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close this bookThe Courier N 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
close this folderDossier
close this folderHabitat
View the documentLivable cities and rural rights
View the documentTowards a global concept of urban development - an interview with Daby Diagne
View the documentHabitat II: taking stock
View the document'A house to call my own'
View the documentMegacities
View the documentLagos under stress
View the documentA Eurocrat in Istanbul
View the documentThe exploding city
View the documentAdequate housing in the EU: rights and realities
View the documentCities of the Third World
View the documentWhen conservation is at odds with the local population
View the documentA new 'eco-centre' in West Africa: Two Presidents amid the dust
View the documentThe RDP challenge
View the documentTargeting South Africa's poor
View the document'Guardians of Eden'

Livable cities and rural rights

(Dossier coordinated by Debra Percival and Claude Smets)

The United Nations Conference, Habitat 11, on human settlements (Istanbul, June 3-14 1996) exposed the Herculean task of addressing the problems of ever-growing cities and called for 'shelter for all.' The special contribution of civil society in making cities more liveable was acknowledged at the conference - but the big question is, who will foot the bill? The meeting also spoke of improving dwellings in rural areas to keep people on the land and halt the mass exodus to the cities. But the right to remain and prosper from one's habitat can be at odds with outside pressures for environmental conservation. The dossier looks at some of the issues raised by the conference, and the wider significance of 'Habitat II'

The second UN gathering on the theme of 'habitat', staged two decades after the first conference in Vancouver, took place against a backdrop of rapid and alarming urban growth. In 1900, one person in ten lived in a city. By 1948, the ratio was three in ten and by the year 2000 half the world's population are expected to be urban dwellers. 25 years after that, the figure is expected to have climbed to 60%. Africa is the region that currently has the highest rate of urban growth. In 1950, it had only one city with a population of one million. By the end of this decade there could be 60 cities of this size, according to UN figures.

The focus on human settlements and liveable cities inevitably meant that Habitat II covered some of the same ground as other UN conferences convened during the 1990s to explore the big issues facing mankind: the 1992 'Earth Summit' on environmental matters in Rio de Janeiro, the 1994 Population Conference in Cairo, the 1995 Social Summit in Copenhagen and the 1995 Women's Conference in Beijing. Issues common to all the agendas included rapid population growth, environmental degradation, access to clean water, poor sanitation, lack of infrastructures, and women's issues.

The rallying calls of Habitat II, set out in the Conference's conclusions, were 'shelter for all' and 'sustainable human settlements in an urbanising world.' The Nairobi-based Centre for Human Settlements is to be the focus for the follow-up. But as delegates dispersed, one of the pressing questions was where the money will come from to meet the host of agreed objectives - which include clean water with improved technology, conservation and protection of the environment, and better health and education. In this dossier, European Commission officials from the Development Directorate General, who attended the conference, reflect on Istanbul and its likely followup.

Whereas in the past, cities were associated with economic development, innovation and the diffusion of new ideas, nowadays they conjure up the vision of urban poverty, environmental degradation, poor sanitation and a host of health hazards. Urbanisation is the direct consequence of rapid population growth, according to the 1993 Human Development Report. In 1965, agriculture provided 77% of employment in developing countries and represented more than 41 % of Gross Domestic Product. By 1985, this sector was contributing a lot less to GDP but was still providing 72% of all employment. So a large number of people continue to depend on agriculture although its share of the global economy is declining. In these circumstances, it not surprising that many of the world's poorest people are migrating to cities - the annual estimate is 20-30 million.

The dossier looks, in particular, at the environmental cost of rampant urbanisation and at the problems of city living for more vulnerable groups such as women. They are often among the poorest urban dwellers and can fall victim to exploitation and crime.

Paradoxically, poor people in cities are becoming even poorer as economies improve. Additional pressures on these marginalised groups living in cities are neatly summed up by Jeremy Seabrook, author of 'In the Cities of the South.' In a recent article for Gemini news agency: 'Tougher Struggle for Survival in the Concrete Jungle,' he writes; 'As the pace of development quickens, with high economic growth and increased migration to urban areas, land price in most big cities have soared. Poor people are being increasingly removed from their hoary" - by mysterious fires, explosions and 'accidents'. Meanwhile, the urban poor's ability to mobilise and achieve has been used against them. The capacity of people to create homes and secure local communities has been used as a justification for the withdrawal of government services.'

