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ACHR: Reflecting on 30+ years of Community-led Development in Asia

By Brenda Pérez-Castro, Stephanie Butcher & Barbara Lipietz

On September 21, 2020, the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) network held a virtual regional meeting, bringing together participants from 12 countries, particularly the first-generation members that supported the network from its inception in 1988. In this 4-hour meeting, ACHR seniors reflected on the legacies of the network over the past thirty years and shared their ideas on the key challenges of the region, the approaches, and direction ACHR could follow for the future. The meeting comes at a particularly important moment, as the multiple crises derived from the COVID19 pandemic have called into question the priorities, roles and strategies of governments, social movements and organised communities. These reflections also contribute to a process of transition for the coalition, as the overall direction of ACHR’s work and the role played by the Secretariat are being discussed under the facilitation of a younger generation of coalition members, the Community Architects Network (CAN).

The group reflected on the critical challenges for the region, including the deepening of inequality, the ongoing struggle for access to housing and basic services in contexts marked by growing contestations over urban land and informal densification in slum areas, food insecurity, vulnerability to climate change effects, and the harmful impacts of the rural-urban divide. The meeting reaffirmed key principles shared by ACHR groups, whilst highlighting the need for ongoing collective reflection within the network to support the groups in changing and challenging circumstances.

Firstly, the discussion highlighted the way the ACHR has been and should continue to be a knowledge sharing and exchange platform for the diverse solutions that emerge from the struggles, creativity and successes of community groups and professional support groups, at the national and local levels. From community mapping, savings groups, co-creation workshops, to peer exchanges, land-sharing and political negotiation, the various tools that consolidate the community-led development approach have been created, shared and sharpened - building from everyday practices and innovations of the coalition members - through engagement with the ACHR regional network.

Above: Regional networks, image by ACHR

This region-wide, collective, solution-making mechanism is the basis of the flexibility that characterizes ACHR, and ensures that its work responds to old and emerging challenges. At the regional level, ACHR plays an intermediary role by recognising, valuing and supporting the development of solutions that households and communities create; offering a space for groups across the region to learn from each other; and leveraging the success of groups in some locations to stir the process and influence key actors in others. This role, however, is not fully understood - nor valued - by all international stakeholders, including, and particularly, funding agencies.

A key principle of the work of ACHR members is the establishment of amicable city-wide partnerships with local governments and other local stakeholders, conceived as strategic components of people-centred development. The tactics that enable these partnerships include the use of ‘mixed teams’ (government officials, urban poor groups, NGOs) in peer exchanges, sharing community-based data, and co-designing demonstration projects. Travelling, learning, being inspired, finding resources, designing and building together is at the heart of city-wide partnerships. And indeed, most groups in the network have observed, over time, an increased recognition of the capacities and value-added of urban poor groups in development discourses. However, some groups wearily noted how governments' tendencies to (re)centralise decision-making has been reinforced by COVID-19, challenging hard-won recognition.


Above: Turning Asia into a 'big university' through community-led processes, Image by ACHR

Understanding development as a community-led process -rather than a series of technical projects and predefined goals- is another key characteristic of the work of groups within the ACHR network. This principle entails a high level of flexibility in responding to local priorities and changing contexts. Crucially, it speaks to ACHR groups’ remarkable ability to adapt tactics, emphasising processes that strengthen community organisation and capabilities, whilst demonstrating critical pathways to addressing global sustainability goals. Today, however, ACHR groups are having to contend with official development discourses and an increasingly closed funding environment that emphasises predefined results and strategies, and rigorous procedures and directives on ‘financial sustainability’ that often overrides social and community sustainability.

The above issues provide a sample of the rich conversation initiated within the seniors meeting; a conversation which will continue as the network reorganises to face the prevailing and emerging challenges in the Asian region. Summing up these discussions was the powerful call to: ‘revisit the soul of the network from the eyes of the youth’.

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