COVID-19 Response in Freetown’s Slum Communities

Embracing Situated Knowledge in Crises and Beyond


  • Daniela Beltrame
  • Joaquin Benitez
  • Karenna J. Groff
  • Amelia Seabold




Slums and Informal Settlements, COVID-19, Situated Knowledge, Community-Based Organizations, Freetown


The difficulties in tackling COVID-19 have shown with unparalleled strength the need to acknowledge alternative epistemologies in planning. Pandemic responses that seem to have been met with relative success were based upon the guidance, knowledge, and embodied experience of communities on the ground. While some recognize the key role of alternative or ‘non-expert’ knowledge in addressing current planning challenges, most have struggled to broaden their definition to include different ways in which community-based organizations generated data, shared knowledge, collaborated with other development actors, and learned from past experiences. This paper studies the response in Freetown´s slum communities to the unprecedented crisis brought by the COVID-19 outbreak. It analyzes how community-based organizations were able to leverage their situated knowledge to negotiate, develop, and occupy spaces of power in their city´s crisis management systems during the first months of the pandemic. Data was collected through semi-structured interviews and personal communications with residents of Freetown’s slum communities, workers of international non-governmental organizations (INGO) based in Freetown, researchers, and local government officials. This research discusses what knowledge is, where and by whom it is generated, and how it can be collectively leveraged in crisis situations. We also offer a reflection on what this may mean for the future of planning, in terms of transforming structures of exclusion and sustaining that transformation.




Arabindoo, P. (2011). Rhetoric of the ‘slum’ Rethinking urban poverty. City, 15(6), 636-646.

Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A Ladder Of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216-224.

Bedson, J., Jalloh, M. F., Pedi, D., Bah, S., Owen, K., Oniba, A., Sangarie, M., Fofanah, J. S., Jalloh, M. B., Sengeh P., Skrip, L., Althouse, B. M. & Hébert-Dufresne, L. (2020). Community engagement in outbreak response: lessons from the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. BMJ global health, 5(8), e002145, 1-12.

Beltrame, D. (2020). Subaltern City-Making: A Portrait from Harare, Zimbabwe [Unpublished master's thesis]. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Bolnick, J. (2016). Where will the money come from? SDI and local-level finance. Working Paper.

Bolnick, J. and Bradlow, B. (2010). “Rather a better shack now than wait twenty years for a formal house” – Shack Dwellers International and informal settlement upgrading in South Africa. Trialog, 104, 35-41.

Corburn, J. & Riley, L. (2016). From the Cell to the Street: Coproducing Slum Health. In J. Corburn & L. Riley (eds.), Slum Health: From the Cell to the Street (pp. 30-60). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Corburn, J., Vlahov, D., Mberu, B., Riley, L., Caiaffa, W. T., Faiz Rashid. S., Ko, A., Patel, S., Jukur, S., Martínez-Herrera, E. Jayasinghe, S., Agarwal, S., Nguendo-Yongsi, B., Weru, J., Ouma, S., Edmundo, K., Oni, T. and Ayad. H. (2020). Slum Health: Arresting COVID-19 and Improving Well-Being in Urban Informal Settlements. Journal of Urban Health, 97(3), 348-357.

Cornwall, A. (2008). Unpacking ‘Participation’: models, meanings and practices. Community Development Journal, 43(3), 269–283.

Diani, M. (2013). Organizational fields and social movement dynamics. In J. van Stekelenburg, C. Roggeband and B. Klandermans (eds). The Future of Social Movement Research: Dynamics, Mechanisms, and Processes (pp. 145-168). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

D’Cruz, C. and Mitlin, D. (2007). Shack/Slum Dwellers international: One experience of the contribution of membership organisations to pro-poor urban development. In M. Chen, R. Jhabvala, R. Kanbur, and C. Richards (eds.). Membership Based Organizations of the Poor (pp. 221-239) . New York, NY.: Routledge.

D’Cruz, C. & Mudimu, P. (2013). Community savings that mobilize federations, build women’s leadership and support slum upgrading. Environment & Urbanization, 25(1), 31-45.

Eskemose Andersen, J., Jenkins, P., & Nielsen, M. (2015). Who plans the African city? A case study of Maputo: part 1 – the structural context. International Development Planning Review, 37(3), 331-352.

Ezeh, A., Oyebode, O., Satterthwaite, D., Chen, Y. F., Ndugwa, R., Sartori, J., Mberu, B., Melendez-Torres, G. J., Haregu, T., Watson, S. I., Caiaffa, W., Capon, A. and Lilford, R. J. (2016). The health of people who live in slums 1. The history, geography, and sociology of slums and the health problems of people who live in slums. The Lancet, 389(10068), 547-558.


Gilbert, A. (2007). The return of the slum: does language matter? International Journal of urban and regional Research, 31(4), 697-713.

(HIC-AL) Habitat International Coalition - Latin America. (2020). #DerechoALaCiudad Frente al COVID19. Habitat International Coalition América Latina.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), pp. 575-599.

Harrison, P. (2006). On the Edge of Reason: Planning and Urban Futures in Africa. Urban Studies, 43(2), 319–335.

