Making participatory processes work in urban upgrading: innovations and challenges from Asia
Asian countries have been experimenting with participatory development processes for decades. In 1980, in Karachi, Pakistan, the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), a community-owned and driven sanitation initiative, proved that solutions to infrastructure upgrading could be found within informal settlements themselves. The OPP turned the tables on traditional top-down redevelopment. Today, participatory urban upgrading has been explored all over the region — and the world, for that matter — from basic service delivery to affordable housing, yet many barriers and challenges remain. Over the next two weeks, our expert panelists will provide context for discussing and advancing participatory processes regionally — and, like Mike Slingsby, an Urban Development and Poverty Advisor for UN-Habitat in Myanmar, consider how players can take a step back from being "doers" in communities and ask instead: "How can I do less and make more happen?" Join Gayatri Singh, Mike Slingsby, Diane Archer, Neda Pencheva, Rakhi Mehra, and John Arnold for a lively discussion and debate; we welcome your experiences and insights in the comment section below.
Click on the pictures to see each panelist's perspective below.
Dr. Gayatri Singh — Urban specialist, social demographer and consultant with the World Bank's East Asia and the Pacific Infrastructure Unit
Developmental challenges and poverty in Asia will continue to become increasingly urban in the 21st century. Physical manifestation of disadvantage within the urban built environment is often clearest in terms of inequality in the distribution of capability-enhancing public services and infrastructure. While strong municipal governance and a sound financial capacity are key for ensuring service delivery to the urban poor, these are not sufficient conditions. Efficient and equitable service delivery requires three further elements, where community participation can play a central role.
First, information on intra-urban disparities in service delivery required for planning purposes is often not available at city-scale in developing countries. Data gaps are especially severe for assessing the quality and condition of infrastructure and services within poor areas, especially informal settlements. Approaches like Participatory GIS can generate detailed infrastructure GIS for a settlement with the cooperation of its residents, a task that would otherwise be difficult. This approach also empowers communities by enabling them to participate more effectively in urban governance.
Second, municipal governments often have limited financial resources and must prioritize investments from a menu of needs and gaps in services. Interventions and projects that use a top-down approach and neglect consultations with communities to identify priorities are less likely to be successful. Community participation is also important to ensure that communities take ownership of government interventions. However, communities are not homogeneous in terms of interests and preferences. Efforts should be made to ensure that influential members within the community are not appropriating the participatory processes.
Finally, the successful implementation of projects or programs requires strong state-society ties. Here the presence of strong civil society organizations can serve as an effective mode of information dissemination, advocacy on behalf of the urban poor, facilitating negotiations, and most importantly, for weakening existing networks of political patronage.
Dr. Gayatri Singh is an urban development specialist and a demographer with 10 years of experience working and researching in urban contexts of Africa and Asia. She is currently a consultant with the World Bank's East Asia and Pacific Infrastructure Unit (EASIN). As a Rhodes Scholar from India (2000), she studied at Oxford University receiving degrees in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE, senior status Bachelors) and Forced Migration Studies (Masters of Science). She has recently completed her PhD at Brown University, studying the success of rural-urban migrants' transition to Indian cities. Her expertise spans areas of urban poverty and inequality, urbanization and urban policy, migration, displaced populations, public health, and application of mixed methods research in urban development using spatial, survey, and qualitative approaches. Gayatri has experience of working with a wide range of actors, including international organizations, local and state governments, non-profit organizations, and communities themselves in the urban contexts on issues of urban governance, service delivery, social assistance, and migrant settlement. She was a core contributor to the World Bank and IMF publication Global Monitoring Report 2013: Rural to Urban Dynamics and the Millennium Development Goals. (The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and positions of the World Bank Group.)
Mike Slingsby — Urban Development and Poverty Advisor, UN-Habitat Myanmar
We are seeing programmes in Asia that are changing the relationships of urban poor communities to government, from being beneficiaries to taking on the role of partners in their own and the city's development. Space is being created for poor people to come together to develop solutions to their own problems by learning from each other. Peer-to-peer learning processes through community-to-community, city-to-city, and country-to-country exchanges are powerful tools in this process. That gives us hope for the future.
