Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Do we have to learn to live with slums?

Do we have to learn to live with slums? Watch Paul Mason's film from the Philippines in full
Manila, Philippines: The rich elite in cities across the world want to clear the slums which are now home to a billion people. But many of those who live in shanty towns like that which lines the banks of the San Miguel canal, do not want to leave. Why?

I had come to the Philippines to explore a theory but, as always, reality got in the way.

I was standing on the bridge over the Estero de San Miguel, a slum in the capital Manila.

My host was architect Felino Palafox and he had spread his blueprints across the parapet of the bridge and we were poring over them, with some street kids clambering around us. Palafox was making a big splash with the locals his Star Trek-style traditional Philippines shirt.

Find out more

Slums 101 will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 16 August 2011 at 20:00 BST
You can watch Paul's film for Newsnight in full on BBC Two that evening at 22:30 BST
More about Slums 101
More from Newsnight
The sweep of the slum was pretty horrible - a curve of water, shacks on both sides, multicoloured plastic rubbish inches deep in the water, and now and then the sound of something hitting the water as somebody used the "wrap and throw" method of sewage disposal into the Estero itself.

I needed the bathroom myself, so somebody guided me into a shop - a kiosk really - on the bridge. I clambered down a ladder and then, suddenly, I was in a place whose existence had not really occurred to me. Because if the slum is built right up to the waterway, on stilts, how do you get through it?

The answer was a tunnel. Four feet (1.2m) wide, about 5ft 7in (170cm) high (I learned this painfully as I am 5ft 7.5in (171.4cm)) and 600m (1968ft) long.

Twelve hundred families live off that tunnel - about 6,000 people. Such is the population density that I realised immediately what the women cradling their kids and swaying absentmindedly in the half light were doing - the same as me, waiting for the toilet.

Lack of hope
When I came out I was, as Dennis Murphy said to me afterwards, "stoked". Dennis is an ex-Jesuit priest who runs an NGO in Estero de San Miguel that has helped the slum-dwellers organise themselves.

"You were hyper, manic," he told me later.

That was because whenever you enter a slum your spirits do not so much droop as plummet. A fall, with a long "aargh" such as that emitted by the Wily Coyote when The Road Runner gets him to go over a cliff.

The Balderas family live in a single 8ft square room
You suddenly become aware physically - even though you have seen this stuff many times before - of that thing no modern human being wants, limitation, boundedness, a lack of hope.

After two minutes down the tunnel I stormed up the ladder and told my crew to stop filming Palafox. Nice though his scheme development plan was, it was on paper. Down in the tunnel was a reality that, despite being in Manila's slums for days, we had not properly seen.

Mena Cinco, the barangay captain - a kind of local councillor with the authority of a tribal chieftain - led me down again.

We met Rotsi and her family - mum, dad "a driver for a Chinese family", an unspecified family guest, a daughter doing her homework and a toddler. Five people in one-and-a-half rooms.

"We've been here 20 years," Rotsi told me.

Population explosion
Next door Oliver Balderas was snoozing with his kids, who were eating ice cream. There was a cartoon on the television and mum was also having a nap - it was about 32C and heavy with humidity.

Click to play

Why Philippines slum clearance is creating new problems
They came to the door. Mr Balderas is a construction worker earning about $3.50 (£2.13) a day. The family moved to Estero de San Miguel from a conflict area 10 years ago.

The room - about 8ft (2.4m) square, and like all of the Estero, built of wood and floored with lino - is their entire dwelling space.

Manila is undergoing a population explosion. Of the around 60 people-an-hour estimated to be arriving here, about half are coming as migrants from the collapsing agriculture sector, and half are born here - so there are kids everywhere.

These kids sing a song about the inevitability of poverty and their determination to overcome it.

Total rethink
With the sky glowering when I got out of the tunnel, I was no longer in any mood to go on giving the theory the benefit of the doubt.

My instant reaction was this: "There's a theory that says basically slums are here to stay, that they're cohesive, sustainable - green even.

"I can see the social cohesion bit, but as for green, well, (my nostrils flare at the river smell).

"And I can't help thinking the whole theory is a bit of a cop out because why - when in the 19th Century they cleared out places like this in one generation do we, in an era of globalisation, tolerate them?"

Mena Cinco is one of the slums' official leaders
If I came out of the Estero de San Miguel "stoked", it was because it challenged my trendy notions, learned from the 2003 UN Habitat report and interviews with various experts, and re-awakened the inner Edwardian-era social reform nostrums my grandparents taught me about slums, which is that they have to be cleared.

