Urban Edginess

Where the City Meets its Future.

Category: Problems of the Urban Poor in Bangkok

Innovations in work: Leapfrogging the digital divide How Technology was used to bring back a traditional craft and restore the livelihood of members of the Pradit Torakarn community in Bangkok.

Absence of necessary and appropriate technology could be an apt definition of poverty. Deficiencies in technology whether in sanitation, health care, safety or communication impoverishes people and their community. The greater the lack, the more extreme the poverty.

Over the past few years, access to modern communication technology for the poor has changed from an aspiration to a necessity.

The Telecenter Movement as adapted in Thailand shows some promise to bringing that technology within the reach of the urban poor to better their lives and their job prospects. The Telecenter Movement an international movement, initiated to establish telecenters in less developed countries to provide ICT skills and knowledge primarily to poor and marginalized communities.

In Thailand, beginning in 2007 Ministry of Information and Communication Technology took the lead in developing the country’s Telecenters. Then, the Ministry promulgated the Knowledge Based Society strategy that focused on developing ICT skill and knowledge. Besides the ministry’s involvement, the Research Centre of Communication and Development Knowledge Management (CCDKM) assists in the development of websites supporting the ICT Telecenters. Two of which thaitelecentremall.org or e-Shop and aseanhomeworkers.org promote community products and assist the poor, especially women at home, with training for the workplace.

One of these Telecenters, the Pradit Torakarn Telecentre, is located in Bangkok near Kasetsart University. The Pradit Torakarn neighborhood is a migrant community of people from other parts of Thailand whose livelihood depended on the fabrication and sale of kitchen utensils and flatware. The members of the community had migrated to this neighborhood over the past few decades to continue to practice their craft in a location where they hoped that they could earn a better living than in the communities they left behind and by so doing pull their families out of poverty. They moved into a neighborhood in the shadow of the great Chatuchuck Market, Bangkok’s largest and most successful crafts market, in hopes of attracting to their stalls nearby some of the legions of Thais and tourists who thronged through the market.

Recently they found themselves in deepening financial straits. With the recent political and economic difficulties experienced by the country and the closing of the Market because of disputes over ownership of the land and operation of the Market, their livelihood disappeared. Many stopped producing their products and had to find other ways of making a living. Presently, there are only 10 households producing bronze craft.

To expand the business opportunity for this traditional handicraft, ICT training was provided to the community. The training consisted of instruction on how individuals can use the technology and facilities of the Telecenter. Along with the bronze craft people other home workers from the neighborhood also brought their products, such as textile bag, crystal accessories and plastic woven baskets and learned how use the technology to market their products also. Following the training the Pradit Torakarn Telecentre provided the community marketing assistance and access to their sites so that the community could promote their products through e-commerce.

Director of CCDKM, Dr. Kamolrat Intaratat described different types of Telecenters in Thailand;

Accessible Telecenters: enhances ICT accessibility of all people; especially those living in rural and remote areas.

Multifunctional Telecenters: provides ICT facilities, (e.g., internet, computer and other peripherals) to develop individual and community capability in e-learning, e-shop and e-commerce, e-governance and e-service and so on. Potential

Development Telecenter: develops sustainable ICT potential of the community. More than 1000 Telecenters have been set up throughout Thailand.

Over the past few years the concept of a telecenter have evolved to include a broad mix of activities. While the centers are still places where people can learn how to use computer technology and provide the equipment for individuals and organizations to use, like a community internet café. Some of these centers have begun to be used as gathering places for the community as well, a sort of a high-tech community center.

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT FOUNDATION MERCY CENTER: Helping the Poor in Bangkok

Klong-Toey Market, Bangkok

Klong-Toey Market, Bangkok (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Among the many community organizations providing services to the poor and the residents of informal communities in Bangkok, I am especially fond of the HDF Mercy Center. Begun in 1973 with the opening the first Mercy School in the Slaughterhouse neighborhood within the dismal Klong Toey slum in Bangkok,

Beginnings:

HDF Mercy Center began in the Slaughterhouse area of Klong Toey, Bangkok’s most notorious slum. It was the brainchild of Father Joseph Maier and Sister Maria Chantavarodom. Fr. Joe, as he is affectionately called, was the parish priest for the Catholics that butchered the pigs in the district. Sister Maria began teaching the children of the Slaughterhouse at a school she set up in a seldom used holding pen for the pigs. According to Fr. Joe,

