From Asia Development, An Asian Development Bank Publication

"There is no secret to what we do, it's just...."

Hard Work in the Slums

By Floyd Whaley

In the sprawling Bangkok slum area where Father Joe Maier has worked for decades, his organization has often been called on to help people after fires devastated flimsy homes. And he often found many other aid organizations helping out as well.

“Everybody was there, passing out cans of sardines, school uniforms, pots and pans, but nobody was talking about the biggest problem: housing,” says Maier. “A dog can sleep in the streets, but people need a house. When we rebuild houses, all of a sudden people have a right to stay. They have a weapon to fight for their right to stay. Without a house, they have nothing.”

The organization he cofounded, the Human Development Foundation, has repaired, renovated, and built more than 10,000 homes in Bangkok’s slums. Many of those were built immediately after devastating fires to preserve the residential claims of very poor residents.


“We’ve been able over the years, by rebuilding houses all over the place, to change the law,” said Maier. “The letter of the law is the same, but now people can fight and they can win. We get people back into their homes and the government lets them stay. That didn’t happen before.”

Maier and his organization do far more than housing, but the approach to the problem mirrors his philosophy toward development in general: “There is no magic in what we do,” says Maier. “It’s just years of hard work in the slums.”

A Playful Spirit

Maier, who is known as Father Joe to the poorest of the poor and heads of state alike, came to Southeast Asia in 1967. Working in Bangkok, a remote Lao-speaking Catholic village in rural Northeast Thailand, and in northern Lao People’s Democratic Republic, he mastered the Thai, Lao, and H’mong languages.

In 1972, Maier returned to Bangkok to live and work with a Catholic community of impoverished butchers who live near the pens of the slaughterhouse in the city’s Klong Toey slum area. There, in partnership with Sister Maria Chantavarodom, he began the Human Development Foundation to help people in the community.

Maier’s playful spirit and energetic advocacy for the rights and needs of some of Bangkok’s poorest people made him a beloved figure in the community. Though his work began with Catholics in the area, he helps families of all faiths, without regard to their religion.

We Know Everybody

Today, the Human Development Foundation has a staff of 330 people working in more than 30 of Bangkok’s poorest communities, and 25 impoverished rural villages in southern Thailand.

The foundation operates the Mercy Centre, which is home to about 170 abandoned, orphaned, and trafficked children, including children with HIV. The foundation operates a school, a hospice for adults, and a vibrant legal aid center with representatives that can be found in dozens of police stations around the city, representing the rights of children accused of crimes.

The foundation’s 31 preschools, spread throughout Bangkok’s poorest communities, teach about 4,000 children. What started out as a simple initiative by a priest who wanted to make a difference has become a large development organization.

The growth of the organization has had an impact on Maier. “What I love most is walking through the slums and I don’t get to do it enough anymore,” he says. ‘I get caught behind a computer these days.”

Though Maier does not get out into the slums as much as he would like, his organization—which has been operating in the community for more than three decades— remains more ingrained than ever.

“We have 40,000 alumni,” he says. “Our strength is that we know everybody and everybody knows us.”

Standing in the communal dining area of the Mercy Centre, as kids sit down to hearty meals of soup, vegetables, meat, and rice, Maier introduces an abandoned girl with HIV, who has been rescued, and her “sister”, a homeless blind girl who also lives at the center.

“They both came here without a family,” he says, as he jokes with the girls in Thai. “Now, they are like sisters. They needed a family and they found each other.” As he walks through the center, he recounts both uplifting and heartbreaking stories of the children taking shelter there.

The activities of Maier and his organization look more like development work than what some might consider the traditional role of a priest. To that assertion, Maier responds: “To me, this is what every priest should be doing.” •

Floyd Whaley is senior editor of Development Asia and a contributor to Discovery Channel Magazine.