But then I went back into the San Miguel by night, with Mena still trying to educate me about the social cohesion, and I was forced to rethink it all again.

I met business graduates, found an internet cafe, met the volunteer police force and got offered the chance to eat a boiled egg with a chicken embryo. I said I would rather jump in the canal naked, and the local women invite me to do just that.

Then, over a beer with ex-Father Dennis, discussing our mutual experiences with the Salesians and the Jesuits, I discovered what one billion people on the planet have discovered - slums are not so bad.

They have changed from the Dickensian hell holes of our imagination. Through education and communications technology people are making life bearable for themselves - and of course providing the modern mega-city with an indispensable workforce of cheap labour.

The result is we have to confront a question that would have appalled the 19th Century pioneers of city design - do we have to live with slums forever?

I do not know the answer to that question - but I now understand the question.

Somewhere between the theories of the architects and NGOs and the rigid clearance doctrines of Prada-clad Filipino millionaires, and the night on the streets with the local cops and the day in the countryside with people whose main ambition in life is to live in a Manila slum… I have gone beyond the theory and experienced the reality.

Join Paul Mason on Tuesday 16 August at 20:00 BST on BBC Radio Four, on Newsnight at 22:30BST on BBC Two, and on BBC World TV's Our World slot on 26/27 August, and on the BBC World Service's One Planet on 19 and 26 August to experience it for yourself.

And for more background read Paul's New Statesman article here

Want to know what to do about slum dwellers? Try listening to them

Poverty Matters Blog
The Filipino government wants to move half a million Manila slum dwellers back to the countryside. Yet they left for a reason

The Filipino government claims it would cost about a third of the national budget to rehouse Manila's slum dwellers. Photograph: Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images
If you have access to BBC output, I strongly recommend a programme and article about slums, aired on radio and television last week. You will be taken on a tour of a slum in Manila, learn about some of the people who live there, and hear what experts think about the future of slums.

Slums are without doubt a huge development issue. According to the programme, as many as a billion people live in them today, a number set to double by 2050. Manila is growing by 60 people an hour, making it the fastest growing city on the planet. In comparison, Indian cities are growing by about 40 people an hour, while London's rate is seven people an hour.

Anyone who has worked with people living in slums will recognise the vivacity and can-do attitude that pervades the programme (which is not to romanticise very difficult, dirty and often violent conditions).

Their programme offered many lessons, but I particularly heeded the one my colleague Claire Melamed constantly highlights – the importance of listening to poor people about what they want. It is unusual to get such a long look at the lives of slum dwellers from their own perspective.

The main issue is the insecurity of land – they have no right to be where they are. The Filipino government wants to move half a million slum dwellers back to the countryside.

But there are good reasons people have left the land they have lived on for generations to seek a better life in precarious wooden shacks next to rubbish tips. A combination of conflict, climate change (slum dwellers claim there are more typhoons and floods in rural areas) and chronic poverty makes life in the countryside unbearable. There are no jobs. Meanwhile, in the slum, we hear of people graduating from university and seeing real prospects for the next generation.

The only sustainable way to repopulate the countryside is to provide opportunities there. In the programme, we hear of guards being placed around evicted slums to prevent previous occupants returning. Rather than move people on, the slums can be slowly formalised, with public goods provided. This has happened in many cities. In others, the slums were just demolished.

There are always reasons to move people off their land, and usually "development", that most treacherous of terms, is one of them. But there is a rule I apply to these kinds of actions: if the solution prescribed by a politician or "philanthropist" also happens to be in their own private interest, be sceptical. (Which does not mean some solutions are not win-win, especially in the long term.)

Housing aside, it is the intangibles associated with a life built up over decades that are lost when people leave their land, whether in cities or countryside. Remove them to another part of the country and they are dependent on others, with no political voice or organisation.

The Filipino government estimates the cost of rehousing slum dwellers in Manila at about a third of the national budget; it is cheaper to ship them off to the countryside. This coming from a government that, the UNDP suggested in 2007, loses $2 billion of its budget to corruption annually. Those creaming off this money are the same hypocrites claiming it is too expensive to house poor people better.

Slum dwellers are organising themselves to defend against government aggression and what they believe is the threat of arson. "We will barricade, we will fight for our freedom and security of tenures," says one community leader.

Their fight has strong precedents. All over the world, as urbanisation has gathered pace, country people have arrived in cities. They have set up their shacks (black plastic bags strung up on sticks) and slowly converted them into more acceptable living quarters, buying a few bricks every month, volunteering at the school, pressuring the local council to provide running water. With the international media spotlight on them, they have a greater chance of success. Governments can get away with less than they used to now.

