Towards Developing Responsible Co-Responsability in the Social Production of Habitat in Latin America



The “Research Project on Governmental-Non-Governmental Organizational Relations in the Field of Human Settlements” (GONGO) is coordinated by Habitat International Coalition, with support from the Netherlands government The central task of the project has been to document and analyze cases related to urban popular settlements in which there has been an interaction between governmental organisms (be they de-centralized agencies, those of central governments, or local governments) with non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) and popular organizations (POs)

The cases presented by the Latin American region represent an interesting sample of the variety of initiatives being carried out by NGOs, preferably in coordination with popular organizations, and of the many ways in which they interact with governmental agencies. [1]

This “cross-reading” of documented cases brings to light a number of reflections based on these experiences, as well as on the general situation of cities and popular habitat in Latin America.

1. The Context: Urbanization and Precarious Habitat Conditions in Latin American Cities

The urbanization process in Latin America has been characterized in recent decades by rapid rates of growth, cities have not accommodated the impact of such expansion, nor have they made preparations for the future Popular sectors have been most affected by this dynamic: they live in precarious housing and lack vita) services

The economic crisis suffered throughout the region in recent decades has left its heavy, indelible mark on all areas of life Cities have had limited resources for maintenance and for new investments, the number of unemployed has increased, there is less private investment, and the norms and values necessary for human community have been transgressed, giving way to all sorts of violence.

The provision of urban services and housing for the popular sectors represents one of the greatest challenges facing our cities, likewise is the challenge of achieving more equitable, democratic, efficient and environmentally sustainable forms of urban development

These challenges represent a collective social responsibility which, within the city taken as a whole, defines roles and forms of participation for the various social agents and institutions within forms of consensus This is only possible within an environment in which democracy is promoted and deepened and priorities are defined to guarantee social justice, equality and liberty

The Precarious Conditions of Habitat in Latin American Cities

In Latin American cities today, habitat (housing and urban services) deficiencies continue to be suffered by the popular sectors. Dramatic difficulties are faced in the struggle to gain access to decent housing and basic urban services such as water, electricity, sewage, drainage, garbage management and transportation

Habitat is deteriorating and deficiencies are growing rapidly Public works and investments are not keeping up with demand, nor are they equally distributed throughout the city Problems-and their solutionsare not experienced in the same way by all urban inhabitants some areas enjoy decent services while others (the great majority) nave been practically left to their own devices. The problem is not that inhabitants lack the necessary will or initiative. Rather they find themselves forced to live in such places because they nave no other options for buying or occupying a plot of land upon which to build their dwellings Insufficient income, land speculation, and segregational urban policies and practices are at the root of this phenomenon

Popular neighborhoods are generally subjected to all sorts of disadvantages: services are expensive and access to them is difficult, land tenure is insecure, housing produced on precarious incomes does not usually provide decent living conditions, popular neighborhoods are extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and precarious environmental conditions, centers of employment, education, health and other social services are most often far away

In spite of the territorial environment of these settlements, we nevertheless find that they have an enormous potential for cooperative action and management for habitat improvement The richness and multiplicity of their survival strategies demonstrate that potential Any strategy for improving popular habitat and for managing the city it self should consider these inhabitants as an invaluable resource.

2. Reflections on Cities and Popular Habitat in Latin America obstacles and Options for Resolving the Problems of Popular Habitat

The problems of cities and of urban popular habitat in Latin America are, in most cases, enormously difficult to resolve within the traditional framework of governmental practice and formal market mechanisms.

On the one hand, bureaucracy, corruption, political patronage and the lack of creativity within the governmental sector have rendered it inoperative in relation to the magnitude and nature of the habitat demands of the popular sectors. On the other hand, the private business sector, whose logic is based on the search for profits, does not orient its efforts towards low-income sectors.

In this context, popular sectors nave developed their own strategies and mechanisms to resolve these vital needs Meanwhile, in recent years, NGOs [2] have emerged in the region as an important option for supporting popular habitat-related activities, although their programs nave been limited in terms Of size and impact

Popular processes implemented with NGO support quite often seek to embody the principle that:

“Projects should contribute to the development of autonomous social agents who are capable of representing themselves and of managing that which affects them based on their own interests; they should be able to interact from a position of advantage with other agents whose logic is different from their own ” [3]

Institutions and the Development of Popular Neighborhoods

One of the conditioning factors for projects for popular habitat development and improvement involves the responsibilities, which should supposedly be assumed by the institutional] world (central and municipal governments, the private sector and NGOs) in relationship to popular organizations [4]

One must be extremely careful when examining the political nature of the relations of the institutional world toward community-based organizations Political interests and shifting priorities often determine such relations, these may eventually lead to systems of political patronage which often penetrate and enmesh themselves in a community’s own forms of organization

On the other hand, we must note that within the region there are no explicit, strong and integral policies for territorial management, nor for the management of human settlements and housing. Activities in these areas have usually been noted for their improvisation, shortsightedness and desire to satisfy the needs of systems of electoral patronage Likewise, institutional systems related to housing and human settlements notably suffer from dispersion on the one hand and from an endemic overlapping of functions and authorities on the other

The Challenge of Solving Institution-Related Problems

Institution-related problems pose a number of challenges which must be resolved if the obstacles presented by institutional policies and practices are to be overcome

Democracy and participation must be promoted to guarantee negotiated agreements among the various actor s involved in popular habitat.

This will necessarily require stimulating community management, in order to facilitate local planning and action, rationalize the use of human and financial resources, reduce waste and overcome obstacles within the public sector.

This means that a new mentality must be generated within the public sector so that procedures be made more flexible The public sector must also recognize that democracy must be based on an authentic process of citizen participation (in this case on the part of popular sectors) in planning and decision-making processes related to inhabitants’ interests and realms of authority.

Processes of “de-centralization” and “democratization ” must be given content and meaning so that they favor the habitat improvement efforts of urban popular sectors.

The meaning and content given to processes of de-centralization and democratization depend upon the particular stand taken, and this necessarily involves the political realm

The de-centralization of authority and of the allocation of financial resources for community management depends upon how levels of power are defined Thus we are speaking of how power might be delegated, or better still, how it might be transferred to various levels of government and to organized popular groups, so that those who are closest to a problem can nave the power to express their opinions and make decisions related to that problems.

Democratization via de-centralization presupposes an integral approach to urban realities. From this perspective, in order to improve habitat conditions, the relationship between planning and management must be recognized on the macro and micro levels. The community dimension-in its territorial, social, economic and cultural sensesbecomes the key link in these processes, since social agents, with their own forms of organization, are the ones who are most interested in seeking solutions to their problems [5].

Popular urban settlement planning and management processes must be strategic.

In order to be strategic, the planning and management of popular neighborhood development must necessarily overcome the traditional concept of “projects” under the direction of technical and bureaucratic personnel seeking to impose their own limited ideas. In their stead, “processes” are needed, processes which are sustainable over time and which heed the rhythms of real social Dynamics [6]

It is important that communities make these processes their own. This strategy requires developing a framework, which would promote partnerships among the various actors involved. Economic, social, cultural and physical planning must be an integral part of local development, the community must be involved in the design and implementation of physical, economic and social plans, municipal plans must integrate community proposals, community planning/action must be promoted, technical, economic and social support and assistance must be provided by the government and NGOs. All of this will not be possible unless community organizations and the enabling institutional environment are strengthened [7]

There is a need for an aggressive and coherent social policy lo solves problems related to urban popular habitat.

The problems of popular habitat are intimately linked to social policy. Not recognizing this relationship as a matter of principle means denying the very nature of human solidarity. Thus, the need for an aggressive and coherent social policy is truly a matter of State

Social policy should be oriented by certain principles, including the goal of achieving decent living conditions for people, subsidization; complementarily between economic and social policy; the protection of income, consumption and employment, the strengthening of community management; civil society’s right to services, education and food, economic achievements serving social policy, targeted spending on strategic social sectors, and efficiency and effectiveness in social service provision.

These principles are based on the idea of development “with a human face”, which implies the creation of opportunities to integrate the population into productive development, ensuring their access to social services and social solidarity, and making them responsible for participating in citizen actions and security efforts.

The application of these principles will contribute to social cohesiveness, strengthening democratic structures through effective citizen participation.

Rather than serving merely as a mechanism for social compensation, such a social policy should have a complementary, integral relationship with economic policy.

