Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hopeful approaches to homelessness

By: Gerald M. Nicolas
Philippine Daily Inquirer

“So there are also squatters in Korea?” an urban poor mother and leader sitting beside me quipped in Filipino while looking at photos of so-called “vinyl houses” being flashed on the screen. (Some 4,900 families evicted from various places in Seoul occupy vacant spaces without permission and build shelters made of vinyl, thus the name.) But instead of correcting her for using a politically incorrect term for people without security of tenure (the more acceptable term nowadays is “informal settlers”), I replied: “That’s because we don’t see them in Korean telenovelas.”

I wished that the 500 or so urban poor leaders inside the convention hall shared her candid realization upon seeing the pictures that spoke volumes of the global nature of the problem of land and tenure insecurity in cities. It had probably dawned on her that the 3 million Filipino families living in slums and without legal land or housing tenure, were not alone in waking up daily to the possibility of getting displaced and having their houses and lives destroyed. Had they known that close to 4.5 million people in the world were affected by evictions between 2007 and 2008 and that 55 percent of these happened in Asia, according to the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, they would have left the venue feeling more depressed and helpless than ever.

Or probably not.

Optimism was palpable inside the hall where community leaders from 12 countries in Asia—from Korea to Pakistan to Burma (Myanmar) to the Philippines—gathered for the launching of a regional assembly of people’s organizations called the Urban Poor Coalition Asia or UPCA. What was remarkable about the assembly was that despite the differences in mother tongues, the language of hope to address a shared issue—the threat of forced eviction—echoed loud and clear among “Asian friends.”

Listening to the reports (or reading the English phrases and sentences in their PowerPoint presentations), one could see the richness of experience of the urban poor, in devising and adopting different strategies and approaches in empowering themselves to resist forced evictions. In all the countries participating in the UPCA, community-level savings mobilization proved practical. In Thailand, for example, communities have compulsory savings of 200 baht per month per household (or only P10 per day). One citywide network was able to buy a parcel of land for soon-to-be evicted families “with our own fund” and a loan from the government and development organizations like the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. The property is located very near the original community, ensuring proximity to factories and other employment opportunities in the city.

Advocating housing rights through coalition-building and networking is also an essential strategy for influencing policies and challenging practices by government. In Nepal, the city network that includes women and youth held dialogues with political parties and explained its agenda to the public through various media. As a result, local governments in the cities of Bharatpur and Biratnagar have given free land for housing and have allocated a budget for citywide upgrading projects. In the Philippines, networks such as the Urban Poor Alliance stepped up the anti-eviction advocacy by entering into a covenant with President Aquino in 2010. So far, the allocation of P10 billion per year for in-city medium-rise housing projects for informal settlers along waterways has been the most significant (but yet to be realized) milestone of this engagement with the national government.

In-depth, detailed and, at best, participatory research has also gained increased importance in designing the strategies employed by many organized urban poor to prevent forced evictions. Indonesian delegates reported the significant contribution of technical assistance provided by architects and engineers in determining the magnitude of informal housing along Ciliwung River in east Jakarta and in capacitating the affected families in studying flood mitigation measures. It also proved helpful in proposing low-cost housing designs in accordance with the aspirations of the communities. In Korea, the NGO Asia Bridge conducted surveys to help assess the general condition of vinyl-house settlements in Seoul and generated maps to locate potential areas for upgrading and propoor development.

Nothing in the reports claimed that a single strategy can address the problem of homelessness. It has been a combination of approaches complementing each other. A community organization cannot rely solely on savings generation without trying to compel government to open opportunities for grassroots participation in the land market and land use. Neither can anti-eviction mobilization activities provide a long-term solution to tenure insecurity without sufficient and community-managed resources for the social preparation of would-be affected families. Research is needed to find out specific principles that will guide advocacy regarding what constitutes an adequate and legally acceptable housing intervention. There can be more strategies depending on the context and shared values of people, and in the end, the different strategies aim to achieve the same goal: tenure security and housing for the poor. Hope springs from allowing people’s organizations to explore innovative ways for solving their issues, different opportunities for building partnerships, and alternative venues for working with other stakeholders, especially government.