“In its early days, almost fifty years ago, the Slaughterhouse [in 70 Rai] actually was a safe and fairly healthy place to live. … Seven years ago, it all began to unravel. Authorities decided that the old method of butchering pigs, the way we had been doing it for generations, was not hygienic, and that it was time to move the Slaughterhouse. No work meant no cash for food. … The Slaughterhouse residents were told they would soon have to leave, that they were being evicted from the homes and shacks that their families had homesteaded for over fifty years — that they had no rights. … Authorities tore down the pigpens and cemented them over as a massive parking area for the trucks that carry products to and from the adjacent Klong Toey Port. … With the trucks came their drivers seeking drugs, alcohol and temporary female companionship. … The authorities would provide housing in new suburban slums outside of the city, miles and hours away from where they could earn a livelihood…. “ Maier, Fr. Joe. (2005). “Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse: The Battle for Human Dignity in Bangkok’s Bleakest Slums.” Singapore: Periplus

The HDF Mercy Center website describes these early days best:

Klong Toey slum railway

Klong Toey slum railway (Photo credit: trevorsoh)

“Sr. Maria and Fr. Joe turned a slum shack into a one-baht-per-day preschool for every child in the Slaughter House, children of all religions. No child was turned away. Thus (without saying so or calling itself anything) began The Human Development Foundation. Now, today in 2012, there are twenty-two Mercy Kindergartens with over 2,500 slum children going to school. Alumni of the first Slaughter House kindergarten are teachers, executive secretaries, nurses, taxi drivers, and butchers. Many are now married with their own children attending proper schools. Dead-end, throw-away slaughter house kids no longer.”

Today

Today, the Human Development Foundation and Mercy Centre charity is responsible for thirty-two preschools that have taught more than twenty thousand children how to read and write. it also operates six shelters for abandoned, abused and orphaned children. In addition, it sponsors over 500 of the poorest neighborhood children to attend primary and secondary school as well as 12 children to attend colleges and universities abroad.

The charity provides home-care for the poor for over 500 patients living with

Klong Toey Porter

Klong Toey Porter (Photo credit: Mark Fischer)

AIDS in Bangkok helping them maintain their strength and remain productive members of their family and community. It also provides counseling and free access to medicine to over 10,000 high risk individuals/year

HDF has repaired, renovated, and constructed over 10,000 homes for elderly and indigent and slum communities devastated by fires in Bangkok slums and fostered small business start-ups, emergency low-interest loans and aided the physically disabled to secure employment, and legal benefits.

For those who may want to learn more about HDF Mercy Center or are interested in assisting it in its work I encourage you to go to their website at:http://www.mercycentre.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=frontpage&Itemid=1&lang=en

Further Reading about Klong Toey and Fr. Joe

For anyone looking to dig deeper into the world of Bangkok’s slums, in addition to Father Joe’s book mentioned above, “The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions and Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok” by Greg Barrett, with a forward by The Most Reverend Desmond M. Tutu Archbishop Emeritus is a good place to begin. According to Publisher’s Weekly:

“Barrett, a veteran journalist, records the inspiring work of Catholic priest Joe Maier in Bangkok’s slums. Drawn to service in Thailand on a whim, the misfit American seminary student found a calling among the Thai downtrodden, even living in the slums himself. . . . many of the stories are memorable, from the tragic (street toddlers, happily schooled at Mercy, later dying there of HIV/AIDS, to the triumphant (Mercy graduates who attend college abroad and are able to climb out of poverty.”

Public Space in Informal Settlements in Bangkok: Bottom up Planning.

English: Wat Arun Bangkok View Photo D Ramey L...

English: Wat Arun Bangkok View Photo D Ramey Logan ” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bangkok a city of contrasts.

Bangkok Thailand is a city of gleaming skyscrapers, elegant shopping centers, spectacular temples and picturesque neighborhoods surrounded by vast areas teeming with those who have left somewhere else in hope of somehow securing a better life. Many of these migrants huddle in informal settlements of often self-built shelters, mired in poverty at times as great as that they have left behind. But, they have two things going for them. One as old as ever in the hearts of most immigrants, hope. The other just as old but requiring renewal wherever the poor and destitute gather, the urge to build a new sense of community where they now choose to live. Few things focus a community’s sense of itself better than its public spaces. In Bangkok today several communities of poverty-stricken migrants, aided by governmental and private organizations, have begun to coalesce around improvements to their public spaces.

Bangkok is a riverine city located on at the center of a vast floodplain. It became Thailand’s capital 300 years ago because its rivers and streams, marshes and wetlands appeared to afford superior defensive capability and better trade and commerce opportunities than the nations prior capital located a few hundred kilometers to the north destroyed by the Burmese, traditional enemies of the Thais.

