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close this bookPromoting Organized Self-help through Co-operative Modes of Participation (HABITAT, 1984, 61 p.)
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View the documentIntroduction
Open this folder and view contentsPart one eight major requirements for cooperative approaches to community improvement programmes
Open this folder and view contentsPart two four problem areas as subjects for training
Open this folder and view contentsPart three the organization of training programmes
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences for further reading


Housing the poor is one of the current problems in the cities of developing countries. Many Governments of developing countries, faced with enormous housing demands in urban areas as a result of rapid population growth and massive migration from rural to urban areas, initially based their housing programmes on the large-scale housing projects undertaken in developed countries after the Second World War. Those projects were launched in order to provide shelter to the low-income urban population, in the hopes of stopping the rapid growth of squatter settlements in the cities and improving the living conditions of the urban population.

However, many of those housing schemes fell short of their objectives, for they proved to be too expensive for the people they were designed for. Sometimes high-income households displaced the intended beneficiaries from the start; in other cases, low-income families sold the houses after some time, because they could not afford or comply with the payment schedules. Furthermore, Governments found that subsidizing such schemes depleted public resources at an alarming rate.

Since a reduction in the capital cost of housing from the point of view of Governments and user groups alike appeared to be necessary, the idea of self-help construction was advanced. If beneficiaries assumed part of the labour component in the development of housing schemes, a considerable reduction in the cost of housing units could be achieved. Furthermore, self-help construction could generate beneficial side-effects. People would have an opportunity to learn useful skills and, thus, improve their position on the labour market. Households persuaded to pool labour and financial resources for construction of their houses could also contribute to community cohesiveness in newly developed residential areas.

However, initial self-help construction schemes proved to be less successful than anticipated. Many low-income families did not construct their houses within the time required. Only those families that had enough money to hire labour were in a position to complete their houses according to schedule, thereby undermining some of the ideas of self-help and community development. 1/

Self-help construction projects have not avoided criticism and opposition. Some critics identify self-help construction as a form of (self-) exploitation of the poor and a means of subsidizing the formal sector by reducing pressure on wages. Others point to the fact that, in self-financing housing schemes, the urban poor pay proportionally much more for infrastructure and services than the rich inhabitants of a city. 2/

Another fundamental criticism is not so much aimed at self-help construction schemes as such as at government policy on housing in general. In the view of John F.C. Turner, housing that is not adapted to the needs and resources of the occupants becomes oppressive. Unless the user is in control of the design, construction and maintenance of his shelter and is free to build according to his real and perceived needs and priorities, the dwelling environment becomes a barrier to personal fulfillment and a burden on the economy. 3/

In that view, the authorities responsible for the provision of housing should not set out specifications of what should be done and lay down procedures to be followed. Instead, they should set limits to what may be done, leaving the builder free to operate within those limits. The main role of the authorities is to ensure access to essential resources, such as land, credit, building materials and know-how.

That people are able and willing to participate in the development of human settlements can be witnessed in many squatter settlements which constitute a living environment adapted to the priorities, needs and resources of the urban poor. The settlements look miserable to the outsider, mainly because certain infrastructure cannot be provided by the squatters, and some environmental problems (e.g., sanitation) cannot be solved by them without external assistance. However, this can be expected, as long as they do not have security of tenure, since squatters are reluctant to invest very much in their houses and environment.

Studies of squatter settlements and public-sector housing show that the pride of squatter families in their houses and settlements compares favourably with that of occupants of standardized housing units. While the former do their utmost to improve their housing conditions, the latter often have an attitude ranging from neglect to mismanagement, vandalism and, even, abandonment of the dwelling.

The example of squatter settlements has led to two types of low-income housing projects, sites-and-services schemes and squatter-settlement upgrading projects.

In sites-and-services schemes, the allottee acquires a plot of land serviced with basic infrastructure: simple roads, communal water taps, pit latrines etc. Sometimes, a part of the house (kitchen, toilet or "wet wall") has already been provided. Often, planners prepare a number of house-design options for the allottee to build, but the allottee is free to follow another design, as long as certain basic standards are met. The allottee usually receives technical assistance for the construction work and financial assistance in the form of building-material loans. Co-operation between households for the construction of the dwellings is encouraged.

In squatter-settlement upgrading projects, the initiatives and the self-reliance of the squatters are rewarded by the legalizing of the settlement through the issuance of titles. Furthermore, the living conditions in the settlement are improved by the provision of basic infrastructure. Upgrading of the dwelling itself is left to the occupants, as the security of tenure resulting from the issuance of leases or other occupany instruments should be sufficient incentive for the residents to invest in the improvement of their houses.

