16 Improving housing in Asia and turning traditional top-down funding on its head

Diana Mitlin, International Institute of Environment and Development, UK

Community involvement in improving housing for low income families in Asian cities is changing approaches to funding – and delivering impressive results as well.

A community planning workshop in Cambodia (Photo: Diana Mitlin/IIED)

A community planning workshop in Cambodia (Photo: Diana Mitlin/IIED)

I was recently in Bangkok with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) to hear about the latest outcomes from the Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) programme. The results were impressive: there are now projects in 215 cities across Asia and more than 49,000 low income families have been able to secure land and housing.

ACCA was established in 2011 to support community-driven improvements to informal settlements in ways that are relevant at the city scale. It enables the organised urban poor to be the primary doers in planning and implementing projects to secure land tenure, improve infrastructure and construct housing.

The design of the programme encourages local communities to work in partnership with their local governments and other local stakeholders. As such, it turns on its head the ways in which donors have traditionally distributed finance.

The two diagrams below show the old model of financing and the new model.

Diagram showing the old model for financeDiagram showing partnership-based models for funding improvements

Spreading the network

ACCA has supported activities in 215 cities in 19 countries. This rapid and extensive reach has only been possible because there are many organisations involved. While the programme is designed to encourage particular approaches and strategies, it has proved to be flexible enough to allow members of the coalition to adapt it to the diverse and complex contexts in which they are working.

Activities build on the work that groups have previously completed in towns and cities across the region, nurtured by community organisations and their support groups. And implementation has drawn on the combined experiences, mistakes and learning of previous years.

What are the results?

The coalition’s members have made a bold attempt to introduce visionary change in urban Asia, crafting more inclusive strategies to challenge poverty and inequality. The programme has just completed its fifth year, with investment of almost US$14.5 million. What are the results?

  • 146 “big housing projects” (capitalised with $40,000 per project) have helped 49,356 low-income families to get secure land and housing. These projects have been realised in 127 cities – and in 70 of these, the communities were able to negotiate with the government and secure land free, or at minimal cost
  • These “big housing projects” have also catalysed the creation of city development funds, which are now operating as new joint financial mechanisms in 136 cities with funds of $21.65 million. These bring together savings, and development assistance
  • (with ACCA money being repaid by those benefiting from the housing projects). In 41 cities, local government has contributed cash to these funds, demonstrating their willingness to invest in innovative financial mechanisms to address the needs of some of the most vulnerable low-income citizens. But the biggest source of capital for the city development funds has been community savings as local residents have invested $15.26 million to help to provide a loan fund for their collective investments
  • Small improvement projects (such as walkways, drains, toilets, water supply, community centres and solid waste systems) have been implemented in 2,021 low-income communities. These have benefited 342,399 low-income families. Working together, residents have been able to secure more than 53 per cent of the budget for these small projects from their local governments. These leveraged funds add to the scale and quality of improvements

Setting their own development agenda

As important as these immediate improvements is the demonstration of an alternative way of securing development. These small projects have demonstrated the collective power of organised residents to develop practical solutions to immediate problems they face – and as a result they can see that they no longer have to wait for government to take the initiative.

Through coming together and realising their own projects, the organised urban poor can draw in government finance – and set the development agenda.

Even simple analysis demonstrates the power of this approach. For a total of $14.5 million of donor finance, $90 million of project finance from government has been secured (including both cash and assets) and a further $2.1 million for contributions to community development funds.

On top of this, local residents have contributed $14.4 million in project finance, and $15.3 million in contributions to community development funds. Putting the benefits of the small projects to one side, project investment of $293 has been sufficient to contribute to each family and secure them a house for life (in most cases) or for a considerable period (with a few leases).

If the full costs of the project are spread across the households benefiting from the small projects then an average investment of $42.3 per household has been sufficient to secure improvements in their local infrastructure and services.

But these simple figures ARE misleading. The evidence of the community contribution to their own city funds shows that for local groups, this is an investment project, not grant finance. The project has demonstrated an alternative way of doing development, with an alternative finance system. And these outcomes demonstrate just how effective it has been.

More resources

Author Biography

Diana Mitlin's pictureDiana Mitlin is principal researcher in the Human Settlements Group at International Institute of Environment and Development. Diana works in collaboration with grassroots organizations and support agencies to improve urban neighborhoods (land tenure, basic services and housing). Before joining International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) she worked as Economist with the UK Government, and with a part-time teaching position at the Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester.

Contact email: diana.mitlin@iied.org

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