Grayscale

When I was working in graphics for the presentation in Bangkok I tried to change a coloured picture to black and white. The graphic software asked me: “Do you want to have 256 colours of grey?” This question broke me and I’ve promptly correlated to what I was thinking about formal and informal. There is no black and white but hundreds tones of grey, maybe 256, or less or more. This is what I’ve learnt from Bangkok.
During the course I had always heard that formal and informal are not clearly opposite, but for me was hard to see why they are not black and white. Visiting Bangkok and being in the field this disparity was obvious and all the greys appeared.
In all site visits we identified different ways of security in land terms. Some communities had as option to buy the land, but others where the land was not available they had to rent, or lease or squatter, or had a MOU or the higher level when you were the landholder.

Communities used different methods to obtain their security, and theirs methods is just a try but the result is not obvious and clear for everyone as black is. It is like the grey, everyone’s agrees it is grey but if it’s darker or ligther depends on the light, depends on who look at it. This nuance of grey is very fragile and tenuous.

The one good example is Tha Wang, the community that lives in Water Department land. For first instance it is not even land it is water, therefore in this case water is used was a land. This community had no agreement with Water department to stay and negotiate a proper right. But they had connection to water supply and pay regularly, they had access to electricity and they even had an address, the postman came to deliver a letter. What is informality in a place where you receive your bills by post? Informal for whom? Not for the post, not for water or electricity agency. So what make its informal, is it the conditions of the house? The occupants even if they can’t participate to Baan Mankong Programme they are part of the saving groups. They want to upgrade their condition; through the physicality of their house they can move one step further to assure their staying.

        

That is also what is I happening in Phom Mahakam, the community located inside the fort in Rattanakosin Island. The community is located in BMA land, they don’t have agreement to stay and they can’t participate to Baan Mankong because BMA is not willing to negotiate. Their solution was to get a loan for ‘temporary houses’ from CODI and upgrade their houses. In this case two different ‘greys’ were used in pro of the community, the first is the temporary house loan that was not for a temporary condition and another clever choice was to upgrade their houses according to traditional wood style.

  
In my opinion this community understand that design can be a tool to secure their position in the land. In this case is the physicality of the house, its design that will make a huge difference in their discussion with local authorities or BMA or any other eviction threat.
So should we consider this community with secure land? in my opinion yes. Do they have the proper legal status? no. That’s is why the grey exist. I keep trying to imagine 256 colours of grey.

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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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Housing Finance in Thailand: Evolution and Challenges

(Notes from the seminar “Housing Finance in Thailand” given by Kitti Patpong-pibul, Chairman of the Housing Finance Association in Thailand)

 

The economic history of Thailand in the second half of the twentieth century has been highly determined by the international dynamics and it has impacted directly over the housing finance, policies and provision.

The financial crisis of the late sixties and early seventies in the United States produced by the high inflation that followed the end of the Vietnam War lead to the end of the dollar-gold convertibility and to the securitisation system for subprime mortgages. The crisis also affected the Thai housing market. Most of the projects were foreclosed by the commercial banks.

The Thai government reacted to the housing crisis writing the first law related to housing development in 1972. The following year they institutionalised the housing issue creating the National Housing Authority (NHA) which has been successful until today selling houses and providing cheap loans for the demand. The NHA operates with limited funds provided by the government and consequently it relies mainly on self-funding from the loans and sales.

Again the oil crisis of 1981 affected the housing finance schemes internationally, including Thailand. The Government Housing Bank (GHB) had to change the lending system from fixed rate to variable rate. A new system of adjustable mortgages automatically extendable started operating successfully and also allowed Thailand to overcome the second oil crisis of 1989 without affecting the housing market.

The lower risk provided better returns for the commercial banks and there was a continuous housing boom from the eighties, only slowed down by the Gulf War. However, also from that period the Thai government promoted foreign currency borrowing without knowing the risks. Subsequently, the Thai economy busted in 1997. The commercial banks stopped lending house mortgages and people migrate to the GHB that has the money during the crisis.

In the current times the GHB is the biggest mortgage lender in the country with more than a third part of the market, with interest rates from six to seven per cent. From 2002 the GHB is providing mortgages in the context of the low-income housing programme Baan Eur Arthorn and also is a relevant actor in the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI) financial structure of loans and housing provision.

The GHB finances CODI to provide loans for low-income communities gathered under savings groups. These are the borrowers and CODI evaluates their ability to repay in the long term. CODI charges a two per cent interest to the groups and they charge a six per cent to the individuals interested on taking loans. The margin is used by the saving groups mainly to develop a welfare system within the communities.

