Making dreams come true in Bangkok

Posted: 12 June 2001

Author: Peter Charlesworth

Author Info: Peter Charlesworth is a freelance writer and photographer, and People & the Planet correspondent in Thailand.

Rampant development in the Thai capital of Bangkok has left 1,000 slum communities out of account. But now an imaginative government initiative, with enterprise leadership, has brought new hope to the city's poorest million. Peter Charlesworth sent these words and pictures.

Sung Vieng's life has changed since she bought her own motorcycle powered rubbish collection cart. "I used to pick up discarded vegetables for my three children from the floor of the local market after it had closed," she said while unloading stacks of empty cardboard boxes from her tricycle cart. "Now I can buy meat and vegetables like all the other shoppers," she added proudly. Sung ViengSung Vieng with her rubbish collection cart.© Peter CharlesworthTwo years ago Sung Vieng used to rent a pedal-powered cart and was lucky to make US $4 a day buying scrap paper, metal and other recyclable trash. Owning her own vehicle was an impossible dream. No bank would have talked to her about a loan and local money lenders would have charged her in excess of 240 per cent per annum.

Community development

That solution changed when the Thai Government took a unique step to help the urban poor. It set up an Urban Community Development Organization (UCDO), with authority to give income generating loans to poor people. With no collateral Sung Vieng was able to borrow $600 for her own motorised cart. "My income has doubled," she said with a smile.

Like Sung Vieng, almost 12 per cent of Bangkok's eight million people live in the 1,000 slum communities dotted around the city. While Bangkok's skyline has been transformed in recent years, with a constant sprouting of glassy office towers, fancy hotels and innumerable condominium projects, the rapidity and unplanned nature of this development has had its price.

There is little doubt that the Government and much of Thai society is keen to keep this prosperity drive at full throttle even if it means that many human, environmental and community development issues are left far behind in its wake.

Bangkok's infamous traffic nightmare may be the most conspicuous affliction of an economic growth rate that is still running at over 8 per cent, but a serious pollution problem, a lack of infrastructure and a breakdown in Thai society's traditional structures have all contributed to the city's woes.

The Urban Community Development Organization was established by the Thai Government in 1992 after various studies concluded that in order to help the urban poor, a fund was required to finance community organizations. Armed with a budget of US $50 million, the UCDO has set about its aims of increased and secure incomes, appropriate housing with secure rights, improved environment and better living conditions for those left behind by Thailand's wild economic development. Soomsook BoonyabanchaSomsook Boonyabancha, Deputy Managing Director of Urban Community Development Organisation© Peter CharlesworthSomsook Boonyabancha, who participated in the initial study groups and has worked as Deputy Managing Director of UCDO since its inception puts it this way: "We need to find a way to make social development more efficient and more in balance with the runaway economic development."

By using a mechanism of 'Credit' the UCDO has already benefitted over 160 communities comprising more than 13,000 families with loans totalling US $16 million.

Helping the poor

Of the range of different credit schemes provided by the UCDO, housing loans have proved to be most important. "One of the most fundamental problems for the urban poor," explains Somsook, "is a conflict of interest between the landlords who have the might of money and the law on the one hand, and the landless poor who have little but insecurity and the threat of eviction on the other."

With over 70 per cent of Bangkok's slums located on privately owned land, Somsook feels that in an ideal situation the Government should be acting as intermediatory between the two parties to help form compromises such as land sharing, "however the Government has far too much vested with economic development and thus the landlords." Without doubt the UCDO has helped fill this void. As Somsook puts it, "we are an alternative institution with a somewhat ambiguous role, we are a bit like a NGO, yet we are in reality a part of the Government."

Somsook sees UCDO's ultimate success in instances whereby loans or deals cut with landlords have enabled urban poor communities to purchase all or part of the land they occupy or to relocate and build on other land which they then own. She claims that the security of land-tenure combined with community-based management structures has led to some remarkable changes in the communities' development.

"The UCDO may provided the loans and may have helped bring the players together," Somsook explains "but the communities did the rest themselves. They learnt from it, they became stronger and they are now the core of their own development". As the hands-on administrator of an organization that has ostensibly a lot of authority, Somsook feels she has managed to spread this power to a much broader level.

A former architect, Somsook Boonyabancha reflects that in the past she was trying to fit people into her designs, "now I am more concerned with finding out about people's way of living and can thus help them make housing to fit their needs. This is a far bigger challenge than being an architect."

"My philosophy," continues Somsook " is that you must shrug off the reality of an economic development that leaves so many people behind; economic development is a fact. The challenge is how to create a situation, a process, whereby people can change their own lives and gain strength in the process; this is the solution."

For Sung Vieng's community the solution is simple, a loan from UCDO so that they can buy their own land just north of Bangkok. The small community of garbage collectors soon faces eviction from the dusty lane, near one of Bangkok's main roads. Once overgrown fields, the area has become sought after real estate. "Maybe soon another of my dreams will come true," said Sung Vieng "I will own my own house."