The internal combustion economy prompted the filling in of many of the canals, wetlands and minor streams to accommodate the motor cars and the industries dependent upon them. Except for the extensive industrial port complexes and a few luxury hotels the city turned its back on its rivers and few remaining canals leaving them as little more than refuse strewn sewers.

Migrants and Informal Communities proliferate.

As Bangkok grew into one of the worlds great megalopolis of over 13 million people crowding into the flood plain along the banks of the Chao Phraya river, a new type of invasion inundated the city. At first people from the rural areas of the country, then the poor of Burma, Laos and Cambodia flooded into the city looking to better their lives and to bask in the excitement and bright lights of the metropolis.

Many of these migrants pressed themselves into large informal settlements along the now mostly forgotten riversides and canals, living in often makeshift housing in extensive slums with poetic sounding names like Klong Toei, Bang Bua Klong, Managkasila and Soi Sengki. In 1997, when the Bangkok Metropolitan Area was smaller than it is today, an estimated over 300 informal settlements existed, housing more than one and a quarter million people (Pacific Consultants International Suuri-Keikaku Co.Ltd., 1997).

With the emergence of the middle class and the exponential growth of international tourism during the past few decades, attention focussed again on these forgotten waterways as underperforming resources. Slum clearance along their banks commenced as both public and private interests sought to realize their long forgotten benefits. Some of these informal communities resisted and with the assistance of both public and non-profit organizations such as Community Organization Development Institute (CODI), Baan Mankong, The Durang Prateep Foundation, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and many others began to fight back.

Closed environments of the dispossessed.

In Bangkok, like in many other cities, there were primary issues of fundamental importance to the poor communities, such as land tenure, adequate housing, health care and public space. (not jobs so much, the migrants were there because the job opportunities were better here than where they came from. The job issue in Bangkok is one of quality not quantity).

Why is public space, about which this post focusses so important? Because public space is not just parks and open space but includes streets, sidewalks and many other means by which residents interact with each other and the outside world. It affects community and individual health as well as their prosperity. One of the hallmarks of the traditional slums is that they are so often the closed environments of the dispossessed.

Bang Bua Throng: grasping for identity and pride.

The citizens of Bang Bua Throng, a mostly migrant community, located on the northern fringes of the Bangkok metropolitan area recognized that restoring access to and along the waterfront for the entire community could increase distribution of economic benefits to community members. It also would help to focus community identity and pride.

The Bang Bua Throng neighborhood contains about 3.400 families crowded up against the Bang Bua canal. The community, mostly on its own, formed an informal network called ‘Klong Bang-bua Environmental Improvement Network’ in 1999 that organized activities supporting the improvement of the canal and environment. They began earning money by selling recycled wastes collected from within the community. They then pooled the money to embark of community enhancement programs like, fire training for the locals. The Network also negotiated with the land owner (Treasury Department) and related agencies in support of their efforts to securing land tenure for the residents. This activism had its effect. Others took notice.

After addressing the endemic land tenure and housing issues, the community through bottom up planning and with the CODI and the Baan Mankong program’s assistance contributed to the design of a walk-way along the length of the canal. Unlike many waterfront designs, this was not simply an aesthetic venture providing a venue from which to contemplate the beauties of the adjacent canal, but a working access-way. Designed with the needs of the community in mind, it was wide enough for the movement of necessity vehicles but narrow enough to discourage it from being used as a substitute for the adjacent street. It was open for those in the community to use and enjoy as well as the residents of the city at large. It became a focal point of community pride.

Following the implementation or these programs in the community, Kuhn Prapaat a community leader remarked:

“We were a real slum before! There were drugs for sale, and lots of outside organizations did their drugs trading here. There were kids sniffing glue and paint thinner.” “ Back then, a lot of the houses were built on stilts right over the canal, and when one of these houses would collapse – which happened a lot – we would say, that is your problem, not mine!” (Slum Regeneration Bang Bua Bangkok. Veruan Blake)

Some criticism has been leveled that these initiatives like the new walk-way could encourage gentrification, as though preservation of what previously existed had some overarching merit. Gentrification is negative generally only when the existing residents fail to participate in its benefits or if it occurs with such rapidity residents cannot prepare and adapt to it.

Thonglor: ingenuity rewarded.

Other informal communities in the city also recognize the importance of public space to their revitalization. Adjacent to the Thonglor Police Station there are 43 households squatting on a piece of unclaimed land between two property walls only a few meters wide. Cleverly designed homes lean on existing infrastructure and achieve extremely high densities while also providing adequate ventilation for the residents. Narrow walkways outside of the homes have become extensions of interior space and facilitate commercial activity throughout the community. The residents exhibited additional signs of ingenuity by collectively making improvements to the public spaces with salvaged construction material. Again, their efforts have been noticed.

