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