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Spotlight on the Built Environment Support Group

The Built Environment Support Group (BESG) was established unofficially in 1983 by a group of academics from the Faculty of Architecture at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who became involved in defence campaigns to protect the rights of people moving into urban areas due to civil violence and/or the search for employment. It established its first staffed office on Howard College campus in 1985, and a second office in Pietermaritzburg in 1991.

From 1990, BESG contributed to the formulation of new development policy through participation in the National Housing Forum and at local level in helping shape a new generation of post-apartheid planning and urbanisation policies in its main centres of operation.  It was its first experience of “constructive engagement” with government at both a national and local level.

From 1994, when the national housing subsidy scheme was launched, many of the communities that BESG had defended in the 1980s approached the organisation for assistance in accessing resources to implement infrastructure and housing projects.  BESG played a key role in mediating between those communities and the municipalities who were historically antagonistic.  BESG’s mission throughout has been to leverage resources for the poorest of the poor through direct intervention, developing innovative solutions to development problems, and advocating pro-poor enabling policies at all tiers of government.

BESG has two inter-linked core programmes:
• “Building sustainable human settlements” involves a range of habitat-based interventions, aimed at empowering poor and marginalised groups in the process of addressing their basic development needs. 
• “Promoting good governance and deepening democracy” involves a range of interventions aimed at building civil society capacity to engage proactively with government; managing policy and institutional blockages to people-centred development, and improving the alignment of enabling policy to effective service delivery through constructive engagement with government.

BESG’s mission and core programmes remain highly relevant in today’s context.  Thirteen years after South Africa’s transition to democracy, many poor communities’ expectations of access to socio-economic development and of participation in local development processes have been frustrated or disappointed.  An unacceptably large proportion of the urban population of South Africa still lives in poverty and in inadequate housing, and do not have access to basic services.  The increasing incidence of service delivery protests seen around the country is testament to this state of affairs. 

BESG aims to achieve its objects through developing an empowered citizenry who can both participate in complex development and local government processes, and hold their elected leaders and paid officials accountable for ensuring services reach the poorest of the poor.  While civil society as a whole can take much credit for influencing pro-poor enabling policies in practical ways, through demonstration projects and advocacy work, it is so often the case that the policy is good but it fails in implementation.

BESG was forced to close its Durban office and consolidate its operations in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of KwaZulu-Natal, due to a liquidity crisis in 2005. It has since grown again to be a powerful advocate of change through development.

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