The Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuit Curia in Rome


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Offering Alternatives to Enable Institutions to Work for the Poor

Multi-stakeholder networking

Anna Marie A. Karaos


The governance of cities is one of the most pressing challenges facing many poor and developing countries today. As the competition for resources intensifies, many of the poor in the world’s cities find themselves marginalized and deprived of access to the most basic need for survival – land for housing. Governance entails balancing social and economic needs and making sure that the weaker sections of the population, which in poor countries comprise the majority, have access to the resources available. The organized, informed mobilization of poor people, supported by professional and middle class groups and international networks, could help put pressure on governments to accomplish this.

   In many poor countries, the urban population is growing so rapidly that a large number of city dwellers live illegally on either state-owned land or private estates. This unplanned and unregulated movement of people, mostly poor families who migrate to the cities in pursuit of employment, has given rise to many urban informal settlements whose residents have no legal tenure. Being illegal, the people of these communities are entitled to hardly any of the government infrastructure and services; worse, they have to contend with the constant threat of eviction.

   Urban informal settlers thus constitute one of the largest categories of poor people in a country like the Philippines. Today they number roughly 14 million out of the country’s 80 million people – that is, about a third of the total urban population. High national unemployment rates imply that many of the urban poor are casual workers or self-employed and therefore highly dependent on their proximity to urban business centres for their livelihoods. Given their lack of assets, poor education and limited skills, they hardly earn enough to meet their basic needs.


The struggle for land


Metro Manila, the largest urban centre in the Philippines, was home to some three million squatters or informal settlers when the people’s uprising of 1986 erupted to pave the way for the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. The “People Power” revolt, as it was called, was largely an urban phenomenon and triggered the invasion of unused and unoccupied tracts of land in the metropolis by large numbers of poor families. They expected the new government installed by the revolution would issue a decree for some form of land redistribution.

   Confronting a government openly committed to democracy and testing the limits of the new democratic space created by the change of regime, popular movements actively mobilized on many issues affecting the marginalized sections of Philippine society. The first important social legislation under the new democratic order was an agrarian reform law enacted in 1987. The law directed the redistribution of agricultural lands to qualified tenant-farmers and set ceilings on the ownership of agricultural land in the country.

   Although the law itself fell short of what the peasant federations wanted, its passage signalled a recognition of the need for some form of social redistribution in Philippine society; this was seen as an imperative of democratization. Inevitably, with the passage of an agrarian reform law, the distribution of land ownership became a central theme in the mobilization of popular movements at the time, including that of the urban poor.

   Encouraged by the passage of the agrarian reform law, organized communities and federated urban poor organizations, began to intensify their clamour for land reform in the cities. The idea of urban land redistribution, or urban land reform, thus rapidly became a rallying point and a basis of unity for these groups. Increasingly, discussions were undertaken on the topic by different groups, some of which engaged in their own lobbying to influence legislators to pass an urban land reform law.


The inhumanity of forced evictions


In the beginning, the largely uncoordinated and dispersed lobby efforts did not put enough pressure on the lawmakers to make them give the issue their serious attention. Then in September 1990, a particularly violent eviction happened involving a poor urban community occupying a privately owned piece of land in the vicinity of the national legislative building. About a hundred families were rendered homeless and two lives were lost after a 200-man demolition team, sent by the mayor and backed by military men, descended on the community without prior notice or a proper court order. The demolition crew mercilessly tore down the people’s homes, ignored their pleas for dialogue, and carted away their belongings. The people took refuge in a nearby church where a Jesuit, Fr. Joel Tabora SJ, was priest-in-charge.

   Fr. Tabora who was then with the Institute on Church and Social Issues (ICSI), a Jesuit social centre which had been undertaking research on housing for the urban poor, immediately met the politically outspoken Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin and the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference Committee on Urban Land Reform. A pastoral exhortation from the Cardinal came out afterwards, enjoining the lawmakers to pass the urban land reform bill.


Social centres and advocacy coalitions


As Church support for the urban poor lobby was mobilized, the Jesuit social centre ICSI worked on the consolidation of the people’s urban land reform lobby. Gathering the different urban poor organizations interested in the issue and linking them up with sympathetic NGO allies and middle class supporters, ICSI catalyzed the formation of the advocacy coalition Urban Land Reform Task Force (ULR-TF). The ULR-TF, formalized in April 1991, constituted a technical committee in ICSI together with other NGO workers; this committee then coordinated the coalition’s activities and drafted in legal language the provisions to be lobbied for by the coalition.

