Planning their future in Comilla, BangladeshMillions of people live in slums in Asian cities. The Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) has been running a program to try to upgrade living conditions for these people that has proved itself to be massively effective and at little cost. How has it done this?

Its Asian Coalition for Community Action Program (ACCA) has been running for five years in 230 cities in 19 countries and it is now possible to see its achievements. It works at the grassroots; the people living in the slums are the ones who plan and implement the projects, tackling problems of land, infrastructure and housing at scale, working in partnership with the local governments and other stakeholders.

ACCA program update

Countries include the Philippines, the Nam, Mongolia, Cambodia, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

 Map of the 19 countries in ACCA

It is amazing what they have achieved with the small budget that they have been given. The total budget over the five years was just $14.5 million but with this they have:

  • completed 150 big housing projects (for just up to $40,000 each)
  • set up 98 city-based community development funds
  • got 400,000 community savers to invest $30 million in them
  • completed 1635 small upgrading projects (for about $3000 each)
  • conducted citywide surveys in about 200 cities
  • creative collaborative partnerships with local governments in 190 cities
  • conducted 35 community-led disaster rehabilitation projects in 11 countries.

Asian slumThis is possible, says a report summarising these actions, because they capitalise upon the resilience and resources of the communities themselves and work on the basis that real change happens when communities take direct action to tackle the problems they face.

The ACCA Programme seems to work as a catalyst by giving the poor community is the tools they need to do what they want. As the report puts it: "the urgency of their needs is the program's driving force".

The program recognises that action must happen and citywide scale, because that is the scale necessary to bring about changes in the deeper political and structural problems which cause poverty and create slums. Resources are therefore deployed strategically to create new structural platforms which are now poor communities to work as equals with other players.

Viewed this way the poor are not characterized as a problem but as part of the solution.

The program was designed to spread out the opportunities to as many community groups in as many cities as possible. The intention was to generate more possibilities, more learning, more partnerships and unlock more local resources.

The ultimate goal is structural change. The management team recognised that conducting many piecemeal little projects alone would not solve much. Instead, it's important to build robust, new citywide systems to transform them into something more equitable.

Surveys

Projects therefore begin with a comprehensive, citywide survey which itself has a catalysing effect. It "involves getting people to come together, to participate and start talking about what they need to fix in their communities" says the report. The programme has produced several tools which can be used by other communities such as a community mapping handbook, a comprehensive site planning handbook and a handbook for community architects.

It is necessary for the community groups to win over the confidence of the city administrators. The experience has been that when they show local governments that community-led change is possible and effective then they begin to unlock public resources and bring them into an active development process.

Finance is important so the community savings groups are established that enable people to build, use and manage their own financial resources. Some form of this is being practised in 200 of the 230 cities being tackled.

When people come together to design and implement small projects such as building roads, water supply systems, drainage and community centres, they are also feeling that they can become empowered and do not need to wait for somebody else to bring them development. Many of these community groups use the small projects as an opportunity to open a dialogue with their local governments.

Disaster rehabilitation projects are important because the poorest are often the most vulnerable. Community networks in several countries are using the program to turn catastrophic experiences such as landslides and floods into development opportunities where the communities themselves implement their own relief and rehabilitation.

The need for community architects

The program works with many architects and experienced community-based builders. Of the 19 Asian countries involved in the programme so far, 18 of them have active groups of community architects and 36 of the groups have formed the Community Architects Network in Asia, which is helping to build new groups of local architects to work with people and organise hands-on training seminars that work on real projects.

The programme is gradually having spin-off effects on other actors. In Bangladesh the National Housing Authority (NHA) has been in existence for over 40 years, set up to help solve the country's housing crisis, and in all that time has implemented only one slum housing project.

But ACHR organised a study tour for the NHA and World Bank staff (who are loaning $80 million to the government for a slum integration project), taking them to Thailand (where they visited the Baan Mankong slum upgrading projects) and the Philippines (where they visited community-driven housing initiatives by the Homeless People’s Federation and others).

ACCA  community meetingComilla, a city in eastern Bangladesh housing about 350,000 people in over 100 slum communities, provides a good example of ACCA's recent work. A team of seven community architects and five community organisers have been working with many partners to form a citywide community housing network and in the process have made short profiles of over 60 communities that were suggested by community leaders. They are being helped by two of the national slum federations in the process of organising workshops like the one in the picture, right, and strengthening communities.

One such citywide upgrading workshop took place in February this year and took the Secretary from the Housing Ministry, BRAC University’s Vice Chancellor, NHA officers, the Mayor, the Divisional Commissioner and other important local authorities to visit the first five communities slated for on-site upgrading (two with support from ACCA). Last month, a group of 20 architecture students from BRAC University also came to support the team’s work with those first five communities.

A new kind of intervention

The ACCA program has demonstrated a new kind of development intervention, in which the poor have the freedom to decide things and manage their own development. And flexible finance is the program's chief tool to let community people themselves make the change. All these projects have proved that urban poor communities and their development partners in all these and other cities are ready to address citywide problems and citywide development together.

It was donor support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which allowed the ACHR to conceive and implement ACCA, but the funding is now coming to an end. The team is hoping that funding from other donors will replace it.