Empowering the poor: Helping urban slums to help themselves

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The poor need to be empowered, and solutions have to be designed by them. Community organization, a difficult yet key element to successful slum upgrading, is often successfully carried out.
In a country where half of the population lives in urban areas, one would expect colonies of slums (arguably called “informal settlements”) strewn across almost every town with high population densities. The picture is not a far cry from reality, at least in the context of the Philippines, perhaps the fastest urbanizing country in Asia. But even if the country has seen incredible growth over the years, there is hope things can turn around -- and the feeling is not baseless.

I started working on slum upgrading five years ago in several cities across the major island groups of the Philippines. The challenges may differ from one village to another, but seldom do I get the feeling of hopelessness in the slum communities. Most know the root of the problem -- lack of the skills and education needed for gainful employment. They strive to bring their kids to school to address a long-term solution to the problem of poverty. For now, though, near-term solutions are necessary to alleviate poor living conditions of the urban poor.

The poor need to be empowered, and solutions have to be designed by them. And they do participate. Community organization, a difficult yet key element to successful slum upgrading, is often successfully carried out, with communities taking mostly the lead. In places where there is collective sense of purpose and willingness to be helped, the likelihood of successful community upgrading is greater. Several places where successful slum upgrading projects have been introduced are indeed anchored on programs of strong community organizing.

Dealing with slums has often been regarded as controversial, making local leaders reluctant to do much. Still, more and more city mayors are seriously implementing community upgrading programs. The city of Marikina in metro Manila has committed to making the city slum free by 2010, and it is close to achieving this objective. Naga city is carrying out a long-term housing program that is built around community-based mortgage scheme. The coastal city of San Fernando, La Union, continues to move villages in high-risk areas to resettlements with better services.

Forging partnerships is key. Civil society and private sector groups are also becoming important players. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) effectively reach out to communities and are best assigned the roles of community organizing, facilitating dialogue, procurement, operation and maintenance of assets provided donor-funded projects. Additionally, the private sector is increasingly interested in working with local authorities in developing low-cost housing even in informal settlements. Finally, local governments recognize importance of engaging all the stakeholders in planning, execution and monitoring programs for the poor.

The big challenge is sustaining and scaling up the effort. There appear to be models of slum upgrading that can work and potentially offer lasting solutions to the growing informality especially in urban areas. But these are at best drops in the bucket compared to the extent of the problem. Sustaining and scaling up efforts to simultaneously cover as many communities as possible is definitely the order of the day. The World Bank has an important role to play in this respect, particularly by bringing together national and local authorities, civil society and even the communities themselves to work toward an expanded and sustained program for the urban poor.


Chris Pablo

Senior Urban Development Specialist, West Bank and Gaza 

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