Viewpoint: Just another conferenece?

Viewpoint: Just another conferenece?


Twenty years ago Margaret Trudeau, the (then) wife of the (then) Canadian Prime Minister, led a March for Water at HABITAT I, the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver. The need for a global commitment to ensure that everyone had adequate water and sanitation was emphasized in the preparations for the Conference, and the delegations from 132 governments agreed that 'safe water supply and hygienic waste disposal should receive priority'. How sobering it is to find how many people still lack them and how few governments and aid agencies have actually given them priority over the last 20 years.

HABITAT II, the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, aims to endorse a global Plan of Action to encourage governments and aid agencies to tackle such problems as rapidly growing levels of urban poverty and homelessness - and the fact that much of the world's rural and urban population still lacks safe, sufficient water supplies and provision for sanitation. Will there be any difference?

The Plan has to reconcile the irreconcilable. It must be agreed to by all government delegations - yet it should be honest about how little most governments have done to improve conditions in the world's cities, towns and villages in the 20 years since HABITAT I. It must be acceptable to the delegation of the United States, who in the preparatory process fought hard against accepting that people have a right to adequate housing. It must be acceptable to the world's aid agencies and development banks, most of whom give a low priority to all the interventions that do most to improve housing and living conditions for low-income groups - safe and sufficient water supplies, provision for sanitation and drainage, primary health care, ensuring that land and building materials are available and as cheap as possible and, where needed, that rubbish is collected regularly.

This Conference has even greater importance for the United Nations as a whole, whose role is being questioned as never before. HABITAT II is probably the last of the large United Nations conferences before the year 2000. Will the global conferences of the last three decades of the 20th century - on the environment, population, women's needs and rights, human settlements and social development among others - be seen as important catalysts for change or as expensive meetings producing huge lists of recommendations that governments then ignore?

misty beach Perhaps HABITAT II's most important contribution is the discussion it is promoting about settlement problems around the world and how to address them. Many governments have taken their preparations for this Conference quite seriously - including several who are reviewing conditions in their own countries and calling on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and researchers to help them do so. NGOs and citizens' groups have used the Conference preparations to highlight local or national problems and to demand new approaches from local and national governments.

The innovative approaches to housing and settlement problems that have come from these sectors have been included in the United Nations documentation for the Conference. And the United Nations agency responsible for organizing HABITAT II, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), has encouraged local governments and NGOs to take part not just in the preparations but in the Conference itself. As David Korten points out in Civic Engagement to Create Just and Sustainable Societies for the 21st Century - a background paper for HABITAT II - here, for once, is a global Conference that is not recommending more power and resources for national governments and international institutions, but for citizens' groups, NGOs and local authorities.

The debate is also different from 20 years ago. Topics now widely discussed include:

- The importance of good governance. All cities, towns and rural settlements need local authorities that are democratic and more accountable to their citizens.

- The understanding that cities are 'built from the bottom up'. All cities are the result of an enormous range of investments of capital, expertise and time by individuals, households, communities, voluntary organizations and NGOs, as well as by private enterprises, investors and government agencies.

- There is a growing recognition that it is impossible to meet all the recommendations that came out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio without vastly improving the environmental performance of cities. The fact that cities concentrate production and population offers many potential advantages for minimizing waste and the use of resources and for reducing dependence on the automobile.

- HABITAT II should represent the culmination of 25 years of struggle to end the discrimination faced by women. Much of this occurs in settlements - discrimination in purchasing or renting housing or in obtaining housing finance and in getting access to basic services.

- HABITAT II could support the growth in the 'housing rights' movement as more governments recognize that citizens have a right to housing and as greater use is made of national and international law in demanding that this right be fulfilled.

The Conference will achieve much if it helps to establish the understanding that settlement problems need accountable and democratic governance and that this involves public authorities working with local knowledge, resources and organizations in addressing problems. Even more important, we will have progressed far if local authorities and the population to whom they are accountable develop an increasing confidence in their capacities to develop solutions, and a belief in their right to question the appropriateness of so much 'expert advice' offered from outside.

David Satterthwaite is Programme Director for Human Settlements at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

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