Once this potential is unleashed it always exceeds our expectations. Poor people are strategic money managers, are house builders, and make enormous sacrifices to ensure that their children are educated so that they have a better future. They will always do things in a cost-effective way and much more quickly than we can through formal structures.
Our problem is to convince people to believe in this — governments, donors, and NGOs — who often want to be implementers and not facilitators, who want to teach and not create learning situations. We need people with courage and trust to allow this to happen. People who are thinking, "How can I do less and make more happen?"
Forty years ago, I was told: "You have to ask yourself one question. Who is participating in whose project? Are we asking people to participate in our project or are we participating in peoples' project?" That question still needs to be asked.
Mike Slingsby has been working on urban development and urban poverty issues in Asia since 1975. He taught at the University of Sri Lanka, MS University Baroda, and the School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University, Chennai. Slingsby was the manager of DFID's urban poverty programme in India and of UN-Habitat's project working with Phnom Penh squatters. He was the project manager of the Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction project covering 23 towns in Bangladesh, and retired from the UN system as UN-Habitat's Country Representative in Afghanistan. Slingsby is now working as a consultant on urban poverty and housing in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Diane Archer — Researcher, Human Settlements Group, the International Institute for Environment and Development
One-sixth of the world's population lives in informal settlements without access to basic services such as water and sanitation and secure housing. While local governments usually have the responsibility to supply the residents of their city with infrastructure (including paved roads, piped water, connections to sewer and drainage networks), in the case of many low-income countries, they lack the financial or technical capacity to do so, or they might not recognise residents of informal settlements as 'citizens' of the city with the right to such services.
Increasingly, the urban poor are challenging this exclusion by organising themselves, from the community level to citywide, national, and international networks of community groups. As the organised urban poor, these groups have gained a measure of financial independence through their members' savings groups and the larger collective funds they have developed. These provide pathways to accessing other sources of finance to carry out collective infrastructure and housing upgrading projects. In many cases, these organised networks do so with the knowledge, and sometimes support, of local governments, and it is this support which is required to achieve change at scale. Examples include the network of community organisations which has emerged out of Thailand's Baan Mankong participatory slum upgrading program, and the networks of community groups across Asia active in the Asian Coalition for Community Action program.
The process of community organising and saving is not something that can be rushed and needs to emerge from local demand. In order to achieve change at scale, the appropriate local and national regulatory and institutional frameworks are necessary to enable participatory and equitable development processes.
Diane Archer is a Researcher in the Human Settlements Group of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London. She previously worked for the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), a coalition of grassroots groups and NGOs supporting community-driven development across 19 countries in Asia. She has also carried out research on Thailand's Baan Mankong participatory slum upgrading program, exploring the role of networks of the urban poor.
Neda Pencheva — Research Assistant, Asia Development Dialogue
Well in line with the global trend, South East Asia is urbanizing fast and at exorbitant environmental costs. In order to contextualize the discussion on public participation, let me refer to a few characteristics that shape the urban landscape of this region (notable exceptions aside):
- High levels of socio-economic inequality;
- Governance concerns; 
- High vulnerability to climatic shocks;
- High level of mobile technology penetration. 
The common threads running through these themes are connectivity and voice. Be it between communities and their governing bodies or between the dwellers of central neighborhoods and slums, there is a crucial link between poverty-related social exclusion and structural suffering caused by poor decision-making.
Let us take Bangkok during the Great Flood of 2011 as an example. The peripheral neighborhoods were used as a buffer in an effort to shelter the inner capital. Predictably, the poorest and most vulnerable were hit the hardest and are taking the longest to recover. Integrated river basin management, social accountability, and wider communication of disaster risks in the slums are participatory and cost-efficient institutional arrangements that would have reduced the impact of the disaster.
Institutions across SEA are slow to adapt to the need to widen public participation in decisions with considerable impact on urban communities. The repercussions are not only hindering our capacity to absorb climatic shocks. There is a wider concern for social cohesion in settings where competition for natural resources is increasingly fierce and equality of opportunity is limited.
