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Chocolate City

Chocolate City

This is a wonderful documentary. It tells the story of 400 families who were forced from their housing project in the shadow of Capitol Hill, Washington DC, by speculative development. One group of women formed a friendship with playwright Anu Yadav, whose work permeates the film. Together with its skillful makers they weave the sorrow of loss and the wit of defiance into a beautiful, telling tale. If you are at all curious about the human background to the 'credit crunch' in the US, it's also the perfect place to start.


Clean start – creating a fair economy

Clean start - creating a fair economy


First and foremost, the crisis has debunked the theory that deregulation of markets will bring greater prosperity. The ‘light touch’ approach is now universally recognized as one of the main causes of the current crisis. Yet the World Trade Organization (WTO) continues to push for the further deregulation of financial markets. It must be stopped. The same applies to even more extreme free trade agreements which the EU, US and others are seeking to negotiate with individual developing countries.

Second, we must point to the underlying imbalance in the global economy. Workers have been denied their fair share in the spoils of globalization. The credit bubble was necessary in order to make up for the shortfall in workers’ earnings. Part of the solution must be to rebalance the global economy by raising wages and removing the root cause of the debt pandemic.

Third, new models have been developed based on principles of food sovereignty, which puts the rights of local populations before the profit motives of agribusiness; and on sustainable development, which builds for the future, while safeguarding the jobs of today.

At the government level the Bolivarian Alternative, Alba, has paved the way for a new generation of trade agreements based on co-operation, not competition.

These are all positive alternatives to set alongside the negative model which has dominated for so long.

There are strong forces lined up in opposition. Corporate lobbyists have reinvented themselves as champions of regulation in order to preserve the system. Already there are new calls to revive the stalled Doha round of WTO negotiations. Politicians are still queuing up to defend the principles of free trade.

Only by deepening the analysis and presenting the positive alternatives can we show people that another world is not just possible, but needed now more than ever.

John Hilary
Executive Director of War on Want.

In a nutshell:

Exit free trade; enter trade justice

Clean start


For those who look forward to a new world order in which the US and the G7 have less power to set the agenda on their own (even while the US remains the ‘indispensable nation’), the crisis has a silver lining.

The fact that it is the first crisis in history where hopes are pinned on growth in developing countries to rescue the world economy, and the first time that troubled banks in the US and Europe have been rescued by capital injections from developing countries, should jolt the US and the G7 out of complacency about their own leadership and about the truth of market fundamentalism.

The crisis may be a stealthy bridge-building event towards incorporating China and several other ‘emerging market’ states as equal partners, towards a new approach to the role of political authorities in governing the market, and even towards loosening the grip of finance and the military on the US Government.

But the immediate sharp question is whether developing countries will try to break away from their commitment to export-led growth as their exports to the US economy slow, and instead develop internal demand to compensate for falling demand in the North.

If they did, it would be a sure sign of the weakening of the globalization consensus. But to do so they would have to curb soaring income inequality, especially top incomes relative to the median, and redistribute income downwards. So deeply has the globalization consensus eclipsed concern about income inequality worldwide that it hardly features on the public policy agenda except as ‘poverty reduction’.

Robert Wade
Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics.

In a nutshell:

Out with Western domination and the ‘globalization consensus’; in with a multipolar world and greater social equality


Just a few days before Congress passed the $700 billion Wall Street bailout bill, it passed another massive spending bill with almost no-one paying attention. It was the Defense Bill: $613 billion for the ‘regular’ military budget, above and beyond this year’s $182 billion in direct costs for the actual wars the Pentagon is fighting today.

When we hear about the consequences of the Wall Street bailout, we hear a lot about inevitable cuts in other budget items. But the military budget is somehow never on the list of those items that could be cut. War production doesn’t create real economic health – what do all those fancy missile systems, space weapons, battleships, even tanks and Humvees, produce other than a lot of dead Iraqis and Afghans?

What better way to ‘bail out’ our battered economy than to provide real jobs to soldiers drafted by lack of opportunities and to redirect the hundreds of billions of war spending into green jobs, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, training new teachers and building new schools?

And what better place to find the funds to do that than to end the wars – now – and slash the military budget?

Phyllis Bennis
Analyst, activist, Middle East specialist.
See http://www.ips-dc.org/articles/811

In a nutshell:

Slash military budgets; increase social and environmental spending


The need to improve housing for low-income households lies behind recent events. In the case of sub-prime mortgages, families took on debts in the hope of securing a better future. But shelter for low-income families is unlikely to be provided through the market alone. Although rich Northern institutions seem to be short of strategies, the South has a wealth of experiences on which to draw.

Only by deepening the analysis and presenting the positive alternatives can we show people that another world is not just possible, but needed now more than ever

Some of the lowest-income urban citizens – pavement dwellers on the streets of Mumbai – have spawned a financial process that has proved to be significantly more robust in addressing the needs of the poor. Shack/Slum Dwellers International is a network of women-led saving schemes which is active in over 20 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Much of their work focuses on shelter because this is a priority for the members.

The network uses both financial and political strategies. Local groups are skilled in managing savings and loan finance. These local groups work within federations of homeless and landless people. Together they have developed a financial strategy that works for, rather than against, the urban poor. Their model has been tested, securing tenure for over 150,000 low-income families.

What’s so good about it? First, people’s own finance establishes strong and regular savings groups in low-income neighbourhoods. Daily savings collections secure money when it is available and build up relations of trust between neighbours.

