Baan Mankong: An Intentionally-Delayed Reflection by Contrast

 

One of the interesting tools that the Coconut Curry group developed for the field work was the self-assessment form in which each of us had to write his or her strengths and weaknesses and then, the rest of the group complemented the document adding comments to it. One of the initial aims of the exercise was to be efficient in the field, assigning tasks according to our advantages to get the best results in the analyses. Unfortunately, as a group, we did not use most of the field tools as we expected, and this was not the exception. After all the members of the group wrote on everyone’s form, we forgot about it. However, it was probably one of the best self-exercises to reflect how to approach the work in the field and in the group.

In my case, one of my strengths regarding to the trip was my previous professional experience managing and designing housing projects for the urban poor in the context of particular housing policies and programmes in the developing world, particularly in Chile. However, from my personal view it was also one of my weaknesses. I was conscious about the risk of analyse our experience in Bangkok always in relation to my previous work, without being able to detach both cases. Although it was possible to find some similar aspects from the literature read before the trip, this apprehension was mainly based in the high possibility to find totally different approaches, objectives and outcomes of policies and programmes applied in opposite sides of the world (separated by more than 17 thousand kilometres) and absolutely different historical, cultural, geographic and demographic (just to mention some) contexts.

This preconceived idea can be considered as exaggerated, but being conscious about this possibility was useful to build balanced and not too contaminated analyses of the experience in the field and post-field work. However, after submitting the final report this final post offers a good opportunity to rise briefly five relevant issues about the work of CODI and Baan Mankong in Bangkok in relation to my previous work in the NGO Un Techo Para Chile in the context of the policies set by the Chilean Ministry of Housing. The following reflections take the form of the lessons learnt that I am interested in highlighting after the experience in Thailand:

 

THE CHALLENGE OF THE SCALE

In our courses during the master and also in the field trip we heard several times the sentence ‘housing is not about building houses’. It was totally clear studying the Baan Mankong programme in which the interaction of issues like local realities, land (security and tenure), finance, knowledge, political influence, implementation, policies and mainstreaming represent the complexity of the housing problem and the degree of complexity also depends on the dynamics of each country. Of course, the housing challenge goes beyond the existence of slums, but they can be considered as an interesting parameter to compare the scale of the problem. For instance, in a highly urbanised country like Chile, with almost 90 per cent of the 16 million of inhabitants living in cities, the debate is focused on the number of families living in slums depending on the criteria used to define them. As a result, the figures fluctuate between 20 and 30 thousands of families living under these conditions, clearly reflecting that the scale of the housing provision problem for this band of population is narrowing down (at least at the slum level). In a four times bigger country in terms of population, in which urbanisation is a recent phenomenon promoted by the impact of globalisation and economic growth in the last decades, the challenge acquires nore relevance. For instance, only in the Bangkok Metropolitan Area around 300 thousand families live in slums and migration is an ongoing and increasing process shaping especially peripheral districts. In this sense, CODI and Baan Mankong are setting a precedent that should continuously evolve to tackle a phenomenon that is constantly increasing.

 

THE DISCOURSE AND THE PEOPLE

In Thailand, the people-centred discourse, in which the poor are placed as the main actors in the process of improving their living conditions, has been built at least from the year 2000 when CODI was created. In terms of housing, it led to a shift from supply to demand driven policies set explicitly few years later in the Baan Mankong programme. The community organisation under the form of saving groups is the first step towards getting housing loans to develop projects that are decided, designed, managed and often build by the poor themselves. In 2005, the Chilean Ministry of Housing also changed the housing policies from a supply to a demand driven one. The new regulation places the community organisation and the people as the centre of the process in which they should participate actively in their own diagnosis and the decision-making including the design phase. However, the lack of incentives and supervision from the public sector to effectively involve the poor leads to results in which this policy becomes just a declaration of good intentions. Only some institutions like Un Techo Para Chile are worried about the real involvement of communities in the development of housing projects only because this approach has been also within their discourse in their previous work with slums. In Chile, the paternalist system with high subsidies and ambitious political goals pressurise towards quick results instead of effective people-centred process. In a context like Thailand, where the housing problems involve a much larger scale and fewer resources, the most revolutionary characteristic of the work of CODI and Baan Mankong in Thailand is that the people-centred discourse is deeply rooted within the government. This paramount actor is the one who believe the most in the poor themselves, beyond good intentions, and this is the most radical shift in terms of housing policies.

