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close this bookNational Experiences with Shelter Delivery for the Poorest Groups (HABITAT, 1994, 140 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentFOREWORD
View the documentList of acronyms
View the documentEXECUTIVE SUMMARY
View the documentINTRODUCTION
Open this folder and view contentsI. SHELTER AND THE POOR
Open this folder and view contentsII. HOUSING THE POOR
Open this folder and view contentsIII. SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
View the documentBIBLIOGRAPHY


The access to adequate housing as a basic human right is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Still, at least 1 billion people do not have access to safe and healthy shelter. The informal sector and individual self-help play prominent roles in the provision of shelter. It is thus possible to identify key areas of intervention and to suggest guidelines for support strategies. The heterogeneity of developing countries, however, makes it less sensible to work out detailed common strategies. General policies must be specified for particular communities or cities, and they should be tailored to the needs of the poor. Account should be taken of different cultural, social and environmental conditions.

The manifestations of poverty are similar throughout the urban areas of the developing world, although on average the conditions of life may be somewhat better in Latin America than in Asia and Africa. This applies especially to basic infrastructure such as water taps, street lights and roads. Moreover, it is difficult for the poor everywhere to escape from their poverty, given the economic, social and political situation in most developing countries, as basic causes of their poverty are often beyond their control. Yet, most of the poor are actively and innovatively seeking to improve their livelihood and living conditions; they respond rationally to the limited opportunities open to them in their housing situation. Spontaneously-built shelters of waste materials are improved over time with only minimal support from local authorities or NGOs.

One of the major principles of the Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000 (GSS) is the enabling approach, the facilitation of actions of all present and potential participants in the shelter production and improvement process. The introduction of enabling shelter strategies implies a change from policies of intervention to policies of liberalization. By granting security of tenure to the poor, removing restrictive legal and bureaucratic controls on housing production and providing greater incentives to private-sector and household investments, the value of land and housing has increased.

This process of “commercialization”, however, makes investment in land and housing more attractive to large-scale capital. Unless supply constraints are reduced there is a danger that property-ownership will become more highly concentrated, prices may rise, and the poor may find it even more difficult to gain access to the kind of housing they want. In any market, choice is a positive function of income. The consequence is that the very poor often have no choice in housing at all. Deregulating land and housing markets that already operate imperfectly is therefore a complicated matter. If attempted without adequate safeguards to protect the poor, it can reduce, rather than improve, the range of choices available to them, in direct contravention of the goals of the GSS. Unless governments take the necessary action, liberalization of housing markets may not produce the beneficial results to the poor which are expected of it. Thus, although liberalization is a necessary condition for the success of the GSS, it is by no means a sufficient one.

There is a potential conflict inherent in the enabling approach, between the need for liberalization (“freedom to build”, private-sector incentives and so on), and the need for regulation (to correct market imperfections, curb speculation, and ensure an adequate supply of housing to low-income groups). This conflict is a particular illustration of the more general dilemma facing all economies that aim to be both socially equitable and efficient. Historically, markets have been good at allocating scarce resources, but much less successful in promoting equal access, especially where incomes are unequally distributed. It is therefore not surprising that early attempts to initiate the enabling approach to housing have come up against the same problem.

If governments decide to liberalize human settlements policies without including safeguards to ensure housing for the poor, the housing options of the poor will not improve substantially because they might be excluded from access to essential inputs, especially land and finance. On the other hand, if the State intervenes too heavily, incentives to private and household sector production will decline, so reducing the quantity and quality of housing made available. At a sectoral level, it has proved very difficult to balance viability with accessibility and equal distribution in the land and finance markets, in cost recovery, and in rent control. In all these areas, there is a very fine balance to be struck between liberalization and intervention, and this balance will vary from one situation to another. It is no exaggeration to say that the successful implementation of the GSS in the future depends on the ability of governments to find and maintain this balance over time.

The experience with enabling shelter strategies reveals the fact that in a number of cases the introduction of enabling shelter strategies have actually damaged the housing choices of the poorest groups. At the level of the individual settlement, upgrading often drives out those who cannot afford the costs imposed by higher housing standards and service charges. Likewise, land-sharing, rehabilitation and resettlement programmes often have negative effects on the ability of very poor families to remain when shelter and the environment are improved and commercialized. Wherever me supply of housing inputs falls behind demand, access to home-ownership declines and more and more low-income families are forced into rented accommodation. If these supply constraints continue to grow, conditions in the rental market deteriorate as rents increase, housing quality falls, residential densities rise, and property-ownership becomes more concentrated. In fact, among those experiences that have been identified as successful very few have succeeded in involving and including the poorest households.

Those cases in which the very poor have benefited have come about only through deliberate action on the part of government or of the community concerned, usually in the form of direct subsidies and/or special assistance. This implies, as was stated in the new National Housing Policy in India, going beyond the enabling strategy to delineate government's role as provider, to take care of the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable sections who cannot secure affordable shelter under present-conditions and need direct government help in the form of land, housing inputs and employment opportunities. In other words, there is probably no solution other than direct assistance from governments for those who cannot (or are unlikely to) be reached even by the enabling approach.

This is not an argument for abandoning the enabling approach just because people are very poor. The search must go on for ways of making housing inputs accessible to all, however difficult this may be in practice. It does, however, underscore the responsibility of governments to intervene more forcefully on behalf of those who cannot participate in enabling strategies because of absolute shortages of skills and resources. The plight of the poorest and the facilitation of participation by the not so poor are, in many ways, connected. In fact, it is only by enabling the not so poor to help themselves that governments can make resources available to assist the poorest groups.

We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the following to UNCHS (Habitat)'s work in the preparation of this publication: Mr. Jan Hesselberg for the global research and the evaluation of the country case studies, and Mr. Amitabh Kundu (India), Mr. E.F.N. Ribeiro (India), Mr. Herlianto (Indonesia), Ms. Yusilianna Yoewono (Indonesia), Mr. Luis Shez de Carmona (Mexico), Ms. RocLombera Gonzalez (Mexico), and Mr. B.O. Achunine (Nigeria), in the preparation of the case-study reports.

Wally N'Dow

United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat)