The Baan Mankong Collective Housing Programwas launched by the Thai government in January 2003, as part of its efforts to address the housing problems of the country’s poorest urban citizens. The program channels government funds, in the form of infrastructure subsidies and soft housing and land loans, directly to poor communities, which plan and carry out improvements to their housing, environment, basic services and tenure security and manage the budget themselves. Instead of delivering housing units to individual poor families, the Baan Mankong Program (“Secure housing” in Thai) puts Thailand’s slum communities (and their community networks) at the center of a process of developing long-term, comprehensive solutions to problems of land and housing in Thai cities. 

As part of this unconventional program, which is being implemented by the Community Organizations Development Institute (a public organization under the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security), poor communities work in close collaboration with their local governments, professionals, universities and NGOs to survey all the communities in their cites and then plan an upgrading process which attempts to improve all the communities in that city – all of them – within afew years. Once these city-wide plans are finalized and upgrading projects are selected, CODI channels the infrastructure subsidies and housing loans directly to the communities.

This housing experiment in Thailand is the result of a process which has been developing over the past thirteen years, starting with building community savings activities around the country, then forming and strengthening large-scale networks of poor communities, and finally using these people’s managerial skills to deal with housing problems at city scale. But Baan Mankong has only been possible with the commitment by the central government to allow people to be the core actors and to decentralize the solution-finding process to cities and communities.

By creating space for poor communities, municipalities, professionals and NGOs to work together on the housing problems in their cities, Baan Mankong is bringing about an important change in how the issue of low-income housing is dealt with: no longer as an ad-hoc welfare process or a civic embarrassment to be swept under the carpet, but as an important structural issue which relates to the whole city and which can be resolved. The upgrading program is helping to create local partnerships which can integrate poor community housing needs into the larger city’s development and resolve future housing problems as a matter of course.

The Verdict is in

Most conventional low-income housing strategies focus on the physical aspects of housing and treat housing as an individual need, to be provided to poor families individually. The individual approach may work for better-off people, but not for the poor, whose position at the bottom of the economic ladder leaves them especially vulnerable when they’re alone. But while the poor may be weak in financial terms, they are particularly rich in social terms. In Thailand’s communities of the poor, there is a social force which can and does already deal with most of the economic disadvantages people experience individually.

There’s no denying that a lot more poor people will be coming into Asia’s cities in the coming years. The old conventional housing approaches won’t be able to answer these growing demands for housing. A new approach is badly needed, in which poor people themselves can work together and bring their huge energy and their social force to the task of delivering secure, affordable housing to everyone.

The Baan Mankong program is now in its fifth year. Upgrading projects in 1,010 communities are either finished or underway in 226 towns and cities, in 69 of the country’s 76 provinces, involving 54,000 households. We’re not talking any more about a few pilot upgrading projects – it’s the whole country now and growing!

This concept of a people-driven housing development process, in which poor people themselves are the main actors, the main solution-finders and the main delivery mechanism is no longer a new concept in Thailand. While adjustments continue to be made in the Baan Mankong program, as lessons learned along the way are plowed like fertilizer right back into the process, this people-driven approach has been the core principle since the beginning of the upgrading program.

Since the beginning, people in hundreds of different contexts have transformed situations of informality, insecurity and powerlessness into situations in which they are in control of their housing and their settlements, which are now clean, healthy, beautiful and secure, with social support systems that are stronger then ever before – all using their own steam and their own ingenuity.

There is still a long way to go, but after almost five years, we see very clearly that this approach is not only feasible and affordable, but it is the right way to solve very large, very complex housing problems on a country-wide scale.