 

THE ROLE OF THE DESIGN(ER)

In relation to the previous point, the people-centred discourse also involves the design scale. From the eyes of CODI, the poor are seen as experts not only according to their livelihoods, needs and local realities, but also in terms of planning and design. The practitioners, so-called community architects are considered mainly as facilitators or translators of what people want to develop. In this sense, they act mostly as draftsmen, without necessarily recognising the professional knowledge of the architect and the possibility of cross-learning between the communities and them to obtain a better result. I state in a previous post called ‘Participatory Design in Baan Mankong: (Community) Architects or Community Translators?‘ that also architects are experts in their own fields of knowledge and the can (and should) contribute not to design what people want but something even better. This approach is clearly limiting Baan Mankong to reach the needed scale in the spatial dimension. At the moment, the physical outcomes are not balanced with the social achievements. Issues like density and urban design are requirements to scale-up but they are still missing in the projects and what it is more serious, in the discourse. In Chile, about a decade ago Elemental had a main role re-positioning social housing in the architecture discipline mainstream and later one of the main achievements of Un Techo para Chile in the context of housing policies has been its ability to involve the best professionals in the country (architects, engineers and builders) in the development of housing projects, under the label of Corporate Social Responsibility as a primary way towards reaching the scale. This issue is definitely pending in Thailand and represents an opportunity to scale but it would involve a greater challenge: to re-shape and expand the current discourse.

 

STANDARDS AND NEGOTIATIONS

Somsook Boonyabancha said in one of her seminars in CODI that ‘people are (or set) the standards’ and in this sense one of the most innovative shifts that Baan Mankong proposes is that the programme is based on the capacity to negotiate rather than standards. The work is focused on empower the communities to be relevant actors and with the support of CODI they are capable to dialogue with the central and local authorities to agree on new standards according to their needs and resources. It makes sense when there are no subsidies and the resources are mostly coming finally from the poor under the form of loan repayments to CODI. In Chile this framework of negotiation would be impossible. On the one hand, the highly subsidised system forces the government to set the standards for the ones that they are finally paying. On the other hand, the increasing involvement of the private sector as project managers or builders working under a for-profit logic entails a need for standards to ensure quality instead of increasing profits. The involvement of the private sector offers an opportunity to scale in the Chilean context that in Thailand has not been explored yet and represents a pending bridge to build. However, it would probably require rebalancing the trade-off between standards and negotiations that are rooted on the discourse.

 

THE PLACE OF HOUSING

Baan Mankong without any doubt represents a revolution in the way that programmes approach the housing issues directly from the poor, using the built outcomes just as an excuse and means to empower people towards a virtuous circle to overcome poverty. As it was set at the beginning, the dynamics of the country show the need to scale-up this process and to Somsook Boonyabancha ‘people are the scale’. However, in this context the word ‘people’ should not be understood as a synonym of ‘the poor’. The scaling-up process should be a national task and at the moment in Thailand it still seems to be only a responsibility of the poor supported by the government. As it was described above, actors like the private sector and different professionals (just to mention a couple of them) can contribute enormously in this process. It would be wonderful if the Chilean government had a true and honest housing discourse centred in the people like the CODI one but at least in Chile the discourse has evolve in another direction equally relevant. Social housing has been an issue at a national level for decades because of constant people demands and claims and because of the more recent successful denunciation of the slums as a problem created by the whole Chilean society in which everyone has a degree of responsibility in the overcoming process. Both Somsook Boonyabancha as ex-Director of CODI and Kitti Patpong-pibul as Chairman of the Housing Finance Association mentioned on their talks that ‘housing is not a priority in Thailand’ (mainly referred to political terms). Maybe the greater challenge for CODI towards reaching the scale is in fact to place housing as a priority not only within the government, but also as at the level of the whole Thai society. The good news is that they have all the ingredients.

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About josedigirolamo

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