The main difficulty is that cheap funds can only come from the government basically from tax money. The market is not able to do that because the operational costs and risks are too high. Then, the main issue is to use tax money wisely as CODI is doing.

The challenge of scale the financial strategies is determined by the local situations and it is about getting money from the rich. People always look for the best return for their money so there is no cheap money. The GHB is able to help the poor just because their operational costs are lower under the same risk conditions and because the amount given to CODI is very small for the bank. It is small because housing is not a political issue and as a consequence, it provides low political benefits.

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Brave New World- Baan Mankong in Bangkok

Baan Mankong is like this photo: you see the elements but can not really make a very cohesive structure out of it ( or say what is actually being constructed). Reading about BM was one thing, seeing in reality- something different ( not necessarily worse!). I am sure this construction has some sense- the piles are serving a certain purpose.

It’s similar with BM- the goals are a great structure. Are they being fulfilled and in what way- its a different story. The overall evaluation of the de-codi-fying trip can be seen  in report of BUDD group D. Some personal impression in a slightly humorous way- over here

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Living Heritage & Informality: Looking at Rattanakosin Island

I have always been interested in contested spaces where tourism is being promoted.  For me, the most interesting portion of the final day of lectures at CODI surrounded the topic of living heritage.  The final group of BUDD /UDP students presented their findings on Rattanakosin Island — a site where living heritage was central to the question of reaching scale.  The presentation outlined how there has been a decline in ancient craft making, where crafts are still being produced but in much smaller scales.

When I asked the community leaders, “What are your ideas for promoting a living heritage? And what are your ideas for promoting tourism within your community that would strengthen your cultural identity, as opposed to weaken it?”  After a lively discussion amongst themselves – this was their response:

“Poor communities are like hidden diamonds in the slums.  Finding and discovering these diamonds is important.  It is also important to carry out research with those other communities who also rely very heavily on tourism. We are very aware of how valuable our uniqueness is.  It is important that we go and look at our markets and pick out what we like about what they are doing and pick out what we don’t like about what they are doing and incorporate that into our development process.”

It was so moving for me to hear how informed their response was to these very complex challenges.  In the future development of the area it would be interesting to see how informality or informal enterprise could be represented in this idea of living heritage.  What would this mean for the place and how could informal productivity present a way to safeguard their heritage? Oftentimes, tourism can be problematic because it falls short of representing the specific identity of the place.  In many cases, communities focus more on external pressures and ideas of what visitors may want or may find attractive in order to promote themselves. In consequence, cultural identities are easily eroded and the relations between local and visitor can easily become problematic.

In looking to the future planning of the place, not only in terms of space but also in terms of cultural identity it would be interesting to consider what living heritage will mean for Rattanakosin Island.  Futher, it would be important to learn how other communities have developed positive ways of promoting their culture and their livelihood.  In a time where ancient crafts are diminishing it is more crucial than ever to find ways to safeguard communities from turning away from ancient skills and sacred traditions.  With that being said, it is important to clarify that I am not proposing some nostalgic return to past ways of life but rather to find a balance between the cultural identity of the place and the contemporary needs that are emerging.

Monk Bowls, photo by Su-Ann Tan

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Informality & Bangkok: Reflecting on our first days…

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Anyone who says “New York is the city that never sleeps” has never been to Bangkok.  Buying, selling, cooking, cutting, spitting, begging, sleeping, eating — it is happening all at once, at all hours of the day and night. There … Continue reading

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In Flight Reflections LHR–>BKK

The day began reading “Learning from Slums” in the last few hours before landing in Bangkok.  The article spoke of slums as a “heterogeneous spatial ecology,” reframing ideas of the city and concepts of informality.  It reminded me to consider how cities such as New York, London and Paris have shaped our ideas about industry and modernity.  At present emerging cities like Bangkok, Lagos and Sao Paulo are teaching us new things about what is the meaning of a city and how this concept of a city is in a process of great transformation.

I was last in Bangkok nearly 4 years ago —  my previous trip to Thailand was part of a seven-month journey through South East Asia, Indonesia and South America.  It marked the beginning of my decision to work at the junction of design and international development.  Now I return to Thailand as a part of the Development Planning Unit and part of a collective of urban practioners, aiming to connect our theoretical analysis with field based research.

But even more so, I am curious to find what Bangkok will teach me and how the spatial narrative of the place will be different from what I remember.  Each place that I have spent time in, especially those far from home, far from our ideas of comfort have moved me, have added one more layer to my understanding of the world and my meaning of work.

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