He continues: 'As inequalities become more glaring, enclaves of prosperity are sealed off from the slums by checkpoints, guards and fences - like frontiers to another country. Despite this, people are still flocking to the city - often refugees from intensifying, industrialised agriculture and.. megaprojects in the countryside...' Mr Seabrook points out that without decent jobs, they fall prey to sub-contractors, who exploit them, offering them low pay and demanding that they work long hours.

Civil society

In the cities of many developing nations, 'civil society' is taking a lead, with projects to bridge the gap between the 'haves' end the 'have note'. Numerous participants at the Istanbul conference applauded the urban programmes undertaken by various elements of civil society, which include NGOs, community groups and individuals. Their significance was recognised in Istanbul, where their voice came through loud and clear. Nigerian journalist, Paul Okunlola, writing in this dossier notes a move towards 'bottom up' projects in Lagos as a result of the tough times.

Agostinho Jardim Gonves, the President of the NGO-EU Liaison Committee, was particularly pleased at the input of civil society to the conference's committees and conclusions. The debate, he said, had not just been about the macroeconomic aspects. Instead, it had come 'within the reach of the populations themselves.' The people, he argued, were both victims of the anomalies of inhumane settlement and the key players in efforts to construct a humane, dignified habitat.

Jeremy Seabrook describes some of the inspiring international initiatives undertaken by civil society. Examples include the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) in Bombay, which works with pavement dwellers; the Association of Basic Needs (ARBAN), and 'Health for All' in Dhaka; the Eddie Guazon Foundation in Manila, which seeks to protect the poor against private interests; and the Foundation for Women, which is trying to tackle the trafficking of girls for Bangkok's brothels. But Mr Seabrook also warns against overestimating the strengths of popular organisation. As he points out: 'They require an enabling and positive framework, which the free market can never provide. Government intervention, of a more benign and positive kind than hitherto, is vital if people are to help themselves. As it is, too often they are forced to struggle against the people elected to govern them.'

The chair of the Habitat Conference, Wally N'Dow, emphasised local solutions. The conference, he said, 'recognised the changing global patterns of life' and that solutions must be found at the local level. 'National governments and international agencies', he argued, were not in a position to solve massive urban problems or to pay to put them right.

There were a number of donor pledges at the conference. The European Union countries, for example, reiterated their long-standing commitment to provide 0.7% of GNP for development by the year 2000 - though many of the 15 member states are still well short of this target.

One scheme which has attracted the particular interest of donors is South Africa's Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). To a considerable extent, the success of President Mandela's government is likely to be judged on the success of this programme. It aims, among other things, to improve health, education, housing and sanitation and as such, it mirrors many of the 'Habitat II' goals. Launched in 1994, it is the centrepiece of the South African government's efforts to create a more democratic, prosperous, non-racial and non-sexist society. In the dossier, we look at the RDP's objectives, how it is faring and what sort of support the EU is giving.

Rural rights

Beyond the city, the dossier looks at what is happening to some rural dwellers who have not taken flight to the city. Although, largely focused on the city, Habitat II acknowledged the importance of urban and rural linkages in its conclusions: 'Rural and urban settlements are interdependent... governments must work to extend adequate infrastructure and opportunities to rural areas to increase their attractiveness and thereby minimise... migration.' There was mention too of the need for more jobs and housing for rural areas.

But in some rural areas, the inhabitants have found themselves in dispute with conservationists. The latter seek to protect wildlife and the rural habitat by setting up national parks - a solution which is not necessarily in the interests of local people struggling to maintain their livelihood. We take a look at such dilemmas and the possible solutions being developed so that rural dwellers can continue to make the most of their habitat. This rural struggle, where solutions are also being called for at a local level, is not unlike the battle being waged for a better quality of life in the cities.