Second, the federations are able to negotiate with government and financial institutions. Community networks manage the loan process to ensure that vulnerabilities are not increased.

Third, state subsidies ensure that everyone, even those with the lowest incomes, can secure housing improvements. State finance and other contributions, such as free or low-cost land, are blended with people’s own money to improve affordability and inclusion.

Fourth, there are no short cuts. Families have to see for themselves what they can afford to repay. Members have learnt by experience that they cannot rely on others to manage the finance for them.

At least 900 million people in Southern towns and cities are in housing need. Faced with market and state failure, the urban poor are designing their own programmes and negotiating their own finance.

Diana Mitlin
Senior Researcher, Human Settlements, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

In a nutshell:

Learn from the global South about how to create and finance housing


This is an opportunity for the South to proclaim the death knell of neoliberalism.

Nationalize the banks, but don’t limit it to the failing ones. Open the books to public inspection – let citizens decide how profits can be used for the greater good.

Provide interest-free or cheap loans to small farmers. Subsidize agricultural production so that everyone can afford to eat. If the West can subsidize its farmers, so must we!

Stop capital flight – enact strict exchange controls, and bring an end to speculation. Close all tax-free havens and impose progressive taxes. Prevent repatriation of profits by multinationals – insist that they re-invest in local production.

Invest in ensuring that everyone can be productive and self-respecting citizens through making health, education and social welfare universally accessible. Renationalize the service industries – water, energy, transport, communications – all of which were sold for a song under the rule of neoliberalism. Impose tariffs on imported goods. Refuse to pay odious debts.

Such policies will happen only if there is sufficient mobilization by social movements to demand that our governments make them a reality. That is not going to be easy, since it has been our own élites that have benefited from neoliberal policies. Debates and discussions about alternatives need to be stimulated at every level; in the home, on the farms, in the market place, at schools and in every workplace.

Firoze Manji
Editor of the Africa-focused Pambazuka News and Executive Director of Fahamu – Networks for Social Justice.

In a nutshell:

Bring an end to speculation; nationalize public services; subsidize agriculture; mobilize civil society


European politicians, thrown by the urgent need to nationalize banks and ditch free market fetishism, must now turn their attention to tackling unemployment and business closures in the real economy. Already it has been proposed at the European Summit that, in the aftermath of the credit crunch, it will be too expensive to reduce carbon emissions substantially at the same time. Yet it would be foolish to use the economic slowdown as an excuse to water down commitments to tackling climate change, since this can be the very route to providing the huge number of jobs and business opportunities now required for a steady-state economy.

Back in the 1930s, President Roosevelt’s New Deal helped the world emerge from economic depression through a massive public works programme. We now urgently need to update that programme and introduce a Green New Deal.

It would re-regulate the national and international finance systems, encourage fair and green taxation, close down tax havens and generate a transformational economic programme to decarbonize our economy.

At the same time, it would provide secure investments for pensions and savings, using that capital to kick-start a massive public and private works programme to cut energy use.

At its core would be an innovative and exciting 21st century project to make buildings truly energy efficient, with the aim of making every building a generator of power. It would slash fossil fuel use and spark a revolution in renewable energies and energy efficiency, creating many thousands of green-collar jobs in the process.

European leaders must recognize that the Green New Deal is a route map for tackling the triple crunch of the credit crunch, an encroaching peak in oil production, and climate change. It should be put at the heart of their efforts to deal with the economic crisis in order to transform today’s reality of energy insecurity, rising joblessness and economic decline into a more secure future for all.

Caroline Lucas
A Green Member of the European Parliament, she is also a member of the Green New Deal Group.

In a nutshell:

Introduce a New Green Deal to kick-start the economy, create employment and tackle climate change


Everyone now agrees on control. Everyone agrees on the need for regulation. Who does it, and how, is something progressive people should get involved in, because that is going to be the debate.

At present, all regulation stops at national borders. So I think this is also an opportunity to push for international taxation and regulation, such as by closing tax havens and taxing financial transactions and currency speculation. Tax havens, if regulated – and by that I mean closed down – would give governments upwards of an extra $250 billion to play with. So they can’t use the excuse that there aren’t enough funds to invest in social security or give allocations to poor people or educate children or keep the health system ticking over during this financial crisis. The money is there.

Many people will have to suffer for the sins of neoliberalism and the élite; millions throughout the world will lose their jobs and livelihoods

Then it could be an opportunity – but this would take much more effort on the part of progressive people – to encourage taxes beyond national borders, on currency transactions, purchases of stocks, bonds and other financial instruments. Transnational corporations ought to have to pay taxes on earnings in each jurisdiction, so that it can be seen what they pay where. That should be the beginning of what we call a Unitary Profits Tax. If transnational corporations sold half their goods in France, then they should have to pay half their tax in France. That’s the idea of the Unitary Profits Tax.

I think we would have to think seriously about the South – that’s the point of the New Internationalist – because remittances are probably going to dry up quite a lot. Immigrants will be the first people hit. We have to make a big investment in the environment, to fund a conversion – a rapid and profound conversion away from fossil fuels. And the banks have to be made to contribute. The thing that is so disgraceful about this bailout is that everyone can see that you can find billions for the banks in half an hour, but that you don’t get anything in return. With the banks now being nationalized or renationalized, you could direct investments towards all kinds of things, much in the way Franklin Roosevelt did during the Depression.

