Joint project upgrades Tunis slum with AID and government help

SLUM upgrading is a new solution to an old urban-poverty problem in Tunisia,'' says Jim Phippard as he points to Mellassine, a former slum on the outskirts of Tunis. Mr. Phippard, director of the Agency for International Development (AID) mission in Tunisia, says, ``It's hard to believe, but five years ago, Mellassine was a classic slum. Raw sewage ran down the streets. There was no running water in houses, no street lights. The crime rate was high. So was disease.''

Today, Mellassine, located along Lake Sejoumi, is a growing community of 50,000 people who live in 2,000 one- or two-story houses. The streets are paved. The people have running water, bathrooms, electricity, community services.

In the past, the Tunisian solution to slums was simple: Bulldoze them, then build new dwellings -- at great expense.

``That has changed,'' says Muhammad Fethi Ennaifer, director of public works for Tunis. ``In 1978 slum clearance was the national policy. Now, because of the improvement in Mellassine, there is a new national policy on slums. It's a shift from slum clearance to slum upgrading.''

Mr. Ennaifer, who works closely with Mr. Phippard, says, ``The government of Tunisia is so impressed with Mellassine, slum upgrading has become part of Tunisia's sixth five-year plan.''

As a result of progress in Mellassine, the government now tries preventive action to improve living conditions in areas before slums are created, he says.

In 1978 the Tunisian government and AID's Office of Housing and Urban Development in Tunis launched a joint effort to help the people of Mellassine. Major objectives included providing every home with safe running water, building sewers and storm drainage, paving the streets, and installing streetlights. Additional objectives included giving homeowners clear title to their land.

``All this has been completed, with the exception of some of the storm-drainage-system work, now under construction,'' says Harry Birnholz, AID regional housing officer headquartered in Tunis. ``When the project began, many houses were below the level of nearby Lake Sejoumi. After rains, the lake often flooded the walk ways and streets. With the help of housing loans, most of the homeowners have raised the floors of their homes out of the danger zone.

To date more than 50 loans for building material have been made to families whose homes used to be flooded annually, says Mr. Birnholz. Each loan provides funds for two tons of cement, 500 clay bricks, 30 metal reinforcement bars, and 120 ceiling blocks -- enough material to build a one-room core unit of about 13 feet square. ``The core unit of the housing project consists of a living-sleeping room, a kitchen, and a bathroom,'' Mr. Birnholz says. ``The cores are expandable. When their finances permit, the people can add another room or another floor. Some people add extra rooms to rent.''

He says one key concept of the housing project is self-help construction. People build their own houses or rooms. And the housing is affordable to the low-income families in Mellassine.

In addition to the housing-loan guaranty, AID also provided a $609,000 grant in 1978 for socioeconomic support services in Mellassine. The ``integrated improvement program for the urban poor,'' as it was called, established a community center, a women's vocational training program, and a preventive health-care program that focuses on women and infant health and care, nutrition and hygiene, according to Mr. Birnholz. The agency also established a social welfare program for women that focused on literacy training, vocational skills, and a small-business credit program. About one-third of the grant was used as seed capital for small businesses, for which 200 applications have been received. Forty-six have been approved so far, and the rest are being processed. The loan-repayment record has been ``excellent,'' says Mr. Birnholz.

Health and nutrition specialists frequently visit families and work with schools and medical centers to teach people about nutrition and basic hygiene. Phippard explains that Tunisian health advisers also work with mothers who have problems nursing their babies. The infant mortality rate, which used to be twice that of the adjacent district in Tunis, has been greatly reduced.

The Housing Guaranty Program in Tunisia and other developing countries is financed by private capital and administered by AID.

AID provides economic and humanitarian assistance to about 70 developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Near East. AID programs focus on agriculture, rural development, nutrition, population planning, health, education, and human resources. The total AID budget for fiscal year 1985 is about $6.2 billion (an additional appropriation of $2.25 billion for Israel, Egypt, and Jordan is pending in Congress).

During the past 28 years, the US has provided about $1 billion in humanitarian and economic aid to Tunisia. AID's assistance program in Tunisia in fiscal year 1985 runs at $20 million a year in economic support funds as well as $10 million to $15 million a year in a development-oriented Food for Peace program and a large housing-guaranty program.

Under the Housing Guaranty Program, the US private sector provides long-term financing for low-income shelter and neighborhood upgrading programs in developing countries. The US government guarantees the loans to protect the US lender against possible loss. The author is director of press relations for the US Agency for International Development in Washington

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