Waking a Sleeping Giant: Reflections from ADB’s 1st Asia-Pacific Housing Conference

By Lara Shankar Chandra

Manoj Sharma, ADB’s Chief of Urban Sector Group, SDGs and Climate Change Development, exclaimed that the ADB’s 1st Asia Pacific Housing Conference (AHC 2022) has “woken a sleeping giant”! He was referring to the renewed strategic attention that ADB has committed itself to in the housing sector. There are several myths and metaphors of a sleeping giant: Japanese Admiral Yamamoto on awakening America in 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbour, from the film Tora! Tora! Is well known; in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, an indigenous legend identifies Nanabiou, the spirit of the Deep Sea Water, as a sleeping giant; and in Indian mythology, Kumbhakarana was known to sleep for long periods only to awaken to protect his brother Ravana. 

In the case of ADB, I’d like to believe that the role it can play in the housing sector and urban development is no less than that of giant. A gigantic role would require ADB, as the region’s Development Finance Institution, to enhance support for investments in the housing sector, generate new knowledge solutions, implement innovative pilots, foster collaborative partnerships with important stakeholders, and build the capacity of developing member countries in the housing sector. To play this role ADB’s vision of affordable, inclusive and resilient housing must be large scale and long term. Can it do so?

A report which analyzes ADB’s housing portfolio over the past 2 decades, ‘Adequate and Affordable Housing - Enhancing ADB’s support to developing member countries’, by Hong Soo Lee and Ashna Singh, was launched at the conference. It shows that ADB, which moved away from housing-related funding in the early 2000s and only planned to reengage with the sector after 2015, has aspired to shape housing policies and frameworks across countries.

So ADB can and should strongly position housing as a driver of economic growth towards eliminating extreme poverty, but how? According to Marja Hoek-Smit, Director/Founder of the International Housing Finance Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “we need to make the mortgage sector and the micro-finance sector work. We need to go back to some mortgage instruments that are more inflation proof, while ensuring that the credit risk is also shared. It is not going to be easy, but the capital markets must be pushed to operate.” Julian Baskin, Senior Urban Advisor, Cities Alliance, urged conference participants to learn from the past and look at how urban low-income families house themselves and build functional neighbourhoods. He said, “we need to re-think the merits of incremental housing and upgrading. We need to create an enabling environment for small contractors and building suppliers operating in the informal markets. The concept of ‘massive small’ can help to build at low costs and higher quality”. These and other speakers are calling on the ADB to work together with governments, private sector and the communities in informal settlements, to build cities - not just focus on creating housing. ADB’s approach should consider needs such as equitable access for all to basic services, transport and mobility, safety and spaces, finance and land tenure security. ADB will also need to unpack the challenges of the rental market in the informal and enable rental housing to become more viable options for the changing face of urban. AHC 2022 also affirmed the need to build climate resilient, energy efficient and affordable housing. Speakers recommended changes in methods and materials in housing construction. The focus on resilience and climate action invited private sector investment, blended finance, and public-private partnership (PPP) in housing. Truly, a gigantic effort is needed.

ADB has announced a clear intention to support inclusive and resilient urban city planning with a focus on housing to the bottom of the pyramid. I hope they paid attention to lessons learnt by various countries and use them in policy and financial support. I’d like to see the ADB giant spread its arms wide open and hold together multi-sector, multi-stakeholder and multi-year planning, implementation, and monitoring. When I see no homeless child out there, I’ll believe the sleeping giant woke up and went to work!

Lara Shankar Chandra is a career social development professional in India. Her two decades of experience spans work in child rights, education, community development, gender programming and housing and sanitation. She writes on issues on housing and urban development, with a focus on building collaborative spaces in planning and implementation.