It’s time for an ‘Ecological Keynesianism’ – a massive public spending plan towards ecologically sound projects and technologies that will ultimately reorient our economies towards more progressive aims. And of course it’s deliverable: we have most of the technology we need already. Some green technologies are very expensive, but if you mass-produce them the costs go down considerably and almost right away. What the economist John Maynard Keynes dreamed of was a trade organization with a financing arm which would have prevented us from getting into huge deficits on one side, and huge surpluses on another. I don’t say it would have prevented the financial crisis, but certainly if we had had different organizations emerging from the Havana Charter in 1947, the whole trading and financial systems would have been infinitely different.

Susan George is Chair of the Board of the Transnational Institute. Her latest books are Hijacking America: How the religious and secular right changed what Americans think, and We, the peoples of Europe.

In a nutshell:

Push for international taxation; direct the lending of nationalized banks; a massive public spending plan


The crisis presents an opportunity for reorienting economies away from global markets and  global commodity chains and towards local and regional markets and production. Globalization’s final indictment is the synchronized downturn now facing the world, because so many economies have become integrated and dependent on one another. We are, hopefully, going to enter the age of deglobalization.

Many people will have to suffer for the sins of neoliberalism and the élite; millions throughout the world will lose their jobs and livelihoods. We must have something like the International Criminal Court to try people, like Alan Greenspan, whose actions create widespread misery and chaos. A petty swindler goes to jail for years, but an intellectual swindler remains scot-free.

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have been thoroughly discredited by the central role they played in promoting neoliberalism and globalization. But now in panic, some countries, like Pakistan and Ukraine, are going to the Fund. The US and some European countries are now talking about a ‘Bretton Woods II’ that would place the Fund and the World Bank at the centre of efforts to deal with the financial crisis as dispensers of emergency capital to developing countries. Even otherwise progressive people like the economist Dani Rodrik are talking about placing the IMF at the centre of the firefighting. This is a big mistake. Developing countries should be talking about forming regional funds and strengthening regional relations rather than reinvigorating these Jurassic institutions.

Walden Bello
Focus on the Global South, Thailand.

In a nutshell:

Deglobalize; strengthen regional South-South relations; put Greenspan et al on trial


To Kiran, who makes her living as a sweeper in a small town in the northern Indian state of Punjab, the current financial crisis means little. Life will still remain precarious, her regular income paltry, and someone or the other in the family – usually her – will always be partially hungry. But for her daughter, Seema, even though she’s probably never heard of the Lehman brothers or American banks, there’s the very real threat of losing her job in a business processing centre if the parent company decides to cut back on its outsourcing. She doesn’t know if this will happen, but she’s heard it might, and she may then find it difficult to locate another job.

In some ways, the panic about the financial meltdown is very, very far away from the lives of poor women in India. It’s true that the danger signals are there for all to see: increasingly, as our economies are linked to the US, such shocks reverberate much more widely. But there’s also the fact that India has a fairly robust economy; that while the current 7.5 per cent growth may slow down, it will still be growth; that many banks in India were nationalized three decades ago (a move that saw much opposition then, but is seen quite differently now); and that most poor people, more specifically poor women, have their savings in nationalized banks – many through micro-credit groups.

Not so for women at the upper end of the scale, or closer to its middle. For them, the financial crisis has had a deep and profound impact – share prices have dropped, hard earned savings invested in the market have all but disappeared, and although there is a sense that things may start to improve, that doesn’t take away from the shock of losing perhaps the only security you have in a country where economic security for women is both precious and rare.

A less obvious, but much more serious implication is what this will mean for women’s equality. One of the already unreached Millennium Development Goals, equality, according to a recent World Bank and OECD study, needs an investment of roughly $13 billion a year to be achievable. It’s no secret that in times of financial belt-tightening, the first things to suffer are what are seen as ‘social’ issues (under which rubric things such as health, education, and certainly equality usually come). Not only is it very likely that the $13 billion will not now be so easily forthcoming, but governments too will in all probability use the excuse of the financial crisis to make cutbacks.

So while Kiran may not feel the impact in the way that Seema might, what is certain is that, somewhere along the way, any improvements that have taken place in the conditions of their lives are likely to be under threat. And this is why it is so important for governments to focus not only on money, but also on those absolutely basic, but difficult-to-grasp things that underlie its movement across the world: the status and well-being of people, particularly those on the margins of society.

Urvashi Butalia
is a Delhi-based writer and feminist publisher.

In a nutshell:

Don’t cut aid; focus on people

Campaigns, contacts and resources

Bretton Woods Project www.brettonwoodsproject.org
Focus on the Global South www.focusweb.org
The Transnational Institute www.tni.org
Halifax Initiative Coalition www.halifaxinitiative.org
Jubilee Debt Campaign www.jubileedebtcampaign.org.uk
Third World Network www.twnside.org.sg
The Corner House www.thecornerhouse.org.uk
IFI Watch www.ifiwatchnet.org
War on Want  www.waronwant.org
Eurodad www.eurodad.org
Choike www.choike.org
Tax Justice Network www.taxjustice.net
New Economics Foundation www.neweconomics.org
Attac http://attac.se/kampanjer/3503/the-time-has-come-lets-shut-down-the-financial-casino


Ugly repercussions of the beautiful game

Regular readers of my personal blog will know I love football, though the game these days is not what it used to be (but then again what is?). For lovers of the beautiful game and especially those in Europe, the World Cup is the ultimate four weeks of summer football. Summer is usually a depressing time for football fans, with no games to watch. We scour daily newspapers, airwaves and pubs for the latest gossip on who is going where and for how much, and we can squeal at the outrageous sums our beloved heroes are paid and curse those who betray us by leaving for the enemy camp.

