By Laura J Hirst, on 7 April 2015
Barangay Payatas, a Quezon City neighbourbood, is home to the Philippines’ largest landfill site, where up to 500 truckloads of waste are dumped daily, and on whose slopes hundreds of people live and work, many of them scavenging for recyclable waste.
It’s here that the foundations of HPFPI were laid in the early 1990s, by Vincentian missionaries who initiated social initiatives with the waste-pickers or mangangalahigs (so-called ‘chicken-scratchers’). This included a savings programme, and as participant numbers in Payatas grew, so too did news of its success.
Mobilisation through savings
Other communities from cities across the Philippines visited and formed savings groups back home and in 2001, the Homeless People’s Federation Philippines (HPFPI) was incorporated. Today, the savings programme still underpins HPFPI’s community-driven interventions; whenever a group is organised, the first group project is savings.
The idea is that mobilisation through savings can develop communities’ financial capacity to invest in and plan their own developments, through for example negotiating and managing land acquisition, relocation, or on-site upgrading. As a social mechanism, savings brings community members together regularly for support, to exchange ideas and strategies and over time build capacity to negotiate with the state, private sector or other stakeholders to gain secure tenure.
Urban challenges in Davao
Davao, where I am currently working, is the primary city of the southern island of Mindanao. Geographically, it’s very different to Metro Manila, mainly thanks to its low population density and relative greenery. However, it’s still highly urbanised, and with a quarter of the city’s population classed as ‘urban poor’, many of its inhabitants are subject to the same urban trends that proliferate in the National Capital Region.
Davao has a severe lack of affordable land and housing options for low income families, resulting in the spread of informal settlements, often on hazardous land, illegally, with minimal service provision, and at risk of eviction. The huge housing backlog is being addressed at a painfully slow rate by local government, making the work of community-based organisations like HPFPI and the Philippine Alliance vital.
From individual to federated savings groups
Since I’ve been in Davao, I’ve witnessed how savings groups become part of the federation in a number of ways. Some approach the federation directly, encouraged by word of mouth, but also driven by imminent threats to their security. We were recently contacted by community groups in the Ma’a neighbourhood who, having heard of the federation’s work, requested a savings orientation. They are facing eviction from the private land they are occupying and want to mobilise to search for and acquire a relocation site.
A similar eviction threat to the Arroyo settlement (home to 3000 + households and located close to the HPFPI office), has mobilised federation members to encourage their neighbours to start saving in order to be ready to respond to any future plans for the land. Savings here have previously paid for legal fees to fight similar eviction orders.
The federation also reaches out and extends support to areas which have experienced natural disasters, as well as encouraging savings groups, as in Arroyo, which has suffered fatal floods in recent years. Additionally, partnerships between local government and the alliance can pave the way for the introduction of savings and community mobilisation.
Current projects of the Philippine Alliance
The Alliance is currently constructing houses as part of a large relocation project at a site called Los Amigos, which has initiated a new group of savers. We are also facilitating community mapping of a number of informal settlements in an industrial area of the city, for community planning purposes, supported by a progressive local government unit.
We hope that this will act as a catalyst for these communities to create savings groups, supporting the planning process with increased social and financial capital. The strength of the savings programme has also allowed communities in Davao to access funds through the ACHR Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) programme for upgrading projects to address problems of land, infrastructure and housing at scale, often in partnership with local government.
These have included bridges (including the now world-famous, and rather beautiful bamboo bridge in Arroyo), flood defences and structure upgrading across a number of communities.
Models of community saving schemes
The federation’s model of savings comprises several different funds, amounting to five pesos (about 7 pence) a day; an Urban Poor Development Fund (loanable, for projects to develop the area) and group savings (withdrawable anytime for emergency use) are kept by the community, whilst a monthly contribution to a city fund helps HPFPI to sustain its activities, and build a revolving loan fund at the city level.
Each group is also encouraged to save 150 pesos a month for future land purchases. Groups meet weekly and there are rules about the collection and storage of money for transparency and accountability.
Whilst the model appears straightforward, as with any community mobilisation work, challenges arise from group to group. During my first month here, each Saturday we visited each of the HPFPI affiliated community associations in Davao to assess and understand their current situation and any problems they were experiencing.
Community organisation is complex
Mobilisation depends greatly on the huge commitment of voluntary time and effort of the HPFPI ‘mothers’ and coordinators; during the early days of a group’s formation members need orientation and training in record keeping.
In the long term groups also need to be sustained and encouraged; groups can succumb to savings fatigue, and become discouraged about slow progress and gains. Some associations in Davao are comprised of members who have mobilised for land acquisition but are spread living across different sites, which brings practical problems in terms of regular savings collection and meetings.
Leadership issues, schisms within associations and mismanagement of savings do occur, and in these cases, the mothers need to employ huge sensitivity and diplomacy to navigate community politics, histories, relationships and individuals to maintain strong community associations that can continue the struggle for secure tenure.
How can emerging challenges be overcome?
In light of our visits, we’ve been discussing ways to address some of these problems. We hope to start piloting a few changes to the model with new groups, such as rotating responsibility amongst all members for collecting savings on a weekly basis, so that everyone feels included and responsible for the group’s financial status.
Community and leadership exchanges between stronger and weaker groups are planned, to strengthen the situation of those currently struggling through sharing learning and successes across the city.
We hope that at the same time we can build on these activities to reinforce and deepen the (often challenging) ambition of the alliance to develop a strong, organised and engaged citywide platform for communities to discuss, plan and build their way to secure tenure and housing.
Laura Hirst is currently working in Davao City with the Philippine Alliance as part of the DPU-CAN-ACHR junior professional internship programme. She is an MSc Social Development Practice graduate and a former Graduate Teaching Assistant for the programme. Her interests include participatory urban governance and social diversity, gender justice, participatory processes and methodologies and photography. She has previously worked at the UCL Urban Laboratory as well as for Leonard Cheshire Disability, PhotoVoice and One World Action in the UK, civil society organisations in Peru and Cameroon and on action research projects in London, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.