The idea that people should participate in the planning and management of human settlements has gradually gained acceptance among Governments and development agencies. Unfortunately, the allegiance to participation remains verbal in most cases first, because participation implies sharing of power and, secondly, because participation is often difficult to promote. In project proposals, three arguments are usually employed to advocate the incorporation of participation in the execution of the projects:

(a) Participation is an end in itself. People have the right and duty to participate in the execution (i.e., planning, implementation and management) of projects which profoundly affect their lives;

(b) Participation is a way to produce good project results. If neonle Participate in the execution of a project by contributing their ingenuity, skills and other untapped resources, everyone benefits, implementation is facilitated, and the outcome responds to the needs and priorities of the beneficiaries;

(c) Participation is a self-reinforcing activity which stimulates people to seek participation in other spheres of life. Participation builds up a self-reliant and cooperative spirit in communities and is a learning process whereby people become capable of identifying and dealing actively with their problems.

However, when it comes to putting the theory of participation into effect, authorities and project staff raise numerous objections, and argue that participation is impossible or has to be restricted to some form of consultation. Many professionals believe that they know better what is good for the allottees of a sites-and-services scheme or the residents of a squatter settlement than the "ignorant" and "illiterate" people themselves. Other professionals feel that they know exactly what the beneficiaries want, so there is no need to involve them in planning and decision-making. The problems in many low-income housing projects prove that those assumptions are rarely justified. Very often, the real reason for limiting or discarding participation is the unwillingness of professionals to share their decision-making power with beneficiaries.

Moreover, those project staff members dedicated to participation face many problems as they attempt to mobilize the population. Years of neglect by the authorities and of contempt by professionals have rendered many of the urban poor reluctant to participate in governmental programmes or to cooperate with professionals. They distrust the intentions of public authorities and have become apathetic towards government initiatives. That attitude of the population is, subsequently, used by administrators and professionals as an argument to abandon the idea of participation.

Finally, many building codes, municipal bylaws and other rules and regulations, often formulated for the development of middle-income and high-income residential areas, hamper the involvement of beneficiaries in the execution of projects.

The most visible and striking evidence of the possibilities of popular participation in human-settlement development does not come from people's involvement in the execution of official housing projects but from the development of squatter settlements. Those settlements originate with people in need of shelter taking the law into their own hands by occupying a vacant piece of land and building their houses without permission of the authorities or titles to the plots. It is the basic form of self help: residents' participation in planning, implementation and management. It is that type of participation the authorities try to imitate in sites-and-services schemes.

Once established in possession of land, squatters start demanding legal recognition of their settlement and provision of adequate infrastructure and services, and those demands are usually expressed in an organized way, through representatives and politicians. Likewise, when threatened with eviction and the demolition of their houses, communities organize themselves, leaders emerge, and concerted efforts are made to influence decision-making with respect to the settlement's future. Although the first initiative for such activities may be taken by people from the settlement itself, effective movements rarely develop without some outside assistance. Sometimes, support comes from a political party which wants to turn the demands of the squatters into a political issue and cash in on it later. Often, community workers, employed by a non-governmental organization or even by a public body, assist the community in organizing itself, creating leadership and formulating demands.

The methods used to influence decision-making vary widely. They normally start with the submission of petitions to the authorities and the enlistment of politicians to plead the case. In most societies, those are accepted ways for citizens to influence decision-making. If, however, those ways are closed or prove ineffective, other methods may be employed, ranging from demonstrations and strikes to civil disobedience and riots. Such activities are often considered subversive or seen to be interfering with the decision-making process. In either case, they are perceived as being outside the legally and socially accepted channels. They are what authorities bear in mind when trying to restrict community participation in human-settlement projects, in the fear that, once a community is permitted to participate in the execution of a project, the people will resort to "undemocratic" methods and will start demanding participation in other spheres of life.

The circumstances in official housing projects differ from those in spontaneous settlements. People in squatter settlements are struggling for survival and are prepared to employ any means to defend their houses and settlement against demolition, while, in official housing projects, the goods will be delivered, provided the beneficiaries cooperate with the authorities. So, there is little incentive for the people to organize themselves and to participate in project execution,

Furthermore, in official housing projects, participation is initiated and controlled by the authorities. Its inclusion is internally defended with the argument that it guarantees a smooth implementation of plans and decisions and a quick attainment of project objectives.

To organize the community and promote cooperative forms of participation, community development workers are added to the project staff, but their role is quite different from that of community workers in slums and squatter settlements. Their task is to organize community participation when and where it is considered important by the project staff to facilitate the execution of the project. If they do more than that, and stimulate people to participate as much as possible in all phases of the project, they risk being criticized by the other project staff for slowing down the project instead of getting plans and proposals quickly endorsed by the beneficiaires.

Community-development workers, therefore, often occupy a rather marginal position in the project. They find themselves repeatedly in conflict with the technical staff which believes that its plans and proposals are the best. They encourage beneficiaries to participate in planning and decision-making, but they know that the final decision-making power remains with the project authorities. Many beneficiaries are aware of this ambivalence, and it makes them reluctant to spend much time and energy on community participation.