So the World Cup is a welcome release from the mundane daily football-free life of June and July. The next World Cup – just in case there are a few people out there who don’t know – will be held in 2010 in South Africa. South Africa has been preparing for the games for the past six years, building and refurbishing stadiums, hotels, roads, and undergoing all kinds of ‘beautification’ exercises which include relocating people from their homes and generally tearing down anything that looks remotely ‘poor’. In fact, the 2010 World Cup has become part of the war against the urban poor; thousands have been evicted from their homes in the 10 World Cup cities, and more evictions are expected. This war has led to many shack-dwellers refusing to vote, as one website reports:

‘The residents, wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “No Houses, No Land, No Vote”, said COPE (the Congress of the People party) went as far as to offer to provide an advocate to help them in their court battle against their eviction… There are no election posters here… Anti-Eviction Campaign secretary Kareemah Linneveldt said they told parties not to put up posters because they would have no interest in elections until they had proper housing.

“For 13 months we have lived on the pavement and not a single politician visited us. Now everyone is offering us help,” she said.’

The irony of the World Cup-led gentrification in South Africa is that the origins of football in Britain lie in the working class heartlands of its cities and towns. Although the game has changed and many working people are excluded from live matches due to the outrageous cost of tickets, 99 per cent of football grounds remain in highly residential areas and are still very much part of the community with pubs, cafés and shops catering to the local fans.

It’s not just housing that is being swept away in the interest of gentrification in South Africa. The old street market in Warwick Road, Durban is being targeted for bulldozing, to be replaced by yet another monolithic lifeless shopping mall. Earlier this week members of the World Class Cities for All in Durban held a protest walkabout around the market.

‘It is as if eThekwini municipality knows full well that this municipal plan to dispose of a historic public asset in order to build yet another Western-style shopping mall in Durban runs counter to the interests of the poor and working-class communities of the city. It can only benefit the interests of the private sector property predators who have their eyes on this piece of prime public land,’ reported Streetnet.org.za.

Last week I was at an event in London where one person was praising the Lagos State Governor for ‘cleaning up’ the city, which included bulldozing squatter camps along the Ibadan Expressway. I was in Lagos at that time – one day the camp was there, the next it had been set on fire and bulldozed along with all the belongings the residents – men and women, old and young – could not carry as they ran away. Where had these people gone? How would they live now that they were a dispersed and displaced community? No one seemed to care. They only cared that they were gone and that it was wonderful now that Lagos was clean and tidy. I will find it hard to watch the South African World Cup knowing how many people have lost their homes and their livelihoods, not for the beautiful game but for selfish and unjust city planners for whom the poor are just an old football to be booted off the pitch with no care as to where it lands.

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Souring the beautiful game

Recently I listened to a radio programme on the growth of not just mega cities (those of over 10 million people) but meta cities with 20 million or more people – some crossing national borders – as a kind of corridor of mass humanity. The discussion centred around the need for public policy on how to manage these huge urban regions, and the implication for health, socio-economic and political structures and needs. One of the already recognizable impacts of mega and meta cities is the increasing poverty and economic divide within them, with large numbers living in informal settlements and on the streets.  

One thing that the discussion failed to mention was the increase in forced removals of the poor from  informal urban settlements to the outskirts of the mega/meta cities. The Shackdweller movement Abahlali baseMondolo, based in Durban, South Africa, has been under siege for the past four years and last September the Kennedy Road settlement came under attack from outsiders. Resistance to the attack was broken by the police, who proceeded to add to the destruction and to arrest of many of the residents. Abahlali are demanding the right of the poor to live in the city and for new housing to be built on its present premises and not in the outskirts of town, where their inhabitants become invisible people in a new form of apartheid based on class. 

The attempts at dismantling informal residential and market traders in South Africa is directly related to the 2010 Soccer World Cup and the Government policy of hiding the poor to ‘protect the football tourists’ and present the country as a rainbow of prosperity. Apart from the millions of dollars already spent on building huge football stadiums – to which many of the poor will have no access anyway – $170 million is being spent on security to police the poor. Abahlali and the Shackdweller movement across South Africa are planning a series of demonstrations during the World Cup to protest against the lack of affordable and decent housing as well as the right for street traders to sell their products.

In July 2008 I visited Lagos, Nigeria. I remember the daily drive on a major highway, along which informal settlements and markets had grown over the years. Then one day all the shacks and markets had disappeared, broken and burned to the ground. Last year, thousands of Lagos beggars were rounded up and deported back to their home states – how do you deport people in their own country? A similar policy was adopted in Port Harcourt when thousands were driven from their homes in a massive act of violence. 

These examples from South Africa and Nigeria are part of a global trend which increasingly denies poor and low-income people access to the city under the excuse of regeneration. In the US, in cities such as New York and Washington DC, low-income people are being forced out of their historic neighbourhoods as the process of gentrification takes over. Yet these cities vie for the privilege of spending massive sums of money on self-indulgent and ostentatious sporting entertainment. 

