Thailand: Social Co-Production of Services

No one would dispute the value of public participation in delivering government services. Yet when the going gets tough, participation is often sidelined, ignored, or reduced to top-down information sharing. This can be attributed to the lack of institutional capacity to sustain the required level of engagement.

Strengthening the capacity of community-based organizations, as equal partners with government, and private-sector counterparts, in delivering public services, is high on the agenda for policymakers. When long-term partnerships between public agencies and community groups are formed -- with the parties on an equal footing -- services can be rapidly improved. This level of partnership and participation is often termed "co-production," but the process is quite complex, and there are only a few good examples so far.

I recently visited the Community Organisation Development Institute (CODI) in Bangkok. It is part of Thailand's Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. The visit was part of an international exchange programme between South Africa and Thailand to explore the dimensions of community cooperatives in the delivery of public services -- especially relating to urban slum upgrading and housing.

Thailand, like many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, experienced unprecedented economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, poverty and inequality rose, and many of the slums that emerged in inner-city areas and on the outskirts of towns came under threat of evictions. Following pressure from community networks and activists, such as the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, the Thai government acted on this growing urban crisis. A number of urban and rural development funds were set up.

Slums along the Klong Bangbua river canal in Bangkok's Bangkhen District. (Source: Walter Fieuw)

Slums along the Klong Bangbua river canal in Bangkok's Bangkhen District.
(Source: Walter Fieuw)

First, some background is needed. The CODI was established in 2000 after the major urban and rural funds were combined to form a new organization. By that time, 950 savings schemes were established in 53 of Thailand's 75 provinces. The network's reach grew to 42,199 organizations, along with 2,798 networks, with a total of 4.6 million members benefitting from CODI programmes.

Between 2003 and 2011, the CODI's slum upgrading programme, Baan Mankong, delivered 874 projects at a value of $147 million (at an average cost of $185,392 per project), benefitting 91,805 families previously living in slum conditions. Now 286 cities and towns in 71 of Thailand's 77 provinces in Thailand are involved in this extensive urban and rural programme.

The strength of the CODI model, especially in reaching the scale it does, is based on the formal recognition of resident housing cooperatives. This becomes a mechanism for self-organisation. The grants and loans that the CODI provides for housing projects are made to the housing cooperatives, and all the members are accountable to the cooperative.

Slum dwellers along the Klong Lamnum river canal have been upgraded to a low-cost neighborhood. (Source: Walter Fieuw)

Slum dwellers along the Klong Lamnum river canal have been upgraded to a low-cost neighborhood. (Source: Walter Fieuw)

In the community of Klong Lamnun in Bangkok's Meenburi district (one of seven projects we visited), I was particularly struck by the pride the residents had in their cooperative. Fifteen years after the first project, it is still the central point for resolving all land, services, and housing issues. It also protects members' assets and interests. When a rich developer wanted to buy out the land, the community was strong in defending their tenure rights.

The ambitious Baan Mankong housing programme creates the necessary pre-conditions for delivering a whole range of other services. These include poverty alleviation services such as support in savings, credit, and loans; debt management and local economic development; and community welfare services, such as natural resource management, sustainable agriculture, the villagers' welfare programme in rural areas, and so forth.

There are also active networks between housing cooperatives facilitated by the CODI. In Takok in the Samutprakarn town district, an industrial district in Bangkok, the networks are especially useful when negotiating with the major land holders. Presenting a united front for tenure security, the CODI also provides a vital negotiation platform.

New models such as the CODI are needed to ensure better and more responsive public services. Opponents of the co-production model have a valid case: It often minimizes the role of government, relies on volunteerism, and possibly puts more burden on those in need. Nevertheless, creative new models such as the CODI can solve the issues of scaling up service provision, building community capacity, and contributing to more equal and fair societies.

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  1. This article first appeared on UBM Future Cities