Local governments must be empowered in relation to urban management and popular settlements.

One of the central issues for State reform in the region is the transfer of power from national entities to local governments This process seeks primarily to de-congest the institutions of national government, and to transform the municipal level of government by assigning it roles and functions so that it can better provide services. To achieve this, the challenge is to ensure the real transfer of decision-making power, technical capacity, financial resources, autonomy and control in the management of local affairs within the framework of democratic practice.

Meeting the Challenge

The problems faced by Latin American cities today pose a number of demands and challenges to national governments, local organisms and society as a whole, problems which surpass current administrative, technical and financial abilities to manage the development of cities Thus progress must be made on many fronts to broaden and strengthen the abilities of institutions and social organizations.

Within this perspective, it is important to recognize the specific realms of authority and dynamics of the institutions of national and municipal governments and of’ NGOs and communities. Areas of encounter, confluence, coordination, inter-relation and cooperation must be established. This will contribute to the process of improving conditions for local development, by developing basic agreements regarding certain guiding principles such as: [8]

The establishment of a new realm of sustainable development, whose objective would be human well-being, a balanced relationship with nature based on the values of democracy, equality under the law and social justice for present and future generations, regardless of ethnicity, economic or social condition, political inclination, gender or creed.

Greater democratic management of the city, articulating forms of planning, production, operation and government based on the participation of and control by local social and institutional actors, in this process common interests would prevail, the values of local culture would be respected and actions would be taken with an eye to long-term sustainability

The construction of citizenship, according to which inhabitants and social organizations would have full use of their rights and would live up to their obligations, and according to which decisions would be based on consensus, negotiations and political will, within a context of transparency, public consultation, adequate information and knowledge of issues related to the management of that locality.

3. Some Concepts Under Discussion in Relation to Projects for Popular Habitat Development

We will now present a discussion of certain conceptual themes related to work to improve the conditions of popular habitat

Popular Management as a Mechanism for Solving the Problems of Popular Habitat

One of the central issues, which define the nature and character of projects for habitat improvement in popular neighborhoods is community management.

A number of conditions must be present to enable authentic and vigorous processes of self-management: community autonomy to confront the challenges of development, power within the community so that it can decide its own affairs; learning and knowledge development, the appropriation of technologies and work methods, the availability of financial resources, non-discrimination and respect for the individual and the collective within the context of local traditions and culture.

These conditions become possible when strong social movements are present [9] and when there is an institutional, political and social environment which respects and stimulates popular management as a way for communities to solve their problems The strengthening of communities should be a sustained policy, since it represents the only real alternative for solving the habitat problems of low- income sectors.

“Enabling” and “Negotiation” as Means for Improving Popular Habitat

The concept of State “enablement” strategies for popular habitat development must be combined with that of “negotiation”. If “enablement” stands alone, there is the risk that the State will be freed of its responsibilities. On the other hand, if it acts according to the criterion of co-responsibility, then actions must be negotiated so that enabling strategies be based on agreements which have been assumed as legitimate by the parties involved.

The challenge here is to overcome traditional State paternalism and the quagmire of bureaucratic and administrative red tape, which keep popular sectors from using their own potential to contribute towards the solution of their problems. However, in societies such as ours in which popular sectors face significant economic, social and political disadvantages, care must be taken to ensure that these alternatives not produce further marginalization.

The “Woman Problem” and “The bsue of Gender”

Frequently, when the problems of popular neighborhoods are dealt with, emphasis is placed on attending to the needs of the “most vulnerable” groups, among them, women. Public policy seeking to confront the effects of poverty on women has favored paternalistic, disempowering actions. [10]

Such an orientation focuses on “the woman problem” as the target for action. Although this is important because of the specific nature of problems affecting women, women’s potential as social and political agents of development has been overlooked

Normally, the concepts used to speak of planning and welfare are considered to be neutral, the “population” or the “community” are assumed to be units composed of homogenous subjects.. [11] It is obvious, however, that women and men are not the same, not only from a biological point of view, but also, from a sociological, social and cultural perspective; woman does not exist without man, but rather both exist within different social and cultural contexts which must be explained and confronted Thus gender must be recognized as a dimension of social inequality, which requires a particular approach involving the use of new categories and taking into account the difference between men’s and women’s experiences within social processes [12]

Full recognition must begin with an analysis of gender systems since this refers to the subjective dimensions of social agents and the way that their identities are structured [13].

