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A New Life for Phnom Penh's Urban Poor

December 20, 2010

by Ethan Carroll (2010-11 WFDD Fellow)

Two communities lie in the shadow of Oudong Mountain, both recently transplanted from Phnom Penh's urban core. But while both face similar challenges in this area over twenty kilometers from the city and its employment opportunities, the contrast between the two communities is extreme. The New Life Community, a Habitat for Humanity site here in Kandal Province, is laid out in parallel rows of composted-soil block homes, with a community center that doubles as the local church. The other community lies across the field, in a sunken area prone to seasonal flooding, where seemingly hundreds of makeshift, tarp- and thatched- roof lean-tos cover 4-by-6 meter plots of land.
I was in Kandal Province to speak with the first community, whose houses were built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers in November 2009 as part of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. A year ago, my colleague Michael Scharff visited New Life Community shortly following the Jimmy Carter build to speak with Chea Chandy, the community'™s leader (Michael wrote about his visit in a previous blog post). One year later, I was joining Melissa Cronin, Habitat for Humanity Cambodia'™s Resource Development and Communications Manager, to follow up.

Chandy'™s community moved to Oudong before the closing of the Steung Mean Chey dumpsite in Phnom Penh, when many community members who had collected bottles and other recyclables at the dumpsite for reimbursement lost not only their home but their primary means of income generation. The dumpsite'™s closing was not an isolated incident: despite a recent lull in construction activities, the pace of urban development in Phnom Penh has increased exponentially in the past ten years, with Cambodia's real GDP growth projected to reach 4.8 percent in 2010. Foreign direct investment is projected to increase approximately 20 percent over 2009 levels, which will likely lead to resumed mega-construction projects in the coming years. With these changes, slum communities and other economically or socially undesirable land uses are being removed and revitalized to incentivize continued investment.

The other community at Oudong is also casualty of this urban development and its frequent, but in no way necessary, corollary: forced eviction. These are the former residents of Phnom Penh'™s Dey Krahorm community, the subject of a high-profile eviction benefiting 7NG, a Cambodian infrastructure and construction firm. Employees of 7NG, with the assistance of Cambodian municipal and military police, violently evicted over 400 families in the early morning of January 24, 2009, bypassing a months-long negotiation process with community leaders which had flared up in conflicts with company representatives on numerous occasions (more information about the Dey Krahorm eviction can be found in reports by theCentre on Housing Rights and Evictions and by LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights). In the place of hundreds of families'™ housing, 7NG built a football facility for company employees. A recent report by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights documents a number of similar recent business-led illegal forced convictions.

While mandatory evictions are an important state tool in economic and infrastructural development, when carried out in violation of international human rights law and basic human dignity they intensify inequality and disparately affect vulnerable communities. This much has been recognized by the Government-led Council for Social Development'™s 2003-2005 National Poverty Reduction Strategy:

"œBoth the authorities and the better off city dwellers tend to blame the poor for their wretched conditions and stigmatize the poor as socially undesirable, criminally inclined, even mentally defective. The usual response from middle class people and from officials is that the urban poor should be sent back to the rural areas where they belong. Unlike the rural poor who constitute the vast majority of the poor in Cambodia and who are considered to be innocent victims of poor administration and underdevelopment (lack of infrastructure and basic services), the urban poor are deemed to be responsible for their predicament."

Beginning in the late 1990s, the Municipality of Phnom Penh embarked in an effort with UN-HABITAT to alleviate urban poverty and to address concerns of overcrowding and urban blight. The 1999 Municipality of Phnom Penh Urban Poverty Reduction Strategy noted insightfully that "[t]he urban poor in Phnom Penh face three kinds of problems: (a) a low and irregular income, a lack of regular employment, a lack of assets, (b) a lack of adequate housing, of basic infrastructure and services, (c) lack of participation in society and its development." The same document called for NGOs to play a larger role in role in assisting the urban poor build their own housing and assisting in the provision of basic goods and services. A number of faith-inspired NGOs have answered this call, to the benefit of those displaced by urban development.

Faith-inspired organizations are filling a crucial gap in assisting those affected by Phnom Penh'™s development resettle outside of the urban core. When the former residents of Dey Krahorm were relocated to Kandal Province, three NGOs (Caritas Cambodia, LICADHO, and Samaritan'™s Purse) organized a rapid needs assessment, while in the days that followed Caritas and World Vision committed funds to provide basic infrastructure and food supplies. Maryknoll, Jesuit Relief Services, Samaritan's Purse, and LICADHO made contributions, as well. Habitat for Humanity has partnered with the Sihanouk Hospital of Hope to build a health center that will serve the displaced Dey Krahorm residents as well as the New Life Community. With the exception of LICADHO, a Cambodian Human Rights NGO, all of these organizations are faith-affiliated.

The New Life Community's foresight saved them from many of the hardships facing the relocated Dey Krahorm community, but Habitat for Humanityâ™s assistance is a "œhand up, not a hand out." There are considerable drawbacks to life at Oudong; primary among Chandy'™s concerns was income generation. Each family is required to pay monthly installments toward their home'™s $900 construction fee. Habitat allowed community members a six-month grace period during which to find jobs, but for many families their current income level is still not enough to meet this expense. New Life Community settled in Kandal with the hope of selling handicrafts at Oudong Mountain, a popular tourist site, and of finding employment in the local garment factories. Tourists, however, will often only buy goods from young children, and Chandy reports that the women have been unable to work in the factories because they have to take care of their children. There are currently only eleven families residing permanently in the village'™s twenty-one Habitat homes. Many have had to return to Phnom Penh, where men work as motorbike drivers while boarding with family members. Sometimes their wives stay in Oudong to make baskets or handicrafts for sale at Oudong Mountain, but often they can make more money working in the surrounding rice fields during the rainy season.

As an urban community transplanted to a rural area, The New Life Community members are beginning to take advantage of Habitat for Humanity'™s agricultural training. Chandy has set his own example by raising crops and livestock for consumption. The benefits of Chandy'™s leadership don'™t stop at the boundaries of the New Life Community, either. Over a hundred children from the surrounding area come to learn English at the community center, and, depending on the season, between seventy to one hundred students attend Sunday school classes each week. Upon moving into their new homes, the New Life Community invited several members of local government to the village for a celebration in order to ensure they would have adequate access to educational facilities and the local health center.

Speaking with Chandy about New Life Community's first year in Kandal, the benefits of Habitat'™s assistance were evident:
"Here we have our own homes. Our children can go to school. The weather is better. Here we can raise chicks and ducks and plant vegetables, too. Here we can have English classes, we'™re healthier, and at night I go to sleep with a secure feeling. I get more sleep; at the dumpsite I never slept because I had to get up very early and was always worried. When I'™m here, I have confidence. I feel free to make friends with people in the surrounding community."

Most importantly, New Life Community residents have a secure home in which to live, and Habitat is willing to work with them toward eventual repayment. There have also been some breakthroughs in employment: One man is now the sole supplier of liquid soap to Pour un Sourire d'™Enfant, a local non-profit; and several New Life Community members currently work in construction at a second Habitat for Humanity site in Kandal Province. For Chea Chandy and his New Life Community, the consequences of local structural adjustment are still painful, but the future is hopeful. There are not yet enough jobs in Oudong, but Chandy knows the opportunities will come. He has not been back to visit Steung Mean Chey since the day he left. As we leave to drive back to Phnom Penh, Chandy tells us, "œThis community is what we were always dreaming about. Now we have it."