It is a hopeful story, but one curious aspect of humanity seems to be its ability to pull together in a crisis, only to fall apart when things become more comfortable. I remember a visit I made to families in the south of Bogota who had lived through the process of urbanisation. They looked back on that period of coping and difficulty with nostalgia. That was when there was a community, they said – not like now. Today, all the kids are out for themselves and drugs have become a problem. It was the struggle for better living conditions that brought them together.

Paul Mason, the reporter on the BBC programme, ended on a more optimistic note. Citing British slum history as a precedent, he suggested that the generation of kids sloshing around the wet slum may one day take what they have learned about organisation and cohesion into the wider world.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A trip to Cavite

By: Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

We left Project 4, Quezon City, very early that Sunday morning to attend a funeral in Cavite. We saw many impressive infrastructure projects along the way, but they left us wondering about their long-range usefulness and their skewed sense of the common good.

We were on Edsa just before dawn when the flyovers, elevated railroad and underpasses began emerging from the night. They were more impressive than ever as they loomed up. It was easy to be awed by their size and the great engineering skill it took to weave railroad, flyovers and tunnels into smooth working harmonies.

The trouble is, however, that such infrastructure doesn’t work. It will never end our traffic problems, because there are simply too many vehicles and not enough road space. We will continue to use our money unwisely unless we find a way to limit the number of cars.

We drove to the end of Edsa and on to the reclaimed land area off Pasay and ParaƱaque. Turning left to Macapagal Boulevard (which already has potholes that can injure a car’s chassis), we headed south.
The sheer size of the reclaimed area is breathtaking when compared with the size of our urban poor homes. In one survey done of 800 families in Parola, Manila, we found the average floor area for a family was 13 sq m, but many families had only 8 sq m. Here the idle reclaimed land stretches away as far as the eye can see.

The buildings now standing include the Mall of Asia and clusters of condos. There is a Catholic church and a mosque with poor families camped around it. The newspapers report that hundreds of hectares of this land will be given to gambling casinos and support services. Society must ask: Are Pagcor’s gambling casinos, and more malls and condos the best use our society can find for one of Metro Manila’s last truly large and empty areas? What of the poor? Is there no place for them on this reclaimed land? It would seem so. Government has tried to remove the only poor people on the land at present, the Muslim families around the mosque.

Why can’t some hectares be devoted to fields where poor children can run and play on grass, something most poor children have never experienced? Can 10 percent of the idle land be given to housing the poor? People should ask if gambling casinos are a good way to lessen corruption. They would seem to guarantee that corruption increases in society.

We drove on to the Coastal Road and eventually came to the latest section of the road that is built over water. It is over the water because fishermen and their wives with the help of Urban Poor Associates protested to the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank that the road they were then planning would run straight through the fishing villages. The IFC agreed.
The resulting road is first class. There is a beautiful view of Manila Bay, but there is no place for people to walk, jog or ride a bike alongside the road. Why not? Would it have cost so much more to give the people a chance to feel the breezes, see the lovely sunsets, breathe the fresh air?

When we looked to the left from the road some 100 or so meters to the shoreline, we saw that the houses of the fishermen were as miserable as ever. To the right we could admire the beauty of the bay, but to our left was the same old squalor of the fishermen and their families. The money to upgrade the homes could have been part of the World Bank-IFC loan.
We drove through Maragondon where Andres Bonifacio was tried and found guilty. On a previous trip to Maragondon and the trial house we heard Prof. Xiao Chua of La Salle University claim that Bonifacio’s critics have turned him into a man of violence with few thoughts for the full development of his people. Not so, Chua said, and he talked of his several writings. Along with land and housing, the poor, it seems, have been stripped of their prophets.

The country has had some sad experiences recently in its infrastructure building efforts in addition to its failure to end traffic problems. There were the North and South Rail projects. Some 90,000 families were evicted and relocated, but nothing has apparently been done in the North, and in the South. Five years after relocation began, there is only a commuter train that runs on the old tracks to Alabang and back. Many, if not most of the public-private partnership projects, submitted now to the government for approval are for infrastructure and will involve evictions and relocation. Such proposals should be closely scrutinized.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Do we have to learn to live with slums?

August 18, 2011

Last May, we accompanied BBC in Manila esteros. Here is the 15 minute film aired yesterday. Paul Mason, economics editor of BBC newsnight said, "Without the slum dwellers global mega cities could not function at all."
We are hoping that the government will build on site housing for the estero people using the Palafox housing designs

Pls. Click the Link

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jesuit superior general in Tondo slum

By: Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

FORTY YEARS ago the late Jesuit Fr. Joe Blanco and I had the honor of taking Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then the Jesuit superior general, to Tondo. We met the Zone One Tondo Organization leaders and Fr. Arrupe and the poor people discussed, among other matters, Marxism, armed struggle and the role of the Church in fighting poverty.

