Doorstepping the millennium

Doorstepping the millennium


draws on long experience to explain how the world community has matured in tackling global issues

HABITAT II marks the culminating event in a continuum of global forums convened by the United Nations on the doorstep of the 21st century. These conferences have successfully drawn up an agenda of action for the next millennium to make our planet a safe, healthy, just and sustainable place.

The City Summit, as it has been labelled by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, will complete the cycle of global conferences which started with the Children's Summit in 1990 and has stretched to the Earth Summit (Rio), the International Conference on Human Rights (Vienna), the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo), the World Summit on Social Development (Copenhagen) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing).

Twenty years ago I was Secretary of the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (HABITAT I), held in Vancouver, Canada in 1976. This, too, was part of a series of global conferences, under the auspices of the United Nations, this time focusing on the specific issues of environment, population, food, status of women, habitat, employment, water, desertification and science and technology. There are seven main distinctions between the conferences of the 1970s and those of the 1990s.

Growing interdependence and interlinkages. The 1970s meetings elevated issues of primary national concern to the global scene, but dealt with them in a sectoral and fragmented way. One result was the proliferation of newly established independent United Nations bodies, normally structured as separate intergovernmental organs with a special secretariat and a related voluntary fund.

The last two decades, however, have taught us that the world is increasingly confronted with issues that affect humanity as a whole. Revolutionary changes in world affairs, spurred on by the globalization of markets, have shown that developmental, societal and ecological problems cannot be solved merely by fragmented and sectoral initiatives. Solutions require well-defined, multidisciplinary, interlinked and comprehensive approaches, with underpinning intellectual depth, vision and long-term commitments.

Developmental dimension. The 1970s conferences, including HABITAT I, did not adequately consider the interrelations of their specific issues both with each other and with the development process. During the past two decades, we have increasingly recognized that global peace and security can only be achieved if cooperative efforts are made to deal with the threats that stem from failures in economic and social development. Therefore, each of the conferences of the 1990s has had a strong developmental dimension.

We have learned that a choice cannot be made between economic growth and environmental protection. Development requires a balanced and integrated set of social, economic and ecological policies. This new model of development - which has been called 'sustainable human development' - not only conserves nature, but places people at the centre of all concerns. It protects both human and ecological life, develops human capabilities, and provides opportunities for people to make their maximum contributions to their own - and their societies' - development. It is pro-people, pro-nature and pro-society. Participatory and community-based, it aims to mobilize all sectors of civil society.

Commonality of interests. Rooted, as they were, in the geopolitics of the Cold War, the conferences of the 1970s were dominated by confrontations between the industrialized and developing countries. The issues of the meetings were considered as problems that primarily affected the poor nations. Negotiations, therefore, were targeted on defining what the North should do for the South.

people shopping During the last two decades, however, we have seen a widening gap between rich and poor, not only between nations but also within them. In each country, city, and village there is a proverbial 'North' and 'South'. Unchecked population and urban growth, increasing poverty and crime, growing numbers of juvenile delinquents and street children, environmental decline, homelessness, unemployment, drugs and societal disintegration affect all societies - East, West, North and South alike. All countries have mutual and similar interests - and should have an equal concern - in finding tangible and shared solutions to such common problems.

Integration of economic and social goals. The 1980s proved that another basic development lesson had been forgotten - that the economic and the social spheres are complementary and mutually supporting. Too much 'social equity' without adequate 'economic growth' may lead to bankruptcy, while too much 'economic growth' without sufficient 'social equity' leads to social disorder. As the 1990s conference cycle has generally recognized, a package of integrated economic and social policies is essential if political and social peace is to be maintained.

Reorientation of policies. It has been conventional wisdom, until recently, that development requires active government involvement in the productive sectors of the economy, as in establishing government-owned enterprises, providing subsidies to the private sector and protecting industries engaged in import substitution. These policies did result in economic growth for some countries, but the experience since the mid-1970s has been one of stagnating growth, production failures and very little improvement in standards of living.

These empirical results have led to new thinking and a reorientation of the role and policies of governments. This does not necessarily mean less government, but different and better governance. The major functions of governments in a market-driven economy now include facilitation and enabling strategies rather than the provision of policies.

Partnership with new actors. The United Nations conferences of the 1970s operated under the premise that global problems were primarily inter-state issues and could be solved mainly through negotiations between governments and their policy coordinators. The last two decades have brought striking changes. Governments and international governmental organizations are no longer the sole actors. Helped by remarkable new advances in information and communication technologies, the private sector (multinational corporations), non-governmental organizations, media networks, professional associations and civic groups are playing a dynamic role in shaping important global strategies according to their own rules, priorities and values.

The preparatory process of HABITAT II has explicitly recognized this and sought the active involvement and broad participation of all relevant actors: local governments, academics, professionals, foundations, the private sector, labour unions, non-governmental and community-based organizations. It is expected that all actors of civil society will have a role to play - through such broad-based participation - in finding and implementing the required solutions.

Bottom-up approach. The 1970s conferences were generally prepared through a top-down process. Policies were formulated at the global level through international intergovernmental committees, in the expectation that they would be implemented at local, national and regional levels. The shortcomings of this are now more visible. So there has been a bottom-up approach in the preparatory process of many of the 1990s conferences so as to ensure a broad-based participation in policy formation at all levels. National committees have been established in many countries to prepare country reports and national plans of action. These are normally composed of the representatives of local governments, non-governmental organizations, professional organizations, universities, chambers of commerce and industries, trade unions and other stakeholders.


The 1990s conferences have left the United Nations a legacy of sustainable human social, economic and environmental development. It is now widely accepted that the major challenges faced by the human race can only be met through multilateral action, and that the United Nations is a logical place for this. Paradoxically, at the very moment when this recognition is becoming widespread, there are growing doubts about the capacity of the United Nations to meet these challenges. Yet its ability to master the awesome issues confronting humanity depends largely on the political will and support of its member states.

We must now learn to live with a global perspective. Humanity is a part of the complex planetary system and global issues must be the concern of all people and nations. The world community has the ability, means and chance to transform the many threats of today into opportunities for human progress tomorrow. But it needs new vision, long-term perspectives and bold leadership.

Dr. Üner Kirdar is currently Special Representative of the Secretary-General of HABITAT II and Senior Advisor to the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. He served as Secretary of the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver in 1976.

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