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The Right To Shelter

Korea, South
Costa Rica
Human Rights
Sri Lanka

new internationalist
issue 229 - March 1992

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Shelter is one of our most basic needs: without it, it is almost impossible to carry on any other kind of activity. Yet at least one in every four people worldwide live without decent housing and over 100 million people live in absolute homelessness.

Governments should provide adequate housing for their people, not only because it is their right, but because it is an investment it helps to guarantee a healthy, satisfied work-force and defuses social pressures that might lead to civil unrest.

As the era of cement comes to an end, energy planners are looking again at traditional building methods and materials, at simpler technologies. Often countries that cannot afford to provide houses for their poor can support people to build their own - or can make squatter settlements and shanty towns official, providing basic services like sanitation and clean water.



Costa Rica has consistently had a good housing record but the Government embarked on a four-year programme between 1986 and 1990 to improve living standards and build 80,000 new dwellings. Low-income families are given housing loans with repayment schedules based on their ability to pay - no more than 30 per cent of the family income can go towards loan repayment. All housing projects funded by the Government must include adequate basic services. And people are encouraged to build their own homes using locally produced building materials such as bamboo.

The new government in Chile also deserves an award for seriously attempting to deal with the shelter needs of all its people by increasing money to the housing sector and by subsidizing the poor. Its main goals are to improve sanitation, reduce overcrowding and meet basic needs. And a measure of the success of its housing programme is that infant mortality has decreased while sanitation conditions have improved in the last few years.

The current housing programme encourages people to build their own houses - focusing on unskilled women as a priority. And new settlements are being planned with particular care in areas vulnerable to natural disasters.

It may seem strange to award Sri Lanka a human-rights medal when up to 40,000 people have disappeared in the country over the past three years. But the country has an excellent housing policy based on the state supporting people's housing initiatives without intervening dictatorially. In particular the 'Million Houses Programme' has been set up to house five million people - about one-third of Sri Lanka's total population. Since it was launched in 1984 it has reached over 10,000 of Sri Lanka's 25,000 villages.

Slums have been upgraded. And a house-building competition has helped to disseminate the theme of self-reliance - around 2,000 houses are built every year by enthusiastic home builders, who are encouraged to build houses In harmony with natural settings and to plant trees.



In the past decade, the populations of Third World cities have mushroomed, rents have rocketed and there has been a complete dearth of affordable homes. The poor struggle to survive in shanty towns, where clean water is often scarce and houses are packed tightly together.

Forced evictions are commonplace, from the Dominican Republic, where over 15,000 families have been evicted since preparations began for the Columbus centenary, to Kenya, where some 44,000 were driven from their homes by demolition squads. The rich world is not immune: In New York alone 400,000 evictions are initiated annually and around 2.5 million US people are rendered homeless every year.

Over 30,000 refugees in Khartoum, Sudan, witnessed the destruction of their homes by military bulldozers on 29 November 1990. There was no warning. And at the relocation site, which is 80 kilometres from the city, there is no proper water supply. The Government justified the eviction by asserting that the area was a haven for criminals. But in April 1991 it announced plans for forcible repatriation of many of the refugees.

Overall, housing conditions in the Sudanese capital have declined seriously and many people lack basic services. The key obstacle to a proper housing solution is the misconception in Sudan that housing is a service, rather than an indirect investment. It receives a paltry two per cent of the Government budget.

Nigeria too has seen mass evictions - as when the Government uprooted some 300,000 people from Lagos's Maroko slum during July 1991. Residents received just seven days' warning before their homes were demolished. And police reportedly assaulted, raped and harassed some of those evicted, many of whom are still sleeping on the streets and under bridges. Those who were resettled have found themselves in overcrowded camps without heat, light, sanitation or clean water.

South Korea is one of the wealthiest developing countries - but the homeless in its vast capital, Seoul, have not seen the benefit (see facing page).

Sources: Third World Guide 1989-90 & 1991-2; Human Development Report 1991, UN Development Programme; Environment and Urbanization, Apr & Oct 1989; various documents from Habitat International Coalition, 1990 & 1991; Forced evictions, UN Economic and Social Council, 20 Aug 1991; consultations with experts in the field.

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