Plans are being made in conjunction with the International Program in Architecture and Design (INDA) of Chulalongkorn University to expand the community’s public space to create a flexible gathering space for the community to use throughout the day and provide a clear entry point to this otherwise obscured community. This space could also accommodate after-school activities for children as well seating for community meetings to further enhance their lives.

A community’s pride in its public spaces equates to its pride in itself.

Providing public spaces are not often seen by the members or a community or even outside observers as important to the improvement in the lives of low-income residents. They are sometimes looked upon as extravagances. What these two examples demonstrate is that a communities pride in its public spaces often equates to its pride in itself. Without that pride the alienation generated by poverty is not relieved. Those most successful lacking any attachment will then often leave the community and further impoverish it.

To enhance that sense of pride and identity design of public spaces should begin by building into the design the needs and wishes of the nearby community. Investment in public space should benefit the existing community directly. Public spaces should be designed to be open to all, the surrounding neighborhood as well as the larger urban area.

Security and informal settlements: Bangkok.

Thai people

Thai people (Photo credit: Cak-cak)

Crime in Thailand and in Bangkok:

Several sources rank Thailand among the more crime ridden countries in the world (The Eighth United Nations survey on Crime Trends and the Criminal Justice System (2002), Amnesty International and others). As in many urban areas, this high level of violence, drugs and crime falls heavily upon the poor. In Bangkok, it falls especially hard on the almost 1 million people living the informal settlements that dot the city. The United Nations Seventh Congress on Criminal Justice in a Changing World indicates that there is a statistical relationship between crime rates and migration of the poor into informal settlements in urban areas where the exigencies of survival in their current environment shreds whatever sense of community they may have had in the neighborhoods they left behind.

Proposed solutions to the lack of security experienced by members of informal settlements.

Most programs to address crime focus on helping individuals gain the resources to enable them to leave behind the slums with their endemic crime and poverty. Others believe that amelioration of the crime problem in these informal communities is a matter of more and better policing. Still others believe providing and enhancing infrastructure and health programs to the community could turn the tide of despair and violence.

No doubt each approach needs to be part of the whole solution. Nevertheless, without community building, it seems clear that these informal settlements of the poor and migrants will remain breeding grounds for crime. Security of any kind for residents of informal and poverty-stricken communities begins with the recognition by the residents themselves that they are in fact a community and that they can do something about what happens to it.

While there are a number of community building organizations at work in these neighborhoods of Bangkok, none seems to have crime suppression as a major or primary goal. Perhaps this is a function of the ubiquitous nature of the national police system in the country. On the other hand, it also may be the endemic lack of the basic elements of a sense of community that stunts the growth of this essential indication of a vigorous self-assured populace.

BAAN MANKONG PROGRAM

Although Thailand lacks institutions or organizations focused on public safety and crime suppression outside of the national police system, some programs and organizations in Bangkok build into their operations mechanisms that encourage informal settlements assume control of their destinies and by so doing address their unique security needs. One of the most successful and vibrant initiatives of this type is the BAAN MANKONG PROGRAM.

The Thai government set up BAAN MANKONG in 2003. According to the organization’s spokespeople, the program channels government funds (infrastructure subsidies and housing and land loans) directly to urban poor community organizations. The program allows urban poor communities to be key actors in the housing and other upgrades to their community.

The members of the community control the funding, manage the projects and carry out the improvements. They also undertake most of the building activities themselves, which means most of the funds would remain within the community and work as seed capital for additional investments in housing and community.

Bangkok’s 1,200 urban poor settlements house almost a third of Thailand’s urban poor spread across 50 khets (districts). BAAN MANKONG regards each district as a city. every district does its own survey, forms a joint committee with all key actors and develops a 3 year upgrading program.

The BAAN MANKONG program promotes more than physical upgrading. The communities design and manage their own physical improvements. This helps stimulate deeper but less tangible changes in social structures, managerial systems and confidence within the poor communities affected.

The BAAN MANKONG differs from more traditional approaches to community building in that:

1. The community through their own local organizations controls the funding and the management as well as undertakes most of the building. Government agencies are no longer the planners, implementors and construction manager delivering for beneficiaries. The community now assumes those roles.

2. The community’s needs as defined by the community shapes the nature and amount of funding.

3 Secure land tenure for the residents is negotiated locally in each case through a variety of means such as cooperative land buy, long-term lease contracts, land swaps or user rights..

