Joel Bolnick returned to South Africa in the late 1980’s after more than a decade in exile. In 1990 he
was approached by the Southern African Catholics’ Bishops Conference to arrange a workshop on urban
poverty and landlessness. This seminal event that took place a few weeks after the unbanning of the
liberation organisations and the freeing of political prisoners saw over 150 South African slumdwellers come
together to form an independent network of the urban poor. Also invited to the workshop was Jockin Arputham,
President of the National Slum Dwellers Federation in India.
This encounter resulted in a decade of extensive learning exchanges between Indian and South African
representatives of the urban poor. This was the fore-runner of Shack Dwellers International (SDI). When SDI
was formalized in 2000 Mr. Bolnick moved from being the Director of the South African professional support
programme to the manager of the SDI Secretariat. By that time the engagement between India and South Africa
had already grown into a transnational network of over 15 slum dweller Federations. The number currently
stands at 34. Bolnick remains the Manager of the Secretariat but spends most of his time overseeing and
managing SDI’s affiliated Urban Poor Fund which has seeded over 130 upgrading projects in 16 countries.