Background to and objectives of the present publication

It has been widely recognized that, in light of the sheer magnitude of the shelter problem, participatory forms of development activity constitute an important strategy, in the developing countries. Yet only in exceptional cases have the inhabitants of uncontrolled urban low-income settlements, 4/ such as slum and squatter-settlement dwellers, organized themselves effectively for co-operative undertakings. Most efforts to improve the living conditions of the urban poor have been limited to the provision of dwelling units, although experience indicates that such a sectoral approach is not appropriate. Rather, an integrated approach, embracing interrelated sectors such as housing, health, employment, education and transportation, may have a better chance of succeeding.

The realization that co-operative forms of development activity are important ways of effecting change in urban slums and squatter settlements, led to the holding of the Workshop on Integrated Cooperatives for satisfying the Basic Need of Shelter in Slum and Squatter Areas, at Marburg (Federal Republic of Germany) in December 1980. 5/ Participating in the Workshop were specialists from different governmental and non-governmental housing and co-operative organizations from 13 African, Asian and Latin American countries. The main topics addressed were the operational requirements for establishing and managing housing co-operatives under different socio-economic conditions, with emphasis on self-help in groups and comprehensive or integrated approaches to development.

The discussions focused on simple forms of cooperative-like organizations*/ accessible to local people - e.g., organizations which encourage active participation of their members by giving each of them the chance to play a role in decision-making and control. Such simple forms of local organizations have to satisfy different needs and, therefore, imply the need for different types of activities. The workshop participants proposed specific recommendations for such organizations in terms of social, organizational and financial requirements, and institutional support. The participants concurred that, for the functioning of such multipurpose organizations, participation of the people concerned was essential.

In the light of that premise, participants evaluated experiences gained from a number of projects, in order to try to develop a meaningful effective and comprehensive concept for co-operative and other self-help organizations. They also discussed some of the political implications of cooperative forms of participation. It was agreed that, in order to raise levels of participation, community leaders and competent authorities have to play a role in training and educating slum and squatter-settlement dwellers in different aspects of organized participation in housing activities.

* Mutual self-help can be achieved through a variety of institutions which enable low-income groups to participate in the development of their communities, whether it be new construction, upgrading or other goals which they wish to achieve. Those kinds of institutions are often referred to as "cooperatives". A distinction should be made between cooperatives which are legally registered under relevant legislation in a specific country and other groups which have similar objectives but which are not legally incorporated. In many countries, the world "co-operative" can only be used by registered co-operative societies. In the present report, institutions registered as co-operatives are discussed in the case studies dealing with Palo Alto (Mexico), LEHCO-OP (Lesotho) and Barrio Escopa (Philippines).

The essence of a co-operative, in addition to the legal requirement, is that membership is voluntary, that it is owned and democratically controlled by the members and that members benefit equitably from the economic and social activities of the co-operative. Other institutions have similar characteristics but may not be co-operative in the strict legal sense - for example, they may be too informal at an early stage, be part of another hierarchy (e.g., government or political party), not wish to be associated with existing cooperatives in other sectors owing to their perception of political or bureaucratic control of co-operatives, or find that specific co-operative legislation does not accord with their goals. However, many such institutions enable low-income groups to participate effectively in self-help.

Owing to its interregional nature and its wide scope, the Marburg Workshop was not able to explore in depth the prevailing needs for teaching materials and training programmes. Therefore, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, the German Carl-Duisberg-Gesellschaft and non-governmental organization German Development Assistance Association for Social Housing, organized the subregional Workshop on Teaching Materials and Training Programmes for Co-operative Modes of Participation in Slum and Squatter Settlements, which was held in October 1981 at Nairobi. At the subregional level, it was possible to deal specifically with the discussion and evaluation of appropriate teaching materials and training programmes, in light of the practical needs of ongoing projects for the urban poor. The present publication was prepared on the basis of the two Workshops with the following objectives in mind:

1. To assess the requirements of the co-operative approach to improving human settlements in the light of project experiences.

Long-term experience with housing projects all over the world and the exchange of ideas based on studies of criteria for the success and failure of such projects usually conclude that there is a set of specific requirements that must be met by self-help organizations in integrated housing activities if they are to have a chance of being successful. The discussions held during the two Workshops mentioned above and the papers submitted by the participants demonstrated clearly that those requirements cannot be assembled as a fixed and rigid system but rather must be a collection of indicators. In reality, the implementation of projects differs so widely with regard to culture, legal situations, political aspects, size, finance, technology etc. that general conclusions have no meaning in single-project situations. That is why the recommendations included in the present publication are supported by case studies offering concrete examples of the practical implications. The case studies are based on papers that were submitted by the participants of the two Workshops.

2. To identify the training needs in integrated co-operative projects for human settlements in slums and squatter areas and to analyse teaching materials and training programmes which can strengthen participation in cooperative forms of development.

This second objective, covering four problem areas as subjects for training, is treated in part two of the present publication.