At that time in the Zone One area there were four priests helping the poor to organize their own people’s group. There was also a small convent of the Religious of the Good Shepherd who helped the organizing and took care of most other problems of the people. Now there are no priests or sisters in the urban poor area, except perhaps for Mass on Sundays.

We met Fr. Arrupe at the old Institute of Social Order on Padre Faura. Two Jesuits were sent with him by the Jesuit provincial, who, it seems, didn’t quite trust Fr. Blanco and me. We asked the two to wait at the ISO. Fr. Arrupe was excited as a boy on a picnic. He had been in meetings since he arrived in the country and was happy to be free to move around the city. He even enjoyed our mad dash to Tondo down Roxas Boulevard behind a careening bus that spouted so much foul exhaust it finally disappeared altogether in a black cloud.

Fr. Blanco arranged things in the ZOTO office while I took Fr. Arrupe around the area: Slip Zero, Pier Dos, Isla Puting Bato and Bonifacio Village (now called Parola). Some 30,000 poor families lived in Tondo at that time. I felt I was with a TV superstar, though few people had any idea of who Fr. Arrupe was, or what a Jesuit was for that matter. They saw a jolly man in his 60s, his thinning gray hair flying in the harbor breeze, with one of the most radiant, joyful smile anyone had ever seen. They crowded around, especially the children. He stopped to talk to people and was able to communicate with them in a mixture of Spanish and English. He held on to their hands while he talked to them. He had been a medical student in Madrid before he entered the Jesuits, so he took notice of the malnourished children, stagnant pools of water, the garbage everywhere—all speaking of disease.

He asked them about their incomes and other problems and their hopes in life for their children. He wasn’t shocked by the terrible poverty. Earlier in his life he was one of the first people to go to Hiroshima after the A-bomb attack. He had been stationed outside Hiroshima in the Jesuit novitiate. I thought I saw deep in his eyes traces of the horror he saw that day and the huge act of faith it took to believe God would someday renew this world.

I had some business in a nearby area, so I missed the beginning of the meeting with the ZOTO leaders, Trining Herrera, David Balondo, Pedro Timbolero and others. Fr. Blanco introduced Fr. Arrupe as a close friend of Pope Paul VI. The people met the Pope a year earlier in another part of Tondo. Later whenever the people wrote President Marcos about their problems, they sent the Pope a copy (“Copy furnished the pope,” they wrote at the bottom of their letters). Sometimes when MalacaƱang responded, they also added “copy furnished to pope.” Somewhere in the Vatican these old letters in Tagalog are filed away. Did anyone ever know what to do with them?

When I arrived in the ZOTO office, I found Fr. Arrupe and the ZOTO people discussing revolution and armed struggle. He wanted to know what ordinary urban poor people thought of these matters. He wanted to know what kind of world the poor people wanted. He gave the people his full attention and told stories of people he had met in other countries, especially in Latin America. The Tondo folk said they were open to armed struggle since nothing else seemed to work. They admired young people who joined the rebels.

When the people asked about Pope Paul, Fr. Arrupe was full of praise for him, though a gap was already opening between Pope Paul and himself (and later between him and Pope John Paul II). Some Vatican officials thought Fr. Arrupe and the Jesuits were going beyond Church orthodoxy in several matters—for example, in their openness to the use of Marxist analysis.

We ate food the people brought from the local turo-turo and then a big crowd walked us out of the area. Fr. Arrupe shook every hand and kissed the children. We took him back to the ISO where the father provincial’s car was waiting.

Fr. Blanco and I arrived late at the airport on the day he left the country. When he saw us, he left the circle of Jesuit superiors and bishops he was with to hurry down to us. He told us to keep doing what we were doing in Tondo.

Fr. Blanco is dead. I am still working in the very same streets I walked with Fr. Arrupe that day. I sometimes think he is walking along with me, with his gracious smile for everyone we meet.

Fr. Arrupe had a stroke in 1981 and resigned as Jesuit superior general. He was able to speak until 1983, but the last eight years of his life were spent in silence.

His name is not mentioned often now. Perhaps 50 years from now, Fr. Arrupe’s memory will be revived and also the spirit of optimism and openness to change of Vatican II. Some consider him the very image of a Vatican II priest. They see in him the essential spirit of Vatican II.

Fr. Arrupe’s visit was in 1971. After that came martial law and 25 years of democratic government.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

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