In 2012 London will host the Olympics, at an estimated cost of $14 billion in a city which has a major housing crisis. Why is it that such monies can be found for a month’s entertainment but not for building new, sustainable homes? There is no doubt that some groups will benefit from the Olympics – investors, sporting businesses, sponsors and so on. But millions of ordinary Londoners will still be forced to live in sub-standard and inappropriate housing. The same applies for the majority of South Africa’s poor and low-income earners. The World Cup will not bring homes, access to better healthcare or even employment. Already those who were employed in building the stadiums are back on the unemployment line. I love football and there is no better way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon than in the stands at Arsenal FC, an activity which due to the $60 price tag of a ticket is sadly no longer affordable. However, I find myself feeling increasingly reluctant to engage with the World Cup, given the cost to the lives of ordinary people.

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Housing the urban poor

Photo by: Summerly Noon under a CC Licence

I first met Kamal Uddin 20 years ago. At that time, the NGO of which he is director, ARBAN (the Association for the Realization of Basic Needs), was working on a programme of literacy and numeracy for women in the poorest areas of Dhaka. We visited 25 or 30 slum settlements, mostly self-build bamboo and wood huts around polluted ponds or on low-lying marshy ground. This was government land, occupied by the poor, but controlled by powerful individuals who took a toll, or rent, from the people. Many were paying over half their monthly income to these unofficial landlords.

This was the beginning of a scheme in which garment-workers, maidservants, rickshaw drivers, construction workers, vendors and labourers would accompany ARBAN on a journey towards its most recent venture – the building of multi-storey apartments for the working poor. In the process, the lives of the people have been transformed: they acquired new skills, their livelihoods were enhanced by co-operative working, microcredit and social education, and their savings used to acquire land, on which the first block of flats has now reached its full six storeys in Mirpur in the north of Dhaka.

If this is an inspirational venture, it has been beset by every imaginable obstacle.

KAMAL: Poor people used to build bamboo pillars on stilts around ponds; sometimes the structures reached three or four storeys. But in the past decade, sands have been dredged from river beds to fill in ponds and low-lying water-bodies for the purpose of private construction. Canals and ponds belong to the government; but builders, in league with corrupt officials, have been raising 15 or 20-storey blocks. The ponds and swamps used to be recharged by monsoon rains, providing stability to the soils in the dry season. Abuses by developers have made Dhaka more vulnerable to flooding – any building may be inundated after an hour’s rain, including the Prime Minister’s office, the Secretariat and the British High Commission.

Abuses by developers have made Dhaka more vulnerable to flooding – any building may be inundated after an hour’s rain, including the Prime Minister’s office

A hundred years ago, Dhaka, criss-crossed by 60 canals and rivers, was known as the Venice of the East. It was a living city, with tides that cleansed the waste water. The rivers allowed country boats full of vegetables and fruits to come up to the markets in the heart of Dhaka. Every middle-class homestead had its own pond for drinking, bathing and washing. Now most of these have been buried. In their place are glittering buildings and glass skyscrapers – monuments to the dead waters of Dhaka.

Photo by: Naquib Hossain under a CC Licence

People who had come from rural areas created degraded villages around the ponds. Their lives were insecure, subject to rape, extortion, land-grabbing. In Bangladesh rich families whisper to their babies at birth: ‘Have land, get land, grab land by any means you can.’ About 80 per cent of land is held by less than 20 per cent of the people. The other 80 per cent live on what is left. The people of Dhaka are all provisional tenants – the driver is tenant of the car he drives for someone else; those who make garments do not wear them; those who cook the choicest dishes do not taste them; the maid on the veranda depends for her sleeping-mat on her employers.

The most obvious fact in Dhaka, and all cities of South Asia, is that the poor are being compressed: compelled to live on less and less land. The construction of skyscrapers, malls, garment factories, hospitals and universities (there are 54 private universities in Dhaka) creates the impression of a ‘world-class city’, and poor people ‘disappear’, swallowed up in windowless concrete rooms, on rooftops, cellars and remote tin sheds, out of sight. They are also removed further from their place of work, so that bus fares or exhausting journeys on foot add to an already lengthy working day. The two million garment workers of Dhaka are also the lowest-paid in the world.

KAMAL: In the late nineties, several thousand people began saving towards the purchase of a plot on which flats would be constructed to provide them with a safe shelter of their own. We bought a small piece of land in Mirpur. Over time, the dream became tarnished for many people who, tired of long years of waiting, dropped out of the scheme. Their money was returned to them. It has been 13 years since the project was started; and the first block of 45 flats is now almost complete. We have also acquired some land cheaply from the family of well-known Muslim mystic in Rampura; and there, we hope to build 250 flats.

'The biggest obstacle to the realization of the project has been our absence of corruption'

The site of the first building is cramped – it is only about a metre away from adjacent buildings; light and air are at a premium. Although brick and concrete debris still litter the staircases, each two-room apartment is taking shape, and the internal walls are complete. ARBAN plans to erect a shelter on the roof to provide accommodation for garment workers in nearby factories.

KAMAL: Work on construction was slow, since funds which had been promised did not materialize. The people have provided one-fourth of the cost, and ARBAN has invested an equal amount from its own profitable social businesses. The remaining half – about $200,000 – was promised to ARBAN in 2009 by UN Habitat, in an agreement signed in Nairobi. So far, however, not one cent has been received.*

Permission had to be sought from the Bureau of Non-Government Organizations. It could not be allowed, because it was a loan, not a grant. The request went to the External Resources Division of the Ministry of Finance. There were no rules for individuals or businesses to take loans from outside the country. No such transaction was possible.