Programs to strengthen communities must focus on the political/technical conditions, which could favor women’s self-esteem and technical knowledge for development promotion, this involves handling community affairs and exercising pressure and/or negotiating within the world of public and private institutions This notion is one of the major concerns currently being dealt with by the women and public policy debate. This debate is seeking to transform women’s needs, which arise from their triple role (in reproduction, production and community management), into issues on the public agenda. [14]

On the other hand, women play an important role in popular processes of habitat management It is important that a gender approach be included in the design and implementation of programs to strengthen communities, otherwise, notions may be put forth which do not correspond to reality, and/or actions may be designed which do not correspond to real-life dynamics. Similarly, previously considered conceptual definitions can prevent creating situations of cultural, organizational, political or institutional rejection [15]

From “Voluntary Work” to “Citizen Participation”

The popular neighborhoods of our cities have been built, in most cases, through the efforts of inhabitants themselves. The individual, family and community labor invested in building housing and habitat represents tremendous energy. This fact has often been used by the institutional world, which calls upon inhabitants’ volunteer labor to solve the problems of popular neighborhoods, treating such labor as the only possible means for “participation”.

Within the perspective which seeks to strengthen communities, participation plays a central role, since it represents the only true possibility for generating processes that will be sustained by popular management with a high degree of civic content

We are dealing, then, with a concept of citizen participation, which allows and encourages inhabitants and popular organizations to intervene in decision-making in important issues and not just in those which are local/micro They are not expected only to contribute their collective volunteer labor, but rather to be involved in urban and social policy-making, determining priorities, organizing and allocating budgets and investments, and choosing among technological options for their neighborhoods and for the city as a whole

From the “Neighborhood” to the “City”

Obviously, to strengthen communities for habitat management efforts must be centered upon the community, the neighborhood. However, from a theoretical and methodological perspective, the search for inter-relations and articulation with the city as a whole must not be overlooked.

Without a doubt, the problems of popular neighborhoods are an integral part of the problems of the urban agglomeration, and therefore their solution is not to be found exclusively within the realm of the neighborhood Interventions which combine the particular aspects of the neighborhood with the global aspects of the city must be developed.

It is within this dimension of social issues that it is possible to construct and develop democratic sentiments and practices, based on the awareness of the indivisible relationship between the micro (the neighborhood) and the macro (the city).

From “Improvisation” to “Planning” as an Orienting Principle for Improving Popular Habitat Conditions

It is a visible and recurring fact that most actions in the popular neighborhoods of our cities are characterized by improvisation. This way of acting within popular settlements, derived from a sort of pragmatic practice of “making do”, encourages the waste and misuse of resources as well as practices of patronage.

The notion and practice of planning must serve as the basis for work to improve habitat conditions in the popular neighborhoods of our cities. This is truer still today, when scarce resources must be used optimally and when a countless number of disperse efforts must be imbued with a sense of future. The short-sighted pragmatism characteristic of current institutional policies and practices which denies planning as a valid tool for promoting development should be questioned for tending to deepen social inequalities.

Instead, innovative forms of planning should be developed, forms which are responsive, effective and substantial, in which the development of the human being is the basis for defining the agenda for managing habitat conditions.

A planning process of this nature should be based on a process of “ground up” dialogue, rooted in the community’s potential and abilities and making use of the assistance of technicians and support groups A planning process based on participatory principles is more likely to generate direct benefits for all the members of the community, since it develops civic attitudes and responsibilities and helps find ways to achieve negotiated agreements and consensus among the various sectors involved

On the other hand, planning should be inter-disciplinary, comprehensive and integrated in all its stages. Planning cannot be confined within the limits of a single discipline.

“Environmental Conservation” and “Sustainable Urban Development”

Until recently, the problem of the urban environment received very little attention in our cities, although urban environmental problems are ever more serious and complex
Due to the absence of work related to the issue of the urban environment, attempts to confront it are often nothing more than extrapolations derived from other territorial and phenomenological environments [16] For that same reason, initiatives in this ten-am tend to vigorously assert the thesis of “environmental conservation” as a means for confronting the deterioration of the natural world

But in cities, we are dealing with a concentrated human population, which has artificially “constructed” the environment in which it lives. What can we do, then, to achieve a harmonious relationship between the conservation of the natural world and the sustainability of human settlements?