4. It stimulates changes in the community’s social structure in many areas including crime suppression.

An example of the effect of a BAAN MANKONG project on Bangkok’s informal settlements took place in the Ramkhamhaeng area in Bangkok. Two initial pilot projects sparked off a larger development process involving seven other communities.

The first was Ruam Samakkee, a squatter community of 124 families occupying 0.8 hectares of Crown Property Bureau land. After forming a cooperative and developing a new layout plan for two-story homes with architects, the community negotiated a 30 year lease.

The second was at Kao Pattana where 34 families lived on a marshy 0.8 hectare site also belonging to the Crown Property Bureau. The residents planned to build their own homes on this site but found the landfill cost too high. Seven other communities joined them to prepare a redevelopment plan providing for over 1000 households on 40 hectares in the area. Working with the landowner, the project created new residential areas linked to markets and parks. Although the plan involves reblocking in some areas and relocation nearby in others, everyone will remain in the area with long-term leases through community cooperatives.

Unfortunately for Baan Mankong, the new government suspended funding while it reviewed priorities. About 3 billion baht (Approximately $100 million) remain from the original 6 billion baht authorization.

Recently, about 100 members of the Four Regions Slum Network (FRSN) gathered at the Department of Social Development and Welfare, pressing the government to fund the Baan Mankong instead or another program that focuses on middle-income housing. Nevertheless, a representative for the government indicated that it intends to accelerate spending for the program.

Who is safe? What does in mean to be safe?

One question that can always be asked when analyzing the nature and extent of security available to the poor and the destitute living in the slums of most large cities is, from whom are they to be secure; other residents, outsiders or those ostensibly entrusted with providing that security? Perhaps even more fundamental is the issue of security from what; violence, hopelessness, sickness, fear or something else? In many, if not all cases, these questions are answered best, not by which physical security system the community adopts but rather its ability to grasp control of the means to secure its own protection.

Crime in Thailand and in Bangkok:

Several sources rank Thailand  among the more crime ridden countries in the world, right up there with South Africa, the USA and Columbia (The Eighth United Nations survey on Crime Trends and the Criminal Justice System (2002), Amnesty International and others). According to some reports, Thailand is the #1 producer of opium and heroin in the world. A major transit  point for those drugs is the capital Bangkok. Last year Bangkok had reported, 20,000 assaults, 13,500 burglaries, and 5,000 murders.

As in many urban areas, this high level of violence, drugs and crime falls heavily upon the poor. In Bangkok it falls especially hard on the almost 1 million people living the informal settlements that dot the city like acne on the face of a teenager. The overcrowding and social dislocation experienced in these informal communities are a catalyst for some of their most common difficulties. Problems, such as poor housing and infrastructure, improper waste removal and drainage systems, lack of clean water supply and abundant diseases, contribute to the plight of the residents, exacerbate hopelessness felt by the them and contribute greatly to those communities susceptibility to the plague of crime and violence.

The United Nations Seventh Congress on Criminal Justice in a Changing World indicated that there is a statistical relationship between crime rates and migration of the poor into informal settlements in urban areas where the exigencies of survival in their current environment shreds whatever sense of community they belonged to in the past

Proposed solutions to the lack of security experienced by members of informal settlements:

Most programs to address crime focus on helping individuals gain the resources to enable them to leave the slums with their endemic crime and poverty behind. For example, the Urban Neighbors of Hope (UNOH) primarily provides support to assist children in the hopes that through education some of them can rise above the despair and poverty, leave it behind and take their place in the wider world.

Some believe that amelioration of the crime problem in these informal communities is a matter of more and better policing. Usually the government and the existing police rely most heavily on this approach.

Others promote providing and enhancing infrastructure and health programs to the community. They believe that these programs could turn the tide of despair and violence.

No doubt each approach needs to be part of whole. Nevertheless, without community building, it seems clear that these informal settlements of migrants and of the poor will remain breeding grounds for crime. While there are a number of community building organizations at work in these neighborhoods of Bangkok, none seems to have crime suppression as a major or primary goal. Perhaps this is a function of the ubiquitous nature of the national police system in the country. On the other hand, it also may be the endemic lack of the basic elements of a sense of community that stunts the growth of this essential indication of a vigorous self assured populace.

Some of these elements are well known. They include, for example, defensible land tenure for the residents and community managed and designed public spaces.

As programs like BAAN MANKONG bring revitalization and control over their environment to the informal settlements, we can hope that they will cease to be someplace to escape from, but a home to which one will be proud to return to.

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