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World indicators on the environmentWorld Energy Statistics - Time SeriesEconomic inequality
World Resources 1996-97
(A joint publication by The World Resource Institute, The United
 Nations Environment Programme, The United Nations Development
 Programme, and the World Bank)
(Data edited by Dr. Rˇbinson Rojas)

6. City and Community: Toward Environmental Sustainability


Governments and others sometimes underestimate the ability of low- income communities to contribute to solving the environmental problems that plague them. For one, the magnitude of urban environmental problems--inadequate sewerage, flooding, air pollution, and ground subsidence--are often seen as being too vast for communities to address. Furthermore, communities, especially poor ones, are seen as lacking the organizational capacity or financial resources to either construct community infrastructure or manage environmental services such as water pumps or public toilets (49).

Evidence from successful community efforts counters these beliefs. Although it is true that many environmental problems such as air pollution and flooding require a citywide or even a regionwide approach, many individual projects carried out at the community level can contribute to a solution. Numerous examples have shown that under supportive conditions, neighborhoods and communities can manage lanes, waterways, and waste disposal systems. In community after community, households have joined together to improve drainage, construct roads and lanes for access, clear land of refuse, or create open spaces where children can play. (See Box 6.2.)

Poverty and the Urban Economy

If governments and other actors are to pursue more supportive policies and actions toward low-income communities, they must begin by adjusting their perceptions of poverty and its relation to the urban economy. First, these actors must abandon the notion that accelerating economic growth in the city will necessarily "cure" urban poverty or reverse environmental deterioration. In fact, although economic growth and structural change in the economy have raised general standards of living in many countries, there has been no instance of poverty taking care of itself in any city via economic growth or market forces alone (50)(51).

Not only is poverty a persistent feature of societies at all levels of per capita income, but accelerated economic growth brings its own forms of environmental crises, social dislocation and alienation, and heightened social and economic inequities that the market has not displayed any capacity to resolve (52)(53). Thus, environmental improvements for poor neighborhoods cannot simply wait for better economic times but must be an integral part of the strategy for economic development within the city (54).

Especially in the developing world, governments must also accept that environmental factors are closely interwoven with crucial economic factors such as employment. This is particularly true in poor neighborhoods, where a substantial share of income is generated in the home and neighborhood itself. One of the most consistent findings about urban squatter settlements is that the strongest motivation for continuing to live in them, despite the environmental degradation, is access to the variety of economic activities found nearby (55).

In circumstances in which the community itself is the locus of substantial employment, an improved living environment can generate important new economic opportunities. For example, in many low- income settlements where environmental infrastructure such as pathways and covered drainage channels have been constructed, these improvements have led to a proliferation of commercial enterprises- -food stalls, beauty salons, and general stores--where few existed before (56)(57).

An important corollary is the fact that improving the environment within low-income communities contributes directly to the health of the urban economy (58). Too often, the poor are assumed to contribute to an undifferentiated "informal sector" that is mistakenly presumed to have no linkages to the rest of the urban, national, or international economy. In reality, this informal sector is integrated into and contributes directly to the urban economy as a whole (59)(60). The informal sector supplies goods (recycled materials, tools, small machines)and services (repairs, transport, sales)to the agricultural, livestock, fishing, and forestry sectors as well as to other businesses within the city (61)(62).

Such interconnections underscore the critical need to address community problems in an integrated fashion that deals with both income generation and environmental management.

Elements of Success in Community Management

Several lessons have emerged from studies of how poor urban households and their communities cope with environmental problems. Taken together, these can be a basis for rethinking how governments, NGOs, and the international development community can best augment rather than undermine grassroots environmental management efforts.

Integrating Environment and Livelihood at the Household Level

Often, through no choice of their own, low-income households are de facto managers of the local environment (63). Many of their daily activities revolve around using and managing natural resources such as water and fuelwood. The ability of poor households to manage these resources and reduce their exposure to environmental degradation (either by boiling water or by removing garbage from their communities) is largely determined by how much effort they must expend on other necessities, such as earning sufficient income or securing access to health care and education.