Conceptual and technological formulations will be needed in order to progress towards the creation of a human habitat which, while respecting its own logic, will not continue to affect nature, will be sustainable over time and will guarantee healthy living conditions in the city [17]

4. Final Words: We Must Learn to Live and to Live Together in Cities

In all the cases examined, there was a need for integral and coordinated institutional action to attend to the problems of urban popular sectors and settlements. Only through a set of actions planned and agreed upon by public and private institutions, NGOs and popular organizations can the challenge of achieving decent living conditions in these settlements be met.

Various efforts must be employed on a number of fronts to achieve the necessary political will, strength and decision to establish the idea that improving the habitat conditions of popular sectors represents a social and economic investment to achieve equality, social justice and the full democratization of society.

It is imperative that the public sectors in our countries give primary attention to these groups which represent the majority of the population, since failure to do so would violate the fundamental right to decent living conditions,

From this perspective, it is critically important that mechanisms for consultation be consolidated, negotiating tables and forums for arriving at agreements be established, and that there be solid schemes for coordinating among the various agents involved, within an institutional framework based on integral policies, plans and programs. If these practices are to be legitimated then popular organizations must be recognized as valid and representative and their dynamics must be respected institutions and governmental officials must be educated so that they become more open-minded and recognize the authentic processes present in popular neighborhoods.

The primary challenge is to demonstrate through action the possibility of finding novel and creative solutions to the problems of habitat quality for thousands of low-income families. The key is to conceive and develop forms of habitat which will empower people women, men, children, the young and the elderly.

In this sense, concrete experiences teach us that it is feasible to develop and promote national-level policies, which take into account the heterogeneous nature of the urban reality of our countries In these cities, our cities, we will have to learn to live and to live together. So that there be justice for all we must begin by guaranteeing that all have access to a safe, decent and peaceful place in which to live, in a healthy environment, where solidarity and equality govern the behavior of one’s neighbors That is a right which must be won.

To do so, we must humanize our cities as Enrique Ortiz says, “Humanizing the city means, above all, opening spaces for the full exercise of freedom, creativity and enjoyment on the part of inhabitants. It means guaranteeing that inhabitants make the city their own, that they imagine it, live it, enjoy it, transform it. It means putting the citizen back into the center of things and of decision- making It means making the city operate to serve human beings and life itself, which implies taking economics out of the center of ethics and of current urban concepts.

“Humanizing the city means democratizing it, in the broadest sense of the word it means facilitating access to all the goods and services produced by society, creating conditions which give priority to those who have the least, to children, women and society’s most vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and the disabled. It also means strengthening representative democracy and broadening spaces and possibilities for the exercise of direct democracy “

The ideal of cities providing good living conditions for all is a Utopia yet to be built. It requires placing special emphasis on citizens’ quality of life and on the existence of an authentic democracy which would include the participation of civil society in processes of management and decision-making

[1] The Latin Amencan cases documented by the GONGO Proyect are: “”La interaccin entre las organizaciones sociales y los organismos no gubernamentales en las polticas habitacionales de la Ciudad de Mxico” [“The Interaction Between Social Organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations in Housing Policy in Mxico Clty”] (Casa y Ciudad, Mxico City, Mxico); “Panteras: un proceso de negociacin y autoconstruccin para el desarrollo comunitario” [Pantojas: A Process of Negotiation and Self-Construction for Commumty Development], (Ciudad Alternativa, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic); “Un proceso democrtico de gestin urbana. El caso de Chosica, Lima” [“A Democratic Process of Urban Management: The Case of Chosica, Lima”] (CENCA, Lima, Per); “Residencial Altos de la Candelaria” [“The Altos de la Candelaria Housing Proyect”), (ADHEC, Tegucigalpa, Honduras I; “Programa Comunidades” [“Communities Program”], (CEARAH-PERIFERIA, Fortaleza, Brasil); “Las redes, los lazos y los hilos sueltos. Proyecto Agua y Desarrollo en los Barrios del or Occidente de Quito” [“Networks, Connections and Lose Ends: The Project for Water and Development in the Neighborhoods of ortheastern Quito”], (CIUDAD, Quito, Ecuador); “Proyecto de apoyo y asesora en vivienda para el proceso de reinsercin” (“Project for Housing Support and Technical Assistance for the Process of Re-Insertion”], (FEDEVIVIENDA, Bogot, Colombia).

