Influences (or Why I Write the Way I Do)

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Friday, May 2, 2014

The Politics of Reform in Socialised Housing

In the enablement strategy, international donors tended to define in apolitical terms the participation of state and societal actors in socialised housing reform.  Specifically, a city government and its urban poor are assumed to converge around socialised housing out of shared ‘developmental’ interests.  As a form of development, socialised housing is being pursued as a ‘public good’ where actors strive to achieve unquestionably collective goals and benefits (Hyden 2008, 3).  This notion of developmental interests generates certain key assumptions about the role of local governments and the urban poor. First, that city governments and their urban poor are motivated to support socialised housing reform by the goal of urban poverty reduction.  Secondly, the means at their disposal is a ‘good governance’ agenda that assumes the capacity of the city government to undertake ‘market-enabling’ roles, and urban poor organisations to exercise self-management functions.  In doing so, city governments and the urban poor gravitate towards institutionalised partnerships driven by participatory processes, consensus, and the sharing of responsibility and accountability to program objectives.  In similar vein, the poor’s participation assumes that they possess the organisational readiness in undertaking formal relationships with the state and other civil society groups.

What I propose in this thesis is a political economy approach to studying the enablement strategy that rejects this ‘public good’ notion of socialised housing in its portrayal of governance in housing as an apolitical process.  An alternative view focusing on the political nature of the enablement strategy is introduced using a structural political economy approach in studying the evolving relationships between the state and the poor during its implementation and its consequences on the poor’s well-being.  The approach is based on the structural analysis pioneered by Manuel Castells (1983) in his study of urban slums in Latin America.  Castells reworked the concept of ‘marginalisation’, by maintaining that the defining characteristic of the poor is not their socioeconomic deprivation but their systematic exclusion by the state vis-à-vis more dominant and organised interests in society.  Under a structural political economy approach, thus, slums are treated as ‘sites of marginality’ that manifest the continuing disadvantage of the poor within the contestation of interests over land, services, and other resources, in consideration of certain historical and institutional contexts, and underlying relationships of power and influence.   

The thesis identifies with the critical literature on neoliberal donor policies but not its tendency to examine the enablement strategy in terms of the dynamics between the state and the market (see Baken and Van der Linden 1993; Jones and Ward 1994).  This thesis differs by scrutinising the enablement strategy as a reform, where the political economy of state and societal relationships is examined using the ‘politics of reform’ framework derived from the interactive approach developed by Fox (1993) in his study of food programs in rural Mexico.  The framework is applied in a case study of Naga City’s Kaantabay sa Kauswagan, a multi-awarded and internationally-recognised socialised housing program which in the Philippines, stands out as the longest-running and the only LGU-administered.  Although Kaantabay is not donor-sponsored, it fits the mould of the enablement strategy envisioned by international donors.  Direct governance by the LGU, its partnerships with the urban poor, and the participation of urban poor organisations in the management of assisted sites all point to ideal conditions that would account for the hands-down ‘success’ of Kaantabay --- but is it?

Using the politics of reform framework, this thesis confronts this question by examining Kaantabay in terms of the political economy of actual policy implementation and the impact of this politics on tenure security for Naga City’s urban poor.   My study first situates Kaantabay within specific conditions of structural transformation and conflict in Naga City to determine what drives state and societal interests in the reform process.  Particularly, policy implementation is examined with respect to the evolving forms of access and control of urban land in Naga City as its economic and political importance changes over time. The politics of reform framework is then used to analyse the interaction of state and societal actors in socialised housing reform in terms of their institutional settings and the coalitions of interest that operate the reform process.  In here I argue that Kaantabay’s implementation is not only driven by the ‘official development agenda’ but more so, by the agenda of establishing and sustaining power by city officials, the urban poor, and other social actors with crucial influence, such as local elites.  Meanwhile, the impact of politics on the poor’s tenure security is further explored using a structuralist perspective that examines the connections between the poor’s continuing struggles with marginalisation and the social and political relationships critical to protecting their tenure interests.  With this approach, I do not evaluate the tenure security goals of Kaantabay in terms of success rates in formal titling. Instead, I argue that tenure security is highly political in nature, a view that contests the predominant framing by international donors of tenure security as an economic or legal condition.  The critical role of politics in understanding actual policy implementation and impact on the poor reveals a contradiction in the policy framework of the enablement strategy. As I will demonstrate in the rest of the thesis, political interests, not merely developmental, drive the state and the poor in socialised housing reform, in ways that even defy established notions of ‘good governance’ in their partnerships and participation.

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