28 October 2009

Welcome to Robmoyung Slum

What comes to your mind when you think of the term slum? Usually (to me at least) this word conjures up images of marginalization, squalor, or even hopelessness. Technically a slum is something that fails to qualify for one of the five following categories, access to improved water, access to improved sanitation, security of tenure, durability of housing, and sufficient living area. Yet, media and preconceived notions tend to purvey a very specific image of what a slum is. My experience in the slum, however, gave me a far different picture of what it means to be a slum community and what these communities can achieve.

I stayed in Robmoyung. The community had several factors that would qualify it as slum. First they do not have access to water and either had to use a well for water to bathe in and pay for water from a nearby village to drink. They also do not have access to electricity so they had to get it from a generator or neighbor. Yet this community had made great progress as they had secured the right to rent the land they lived on as opposed to living there “illegally.” This allows residents to live without the fear of being suddenly displaced (although the lease is only for three years). The lease was obtained from the State Railway of Thailand (SRT). SRT had been losing money and had the opportunity to sell this land to much higher paying businesses but instead were convinced to respect the rights of the community and give the deed to the community members currently living on the land. This is not the only success of the community. CODI also gave 30 households 20,000 Baht (approximately $600). In fact, we had our exchange with the community right after they decided who would receive the money, so we got to see the excitement and happiness that exists a community successfully progressing. The rest of the household would receive the money later. Furthermore, there is plan for the government to install power lines and grant the community access to water.

On a tour of other neighboring slum communities, we were exposed to even more successes. All had deeds to their land, and many of the communities did not resemble slum communities at all. Interestingly, the various communities looked like a timeline. Since the different communities received money at different times they were at different stages of development. Robmoyung was one of the last communities to receive money, so it was one of the least developed. Still by looking at the other communities, one could see the bright future and possibility of development for Robmoyung.

Much of the credit for this success must be given to the 4 region slum network. This is a movement throughout Thailand to help people get housing rights. By percentage, the Khon Kaen network is most successful. Nine out of the ten communities that have joined the network in Khon Kaen have received leases, while the tenth community only joined three months ago. Through successful organization, The Four Regions Slum Network has successful gained rights and funding for their communities. They look to continue their success through work the government and government organizations such as CODI.

This trip to the slums was striking for me because it revealed two important things. First, be careful about your preconceived notions. The slum communities I saw were far different than what I expected and places of progress. Second, these successful slum communities showed the power of organization. By working together among themselves and working with The Four Region Slum Network, these communities were able to achieve great successes. The development and progress of these communities shows the power of success organization and the potential it has to create change.

Matt Levin
University of Pennsylvania


Andreu Neri said...

Matt, long time reader first time commentator, I really enjoyed your post. It helped provide a lot of insight into particular slum communities in Thailand. However, your post also brings up a series of questions. I assume this is in Khon Kaen considering that you mentioned the Khon Kaen Slum Network. Could you please elaborate on the relation between the Khon Kaen Slum Network and the Four Regions Slum Network since it seems that they collaborate on some level? Is the money the people received from CODI to just be used in upgrading their homes or could they use that money for any number of things? What was the percentage of households in the neighborhood that got the 20,000 baht first? You mentioned that the communities will soon be receiving running water and electricity from the government, does this mean that the communities have adequate sanitation disposal already, or is this an issue that will be looked at later? Are their other communities like Rob Moyung that are on SRT owned land?

Kate Voss said...

Matt, I agree with you that preconceived notions of the situation and environment of slum communities is skewed. After the movie Slumdog Millionaire came out, I believe that most people associate “slum” with the mega-city fringe communities of India. The communities you visited in Khon Kaen may not have been as visually shocking as what is portrayed in the media. I cannot help but ask if this biased perception of poverty and slum communities actually has a negative impact for communities, like Robmuang, which have seen some progress and whose situation may not be determined as dire or critical. Will these communities still receive sufficient interest? Will other problems be deemed more pressing and, therefore, receive funding and government attention before these communities? Although there has been some progress in Robmuang, there are, undoubtedly, many issues that still need to be addressed before the community can be considered to be living in sustainable, acceptable conditions.

Nicole I said...

This post was an interesting read since I didn’t make it to the slum homestay myself because I was sick. But I agree that I have similar notions of what a slum looks like, and it does conjure thoughts of hopelessness and despair.

It makes me wonder why we have this image. If the definition of “slum” is not congruent with the images that come to mind, how did this result? Why do so many people have an incorrect definition for slum?

It also makes me think of the term “ghetto”. Could the same disconnect between the definition of and the images associated with exist? Are a slum and a ghetto considered synonyms? And considering that the word “ghetto” brings to mind, at least for me, a racial connotation, it makes me wonder if there is a racial connotation, at least in the United States given the diversity, to the term “slum”.

Andy said...

Matt I really enjoyed your post. I completely agree with the fact that many Americans have a very distorted view on what a slum really is. When we hear the word slum, we immediately think of a very densely populated area with substandard housing that is characterized by unsanitary conditions and squalid locales. Furthermore, I believe one of the main misconceptions of a slum is that there is no sense of community because they are seen as socially disorganized.

However, after staying in Khon Kaen slum, Theperak 2, for a couple of days, I quickly realized that these preconceived notions of a slum are completely inaccurate. In Theperak 2 every home had access to clean water, electricity, medicine, and schooling. Actually, I was taken back by the fact that community members can take part in the higher education system, culminating in getting a masters degree if they wish to proceed to that level. I really value this experience because it taught me that even though slum life has its daily hardships, slums are also places of community and vibrant economic and entrepreneurial activity.

Tommy said...

I would like to be the fifth person to comment on this post and also agree that I had a distorted perception of what slums would look like before I arrived in Pornsawan. Pornsawan was as far from my preconceived notion of a slum as I could get. It was located adjacent to a golf course which provided winning views and it also offered a few ponds where the children of the community would swim. The community had successfully obtained leases for their land for 30 years; with funding from CODI they paved the main road, there is irrigation, fresh water, electricity and legal permits, and they even had a community center. Pornsawan is considered one of the great success stories of the slums in Khon Kaen and it is all thanks to the help of CODI and the 4 Regions Slum Network. However, what I really wanted to illustrate is Andreu’s idea for his thesis (not to put you on the spot Andreu) ; which is whether the application of similar methods would be as successful in slums elsewhere in the world. I simply don’t know enough about the topic; it could be that these methods are already in use. I wonder if Khon Kaen is unique in its successes, perhaps the SRT actually helps the situation here by giving the NGOs and Networks a clear target so to speak. They know exactly who they need to appeal to for the land leases, such boundaries might not be as distinct in the slums of Lagos or the fringe communities in India. Id like to do a little more research on this myself and I hope to hear more about Andreu’s project in the future.