Context-based, place and culture-centric approach incentivize collaborative community action
By Samira Bashar
Slums are where the urban poor ensure their access to housing and infrastructure. However, countries of the Global South treat slums as eyesores and threats to a ‘modern’ and ‘developed’ society. To upgrade these “pathological” spaces (Kamete, 2012), countries pursue slum upgrading projects with the help of international donors, aid organizations, and NGOs, but with mixed success. In Bangladesh, where 55% of the urban population lives in slums (World Bank, 2014), government-initiated slum upgrading projects have turned into failures. However, some redevelopment projects initiated by local or international NGOs have made significant progress in improving the quality of life for slum dwellers while sparking community participation in the process.
In Dinajpur, Bangladesh, the NGO Simple Action For the Environment (SAFE) worked with a local day-laborer community in the slum of Jogen Babur Maath to improve residents’ conditions through housing and infrastructural development. Jogen Babur Maath was developed on land once owned by a Hindu family who fled during the partition of India and former East Pakistan in 1947. The land was reclaimed in 2010 and the government provided land tenure and limited infrastructure services for people evicted from other slums. Currently occupied by 500 low-income families of varied professions, Jogen Babur Maath is known for being the largest producer of Poppadum (a type of snack). Women in this community collectively run the Poppadum business.
Most slum upgrading and redevelopment projects initiated by the government in Bangladesh seek to relocate residents into modern and ‘legal’ spaces. These initiatives have proven to be failures, since such low-income, marginalized populations cannot meet the economic requirements of this legalized system. The case of Jogen Babur Maath illustrates the importance of place-centric efforts in slum upgrading, demonstrating the role of community-led design to foster alternative ways of community building. As Benjamin (2008) suggests, slum residents usually attempt to destabilize development projects by using their “vote bank politics” to claim their right to the land. However, in Jogen Babur Maath residents already had land tenure, which prevented interference by local officials in the decision-making process. The community members felt more comfortable expressing their views since the process was driven by an NGO that was not accountable to local governance structures. Community members also made a tremendous effort to protect their cultural values and identities in the different phases of the project, from creating prayer spaces in individual housing units to developing a community-based management system for the new sanitation and drainage facilities.
This slum up-gradation project can be seen as an archetypal attempt at upgrading the “pathological” spaces (Kamete, 2012) of slums through technological and design discourses. These discourses assume that the slum environment can be improved by the right use of technology and design (Cirolia, 2017), and this emphasis might have ensured the engagement of international donors in this case. SAFE worked in collaboration with its international partners to build prototype housing models in an attempt to show how the overcrowding problem could be solved. However, even though SAFE’s work was informed by a technological and design discourse, this project also addressed the power dynamics within the community. To ensure that the community continued to make progress even after the completion of the NGO-driven project, representatives from the community were elected with full voter turnout from the community (Azuko.org).
The more intangible values associated with place attachment and placemaking also served to build community support for the project. Community values and assets were documented through interactive surveys and interviews and further discussed through community-based design and capacity building workshops. In their research, SAFE found that 98% of the population have a sense of belonging to the community, 62% have assisted other community member, and 93% have provided emotional support. As suggested by Shamsuddin and Ujang (2008), such a high level of place attachment is critical for achieving sustainable built environment goals and demonstrates the value of slum improvement premised on intangible place-based values.
This case can also be analyzed through the critical lens of Miraftab’s concepts of “invited” and “invented” spaces of citizenship (Miraftab, 2009). The project first emerged through an invited space of citizenship which aimed at fostering coping mechanisms of slum dwellers within the civic system. Then, spontaneous community participation turned this project into an invented space of citizenship where community members decided to upgrade their infrastructure and housing by themselves. Instead of depending on the municipality for improved roads and sanitation, they decided to secure funding through participatory budgeting within the community. People were even willing to give up space in their part of the settlement to facilitate the development of drainage systems.
As Calvacanti (2007) points out, modernist, ethnocentric perspectives of modernization and development are often imposed by external actors. But in the case of Jogen Babur Maath, SAFE respected the community’s decision-making processes and ways of living and explored ideas that would strengthen their existing system of wealth-building (through creating improved spaces for poppadum making and using locally available, cost-effective materials for housing prototypes) and collaboration (creating communal spaces for community activity). This case thus illustrates the importance of learning from communities to ensure active and democratic participation in the development process.