The size and composition of a household are critical to its ability to manage the environment. The poorest of poor households are those with only one adult or parent who cannot perform the many tasks needed to sustain basic levels of existence (64). When a large share of effort and time is spent on basic survival, it is less likely that significant attention will be given to environmental management. Poor women in the barrios of Latin America, for example, spend up to 80 to 90 hours per week earning cash and buying or otherwise obtaining essentials such as water, food, clothing, and transportation (65). Expecting them to manage a community sewage system is unrealistic.

Households do not live in isolation, however. Where community- oriented sentiment is strong, a poorer household often looks to neighbors, friends, and relatives in the community for help. Studies also show that households negotiate issues such as responsibility for cleaning neighborhood streets or securing fuel, as well as how resources within a community will be distributed.

These findings suggest two strategies for improving environmental conditions. First, it is possible to build on community networks as a means of mobilizing labor (as in the Orangi Pilot Project), as a way to reduce costs of basic goods (as in Cali, Colombia), or as a mechanism to improve the efficiency of service delivery. In Buenos Aires, for example, the government has been building on community networks to improve its distribution of food aid through its Programa Alimentario Integral y Solidario (PAIS) plan. Under the PAIS plan, begun in 1989, groups of 20 to 100 residents form multifamily kitchens; these kitchens then receive a subsidy from the government to purchase food themselves (66). This form of distribution proved to have several advantages over the previous system, which distributed boxes of food to individual households. By forming a pool, the families in the kitchen are able to buy food in bulk at reduced prices. More importantly, the families are able to decide for themselves how to spend the subsidy. By 1994, 6,700 multifamily kitchens were operating in Buenos Aires (67).

Second, one of the best avenues for improving household environmental management lies in combining it with income- generating activities. This can be done through activities based directly on environmental management, such as recycling, or indirectly, through programs that create community-based enterprises that enable household members simultaneously to earn incomes and to obtain essentials, such as clean water, food, construction materials, and health care (68)(69).

The experience of the Zabbaleen in Cairo illustrates the potential of this approach. An ethnic group living in several large settlements, the Zabbaleen have long earned their incomes through wastepicking. This informal means of waste collection provides a substantial benefit to the local government by reducing the amount of solid waste that needs to be officially collected. Yet, the health and productivity of the Zabbaleen are threatened by the environmental conditions in which they live and work. In the early 1980s, for instance, most settlements had no water supply, sewerage, or electricity. Residents made a living by sorting garbage, often within their homes, greatly increasing the risk of illness from disease vectors as well as injuries from broken glass and metal.

Starting in the 1980s, several international and local groups began working with the Zabbaleen, establishing programs to improve environmental conditions in the settlement and to facilitate the collection and recycling of garbage. A small industries project, for example, gave loans to families to buy machines that can convert garbage such as rags and plastics into useful secondary materials. This not only has reduced direct contact with the garbage, but also has increased income because the materials fetch a much higher price than the rags would. The construction of local compost plants has given residents the ability to recycle organic wastes as well, creating new employment opportunities and reducing the amount of garbage left on the streets (70).

In Mexico City, the squatters of El Molino have also combined environmental management and income-earning opportunities. Household wastewater, garbage, and sewage are conducted by above- ground rubber tubing into a "sirdo," an alternative system for recycling organic wastes. The sirdo dries and filters wastes, producing water clean enough for aquaculture and community gardens and fertilizer that is sold for profit (71).

Household Stability and Community Membership

Essential services such as water supply, sanitation, and garbage collection in low-income settlements are not readily provided by individual action. Nor do increases in individual family income necessarily lead to improvements in neighborhood living conditions. Instead, these are neighborhood and community issues requiring collective action (72). However, if people do not feel a sense of security in their households or that they are members of a community, they are not likely to devote their energies to improving environmental conditions.

