Join our Health Systems Global panel

If you are a participant in the Global Symposium on Health Systems Research please do come along to our panel on the 10 March, 09.00-10.30 GMT.


Digging into urban health: uncovering concepts and action for health and social justice in informal settlements

What’s it all about?

Rapid urbanization is re-shaping social and economic life and, with it, human health and health systems. Most of the world’s population is now urbanized, yet one-third of urban residents live in precarious ‘slums’ and ‘informal settlements’. These city-dwellers typically lack access to healthcare and vital health-supporting services. Slums are widespread in the Global South but often hidden in plain sight, reflecting residents’ lack of voice as well as sectoral and disciplinary silos. This session asks how health systems can better engage with the social, economic and environmental realities of informal settlements, in hopes of improving residents’ health and promoting social justice.

Urban areas often experience deeply entrenched health and social inequalities, but also concentrate knowledge, economic dynamism, and vibrant local organisations that can foster innovations in health-promoting practices. However, practical and conceptual approaches to deliver health systems for low-income urban residents often fail to address intersectoral challenges and the ubiquity of informality in the Global South. Vast amounts are spent on health services, while the social, economic and environmental determinants of health in informal settlements remain overwhelmingly neglected. Informal settlements are also poorly represented in official statistics, rendering them invisible to health officials and policymakers.

To reveal new insights into slums and urban health dynamics, the session will be organised like an archaeological dig: it will go beyond superficial observations to analyse the underlying structural determinants of health, and participating urban researchers, policymakers, and practitioners will foster interdisciplinary dialogue that can promote health equity and the broader 2030 Agenda.


  1. Mr Robert Hakiza, a Congolese refugee in Uganda and director of Young African Refugees for Integral Development, will highlight urban displacement and associated risks to well-being. In particular, how urban refugees living alongside other low-income residents in Kampala struggle to access housing and healthcare, and face additional challenges of discrimination, lack of documentation, or language barriers.
  2. Mr Abu Conteh, an urban health researcher at the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC), will highlight the complex, undercounted health burdens in Freetown’s informal settlements, drawing on research into residents’ life histories and the roles of formal and informal governance structures.
  3. Dr Alice Sverdlik, an urban researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED, UK) will highlight how health in informal settlements is influenced by multi-level factors including household poverty; inadequate shelter, services and infrastructure; unresponsive local governance and exclusionary planning.
  4. Dr Surekha Garimella is a researcher at the George Institute for Global Health (India) working on participatory approaches with waste-picking communities in Bangalore’s ‘informal spaces’. She will highlight collective community processes to improve health services entitlements for urban poor and marginalized residents.
  5. Professor Sabina Faiz Rashid is an anthropologist and the Dean of the BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health. She will highlight the social and structural inequalities which contribute to health vulnerability in informal settlements in Bangladesh

Photo credit: “Contaminated Waters in Bangladesh Slum” by United Nations Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0