The lives of the people have been transformed: they acquired new skills, their livelihoods were enhanced by co-operative working, microcredit and social education, and their savings used to acquire land

Mohammad Kamal Uddin had been at university with a Deputy Governor of the bank, and after some months, the loan was sanctioned under ‘special consideration’, and the required No-Objection certificate was obtained. But by that time, leadership of UN Habitat had changed. The new chief economist insisted the documentation should all be re-submitted, and questions were asked about ARBAN’s procurement plans.

KAMAL: We were not using middle-men. We were employing masons, bricklayers and carpenters from among our own beneficiaries. We supplied all the information they asked for. The delay in Bangladesh was because we had not factored into our costs bribes and kickbacks for those expected to facilitate the loan. Responsible persons convey to me the assumption that I’ll use 70 per cent of the money and give the rest to those whose job it is to expedite the transaction. Even the Housing Ministry, which has a relationship with Habitat, let it be known that 5-10 per cent would be acceptable.

Still Habitat has raised objections. They questioned the ability of our people to pay. They calculated it would require a monthly payment of 4,100 taka ($60) to ARBAN, and they said this is far beyond the ability of slum families. We have shown that they can pay it. The monthly income of our families is between 8,000 and 15,000 ($115-$215) a month. Habitat said studies show this is an inflated sum, above the average for Dhaka. That is quite true. Our people are a self-selecting group: they have undergone training, education; they have acquired a competence unavailable to most poor people in Dhaka. Eventually, Habitat accepted the affordability of the scheme, but then they raised the objection that the building was not insured. So we took out insurance, even though most buildings in Dhaka are not insured.

The biggest obstacle to the realization of the project has been our absence of corruption. By refusing to give bribes, we have been our own worst enemy.

There is something both noble and quixotic in the integrity of ARBAN. Kamal points out that he is not asking for aid or a grant: the money will be paid back by the people.

'Elites regard poor people as lesser human beings; ancient ghosts of caste and status still haunt this country'

KAMAL: If workers have independence and security, this will also provide economic benefits to the employers. They will have more energy for their labour if they do not have to stand in line to use the toilet or get water or take illegal electricity connections. The urban poor are workers. They are not beggars. They can pay. The Constitution says that government land should be given to the poor. The Deputy Commissioner’s Office is the source of greatest corruption, because it is there that false documents are made, rivers buried and sealed, land given to those who already own vast tracts of the city and country. The principal activity of the Deputy Commissioner’s office and the Land Ministry is to show that land does not belong to government. This is done by a stroke of the pen that can change the character of land – marsh becomes cropland, rivers become the ancestral possession of influential people. Government machinery is used to rob the poor and give to the rich, to enhance their already substantial fortunes.

The biggest land-grabbers have their boards all over the city, advertising new apartments: Eastern Housing Society, Basundhera Group, Jamuna Group. It is estimated that 5,000 acres of land have been alienated in this way. But in the whole of Dhaka, and the surrounding areas of Gazipur and Narayanganj, there must be 10,000 acres still nominally in government ownership. It is that land which should go to the poor, not at artificial prices dictated by political, bureaucratic and business collusion, but given, so that the four million people in the city who want decent shelter shall be provided for, among whom are most of the ill-housed garment workers: the government receives 75 per cent of its foreign exchange from the garments industry, but the people who actually earn it are still subject to a minimum wage of 1662 taka ($24), while the costs of rent and food have doubled in the past two years.

Dhaka, says Mohmmad Kamal Uddin, is an ‘occupied city’. You can see what he means. The monsoon sky sits heavily upon pastel-coloured apartments, malls of glass, private offices and institutions; while at street level, the inextricable tangle of cycle-rickshaws, the procession of young women that fill the city with colour in the early morning, before being absorbed into the factories, the construction workers whose washing dances in the concrete of the unfinished block, increasing density of a humanity confined into declining space; sad and menacing prospect in this, one of the most congested cities in the world.

KAMAL: The working poor will pay the market price to live vertically in secure buildings with basic amenities. All they want is a dignified life. If they are relieved of the anxiety of living, they will perform their economic tasks better. The truth is, élites regard poor people as lesser human beings; ancient ghosts of caste and status still haunt this country whose freedom has yet to reach the majority of its people.

*Editor's note: The money promised by UN Habitat in 2009 was abruptly cancelled in 2010, shortly after this interview took place.


Camp Constant needs you!

In the May issue of New Internationalist (UK edition) we wrote about a new frontline in the battle for travellers’ rights (the article is reproduced at the end of this blog). The residents of Dale Farm have been under threat of being forced from their homes for months; now, Basildon Council has sent eviction notices. In response, a day of action is planned for this Saturday, 9 July, as the below press release explains.


Today, Monday 4 July, some 90 families at Dale Farm, the UK’s largest Traveller community, were delivered final notices of eviction, giving families until midnight on 31 August to abandon their homes, or face their entire community being bulldozed. The central government and Basildon Council have set aside over £18m for the eviction battle that could last three weeks. It will be the biggest clearance of its kind involving the ploughing up of 54 separate plots which were created out of a former concrete scrap-yard, purchased by the Travellers ten years ago. 

Dale Farm is only a 30 minute train ride from London, and hundreds of people have pledged to join residents in nonviolent resistance to the destruction of Dale Farm. The residents of Dale Farm have encouraged their supporters to establish a base at Dale Farm, Camp Constant, to resist this eviction and house human rights monitors.

