Locally led urban development: an experiment in change

On city streets in the global South, every day marks a struggle for the poor to secure an accountable, effective government. Many of the lowest-income residents work in the informal sector — street vending, rickshaw pulling, providing domestic service or doing contract work. Hundreds of millions of people live in informal settlements — up to 80 per cent in some cities — where tenure, water, sanitation and other basic services are provided informally.

Government officials and politicians frequently penalise these people — evictions, prosecution and demands for illegal payments are a part of daily life.

Addressing this systemic disadvantage is difficult. Although there have been many donor-led attempts to encourage more accountable governments, they have had little success.

This programme shows that change by the people, for the people, can really happen. If you build on communities' existing strengths and give them the tools to act, negotiate and form new relationships, you can make change happen. Somsook Boonyabancha, ACHR, Thailand

ACCA is experimenting for change in a new age. Allowing communities to make mistakes is an important component of enabling them to learn how to be strong, how to deal with governments, how to develop systems that work. Ruby Papeleras, community leader, Barangay Payatas, Philippines

The purpose of this experiment for change is to show the way for development in the twenty-first century. Across the world, the people in charge can’t manage to get communities on the ground actively involved. If we can find a way to work with the urban poor then the same approach could be used by people at large.Somsook Boonyabancha, ACHR, Thailand

We have to trust ourselves because we are the solution. It doesn’t matter how many times we fall down and pick ourselves up. We must trust ourselves and build community processes in our countries. We have solutions for all our problems. We are the solution. But if we don’t believe in our own capacity to think and act, we will not be able to bring about change. Ruby Papeleras, community leader, Barangay Payatas, Philippines

ACCA is helping to transform the concept of city development to reflect poor peoples’ views. The relationship between communities and government has changed.  The government used to see themselves as a donor — now we are working as equal partners. We are making city development more of a pro-poor initiative. Somsook Boonyabancha, ACHR, Thailand

ACCA has helped set up the city fund. Communities and government both contribute to the fund and together decide how the money will be used. This equal status has strengthened partnership between communities and government.Lajana Manandhar, Lumanti Support Group for Shelter, Nepal

Working together is a must for poor communities. That's their very strength. Without solidarity among themselves they would not have been able to achieve so much. And that's the lesson that other, richer, communities are now learning from them.Lajana Manandhar, Lumanti Support Group for Shelter, Nepal

Neighbourhood action

Members of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) have now found a formula that is securing policy reform. The key ingredients, it seems, include building on existing strengths and knowledge, and enabling local groups to take control of their own environments: set priorities, design strategies and implement solutions on the ground.

Asian Coalition for Housing Rights

Supported by IIED with funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ACHR’s Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) has financed local groups to undertake small projects to improve their neighbourhoods across 18 countries in Asia. More than 4,600 groups are involved, bringing together more than 200,000 members, organised through savings.

Since the early 1990s, ACHR has worked in the region to build saving networks and strengthen communities’ capacity to manage money and make communal decisions. This latest initiative builds on existing strengths, processes and the experience of all stakeholders in the region to enable local groups to co-finance, design and implement neighbourhood improvements that respond to the priorities of their communities.

In many cases, these groups have chosen to build pathways and bridges that connect their informal settlements to the formal city and, in so doing, make themselves visible and present. Other groups have chosen to improve water supplies, build community centres or sanitation blocks or establish other local services. It’s only been two years but together, these projects are already benefiting 185,000 households.

A second set of ACCA initiatives includes housing projects, which reach a further 7,604 households and provide more comprehensive improvements in their living conditions including secure tenure, housing and basic services.

More than US$10 million has been invested in these projects to date. On average, the communities themselves provide a quarter of the funds needed for each project, with the state providing another quarter and donors making up the remainder. But in many cases, governments provide additional support: for example, in more than half (54 per cent) of the housing projects, it provides free, or leased, land. In Cambodia, all eight of the big housing projects to date are on land given free by the government.

Power from partnerships

These projects address material needs but equally important is their ability to press for better government policies, programmes and regulations. Through them, local groups have gained the tools to build new relationships and more effectively negotiate for benefits. Some of their successes include negotiating communities’ entitlement to manage their own upgrading in Vietnam, the first ever long-term leases to squatters in Lao PDR, and the extension of house registration to squatters in South Korea.

A key strength in ACCA’s approach comes from the power of partnership. More than 100 city networks have been established across 13 countries, linking local groups so that they can share learning and experience to improve technologies and local management, pool savings and negotiate with city governments.

Another major strength is ACCA’s commitment to engage government and build partnerships between citizen groups and the state. 349 politicians and officials have been involved with meetings and exposure events and a further 89 mayors and governors have participated in activities related to these community efforts.

By working together, communities are learning new skills and capabilities, while governments are recognising that those who live and work informally are equal citizens, able to contribute to their own development.

Stats that stand up

ACCA’s locally led activities to improve neighbourhoods in Asian cities include:

  • 639 small projects, run by local groups

  • 213,365 group members

  • US$15,474,852 in collective community savings

  • 192,604 households that are benefiting

  • US$10,498,129 investment by communities, governments and donors

These projects have also stimulated new partnerships and engagement in Asian cities, including:

  • 118 city networks of local groups

  • 113 partnerships between citizen groups and the state

  • 438 government representatives engaging with community efforts

  • 70 joint community-state funds

Online extra

Lajana Manandhar reflects on ACCA's impact on city development in Nepal


Ruby Papeleras from The Philippines talks about the importance of empowering local communities


Lajana Manandhar explains the benefits of city funds


Somsook Boonyabancha considers the strengths of the ACCA programme


Internal links

No easy, quick solutions to improving life in the "slums"

Urban poor transform slums in 100+ cities in 15 Asian nations

External links

Asian Coalition for Housing Rights

Asian Coalition for Community Action