The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Pasig river cleanup looks murkier from slum dwellers' perspective

While Manila's corporate philanthropists such as the ABS-CBN Foundation are to be applauded for tackling some of the biggest development problems in the city, they need to become much more enterprising in how to solve those problems, and stop copying the flawed and unsustainable models used by the government's lacklustre bureaucracies.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Manila

Topics: Integrated planning, Private sector governance, Internal migration

Last week we posted an article by Inter Press Service on the effort to clean up the Pasig river, the twisting channel whose mangroves gave Manila its name. I want to highlight an aspect of this story that fell outside the focus of that article.

The river is to be dredged of years of accumulated garbage, a treatment plant to be built inland where Laguna de Bay flows into the Pasig, the banks of the river to be cleared of slum dwellers, and aquatic life to be revived.

The ABS-CBN Foundation, filling in for a weak and under-resourced government, is funding and organising much of the work involved.

However, it is making the same mistakes as the National Housing Authority (NHA) when it comes to the rights and opportunities of the slum dwellers being displaced.

These residents are being relocated to Calauan in Laguna province, near the southern reaches of Laguna de Bay. By existing public transport this is a three-to-four hour commute back to the centre of Manila, upon which most residents are dependent for work.

By being displaced so far from their sources of livelihood, large numbers of relocatees will be forced to either abandon their relocation sites and return to other slums in Metro Manila, or simply fall into deeper poverty due to unemployment in Laguna. This is what is happening with relocatees displaced by the national rail line rehabilitation project elsewhere in the city.

Those organising the resettlement site will say that livelihood programmes are being provided to relocatees. But the NHA has a terribly stunted understanding of slum dwellers' livelihoods. It thinks it is enough to teach relocatees weaving, sewing, and other crafts-based skills that they can use to occupy themselves in their new far-flung location.

This is no way for urban residents to dig themselves out of poverty. Arming 4000 relocatees with such skills does not by itself create a market for those skills.

By moving such large numbers of residents to provincial municipalities like Calauan, they massively increase the number of jobseekers in small towns which don't have the economic base to match that demand. That causes friction between the existing unemployed and the new relocatees who intensify competition for the same scarce jobs.

To add insult to injury, (and to be fair, this is something the NHA has argued to correct for years), the municipal funds required to provide health and sanitation services to the new residents are not transferred with them from the wealthier Metro Manila municipalities to their new local governments. These smaller towns are resentful of having to overstretch their resources to provide for the larger numbers of economically underproductive residents.

The ABS-CBN Foundation is to be applauded for taking on a project of this scale. But cleaning the river is not simply about changing the image of the city. In certain factions of Manila's politics, beautifying the city has always been code for clearing away the slums. Because of that it is impossible for any organisation to take on the river without taking responsibility for the human consequences of the project as well.

The large philanthropic organisations that have emerged in the Philippines over recent decades have far more financial capital than local governments to address these problems sustainably. They now need to build up their intellectual capital on the problems of the poor, and come up with more creative solutions for resettlement than simply copying the NHA's flawed model.

It is Philippine corporations that are creating jobs and economic wealth throughout the country. And it will be increasingly the corporate philanthropists that build social housing and provide livelihood training. The two arms of the private sector need to start planning their job creation, their social housing and their livelihood training together, recognising that all three must be coordinated for any of them to be truly economically efficient.

They need to propose social housing within the fabric of their commercial developments, and find ways to train relocatees for the retail and service jobs being generated. They must recognise that their philanthropic spending is going to waste unless it provides a sustainable future for relocatees, based on integration within a growing urban economy rather than mere subsistence. In effect, they must start being a lot more enterprising about their charitable work.


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