First and foremost, security comes from land and housing tenure. In many squatter settlements, however, the status of residency is uncertain. Official policies often declare these settlements illegal, which means that residents are subject to eviction without warning (73). On the other hand, at least in selected areas, governments have given implicit recognition to such communities by providing them with basic services, limited infrastructure, and even quasi-government officials (74)(75).

Even though land or housing tenure affords a sense of stability in a community, it is the perception of being able to stay on the land rather than having the legal right to occupy the land that often matters the most. This perception can arise from other indications of continuity, such as the length of time that the community has existed, the extent of government investment in community infrastructure and services, or whether previous efforts to avoid eviction have been successful.

Although perceptions of stability appear to be more important than the legality of land occupation, this should not be taken to mean that land security issues can be ignored. To the contrary, one of the most critical needs in cities is a coherent land titling process for the poor and low-income communities. The long-term stability of low-income communities depends on the ability of households to gain clear title to land for housing.

When given security of tenure and clearer legal bases for property ownership, the poor will build and invest to improve the quality of their own housing (76)(77). (See Box 6.3.)

The Role of Women in Environmental Management

In low-income communities, women are invariably the principal managers of local environmental resources. They are responsible for keeping the house and the neighborhood clean, disposing of household garbage, and obtaining fuel and water, among other things. Women also play a critical, if largely unrecognized, role in community planning and management. They seek to ensure the provision and maintenance of such basic collective services as water, health care, and education. Women also come together to confront and solve common problems such as inadequate housing or infrastructure (78)(79).

Yet, in many instances, women are given little voice in decisionmaking (80). Local authorities and planners rarely consult with women or work with them as equal partners. The consequences of not including women in community decisionmaking range from inappropriate infrastructure designs to poorly coordinated services. There are innumerable examples of projects to install toilets, water pumps, and wash basins in which no attempt was made to consult women or understand what would be culturally acceptable or practical for them. In the Yucatan, Mexico, squat-plate latrines built on the recommendations of engineers were rejected by women who preferred pour-flush latrines, even though this necessitated carrying water (81).

Consequently, involving women in community projects has two very real benefits. First, tapping into women's knowledge can greatly improve the likelihood of a program's success. Second, improving the urban environment can translate into direct benefits to women's health and thus to the overall sustenance of the household. Where women have been given access to credit, a voice in decisionmaking, and educational and employment opportunities, substantial improvements in living conditions have been documented.

In Nairobi, Kenya, for example, female-headed households in the Kayole/Soweto slums east of the city have made tremendous progress in improving their living conditions. Since 1988, the Muungano Women's Group (comprising women living in Soweto)has been working with the African Housing Board to improve the economic status of its members as well as the health and education of children in the slum. The Muungano Group currently has more than 1,000 members who pay about US$2--roughly a full day's salary--to join the group (82).

Loans from the African Housing Board have allowed the women to establish a factory that produces building materials that can be used for members' homes or sold on the open market. A carpentry workshop makes doors and windows for homes as well as for the day- care center and provides 10 permanent jobs for Muungano women. A revolving fund has also been created for continued construction of new houses and improvement of older dwellings (83).

In addition, a self-help health initiative has begun to show some results. By 1993, some 670 families had been trained by community health trainees who are funded by the African Housing Board. Those families that receive the training in turn have the responsibility of working with five other families. Learning about the link between malaria and standing water, for instance, has enabled some families to take measures to protect themselves (84).

In many cities, women are also forming their own professional or organizational networks to help improve conditions for the urban poor. In 1990, an NGO based in Kathmandu, Nepal, and composed of professional women, known as Women in Environment, began an environmental awareness campaign in Balaju, a squatter settlement on the west bank of Nepal's Bishnumati River. At the time, some 70 families lived in the settlement amid piles of solid waste and untreated sewage. By providing simple materials such as buckets (for waste collection)and water standpipes, the NGO helped to improve environmental conditions in the neighborhood (85).

