Lack of decent housing keeps many Asians poor

Rick Hathaway says business should work with public sector to improve substandard homes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 2:49am

The Asia-Pacific region is home to some of the world's fastest-growing countries and is the only bright spot propping up a dim, fragile global economy. Yet, 500million people, or one in eight, still live in slums on the continent and that figure is expected to grow, United Nations estimates show.

This housing crisis will be exacerbated by population increase in the coming years as the number of people will surge from the current four billion to five billion by 2050, according to Asian Development Bank projections. The ballooning housing backlog will need solutions beyond just government interventions.

In large parts of the region where emerging economies are located, basic provisions such as housing and sanitation have not kept pace with economic growth. Disasters, such as the recent series of typhoons and flooding in the region, have aggravated these shortcomings. The lack of investment in decent homes, infrastructure and preparedness is putting people living in substandard housing on disaster-prone sites in a vulnerable position, exposed to the full brunt of natural calamities.

It is important to recognise that the housing deficit in the Asia-Pacific needs to be addressed fast. Housing is the critical foundation for breaking the cycle of poverty. Families living in safe and decent homes see improvements in health, education and employment opportunities. A World Bank research project shows that the simple act of changing from an earth to cement floor can lead to a dramatic decrease in parasitic infections and huge improvements in a child's cognitive development.

The traditional approach to tackling housing for the poor is one-dimensional and limiting. Solving the problem is not a simple case of building more homes. Designing any solution should include addressing land rights inequality, infrastructure planning, basic services provision, employment creation, and giving low-income families access to micro-loan and micro-saving products. The solutions must be bold and also draw participation from the business world and civil society. The private sector has much to gain from a region of better educated, healthier, wealthier people living in decent shelter - they are prospective customers.

While examples of great public-private sector innovations and business models are evident across the region, the scale and pace need to be ratcheted up. The decisions taken in the next decade will determine what the region's human development landscape looks like come 2050. Hard-working, low-income families across Asia-Pacific have contributed to the much-heralded economic miracle. They deserve to have their basic needs met. Shelter is one of them.

Rick Hathaway is Asia-Pacific vice-president for Habitat for Humanity


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