Fellow Since 1999
Housing Development Foundation (Ubonratchathani)
This profile was prepared when Chamnong Jitnirat was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.
A teacher by training, Chamnong Jitnirat works at the grassroots level to create a coherent national movement for urban community development in Thailand. He addresses the problem of managing the ever-growing number of slum communities in the country by engaging the slum community leaders of Bangkok as community educators in other provinces.
The New Idea
Chamnong Jitnirat is successfully mobilizing slum communities to defend their rights to education, health services, and stable, sanitary living conditions. In the process, he provides literacy training and increases residents's awareness of their legal rights to these basic human services. Chamnong has also initiated a broader citizen-based movement to spread his work to other parts of Thailand. Employing leaders from Bangkok's slum communities as the trainers and developers of new community leaders in other provinces (where all conditions are not likely to be the same as in the capital city) will help Chamnong develop a coherent and flexible process for slum community development all over the country.
In the 1960s, thousands of poor farmers left their land and migrated to the cities in search of factory work. By 1986, 8,000 to 15,000 people a day were leaving their homes in the northeastern part of Thailand to pursue a better life in Bangkok. These people had no means of supporting themselves, and often simply took over open lands near where they worked. In 1974, the Government recognized these open areas as slum communities and established the National Housing Authority to handle this problem. As early as the mid-1970s, surveys showed that hundreds of thousands of people lived in slum communities. That number has climbed steadily ever since, and the problem has spread beyond Bangkok. According to the National Housing Authority, slums in 19 northeastern provinces alone house approximately 150,000 people. On a national scale, there are an estimated 3,000 slums and poor urban communities throughout Thailand, which are home to over 25 million people.In general, slum inhabitants are a disempowered and disorganized group unfamiliar with the laws relevant to their human rights. As such, they are unlikely to stand up against authorities (police, housing agents, and landlords) who refuse them the most basic goods and services. The traditional approach to dealing with the problems of the urban poor in Thailand has been to promote economic development programs such as cooperatives or savings groups, or environmental protection programs such as sanitation, waste removal, and water services. While these approaches are a necessary part of improving living conditions in slums, the efforts are often piecemeal. They fall short of addressing the larger issues of community development, which encompass all of these strategies, but also require leadership within the slums in order to be sustainable.It is difficult to develop leadership within slum communities because community members often struggle just to survive in such an unstable environment. The economic downturn of the late 1990s has also made it more difficult for people to maintain their jobs and afford housing, exacerbating the cycle of poverty and further impeding human development.
Chamnong works from the premise that organizing and mobilizing slum communities and most importantly, developing the leadership capacity within them will have significant long-term benefits for the social, economic, and human development of some of the poorest segments of the Thai population. His comprehensive approach to the problem of managing slum communities in more equitable ways focuses on developing human capacity. Such efforts will fundamentally change community members and empower them to improve their lives. Having successfully worked with slum communities in Bangkok, he is now implementing his strategy for community development in other regions of the country.Chamnong has relocated to Ubon Province in the eastern part of Thailand in order to implement his methodology on a larger scale. The first step in any community development effort is to increase slum dwellers's literacy and educate them about their basic human rights and how they can exercise these rights under the law in order to secure economic and social benefits. His experience in Bangkok showed him the importance of linking these goals to the slum dwellers's efforts to obtain adequate housing for themselves.A critical aspect of Chamnong's work is his long-term strategy of drawing locally organized communities into a larger national movement on urban community development. He hopes to coordinate the efforts of slum communities in Bangkok with others in outlying provinces to sow the seeds of national legal reform on urban housing issues. To this end, Chamnong employs slum community leaders from his programs in Bangkok as the trainers and developers of future leaders in the outlying provinces where he is now working. The seasoned leaders will share their experiences, help implement known and successful solutions, and create the beginnings of a national peer network of slum leaders.Chamnong's strategy will ensure consistency in solving common problems, as well as flexibility in handling new concerns that arise in cities that are perhaps significantly different from Bangkok. This replication process will prove extremely valuable for national policy and lobbying efforts.
Chamnong has been working at the forefront of the community development movement in Bangkok since the early 1980s. As a young graduate from a teacher's college, he started to work with the Duang Prateep Foundation, the leading citizen sector organization for child and youth development in Klong Toey, one of Bangkok's largest urban poor communities. This foundation focused mainly on promoting children's literacy, but Chamnong persuaded them that they should also incorporate an adult literacy program. The leadership potential he saw in many of his adult literacy students convinced him to leave his job at Duang Prateep in order to work more extensively with the community leaders. Soon he founded his own organization, the Housing Development Foundation.His foundation was one of the first to focus on community development. It successfully mobilized and supported many slum communities in Bangkok and attracted financial support from international agencies. Chamnong was behind the establishment of various coordinating committees for citizen sector organizations concerned with management of poor urban communities in Bangkok. It was during this period that he joined forces with another Ashoka Fellow, architect Somsook Boonyabancha, whose idea of land-sharing between slum inhabitants and land developers, and whose approach to urban planning have created a natural partnership with Chamnong's grassroots leadership development efforts.Chamnong has published a book describing his sixteen years of experience with poor urban communities and has written a number of articles concerning the problems and needs of the urban poor. After successfully refining his work with the urban poor of Bangkok, he saw the growing need for this type of leadership development in other parts of Thailand and decided it was time to broaden the reach of his work. Therefore, Chamnong, his wife, and two children relocated to Ubon Province in eastern Thailand where he has already initiated a community networking project in Ubon city.