Holston, J. (2008). Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hurtzemeier, M. (2014). Troubling continuities: use and utility of the term ‘slum’. In S. Parnell and S. Oldfield (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Cities of the Global South (pp. 86-97). New York, NY: Routledge.

Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) (2020) 10 lines of action and 20 measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in informal settlements. Ciudades Sostenibles Blog.

Leino, H. & Peltomaa, J. (2012). Situated knowledge–situated legitimacy: Consequences of citizen participation in local environmental governance. Policy and Society, 31(2), pp. 159-168.

Lilford, R. J., Oyebode, O., Satterthwaite, D., Melendez-Torres, G. J., Chen, Y. F., Mberu, B., Watson, S. I., Sartori, J., Ndugwa, R., Caiaffa, W., Haregu, T., Capon, A., Saith, R. and Ezeh, A. (2017). The health of people who live in slums 2. Improving the health and welfare of people who live in slums. The Lancet, 389(10068), 559-570.

Lynch, K., Nel, E. & Binns, T. (2020).‘Transforming Freetown’: Dilemmas of planning and development in a West African City. Cities, 101, pp. 1-14.

Mignolo, W. (2009). Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(7-8), pp. 159–181.

Miraftab, F. (2003), The perils of participatory discourse: Housing policy in postapartheid South Africa. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 22(3), 226-239.

Miraftab, F. (2009), Insurgent Planning: Situating Radical Planning in the Global South. Planning Theory, 8(1), 32-50.

MIT GOV/LAB (2020) Research Brief: Preliminary Results from Rapid Survey to Inform COVID-19 Response in Sierra Leone.

Michaels-Strasser, S., Rabkin, M., Lahuerta, M., Harripersaud, K., Sutton, R., Ahoua, L. N., Ngalamulume, B., Franks, J. & El-Sadr, W. M. (2015). Innovation to confront Ebola in Sierra Leone: the community-care-centre model. The Lancet Global Health, 3(7), e361-e362.

Mitlin, D. (2008) With and beyond the state — co-production as a route to political influence, power and transformation for grassroots organizations. Environment and Urbanization, 20(2), 339-360.

Mohan, G. and Stokke, K. (2000), Participatory development and empowerment: The dangers of localism. Third World Quarterly, 21(2), 247-268.

(OHCHR) UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing (2020) COVID-19 Guidance Notes for States, local Governments and other actors

Oldfield, S. (2008), Building Consensus and Conflict: Community Systems and Local Participatory Mechanisms in Democratizing Local Governance. In M. van Donk (ed), Consolidating developmental local government: lessons from the South African experience (pp. 487-500). UCT Press: South Africa.

Oxfam. (2015). Never again: building resilient health systems and learning from the Ebola crisis. Oxford, UK: Oxfam International.

Patel, S. & Mitlin, D. (2002) Sharing experiences and changing lives. Community Development Journal, 37 (1), 125–136.

Pieterse, E. (2010). Cityness and African Urban Development. Urban Forum, 21, pp. 205–219.

Pieterse, E. (2011). Grasping the unknowable: coming to grips with African urbanisms. Social Dynamics: A journal of African studies, 37(1), 5-23.

Porter, L. (2010) Unlearning the colonial cultures of planning. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Richards, P. (2016). Ebola: how a people’s science helped end an epidemic. London: Zed Books

(SLURC) Sierra Leone Urban Research Center (2020). Supporting informal settlements and the specific needs and risks to consider in relation to COVID-19: Lessons from the Ebola outbreak in Freetown, Sierra Leone. SLURC Policy Brief N° 4. Freetown, Sierra Leone: Sierra Leone Urban Research Center.

Simone, A. (2014). Too Many Things to Do: Social Dimensions of City-Making in Africa. In M. Diouf & R. Frederiks (eds.), The Arts of citizenship in African Cities. Infraestructures and Spaces of Belonging (pp. 25-49). New York, NY: Palgrave-MacMillan.

Slum Dwellers International (SDI). (2017). Know Your City Slum Profiles. Available at:

Slum Dwellers International (SDI). (2020). Sierra Leone SDI Alliance Response to Covid-19.

Social Science in Humanitarian Action Group (2020) Key considerations: COVID-19 in informal urban settlements (March 2020).

Watson, V. (2003). Conflicting Rationalities: Implications for Planning Theory and Ethics. Planning Theory & Practice, 4(4), 395–407.

WHO (2020) Sierra Leone confirms first case of COVID-19.

Wilkinson, A. (2020). Local response in health emergencies: key considerations for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in informal urban settlements. Environment and Urbanization, 32(2), 503-522.

Wilkinson A., Parker M., Martineau F. and Leach M. (2017) Engaging ‘communities’: anthropological insights from the West African Ebola epidemic. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 372(1721), 1-7.

Williams, G. (2004). Evaluating participatory development: Tyranny, power and (re)politicisation. Third World Quarterly, 25(3), 557-578.

University College London (UCL), Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC), and Njala University (2018) “Development and Planning in African Cities: Exploring theories, policies and practices from Sierra Leone.” Future Learn.