[2] NGOs are a particular type of organization, which does not depend economically, nor institutionally on the State, and which dedicate themselves to the tasks of social and educational promotion and research/experimentation. They are not-for-profit, and their final objective is to improve the quality of life of the most oppressed sectors. (Francisco Vio Grossi, CWG, Estado y Cooperacin Internacional. Una Introduccin al tema. [NGO, State and International Cooperation: An Introduction to the Theme], 1989.)

[3] Unda, Mario. “Las redes, los lazos y los hilos sueltos” (Networks,Connections and Loose Ends), CIUDAD, 1996, p.45.

[4] Collaboration among agents depends upon political will. These case studies confirm that collaboration among the principal agents (NGOs, POs and governments) in processes of habitat improvement and development depends primarily upon the political will of national and local governments in relation to the characteristics of project financing and the political context of the country and of the particular place involved.

[5] De-centralization is a double-edged sword. With respect to the process of de-centralization in Latin America, the cases presented within the framework of the GONGO project recognize and ratify the fact that this process opens up new spaces and possibilities for action in the field of popular habitat development. However, they also warn of a tendency in which local governments delegate responsibilities to NGOs and thus free themselves of former functions. Thus, deeper reflection is required to define roles and tasks in ways that would respect the nature and character of each of the agents involved.

[6] Projects serve as the articulating principles for cooperation. In the case reports it was observed that the most common form of cooperation between NGOs and governmental entities was in the management of concrete projects. Based on their experience in these projects, proposals were made for participation in policy-making. However, NGO and PO coordination and cooperation with governments was often quite difficult, especially when these relationships involved public officials with operational responsibilities. However, relationships were found to be more flexible when they involved executive level, decision-making authorities such as mayors.

[7] Case studies ranged in scale from micro-level experiences to examples of gaining influence over macro-level policy. Since the focus here was on local processes, most of the experiences presented took place on a small scale. However, we found a shared concern that project conception and design seek to influence public policy-making. In all cases, the organizations note that local governments are recognizing the role and experience of NGOs and POs. In some cases, this has led to newly proposed laws on housing policy, urban reform, forms of participation in municipal structures, etc.

[8] There proposals are contained in the document entitled, “Municipios y ONGs: la gestin local y las polticas sociales en el Ecuador” [Municipal Governments and NGOs: Local Management and Social Policy in Ecuador), CIUDAD, 1994.

[9] The active presence of social movements strengthens the processes of popular habitat development. In the case study reports, relationships between NGOs, POs and governments are of a qualitatively different character in cases where there is a strong social movement articulated with housing demands (as in the case of Sao Paolo and Mexico). In these cases, initiatives and relationships with local or national governments are primarily handled by social movements. NGOs tend to act in a subordinate fashion, focussing upon technical assistance.

[10] Particularly in their reproductive and productive roles.

[11] Ideas taken from Barrig, Maruja: “Curso Taller: Genero en el Desarrollo” [Course Workshop: Gender in Development!, Universidad de Cuenca, Universidad Central, LASA, Ecuador, July, 1993.

[12] Gender is defined as “the set of dispositions (social practices, symbols, norms, representations and values) through which a society transforms biological sexualitysexual differenceand through which sexual impulses, reproduction and personal relating are satisfied”. (Barrig, M., op. cit.)

[13] Studies should examine the assumptions underlying information gathering processes, and results should disaggregated by sex. (Barrig, M., op.cit.)

[14] Barrig, M., op.cit.

[15] In this respect, important progress has been made among the groups belonging to the HIC Women and Habitat Network/Latin America.

[16] As is the case with problems such as erosion, desertification, the pollution of rivers and seas, the loss of biodiversity, etc

[17] Here also we are struck by the integral notion of micro/macro, which surpasses the city’s limits to involve broader regions.