Involving women does not mean that the whole burden of community management should be placed on them. Governments, planners, and even NGOs often make unrealistic assumptions about how much energy, time, and money women can spend in communal or individual self-help programs to improve their environment. Case studies of communal housing projects from Harare, Zimbabwe, to Kingston, Jamaica, to Cordoba, Spain, demonstrate that women who are the sole income earners and childcare providers often do not have the time, skills, or money to invest substantially in community management (86)(87)(88).

Community Organization

Community-based efforts depend largely on the ability of different voices to come together toward a common goal. Most poor communities have some form of organized leadership resulting either from long- standing cultural and religious institutions or from families who have resided in the community for many years. A strong leader can serve as a focal point for discussion and decisionmaking, for mediation of conflicts among community members, and for pooling and reallocating resources within the community (89). A community leader can also serve as a go-between, linking the local community to the city at large. However, leaders can also be exclusive and elitist, without much community support. In such cases, successful community mobilization is unlikely.

Community mobilization often emerges from a sense of shared destiny--often, a sense of economic deprivation and limited alternatives. In San Miguel Teotongo, Mexico, for example, the local population originally rallied together in an effort to persuade the government to recognize the legality of the settlement, forming a community-based organization called Union de Vecinos de San Miguel Teotongo (UVST)in 1982. In 1992, the settlement was finally incorporated into Mexico City's formal master plan, an important step toward ensuring tenure and service provision (90). Although originally created to achieve tenure, UVST has since expanded into other community actions, such as improving water and sanitation services (91). Box 6.4 describes how a community in the United States mobilized around housing security as well.

In other situations, social stratification, ethnic or religious differences, or even political skepticism can hinder efforts to build community cohesion. Evidence suggests that communities that are unable to develop consensus or that have leadership without community support are the least likely to be able to manage their internal affairs, including their environmental resources (92). In these cases, NGOs can help mobilize residents or strengthen existing leadership functions and roles in the community. Local governments can also help foster organization by explicitly recognizing the rights of communities to organize.

Partnerships with NGOs

In many cities where local governments have failed to represent their constituencies or deliver basic needs, NGOs have come to play a critical role in community development (93). They have been principal sources in both mobilizing community resources and building coalitions to create linkages among communities and wider political processes. They have played key roles in helping slum dwellers resist eviction and negotiate land settlements, in gaining basic human and political rights for the poor, and in establishing community organizations (94).

Many countries have thousands of NGOs with rich experience in promoting community participation in urban development. Many types of NGOs exist, however, and not all of them actually work toward empowering communities (95). Many governments severely limit the role of such organizations to small-scale, charitable activities rather than allow open advocacy of, for example, squatters' rights.

Many international NGOs still tend to focus on global and rural environmental issues and rarely on cities or the needs of low- income urban communities. Yet, when they do, they can make a tremendous difference. In Tegucigalpa, for instance, the Honduran office of the Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF), a Washington- based NGO, began an urban sanitation program in 1991. With the support of the United Nations Children's Fund, the government of Honduras had already begun to provide piped water to the households. CHF's role was to ensure that this water was put to good use. CHF made loans to households to install latrines, water tanks, showers, taps, and sinks in residents' homes. CHF, with the assistance of local NGOs, works with women to decide what type of latrine they desire: a pour-flush latrine, a dry-compost latrine, or an improved ventilated pit latrine. Depending on their needs and ability to pay, women are given a loan that can range from $250 to $750 and that must be repaid in 3 to 5 years. More than 1,700 households have benefited from the improvements (96).

Community Credit Programs

The lack of financial resources is a major obstacle in fostering community-based development. However, many experiences show that, once they are organized, communities can and will begin to contribute their own financial resources and will repay loans. A common feature of many successful programs is the principle of group responsibility, which is often accomplished by organizing borrowers into small-scale subgroups within the community. (See Box 6.5.)

Environmental Education

Surveys in many countries show that relationships between environmental pollution and human health are often poorly understood. Simple acts such as washing hands, which can significantly break poor environment■poor health cycles, are not practiced. Modest programs, such as poster or radio campaigns, and working with leaders or designated community environmental health specialists can begin to address these issues.

References and Notes

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