Camp Constant, a mass gathering of national and international supporters of the Dale Farm community will begin Saturday, 27 Augusth:
* Starting with a weekend of Traveller history and celebration
* Plus practical eviction resistance training
* Training for legal observers and human rights monitors
* Opening party, Saturday night
Sleeping space is available in caravans or you can bring a tent if you can stay Saturday night. The eviction could go ahead right after midnight on August 31st, so we will be staying at Dale Farm before then in preparation.
* You can sign up to our email bulletins here.

From the May 2011 issue of New Internationalist:
Travellers protest against Dale Farm eviction
On a new frontline in the international battle for travellers’ rights, a community of some 1,000 travellers is calling for a human shield to be set up around their homes to protect them from forcible removal by their local council and a private eviction company notorious for conducting violent removals.

Bailiff company Constant and Co is gearing up to remove any stragglers from Dale Farm in Essex, with the complete compliance of Basildon council, which has told the travellers they must leave the site where many of them grew up. Essex police have also applied for an extra £10 million from the Home Secretary to help fund the eviction, and riot police may be drafted in.

‘The eviction would be a death sentence for a number of older and frailer people who can no longer cope with life on the road,’ says Grattan, campaigner and secretary of the Dale Farm Housing Association. ‘Others are in the advanced stages of cancer, many have learning disabilities and we have a young mother with triplets. Over 100 children go to the local school and it would cause complete disruption to force them to move.’

Camp Constant was set up on 9 April, the day after Roma Nation Day, and attracted travellers from across Europe who came to stand by their friends and obstruct the eviction.

Grattan says that physical protest is now the only option open to the community, which has exhausted all planning permissions, public enquiries and appeals. Previous marches of up to 300 people to the local council and demonstrations at Parliament Square and Downing Street have fallen on deaf ears.

Although the travellers are being trained in nonviolent resistance, Grattan says he fears things could turn nasty: ‘An eviction can’t take place without violence – bulldozing people’s homes is by definition violent and destructive.

‘Serious complaints about Constant and Co have been well documented by the traveller community. They use heavy machinery and carry out evictions without proper safety measures. There are small children around and the bailiffs are not qualified to handle them. They just pull them out of their way.’

English gypsy families moved to Dale Farm in the 1960s after they were evicted from previous sites, and half of the 100 properties on the site have permission to be there. The other properties are in dispute, because the people living there don’t have right of residence, even though they own the land itself. The land is greenbelt, but before the travellers moved in the council used it as a dumping ground for abandoned vehicles.

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Back-door squatting law is a democracy bypass

Photo by Indymedia.

They say ’seven days is a long time in politics’. A little over a week ago, we learned that the government was planning to criminalise squatting in residential buildings via a sneaky last minute amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. On Tuesday that clause was voted through in parliament by 283 to 13 against.

The vote was the culmination of a farcical consultation process, announced by David Cameron last June. At Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) we had our misgivings from the start. But we took the time to respond to the government’s consultation  ‘Options for Dealing with Squatters’.

The document was extremely one-sided, ignoring the problem of homelessness and talking entirely about the ‘problem’ of squatting. The questions were loaded, and addressed to landlords and property-owners – not to those who have used or might have cause to need, empty buildings to live in.

But as it turned out, civil society was also against this attack on homeless people – despite the consultation’s bias. A staggering 96 per cent of respondents opposed the government’s proposals. The dissenters included lawyers,  homelessness charities and the Metropolitan police.

Despite our misgivings, what we didn’t realise was that the government would be prepared to blatantly fly in the face of its own consultation. Just four working days after the responses were published on 5 October,  Ken Clarke tabled a last minute amendment, clause 26, to the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill. Under clause 26, squatters face a £5,000 fine or a year in prison.

Housing and homelessness groups have repeatedly warned of the effects of these proposals. Crisis have shown that more single homeless people have used squatting to house themselves than hostels. With an estimated 20,000 people squatting nationally - and a 17 per cent increase in homelessness this year - the government’s plans may see tens of thousands forced onto the street within days.

We are in the middle of one of the worst housing crises this country has ever seen. But as families struggle to cope in an ever-worsening economic climate, the coalition’s remedy is discipline and punishment, while systematically unpicking the social security net.

Forget the tabloid tales of demonic squatters stealing people’s homes and destroying their things. The reality is that strong legislation already protects ordinary people in their homes: it is a criminal offence (under the Criminal Law Act 1977) to squat the house that someone lives in. The Metropolitan Police know this. In their consultation response they said the squatting law was ‘broadly in the right place’ and that the existing array of offences allowed them to tackle the worst cases of squatting (for instance, where squatters cause the rightful homeowner to be displaced).

The new measures have nothing to do with protecting ordinary people. They are geared to  protect large-scale landlords and property speculators who keep properties empty simply to up their profits. The government distortions of the law are intentionally creating a climate of fear, to advance a draconian agenda in which the poor are simply locked up.

We are the ignored 96 per cent. We have tried engaging with the democratic processes but it has failed us. On Monday night, before the bill was passed, SQUASH organised a peaceful Sleep Out protest outside Parliament on Halloween. Police kettled and arrested the demonstrators, holding many people over night. Democracy is no longer just being bypassed its being totally disregarded.

Rueben Taylor is part of the SQUASH Campaign.

