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
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
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
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.
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
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