   An unprecedented mobilization of urban poor groups, supported by numerous professional and middle class groups and the Church, emerged and lobbied the Congress and the Senate. So strong was the social movement brought together in this lobby effort spearheaded by the ULR-TF, that in less than a year from the coalition’s formation, the Urban Development and Housing Act (UDHA) was signed into law in March, 1992.


What did the law change?


As with the agrarian reform law, the law that came out of the urban land reform lobby was not the ideal legislation that the urban poor had hoped for. For one thing, it did not directly legislate the redistribution of urban land. Nevertheless, there was substantial progress achieved in terms of providing the urban poor access to land, housing, secure tenure and protection against demolitions.

   The law mandated the conduct of an inventory and the allocation of land by local governments aimed at ensuring that there was adequate land where the urban poor could build their homes. Private subdivision developers were also required to set aside twenty percent of either the land covered by their projects or of the total project cost for socialized housing. Socialized housing is a category of housing the cost of which has a ceiling set by the government and whose beneficiaries are poor informal settlers.

   Equally important was the provision which protected informal settlers from arbitrary and inhumane evictions and demolitions. After all, it was a tragic demolition which triggered the intensification of the urban poor lobby for a land reform law. The UDHA decreed that no demolition could be carried out without a proper court order, consultations with the community, 30-days notice and most important, without provision of relocation for the displaced families. For the first time, there was legal protection accorded to urban informal settlers.


Multi-stakeholder support in getting the law implemented


As difficult and trying as the lobby for the passage of UDHA had been, it was still the easier part. Getting it implemented has proved to be the more challenging and protracted stage of the struggle. Until the present time, thirteen years after the law was enacted, ICSI continues to advocate for the full and faithful implementation of certain provisions of the law.

   Among these are those concerning eviction and relocation. Although the law requires the provision of relocation for displaced families, this is not observed in all cases. Nevertheless it can be rightfully claimed that there are today fewer cases of demolition without relocation, particularly in the case of government-sponsored infrastructure projects, which usually result in massive displacement of informal settlers.

   In this regard, the role of international organizations in raising the standards of relocation assistance and making sure that government observes these standards has been particularly crucial. Aside from advocating directly with housing agencies implementing relocation projects, ICSI has been negotiating with, and urging the foreign donor institutions that finance infrastructure projects to be mindful of the quality of relocation assistance given to displaced families. The Institute has also been monitoring and evaluating resettlement projects to determine the impact of resettlement on affected families. The findings are given to government implementing agencies and foreign donor institutions. These studies have shown that distant relocation caused long-term impoverishment for some particularly vulnerable families, even though the majority are able to cope after a few years.

   For this reason, ICSI has adopted a two-pronged advocacy strategy supporting in-city relocation: first, by helping local governments find ways of making this possible; and second, working with urban poor organizations that assist communities in high-risk areas to acquire land through saving and accessing development funds. ICSI is a part of a network of NGOs that has also been involved in facilitating the implementation of slum-upgrading projects in different cities of the country by urban poor communities. This is done with the help of NGOs and local governments, with funding support from multilateral agencies. This multi-stakeholder approach is being documented, studied and refined through pilot projects for eventual replication.


Brokering partnerships and building capacities


Given the magnitude of the problem of urban homelessness, it is important to involve various players and institutions in the common agenda of providing the poor access to land, housing and secure tenure. There are today many models derived from various countries of institutional arrangements for housing the poor involving partnerships among communities, NGOs, local governments, professionals and funding institutions. Needless to say, most important is the continuous organization and mobilization of the poor themselves so that they can play an active role in steering the development of their own communities. But what is also needed is the dissemination of knowledge of these arrangements, and building the capacities of the different actors so that they have the needed competencies to assume their respective roles. ICSI is continuing its advocacy work along these lines. Networking has been a crucial competence needed in such work.


Anna Marie Karaos
Executive Director
Institute on Church and Social Issues
2/F ISO Building
Social Development Complex
Ateneo de Manila University
Loyola Heights,
Quezon City 1108