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Living beside your oppressor: a Palestinian reality

Protesters at Sheikh Jarrah

Palestinian solidarity protests, March 2011. Photo by liormania under a CC Licence

On a seemingly desolate road in East Jerusalem, in the area of Sheikh Jarrah, dozens of Palestinian families live under continuous surveillance and harassment. Located next to the tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik (a revered Jewish High Priest), the street stands as an attestation to the indescribable conditions under which most Palestinian people live today.

The situation here is a familiar one for Palestinian families all over the West Bank. It is a story of Israeli expansion; of Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory, a war of attrition in which Palestinian families in the area become victims of psychological, and often physical, violence because of the colour of their skin, or the god they believe in.

The Israeli invasion into Palestinian territory is enacted through the creation of settlements; a process by which Israeli people, predominantly Orthodox Jews, squat Palestinian land that they feel should be in the Jewish domain; a process which always results in violence. On the receiving end of this violence, certainly in the case of Sheikh Jarrah, are inhabitants who have been in the area for generations, and claim legal rights to the land. The Israeli state apparently acts as an intermediary between the two, whilst openly being intent on annexing all of Jerusalem and creating a Jewish majority in the city, thus serving the interests of the settlers.

With two Jewish settlements on the street, tensions run high in this small residential area located just outside the centre of Jerusalem. The two settlements, across the street from each other, are in buildings that used to belong to Palestinian families. The smaller of the two, a squatted extension of the Al-Kurd residence, resembles a warzone more than a family home. Anti-Arab graffiti and Stars of David cover the front wall of the property. Just past the low stone walls demarcating the property, Israeli flags decorate the front of the squatted extension, accompanied by scribbles on the wall such as ‘Fuck Palestine’ and ‘This is Jewish land’.

As a foreigner visiting this settlement, the absurdity of the situation is striking. In front of the odious graffiti and Israeli flags adorning the squat stand several young men on guard, young men who do not spare their insults when met with a new face. To the right of the extension lies a narrow alleyway which leads to the back of the property, the part in which the Al-Kurd family live. They have been the legal owners since it was built in 1956; they were evicted from their extension as they only had a permit for construction to the rear of the property. This is because, according to the father of the family, Nabil Al-Kurd, the Israeli government refused him a planning permit because he was Palestinian. He had built the extension defiantly with his bare hands.

A Sheikh Jarrah childhood
A Sheik Jarrah childhood. Photo by ISM Palestine under a CC Licence.

Every night, international and Israeli activists gather in the alleyway of the property, acting as a buffer between the settlers and the Al-Kurd family. As this entrance is used daily by the Al-Kurd family, they are in constant contact with the settlers. The settlers, having been capable of violence against the family as well as their home in the past, take out their anger on the monitoring activists, who have to face verbal and physical abuse from the settlers, including, on occasion, the throwing of faeces.

 ‘We have nothing to lose here – this is what we have lived with our entire lives. This man here has been in and out of jail since the age of 11, for doing nothing more than being Palestinian,’ says Mohammed, a local resident of Sheikh Jarrah who frequently visits the settlement to support the monitoring activists, as he points to his friend outside the settlement. Being on the receiving end of aggression from settlers and state, the residents experience the full oppression of the Israeli military occupation on a daily basis. This is what life is like for the local residents, and there is no other option but to continue living the best way they can.

 Sheikh Jarrah serves as one of hundreds of examples of the absurdity and inhumanity of the situation in the region today. The residents are in direct daily contact with settlers who are trying to take over the neighbourhood, despite the fact that such a takeover is supposedly completely illegal. The Israeli state is constantly ready to crack down on any attempts at resistance, and even offers logistical support to the settlers.

‘What saddens me,’ says Mohammed, ‘is that in a few years’ time foreign visitors will come here to find the entire street colonized. There will be no memory left of the people that used to live here, and we can’t do anything about it.’

With Israel planning 2,600 settlements in East Jerusalem, who knows what the future holds for the residents of Sheikh Jarrah.

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Tents beyond tents

Read the full comic book here.


Homeward Bound

‘Think globally. Act locally.’ How many times have you heard that before? It’s the catch-cry on activists’ stickers and posters across the world. Embracing that spirit, Radio New Internationalist - which is normally produced at community radio station 3CR in Melbourne, Australia - is s’tepping outside its patch to collaborate with community radio stations in other countries. They select an issue of local concern. We bring in the international perspectives. When Murray Dawson - whose one of the driving forces behind SHMU FM in the Scottish city of Aberdeen, Scotland - put the privatization of public housing up for debate, progressive people from Cuba, England, Russia, and Germany stepped up to the microphones to share their views.

  • The British Government wants to move public housing off its books into the hands of housing associations. At first blush this might sound great - giving people a chance to run the blocks of homes that they live in. So why are communities voting against it? Glyn Robbins from the British organization Defend Council Housing Campaign reports.
  • In the full-blown sell-off of all Russian state assets that made multi-millionaires of some but impoverished most of the others, ordinary tenants in Moscow were offered the chance to own the homes they lived in. The sale price - nothing! But there’s a downside. Yelena Shomina from the State University Higher School of Economics in Moscow reveals it.
  • Forget the ‘bricks and mortar’ approach. Improving local economy and society is central to improving public housing. Hermann Strab from the Gras Group for Architecture and Town Planning in Germany and Dr José Fernando Martierena Hernández from the Ecomaterials in Social Housing project in Cuba outline their two World Habitat award-winning projects showcasing this community approach.

The invigorating music that’s threading its way through today’s program comes from those sons of son music, the Cuban band Sierra Maestra, from their Soul of a Nation CD.

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