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“We have struggled to engage with people….”

 Housing in the UK - out with the new, in with the old?

Refurbished terrace house in Ashington, Northumberland, that once boasted the longest rows of such houses in the country, the homes of the once proud and mighty coalminers.
Glasgow demolition of tallest blocks of flats (apartments) in Europe

Recently I met a new colleague in the UK housing sector who lamented “We have struggled to engage with people in the north there!”

It started me thinking; again comparing and contrasting life in the UK and in the developing world, as I do in these blogs.  Housing – we all need it – but is it taken for granted by those who have it?  What are their's and Society’s obligations to helping those without housing?

The question returned to mind while flying over the snow-capped Himalayas, onwards and over China’s vast new concrete cities, with numerous new housing blocks.  In fact they reminded me of the European post-war reconstruction boom; the T Dan Smith era of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and the spectacular demolition of housing tower blocks as we witnessed in Edinburgh. Many of those were much hated, people preferring level ground; a garden, and meeting each other in the street.  Some of Newcastle’s beautiful Georgian terraces may be lost forever but at least today we see terraced houses being regenerated.  It can be compulsive TV viewing observing the makeovers of derelict houses, even streets, brought back to life, to be cherished by new residents?

The point here is that much-needed housing is being provided, and for too many in this world, a house is a home; their safe retreat, and the difference between life or death, especially for children and the vulnerable.

It is strange to think that in only a few years, no longer will there be people with living memories of post World War II days, when there was a concerted effort to rebuild the vast housing stocks lost during the years of conflict.  World leaders pronounced “Never again must we let such tragedy happen”!  The United Nations was born.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights came in to being, with Article 25:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

This human right, enshrined in international law, seems to be forgotten in debates in Australia and Europe about refugees.

In fact we now have a United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Ms Leina Farha. She has her work cut out!

I wonder how many people know or care, especially those of us who are comfortably housed?  Despite good work by organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Samakum Teang Tnaut here in Cambodia, the right to housing is not prominent. It comes after health and education, often relegated to an aspect of poverty alleviation.  This should not be the case.  A safe and secure home is the key to much else.

In developing countries, and in pockets of developed countries, there are people struggling to find adequate housing.  And of course with most natural or man-made disasters, it is housing that suffers most.

Yet, we see remarkable efforts to build and re-build.  In the “aid and development” business, we have all kinds of jargon for monitoring and evaluating the good deeds.  The existence, state, and condition of a family’s house, together with safe drinking water and waste-removal, is the best indicator of true poverty and progress out of it.

Actually most indicators we use, in my humble view, exclude one true sign – the TV aerial.  Families usually try to make their housing constructions strong and permanent, from at first grass and straw, etc., to solid walls and galvanized metal rooves, etc.  Logically, they should invest more there or in contents such as beds; bed-nets, etc.  However in reality that TV, probably a black and white set discarded years ago in the West, powered by an old car battery, is top of their list to begin to make a house in to their home.

One thing is clear.  If a family has no home and really needs one, “there is no struggle to engage them!”

Sadly too many families in Cambodia, are losing these modest abodes as the country drives economic growth through agro-industrial development, causing displacement, often without compensation. (See for example LICADHO) The first is an ultra-poor family.  The second is slightly better-off with the tell-tale sign of that eagerly-acquired and much-loved TV.


Readers may wish to see and learn about the traditional houses of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities, the groups I work with.  The first is a Bunong house in Mondulkiri Province.  It features in the banner on our website – www.mondulkiri-centre.org.  The second is a Kreung “Tall House” from Ratanakkiri Province, that still today are occasionally built for teenagers to experiment, and for before marriage. You can read more about this here. Picture courtesy of Hanuman.

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