Facing the Issues of Asia's Urban Slums

Click the audio icon to listen to an interview with Celine d'Cruz of Slum/Shack Dwellers International

Celine d'Cruz, co-coordinator Slum/Shack Dwellers International
Feliciano Belmonte Jr., Mayor, Quezon City, Philippines

HONOLULU (Sept. 24) – Across Asia, millions of people are pouring into crowded and often unmanageable urban areas in search of a better life.

To some, particularly those who are tasked with running cities, these denizens of the "informal sector" represent a social and planning nightmare. But others see these striving urban slum and shack dwellers as the source of not just inspiration, but of solutions to at least some of Asia's urban planning challenges.

This was the thrust of a discussion recently at the East-West Center that brought together a number of planning specialists, city leaders and others to talk about the implications of the urban transformation in Asia. They gathered for the inaugural seminar of a series on "Urban Asia –Challenges in Transition and Governance."

Among the many topics discussed during the seminar was the role of civil society – citizen groups, nongovernmental organizations and others – in improving urban governance.

Opinion among participants was somewhat divided between those who seek a greater role for civil society groups and those who believe that the ultimate responsibility, quite naturally, rests with those who have been elected to govern and manage.

The most passionate voice for involving marginalized members of a city in its planning decision was Celine d'Cruz, originally from Mumbai, India, who is co-coordinator of the multinational service organization "Slum/Shack Dwellers International."

d'Cruz said the focus of her group is not so much to take over the task of urban planning, or even to change basic policies. Rather, it is simply to win the urban poor a place at the table when decisions are being made. This, she argued, rarely happens under traditional circumstances.

"We chose not to make changes in policy our first goal," she said. 'If you make the right changes on the ground, you prove yourself. We don't have a problem with good policy; our problem is with implementation."

As an example, she said that in India, "policy is like a beautiful woman, but there is no one who can marry her."

d'Cruz said her organization works not to direct the activities of slum dwellers or take charge of their lives, but rather to give them a voice so they can make their own decisions.  In Mumbai, for instance, when residents of one slum area came to recognize that there was just one functioning toilet for some 800 residents, they realized that marching on city government with broad demands for an improved sanitation system would result in nothing more than studies, planning and applications for loan funds.

Instead, they simply asked for help in building one clean and functioning toilet facility for this one neighborhood, and then stood up to build the facility themselves.

"The whole point is to come to the table with information and with solutions, and then the city leaders have to listen to you. It was like a dam burst open," she said.

Shack/Slum Dwellers International recently received a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the urban poor in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The importance of the grant is that the money will go directly to grassroots groups to support their efforts in negotiation with urban governments.

d'Cruz acknowledged that there is a danger in this kind of money, as it can lead to bureaucratic stagnation and dependence on outside funding rather than on the energy and ideas of the slum dwellers themselves. But she said the key will be to use resources to get marginalized people directly engaged with those who ultimately make the decisions about urban planning and development.

"We're clear that we are going to work with government, whether we agree with them or don't agree with them," she said. "We'll engage any government that is in power. Whoever is across the table – we'll talk."

It became clear at the Urban Asia seminar that such a conversation does not always come easily.

d'Cruz's presentation drew a sharp response from Feliciano Belmonte Jr., the mayor of fast-growing Quezon City in the Philippines. With 2.68 million people, this city – just north of Manila – poses just about every urban planning and management issue imaginable. That includes, Belmonte said, dealing with the urban poor and the "informal sector" who have moved to the city in search of jobs and opportunities.

"In the Philippines, virtually all the politicians talk about the litmus test of reducing poverty, and they are all accused of coddling the informal sector," Belmonte said. 'But can we really make a difference in the lives of these people? When you're talking about hundreds of thousands of people, what do a few thousand matter? What's the angle? What are we trying to achieve?"

Belmonte put a practical spin on the problem that faces administrators throughout the region: "The job is so immense. I am supposed to help everyone in the city, not just the 30 percent who are marginal. I'd welcome any help here."

And that, said d'Cruz, is precisely what groups such as hers intend to do. They are not there to fight government or replace it, but rather to help make it more efficient in dealing with the problems of human migration and growth that are beyond anyone's ability to control.

"You do your homework," she told Belmonte. "We do our homework. That's the model we choose. Then we can work together."

Information on Slum/Shack Dwellers International can be found at www.sdinet.org.


The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.

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