Finding Andres Bonifacio

By: Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

I was invited recently to a meeting of the Center for Patriotic Initiatives where the topic for discussion was: “Two Years After Arroyo: Prospects and Challenges to the Patriotic Forces.” Among the invited speakers were Francisco Nemenzo, former president of the University of the Philippines; political analyst Ramon Casiple; and former Army Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim, now deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Customs. I was deeply flattered to be invited with such men. I wondered, of course, if a mistake had been made in inviting me.

I couldn’t go in the end because I hurt my hip, but I knew what I would have said. I would have talked of the “meeting” that took place late last year between the urban poor and Andres Bonifacio. That meeting capped, in a real if limited way, the development of urban poor leaders, so that they and others like them are a challenge today to the patriotic forces. The urban poor and Bonifacio met like long lost relatives.

That meeting was arranged by Professor Charleston “Xiao” Chua of Dela Salle University. We met Xiao by chance while he was giving a lecture on the Tejeros Convention in Ternate, Cavite. He brought the past to life, as he talked of Bonifacio’s last days. He took his students to the actual historical sites of the events. And they saw the cells where Bonifacio was kept, and heard stories of his last days from the local people who had heard them from their ancestors. My wife and I, for example, heard the school principal in Maragondon point out the acacia tree where, her parents told her, Bonifacio would often urinate on his way in or out of his cell in the convento there.

We arranged for Xiao to lead a visit of the poor people we work with through the towns of Kawit, Ternate, Tanza, Naic and Maragondon, and finally to the trail that leads up into the mountains where Bonifacio and his brother Procopio were killed by Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo’s men. They sang patriotic songs there in the late afternoon. The poor, most of whom are from Tondo and neighboring areas, were captivated by the life and beliefs of Bonifacio. They identified with him.

They learned that Bonifacio was far more than the warrior with a bolo, as Jose Rizal was much more of a warrior than the peaceful non-violent leader portrayed in our textbooks. They learned Bonifacio had a total plan for the reform of life in the Philippines. They identified with Bonifacio because he, too, was poor and, like many of them, had to work to raise younger brothers and sisters. They admired how he struggled to find a place for himself in society. Bonifacio preached comradeship, brotherhood (and sisterhood), kindness and charity to one another as well as the need to fight for one’s rights. The poor found themselves very comfortable with Bonifacio’s emphasis on care for others and with his vision of the Philippines. They especially enjoyed his understanding of freedom which is kaginhawaan, which seems very similar to the “peace” spoken of in John’s Gospel (Jn. 20:19-23).

The poor we work with had undergone two long learning seasons in their lives before they “met” Bonifacio. The first season was community organization. It was spent struggling with government and the powerful for land, housing, basic services, better education, job opportunities and respect. Not so different from the Bonifacio’s patriotic struggle. The second “season” was their political work during the 2010 election where they chose their candidate at meetings of 300 leaders, and then acted as regular party workers, canvassing voters, setting up offices, keeping in contact, witnessing the counting, and finally celebrating victory and bemoaning defeat. They outgrew the political fragmentation of the poor that had allowed venal politicians to grab their votes in exchange for little food, little money and airy promises.

In the years 2005-2008 they thought of having their own political party which they called Poor People’s Party. Its vision:

•A pro-poor agenda: a party working on the basic issues of all poor in the cities and in provinces; on the issues of industrial laborers, farm workers, fisherfolk, peasants and small farmers, informal sectors, youth, the aged, tribal people, women, differently disabled persons and the like;

• National in scope: a party fielding candidates in barangay and local government elections, and in the years to come in provincial and national elections;

• Dedicated to the people’s cause and to the equality of all: a party whose leaders are knowledgeable about their given tasks and duties; hot-headed but strong-willed; and neither corrupt nor corruptible;

• Strongly anchored on the social teachings of the Catholic, Protestant and Muslim faiths.
Even before the poor met Bonifacio they shared, it seems, his manner of thinking about reform.
In the two periods, the poor learned how to analyze their situation to find what was truly good for them and what was the common good; to make strategy and tactics; and finally to have the courage to act in a mass-based, democratic and nonviolent manner, including in electoral politics. Add the inspiration of Bonifacio and you have a people ready for reform.

The urban poor are the challenge today to the patriotic forces. The poor desire reform more than any other sectors of the population because they have so little of power and wealth now. Many have the experience and capability to work for reform.

I would have ended my remarks at that meeting by quoting the words of Jesus: “The harvest is great, but the laborers are few. Pray the Lord of the harvest to send more workers into His fields.” (Lk. 10:02)

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates.

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