 See Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index for 2013 and note how the representatives of the region tend to cluster on the scale.
 See Nielsen 2013, The Asian Mobile Consumer Decoded.
Neda Pencheva is a Research Assistant for Asia Development Dialogue. She is based in Bangkok, but her research interests span the South Asia region and include the topics of land use and environmental regulation. Prior to joining Asia Development Dialogue, she completed a year of voluntary service in participatory urban development. She holds a BSc(Econ) in International Relations from the University of Aberystwyth and an LLM in European Law from the University of Edinburgh. Neda's experiences with Oxfam GB and the European Institute for Public Participation have taught her the importance of multidisciplinary dialogue and knowledge sharing in finding targeted solutions to urban challenges.
Rakhi Mehra — Co-founder, micro Home Solutions
The urban growth story in Asia has been associated with the rapid mushrooming of informal settlements. The response of the formal sector institutions — both government and private sector — has been shortsighted at best. New policies propose mass-housing townships and small units in city peripheries without regard for services, neighborhood development, livelihoods, transport, and the other critical factors key to creating safe and vibrant urban centers.
If we allow ourselves to take a different viewpoint, the informal settlements or self-built neighborhoods that have evolved organically over the years are not a temporary phenomenon but represent an opportunity to address the housing shortage faced by rapidly growing towns and cities. These settlements are dynamic, vibrant, and offer a diversity of housing choices: affordable rental for a new migrant, a new room for the newlyweds, or the opportunity of home-ownership close to place of work.
While the challenges may sound overwhelming, the solutions exist within the communities. The design of the built environment can be catalyzed and facilitated by bottom-up solutions and bridging the gap of technical know-how between the design community and the construction workforce. To enable greater access and flow of finance, bringing a more nuanced understanding on security of tenure that allows for diverse and alternative models of lending for housing finance must be encouraged.
I strongly believe that an interdisciplinary debate with greater appetite for experimentation and inter-agency collaboration would help drive a process for inclusive urbanization.
Rakhi Mehra is co-founder of micro Home Solutions (mHS) City Labs, a social housing enterprise in New Delhi, India, with a mission to build inclusive cities based on interdisciplinary principles of community, affordability, and design. She graduated from Oxford University on the Rhodes scholarship and earned her MBA from Harvard Business School.
John Arnold — Civil Engineer, SAFE
Affordable housing in Bangladesh is without doubt a huge challenge. With some of the highest urbanisation rates in Asia, Bangladesh's cities and especially its capital Dhaka are growing rapidly — with tens of thousands of environmental migrants forced to leave their rural homes every year and many more pulled into the booming garments industry. Dhaka's population is predicted to rise to 25 million by 2025, and currently over 35 percent of people live in slums.
One programme to note that has been very active in mobilising urban poor communities over the last 10 years is the Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction Programme, a US$100m programme funded by DFID and implemented by UNDP. Working in 30 towns and with three million people across the country, they have focussed on mobilising women in poor communities, primarily through savings and credit groups. With savings groups and committees in place, funds have also been available to solve other problems identified by the communities, such as assisting poor children to stay in school or constructing sanitary toilets or water points. Communities now hold over US$4.1m of their own savings and have disbursed over double that amount in loans.
While city-level federations of the urban poor do exist, both through UPPR and other civil society groups, they are at an early stage. Improved housing and security of tenure for urban poor groups has not been something which has been achieved other than in isolated projects. The government, with assistance from the World Bank, is currently designing a housing programme which aims to build on the work that UPPR has achieved. The programme aims to provide support to community groups to secure land tenure, improve common infrastructure, and access affordable credit for housing.
John Arnold is a civil engineer from the UK. He has worked in Bangladesh since 2010 building low-cost houses in both slums and rural areas with NGO SAFE, carrying out structural checks on many garments factories following the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, and is currently working as a consultant with the World Bank to help implement a community-driven low-cost housing project for the urban poor.