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Urban slums

More inclusive cities

In spite of fast economic growth in many Asian countries, more than 25 % of urban dwellers still live in informal settlements. In the absence of effective government action to achieve inclusive cities, civil society organisations have developed alternative approaches. The Asian Coalition for Housing Rights networks some of the most active organisations. It is running a programme which shows that it is actually quite easy to rise to the challenges of urban marginalisation.

By Somsook Boonyabancha and Diana Mitlin

Along with fast economic growth, recent trends in Asia include the restructuring of urban centres and large-scale infrastructure projects. Both tend to make life difficult for the urban poor. To tackle these issues in meaningful ways, it is necessary to involve the people affected, as member organisations of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) know from decades of experience. Low-income urban people understand best what is going wrong and they are the ones who most urgently want change.

In 2009, the ACHR launched the Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) as a three year programme which is funded by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), which received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The ACCA is designed to enable people to develop their own solutions and to ensure that these solutions go to scale. Small interventions often make a big difference (see box below). Examples include small roads or bridges that link an informal settlement to the urban transport infrastructure. Drainage and water supply matter a lot too, and so do community latrines or street lights, for instance.

ACCA supports such community-driven small ­projects not only because of their immediate purposes. An important aspect is that people take matters into their hands and visibly build community capacity. Since success attracts public attention, moreover, these small measures contribute to building political pressure to improve informal settlements. Ultimately, the idea is to get municipal authorities and state agencies to cooperate with community-based organisations. ACCA aims to establish formal cooperation between community-based organisations and all levels of government that relate to urban affairs. ACCA groups demand reforms of regulations and standards to make city governance more pro-poor and upgrading more affordable.

ACCA is implemented by ACHR members. While the specifics of individual approaches differ, the common thread is the belief in low-income and otherwise disadvantaged people. All agencies involved believe in a large-scale change process that is led by people. Most have been cooperating with organised low-income communities that seek to develop links with local authorities to secure tenure and access to basic services.

ACCA offers tools for strengthening and scaling-up initiatives. The core activities are small projects to upgrade informal settlements followed by a big housing project in at least one neighbourhood in the city. The people themselves implement these measures. Local groups draft project plans, make city-wide surveys and engage in partnership building with various parties.

Small budgets

The ACCA budget is quite modest. The emphasis of the programme is on encouraging people to think about substantive issues in a city-wide context. The idea is to reach as many communities and as many cities as possible.

The budget ceiling is $ 58,000 per city. Participating agencies should use $ 15,000 for at least five small upgrading projects, each in a different neighbourhood. Some groups manage to fund up to 12 small projects with that sum. Once agencies have begun their small projects, they can apply for up to $ 40,000 for one big housing project, with a maximum of about seven or eight big projects per country.

Typically, the funding for big projects will leverage government support worth many times the original grant. For small projects, ACCA normally provides more than half of the money needed, with the communities contributing about one third. The rest is mobilised from government sources and various donations. For big projects, however, the governmental share rises to more than 85 % on average. By August last year, $ 2.3 million ACCA funding had thus leveraged a total of almost $ 41.5 million.

Community-based organisations are encouraged to set up savings groups to develop future opportunities. Their financial capacity combines with the demonstrated impact of small projects to secure state resources for big projects. In 37 out of the 65 cities with big projects, the government has provided the land for housing (either free, on long-term nominal lease or on a rent-to-own basis). Moreover, some 7,000 poor
squatter households have secured land tenure.

Communities that completed small projects in Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka have secured land tenure from the government. In cities in Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Thailand and Laos, local governments provided infrastructure for big projects. Often, local authorities provided technical help, building mate­rials and lent heavy construction equipment.

All projects are relatively inexpensive, and they have to be so in order to be replicable in other informal settlements – all facing acute needs. ACCA makes available $ 3,000 per city for activities such as surveying, networking, support for savings activities, local exchanges and meetings. Moreover, $ 10,000 is made available per country and year for national coordination. National ACCA committees have been set up in several countries.

The ACCA model stresses that the autonomous power of communities is critical to sustaining ­pro-poor urban development. Only this autonomous power enables communities to negotiate with state agencies from a position of strength. ACCA has been especially successful where it was possible to build on existing activities. In Cambodia, Nepal, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos, ACCA has consolidated earlier investments to support people’s led development.

City funds

Where cooperation of grassroots organisations and the municipal authorities has taken root, ACCA promotes the establishment of city funds. These community development funds are jointly managed by the parties involved. As groups begin to consolidate their relationships with the state they seek financial contributions to a city fund, a Community Development Fund to be jointly managed by the activist network and the city government concerned.

The table (on p. 147 in our print edition) demonstrates the success achieved so far. In seven countries, governments have been willing to extend their commitment from specific big project investments to a more general financial mechanism that can be used to address upgrading needs elsewhere. The amounts may still look small, but it is important to bear in mind that this progress was achieved in just two years.

For 63 of 66 big projects, there is now a formal partnership between local communities and government bodies. The joint city development committees that are being set up are platforms that will allow low-income communities to work as equals with their local governments and other urban partners.

Meaningful model

In many places, governments have adjusted planning standards to reduce costs and enable the urban poor to develop housing which matches their needs. The most striking example is in the Vietnamese city of Vinh, where the planning standards for re-developing old social housing have been changed from an expensive contractor-driven model to a people-driven model which was first established due to an ACCA project at Cua Nam Ward (see box below).

ACCA demonstrates that it is easy to introduce large-scale change in Asian cities. This approach to urban development shows that the problems of poverty can be solved. The new concept makes the urban poor – the demand-side – the key agents. Its new finance system is approachable and appropriate for the target group. The new forms of cooperation between city governments and people enable them to work as teams. As a consequence, the urban poor are recognised as legitimate and productive human beings.

The ACCA model works. It tackles the challenges of urban poverty in a meaningful way. It shows how global and national financial systems should be changed in a way that addresses the needs of the

In the first 18 months of ACCA, small projects
that were completed or ongoing included:

– 126 road-building projects,
– 103 water supply projects,
– 98 toilet building projects,
– 68 drainage projects,
– 48 playgrounds and parks,
– 46 community centres,
– 30 electricity and street lights projects,
– 13 bridge-building projects and
– 8 solid waste and composting projects.