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
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,
UPDF and SUPF.
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."