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The poor will always be with us

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technical & practice

At the United Nations Special Summit held in New York from 6 to 8 June, policy proposals for urban settlements were reviewed to learn from Best Practice examples around the world. Here Austin Williams, who was at the summit, assesses the issues In 1976, a UN conference was convened in Vancouver to examine the issue of housing provision in a global context.

The conference, called the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (UNCHS) or 'Habitat' for short, expressed its 'concern over the extremely serious condition of human settlements, particularly that which prevails in developing countries'. It resolved that governments and international organisations should pledge to provide adequate shelter and strive for 'progressive minimum standards for an acceptable quality of life'.

The definitions of what were 'acceptable' or 'minimum' were never fully resolved (see the The Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements).

This conference was held just at the time that state housing provision in the western economies was being run down (or had, at least, earned a bad reputation) and when governments in the developing world were in thrall to the disastrous economic policies of the World Bank and IMF.

Action on state housing provision was not always the top priority for governments in the third world and private-sector housing provision was a more desirable aspiration for many people in the Western World.

The general objective of what was to be the first Habitat summit was to stop the tide of migration into the cities - and hence, in the developing world, to slow down the expansion of urban shanty developments.

Obviously, rural dwellers in the third world continued to flee to the city in the hope of a better life, however unrequited, so this proved to be an unrealistic demand.

Twenty years later, the Habitat II conference in Istanbul revisited the question of human settlements in the changed social and political context generated by 1992's Rio Summit on Development and Environment.

The conference resolved that instead of calling on governments and states to implement housing initiatives, the central focus of action should be to enable the 'strengthening of local authorities and their associative networks' (clause 180, The Istanbul Declaration).

The principle enshrined in the Habitat II declaration was that there should be 'no forced evictions', although this was suffixed by the phrase 'that are contrary to the law' (clause 40[n]).

Rather than governments providing housing for people, ordinary people would be 'empowered' to provide for themselves. This must have been the dream solution for cashstrapped government agencies - a new policy of 'do nothing' while shanty dwellers were allowed to feel more secure in their slum households. In fact, billions have been spent on recreating a new level of urban governance.

One of the banners outside the Istanbul conference - 'Civil society:

be part of the solution, not part of the problem' - suggested the new 'associative networks' were starting to realise their own power as new local leaders who saw those outside their authority as a potential problem. A new strata of unaccountable civil society spokesmen and women represented the disenfranchised and reflected the maxim that 'tolerance must not be abused. . . it must never be taken for weakness' (Cities Fit to Live In: themes and variations, Barrie Sherman, Channel 4/Good Books, 1988, p108).

In essence, Habitat II charged that those people coming to the city to occupy slum habitation (or 'informal settlements' as they have become known euphemistically) should be allowed to live there.

It said that enabling regimes by local governments or by self-help provision should 'encourage the development of environmentally sound and affordable construction methods and the production and distribution of building materials. . .

based as far as possible on locally available resources' (clause 69[d]).

At Habitat II, I understood this to mean that slums should be consolidated using the 'degradable' materials regularly found on a shanty site - ie, build a better slum.

So how has this policy - or 'paradigm shift', to use the network jargon - fared? It has to be admitted that it has achieved much at the policy level.

There appears to have been a shift in analysis between the old view of the city as an 'urban parasite' (Herbert Girardet) to the current celebration of cities as 'dynamic centres of excellence' (Dr Janice Perlman, executive director of the Mega-Cities Project); but there is no real difference between the two perspectives. Both interpretations rest on 'intensifying. . . consumption and distribution trends' specifically focused on 'waste collection and recycling industries' (Mega Cities and the Urban Future).

The success of Habitat II has been the ability to get away with glorifying what used to be called 'garbage picking'.

Earlier this month in New York, a special session of the General Assembly of the United Nations was convened to provide an update on the commitments made five years earlier in Istanbul.

Entitled Habitat II + 5, it formalised the best practices since Habitat II and presented case studies on a variety of themes (see box).

Ultimately, the principal theme has been the promotion of slum dwellers as stakeholders. Whether involved in micro-credit schemes that bring the poor into a relationship with the sensitive world of banking, or simply by recognising that security of tenure gives shanty residents a more stable environment to enter the mainstream economy, the best practices regularly portrayed methods of 'stabilising' slum/urban relationships.

In the lobby of the lavish UN building, an exhibition of best practice developments was displayed showing 'responsible' low-cost urban management proposals. The most visited attraction was a plaintive display by the Slum Dwellers Association, which noted that 'most housing stock in the world today is designed, constructed and financed by the poor. Do governments want to support it or negate?' They had mocked up a humble slum shack and had costed it out to US$878.50. They asked: 'Is this too much to ask for?'

No. As a matter of fact, it is far too little to ask for. Unfortunately, as stakeholders in partnering relationships with government for the stable management of their fragile domestic economy, they do not think it reasonable to ask for any more.

Habitat I argued that to resolve the pressures on urban environments, people should be 'encouraged' to remain in rural areas and not to migrate to metropolitan areas.

This position tended to legitimate the sanction of evictions, and Habitat II has finally recognised that cities are positive generators of a country's economy where increased populations are a potential boon. It has to be admitted that sometimes, as a byproduct, Habitat II's 'innovative approaches' to urban slum management do indeed offer a minor improvement in the living conditions of the urban poor.

However, and coincidentally, it is equally true that these policies always provide a cost-effective alternative to real infrastructure improvements for the local government agencies involved. This is not to say that many governments and multinational agencies are not committing huge sums to the set up and maintenance of non-governmental urban advocacy and intervention in housing policy from the grass roots up.

NGO and consultancy involvement might be perceived as more legitimate than top-down government interference, but whether it is more successful in terms of housing provision remains to be seen.

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