (re)formulated.

Conflictive action as a driver of change

In countries such as Argentina or Mexico, the social organisation of informal settlement dwellers has historically impacted the political system’s stability. Indeed, every time concrete answers to urban informality were provided by the state since the 1970s, this social organisation implied a threat, whether in the form of disjointed neighbourhood organisations taking sporadic conflictive action or through the formation of social movements. To understand the extent to which social organisation can represent a threat to stability, we need to analyse the role that alliances with other actors, whether from civil society or government, play within their strategies. We need to frame these strategies more broadly in contexts in which dwellers might need to address other more urgent issues. For instance, when faced with socio-economic difficulties, organisational efforts might focus on distributing basic goods, rather than on conflictive action.

The political system’s legitimacy among the most vulnerable has an impact too. State actors might perceive regularisation policies as a means of consolidating such legitimacy. However, how the middle classes perceive these types of policies is an important variable as well, which can ultimately impact how long the issue of informal settlements remains on the political agenda.

Nevertheless, overall, regularisation policies claimed and demanded through the social organisation of informal settlements become effective responses. They allow for, at least in the short term, (re)establishing institutional stability. It was the case when the federal government created a Commission for Land Tenure Regularisation (Corett) in 1973 in Mexico; when the latter was integrated, at the end of the 1980s into the National Solidarity Programme; and when the Argentine Congress recently approved a federal bill on socio-urban integration.

From conflictive action to active participation in policy-formulation 

Nevertheless, there is a notable difference between the Argentine and Mexican cases. The reestablishment of institutional stability through a mechanism such as the Corett or its integration into the National Solidarity Programme was a means to gain support for the then hegemonic party (the PRI) among informal settlement dwellers. It mainly occurred through clientelistic mechanisms and, especially, co-optation. In the 1970s and 1980s, the social organisation of informal settlement dwellers recognised the established rules of the political game as the essential basis for achieving improved living conditions. Despite not being convinced of such rules, they became a sort of captive client of the state. In fact, the different neighbourhood organisations themselves, gathered at the time around the Popular Urban Movement, conceded that the PRI was indeed gaining a political advantage by organising the delivery of deeds or, to a lesser extent, the construction of service infrastructure through its local “charro” leaders (brokers).

Moreover we cannot put aside other factors such as the emergence in the 1990s of mechanisms that strengthened state legitimacy among the most vulnerable, for instance assistance policies, or phenomena like drug trafficking which broke down solidarity ties in informal settlements, thus impacting the social organisation of its dwellers. To what extent have clientelism and co-optation contributed to the disarticulation of today’s almost non-existent social organisation of informal settlement dwellers in Mexico? Overall, there has been since the 1990s a lack of political determination concerning regularisation policies, and ultimately conflictive action, although an initial driver of change, did not trigger the institutionalisation of civil society’s active participation in regularisation policy formulation.

In Argentina however, conflictive action did translate into the active participation of civil society in the formulation of regularisation policies. First, the social organisation of informal settlement dwellers, mainly structured around the concept of “economía popular”[2] since the 2001 crisis, conducts the national census of informal settlements. It also informs the drafting process of the above-mentioned federal bill presented by the ruling legislative bloc during the Macri administration. More importantly, it articulates the national and regional “Barrios Populares” roundtables, together with state and private actors. These tables function as institutionalised spaces for dialogue to formulate what the bill stipulates. Let us be clear however: clientelism and co-optation have historically structured the rules of the game between the political system and social organisation in Argentina. If the institutionalisation of such active participation is a sign of progress, its perpetuity is yet to be confirmed. 

Nowadays, it is precisely through the social organisation of the citizenry that considerable changes are taking place in Latin America. Knowledge production should focus its efforts on understanding the evolution of how these groups perceive and engage with the political system’s historical rules of the game. We would then be able to better identify stable and lasting answers to development problems.

[1] The author recently defended a Master’s thesis (El Colegio de México/Sciences Po) that offered a comparative analysis of policy-making processes leading to the regularisation of informal settlements in Mexico and Argentina. It was based on extensive qualitative research that included primary (24 semi-structured interviews) and secondary (specialised academic literature) sources. It was directed by Clara E. Salazar, M. Cristina Cravino and Ann Varley. For more information, contact

[2] After the 2001 crisis, the social organiszation of the most vulnerable, initially built around neighbourhood organisations, focused on unemployment and informal labour market issues. As demands emerged for the “economia popular” to provide more formal recognition of workers without an employer through social security and medical coverage, these were initially disarticulated from those related to living conditions in informal settlements. The discussions articulating both together occur later.