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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - New strategy to assist growing numbers of slum dwellers

New strategy to assist growing numbers of slum dwellers


Men Chamnan says the strategy worked well for the people in the Meanchey community.


s increasing numbers of people make their way to Phnom Penh, the need to take care

of the city's growing population of urban poor grows more urgent. The need for action

was highlighted in a survey conducted in December 2002 which showed the number of

people living in slums has increased tenfold in the past decade.

The report, which was carried out by the Urban Poor Development Fund (UPDF) and the

Solidarity and Urban Poor Federation (SUPF), shows the capital now has 564 slums

in seven municipal districts. Three hundred thousand people - or one-quarter of the

population - live in these burgeoning slums. Only ten years ago there were 187 slum

areas with 30,000 people.

Peter Swan is the senior technical advisor for the city's Urban Poverty Reduction

Project, which works with the municipality to help improve the lives of the urban

poor. He says the number of people headed to the capital will undoubtedly increase

as poverty and a lack of opportunity drive people away from rural areas.

"The problem has started, but it is still manageable," says Swan. "But

if the municipality doesn't start to plan for the increasing number of urban poor

now, it will find itself with an enormous problem in five years."

One pre-emptive solution, says Swan, is for central government to encourage companies

to invest their money into provincial capitals, not just Phnom Penh. But that still

leaves the question of what to do with those already here.

Somsak Phonphakdee is the representative for a regional NGO, the Asian Coalition

for Housing Rights (ACHR), which was established in 1988 with help from relocation

experts from India, the Philippines and Thailand.

ACHR opened its office in 1993 to assist people repatriated from refugee camps on

the Thai border. Phonphakdee blames much of the increase over the past ten years

on landgrabbing by powerful people in rural areas, the growing number of demobilized

soldiers, and lure of garment factories for the rural unemployed.

"The slums were formed near factories to accommodate those workers cheaply,"

says Phonphakdee. "[In rural areas] powerful people kicked others from their

land, while demobilized soldiers came to work as motodup drivers."

ACHR urged people in these fast-growing areas to form their own communities as a

solidarity measure, and to organize savings schemes in preparation for any eventual

eviction by the municipality.

Seventeen slum communities joined the program in 1995. Today 180 communities are

involved. Savings schemes set up through the program are now worth 270 million riel

(around $71,000). Another 50 communities have saved 60 million riel in a similar

program run by UPDF.

The need for better treatment for the plight of the urban poor was emphasized in

late 2001 when 20,000 people lost their homes in two successive slum fires. They

were dumped miles out of town on land that had no piped water, no electricity, and

miles from jobs, schools and health clinics.

Peter Swan says the municipality's action caused widespread suffering and a decline

in incomes and health. It also didn't work: half eventually returned to other slum

areas in the city.

"It was a mistake to do aid relief and emergency relocation at the same time,"

says Swan of that time. "They put the people on the rice fields without water,

electricity, medical services or sanitation."

The municipality's chief of cabinet, Mann Chhoeurn, counters that the city had no

choice. Land in the capital was simply too expensive and the governor was worried

about the consequences of another fire.

"It was a matter of having no other option," Chhoeurn says. "But the

government would never ignore them. It does not mean we dump our people, and the

municipality still builds the infrastructure for them."

But not every experience was as badly managed as that one. Both the municipality

and NGOs say they have learned valuable lessons over the past decade.

In 1999 and 2000 the municipality did a decent job when it relocated slumdwellers

during development work in Chamkar Morn district. The municipality consulted directly

with the people affected before drawing up its relocation plan.

The need to move the families, who had been living by the roadside since the early

1990s, stemmed from a project to repair the city's sewage system. It marked the first

time the municipality had approached such a task using a comprehensive strategy.

Residents of the new community at Meanchey, which is now home to 500 people in Stung

Meanchey commune in the city's southwest, say their lives are markedly better as

a result.

Fifty-eight-year-old Kim Thay says she regularly faced eviction from the authorities

when she was living on the roadside. Other people in the area discriminated against

the road-dwellers and made them feel unwelcome.

Now she lives with her five children in a simple brick house on their own plot of


"People used to spit at us and look down on us," she says of those times.

"The authorities always tried to evict us. I felt so worried and didn't know

what to do. But these days I am much happier living here - it's so much cleaner."

Kim Thay says her living conditions are much more comfortable than those endured

by residents at the relocation sites of Anlong Gong and Anlong Kngann. Part of the

reason is that she has access to electricity and water; another is that she is still

living near the city and can make a living.

Men Chamnan, who represents the SUPF in Meanchey, attributes the success directly

to the municipality's effort to consult before relocating people. Chamnan says the

former governor, Chea Sophara, ensured the people were asked whether they wanted

to live in Meanchey, and consulted with NGOs for their opinions on housing and infrastructure

needs. The municipality then bought the land, and the NGOs laid out the site with

plans for roads, drainage and wells.

In the final stage of the relocation, UPDF loaned each family $400, enough to build

a simple brick house. UPDF is a microfinance NGO that works in partnership with the

municipality, ACHR, other NGOs, and development agencies.

To date UPDF has awarded housing loans worth $350,000 to more than 800 families in

eleven communities in Phnom Penh. The total capital - which has now increased to

$620,000 - came mainly from ACHR and the municipality.

UPDF manager Sok Visal says that among the families now benefiting from the loans

are fire victims relocated to Anlong Kngann. Interest on the loan is 8 percent annually,

with repayments made over five years. That is far cheaper than loan sharks or microfinance


"UPDF is not like a commercial bank," Visal explains of the low interest

rate. "It was set up to help develop the livelihoods of people, as well as the

right to housing and land."

In sum, say urban development professionals, the city has improved its treatment

of relocated slum dwellers. And in theory at least, better is to come. The municipality's

Mann Chhoeurn admits the relocations to Anlong Kngann and Anlong Gong were badly


At the end of last year the city fixed on a new strategy: Upgrading existing sites

rather than following the old policy of trying to find new land on which relocated

people can live.

To that end, says ACHR, it is drawing up a City Development Strategy (CDS), an over-arching

plan to help the municipality deal with urban resettlements. Somsak Phonphakdee says

the strategy was a joint effort between ACHR, the United Nations, the municipality,


At the heart of the policy is participation by the poor in city developments that

affect them. The CDS should be finished by the end of May, and will then be sent

to the municipality for review.

The vice-governor, Chev Kim Heng, says the strategy's broad objective is to cut poverty

- in line with the national program of poverty alleviation - and improve the conditions

of those living in the city. Another advantage of the plan, he explains, will be

a map showing land available for future settlements.

Peter Swan says one clear benefit of the new approach will be cost savings, given

the rocketing price of land in Phnom Penh.

"Relocation is a long-term issue," Swan says. "If it is not done properly,

people will not stay. On many occasions in the past they have given people land in

the wrong places. It is better to let them stay where they can earn money."



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