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  • His Highness the Aga Khan with President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan in discussion at the International Seminar on "Shelter for the Homeless" sponsored by the Association of Builders & Developers.
    AKDN / Christopher Little
International seminar sponsored by the Association of Builders and Developers (ABAD) on "Shelter for the Homeless"

Your Excellency the President,
Honourable Ministers,
Your Excellencies,
Dr Ramachandran,
Distinguished Guests,

It is an honour for me to have been invited here today to participate in the inauguration of this important international seminar and I have welcomed the opportunity because the issue of improving the living conditions of the poor has long been of the deepest concern to me, just as it was to my grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah.

The problem of providing shelter for the homeless is a global problem, as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka pointed out at the 35th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1980. The concern which his initiatives at the United Nations stimulated have led to the dedication of 1987 as an international Year of Shelter for the Homeless and the organisers of this Seminar are to be congratulated for the contribution they are making to thinking on the subject.

As we approach the year 2000, international interest is rightly being focussed on the conditions in which mankind is inescapable. The world population will be substantially larger. Between 1950 and 1975 it grew from 2,500 million to 4,000 million. By the turn of the century it will exceed 6,000 million. Over 80 percent of these people will be in the developing countries, and despite the rapidity of urban growth, the large majority will be in the rural areas.

This is why, although the International Year for Shelter for the Homeless is dedicated to both urban and rural populations, I would like to direct my attention particularly to the rural poor. If present conditions are any guide, these people will continue to have lower incomes and suffer greater deprivation than urban citizens. In India, to take only one example, agricultural incomes are 50 percent lower than in other sectors of the economy, and the number of landless poor is increasing.

Such basic international aims as the W.H.O.’s target of Health for All by the year 2000 cannot be achieved while a massive proportion of Third World poor live in the appalling conditions that are so unhappily familiar throughout Asia, Africa and South America. Furthermore if they are not given improved conditions and some hope for the future they will swell the ranks of those seeking opportunities in the cities.

Even today I am under the impression that an insufficient amount of development effort is directed towards improving the quality of life of the rural populations of the Third World and I also note that worldwide, in both poor and rich nations, decisions are generally in an urban environment.

Establishing a free, constructive and continuing dialogue between the rural and urban populations of the Third World appears to me quite as important an objective as the more popularly canvassed one of achieving a dialogue between North and South.

At present many millions of these unfortunate people enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot. Not only are they miserable, the social and economic cost of their plight is incalculable. Adequate accommodation is a principal factor in human health and well-being. It can bridge that terrible gulf between utter poverty and the possibility of a better future.

To talk of ‘adequate accommodation’ when the international community has been forced to lower its aspirations and speak only of shelter, not housing, may seem out of context, even absurdly optimistic. But practicality must be fired by hope and I would draw your attention to an element in the situation which is often ignored, although to its credit, the Commission on Human Settlements of the United Nations has recognised its existence.

That factor is individual enterprise, the determination of ordinary people to improve their own circumstances by whatever means possible. The Executive Director of the Commission has referred to the ‘inherent ingenuity and capacity for survival’ of the poor, and he is right. God has given even the least privileged among us the blessing of his spirit and that is a more important resource than any other available to man. The question is, how we can bring it to bear on the problem of shelter?

In the developing countries the vast majority of rural homes constructed in the foreseeable future will be self built, as is the case now. I am speaking not of shacks and hutments, but of more substantial, longer lasting dwellings. One way to improve the village housing situation must be for Government, possibly in collaboration with international and non-governmental agencies, to provide the basic services and technical advice for village housing schemes, the labour and much of the materials being supplied by the people themselves.

The ‘site and service’ idea is not new, although perhaps in the rural context it would be more appropriate to refer to ‘technology and service’, bearing in mind that the likelihood of the many millions of rural people having access to contractors, architects and engineers is unimaginably remote. However, long established traditions of collective construction exist in China, Indonesia and other areas, often using locally made materials, and the concept is rightly attracting attention today because, when re-thought in a modern context, it can provide a low cost solution to rural housing needs.

In my view, rural co-operative housing societies have seldom functioned as well as they might. More often than not they have been undercapitalised from the start and there has been insufficient management expertise either within them or available to them. Given better access to outside resources and outside expertise, they could – and indeed should – play a significant role in the financing of rural housing.

Obviously no kind of ‘technology and service’ or co-operative scheme can be carried out economically on a single unit basis. Such schemes involve the provision of water and water-borne sanitation services to each chosen development site in accordance with an overall plan drawn up by technical advisers, who might offer a small number of basic house designs and give instruction to the villagers in the elements of structure, sanitation, ventilation, and the more effective use of local materials. The latter could be particularly important.

The resolutions associated with the International Year of Shelter call for ‘new approaches and methods’ and ‘for innovative policies’.

President Nyerere of Tanzania, whose country I recently had the pleasure of visiting again, remarked in 1977 that ‘the widespread addiction to cement and tin roofs is a kind of mental paralysis’.

Both cement and corrugated iron are expensive and I agree with President Nyerere that at times architects planners and legislators tend to be excessively influenced by technology and consequently underrate local know how and materials. I have seen for myself what is being done to utilise local resources in China. In Indonesia the Islamic pesantren schools include carpentry and masonry in their curricula. Many other Third World communities have long established building techniques.

Education is therefore needed at all levels. Exposure to new concepts for some officials, basic education in sanitation and health for the adult villagers, education in basic building skills for schoolchildren, I have mentioned the pesantren schools in Indonesia. Could not more schools and hostels in rural areas teach the craft of simple building, if necessary out of normal school hours?

In so short a speech at this, the most I can do is project a few ideas for others to investigate. But one concept needs no further research. The poor are not mere inanimate, unmotivated, units of deprivation. They are living, thinking, feeling people like the rest of us and the closer we can come to making a synthesis between that which they are capable of doing for themselves, and that which the State or voluntary agencies can provide, the closer we shall be to achieving shelter for the world’s homeless.