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close this bookBASIN - News No. 13 - February 1997 : The Great Habitat Debate (BASIN-GTZ-SKAT, 1997, 31 p.)
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View the documentIstanbul: A summary of achievements
View the documentWhose Agenda?
View the documentLocal Initiatives Inadequately Addressed
View the documentWas Habitat II Worth It ?
View the documentReflections on Istanbul
View the documentBuilding partnerships
View the documentTen good policies for better cities
View the documentJobs in cities
View the documentNational reports and national plans of action: a regional perspective

Was Habitat II Worth It ?

The Habitat II event involved more than 10,000 people (including official national delegations, local authorities, NGOs, researchers and academics), three preparatory committees, two weeks of activities in Istanbul and a series of meetings, workshops and discussions. It is impossible to estimate the scale of reports, papers and other documentation produced for this meeting.

Drawing conclusions about such a multitudes of activities, experiences and discussions is difficult and these reflections on Habitat II are inevitably personal perspectives. This short report draws together these perspectives through identifying and exploring three significant achievements associated with Habitat II, and three further "myths" that it has encouraged.

Useful lessons
Development does not have to be rural-focused

The domination of rural development is somewhat surprising given the number of urban dwellers and the scale of urban poverty. However, for many years, concerns about "urban bias" provided a reason for many development assistance agencies to avoid targeting poverty reduction projects on urban areas.

In most Southern nations, only a very small proportion of international assistance has been allocated to meeting needs for shelter, water supply, sanitation and other kinds of shelter-related infrastructure and services. It is also unusual for finance from official aid agencies and development banks to have a major role within total investments in any city or town. Very few development assistance agencies have had a coherent programme of support for urban areas.

The World Bank Group is an exception since it has had an urban development programme since the early 1970s - although its focus has changed significantly over the years. It is also the largest single source of development assistance for urban development in the South and has a large lending programme to urban environmental improvement - what it calls the "Brown Agenda" to emphasize its commitment to clean water and improved sanitation.

Some other agencies have significant urban programmes, although these have rarely been a significant proportion of total commitments. Some agencies simply refuse to fund urban projects. This is of ten in the mistaken belief that urban populations are already privileged by donor assistance. (Wealthy groups and powerful economic interests located in major cities may have received a considerable proportion of the benefits of donor assistance but the rapidly growing number of urban poor and most of the urban population outside the major cities have not.)

In recent years, there has been a greater awareness of the need to work specifically in urban areas and to give more attention to reducing urban poverty. The Urban Management Programme (of the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements) has been established and bilateral agencies are increasing their expertise and have, in some cases, established special programmes. The Urban Basic Services Programme of UNICEF is unusual in being a long-standing programme working with local government to improve health and community development in low-income settlements. More recently, UNDP have launched the LIFE programme (Local Initiative Facility for the Urban Environment). More international funding for shelter and community development projects is now coming through international private voluntary organizations such as MISEREOR (Germany) and CEBEMO (Netherlands) or through new agencies concerned with shelter such as Homeless International (UK) or direct to Southern NGOs.

Just by being held, Habitat II made a major contribution to encouraging development assistance agencies to address urban issues. Many development assistance agencies (multilateral, bilateral and NGOs) have long employed those with experience in working in urban areas but in many cases they have found it difficult to find an interest in, or support for, the development of such programmes. Habitat II has assisted such individuals by giving added legitimacy to their concerns and ensuring that a large number of urban staff recognise urban trends.

The European Commission has been drawing together urban experiences through a major evaluation and the policy unit has been considering a number of new urban initiatives. ODA has begun a major evaluation of main urban activities, such as the Slum Improvement Programme in India. The British funding institution has launched a new urban poverty programme in Kenya and established a special working group to draw together their specialist staff. In a number of other development agencies, decentralization programmes have enabled local priorities to be identified by local staff and urban poverty has emerged as a major issue.

An urbanizing world does not mean everyone living in "mega-cities"

For many years, much of the general literature about urban growth in the South stresses that it is "very rapid" or "unprecedented" or even "explosive". For instance, " is in the Third World that the urban explosion is taking place" (Davidson, Myers and Chakraborty 1992) and the " and well-being of literally hundreds of millions of men, and especially women and children, are threatened by an urban population explosion in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America" (WHO 1989) are typical of the kinds of general comments made about urban change in the South.

Although such analysis remain common, there is now a much greater understanding that urban change is neither taking place so rapidly, nor does it represent such a dramatic change for many of those living in urban areas. It is increasingly recognised that only a small proportion of the urban population lives "mega-cities". If a city becomes a megacity when it has more than 3 million inhabitants, then less than 5 percent of the world's population lived in mega-cities in 1990.

The table below illustrates the significance of many of the world's smaller towns and cities.

With this realization of the importance of smaller towns and cities has also come a recognition that smaller settlements have very different governance and development issues. In many countries, their economies are more closely tied to agricultural production and they may also act as local and regional administrative centres. The complexity of the urbanization process is also being recognised. There is a new understanding about urban dwellers' livelihood strategies that include urban agriculture and the importance of "city" activities in rural areas.

Agencies cannot expect much from UN conferences

1996 is a very different year from 1992. In 1992, expectations about the value of such mega-meetings were more optimistic. Whilst real progress was achieved at the Earth Summit, the NGO community now has much more experience about the promises and protestations made by governments of the floors of such global gatherings. Reflecting back on the Earth Summit, perhaps one of the most substantive achievements was in the bringing together of what had been two distinct groups of NGOs, those with environmental and those with development objectives

With Habitat II, it was evident that expectations among many of the NGOs were much more realistic. Some were possibly so realistic that they did not come. The Asian Coalition of Housing Rights is the major umbrella group for NGOs working on housing and urban development issues in Asia. Members were split on the value of participation primarily due to experiences during the International Year of

The world's urban population in 1990 and its distribution between mega-cities, million cities and urban centres

Population (millions)

Number of urban centres

Percent of urban population

Percent of total population

"The North"

Cities with 10 million plus inhabitants





Cities with 1-9.99 million inhabitants





Urban centres with less than 1 million





"The South"

Cities with 10 million plus inhabitants





Cities with 1-9.99 million inhabitants





Urban centres with less than 1 million




22 9

NOTE: "The North" is taken as all countries in Europe and North America, Japan and Australia-New Zealand "The South" is taken to include all other nations Calculated largely from data drawn from The World Urbanization Prospects (Rev 1994), United Nations, Population Division, New York, 1995, but adjusted, when new census data that was not included in this set became available The figures for the number of urban agglomerations are guestimates.

Shelter for the Homeless and several did not attend. Some NGOs preferred to focus on local and national preparatory activities; seeing such preparations as a good basis on which to form new contacts and alliances between government and civil society. Such preparations provided opportunities for moving forward national agendas, which they perceived as more relevant to securing progressive social change than the international agreements to be negotiated at Habitat II.

Many of the NGO participants that did come to Istanbul were aware that some of the major benefits were to be realised through the peripheral activities rather than the process of negotiation itself. Such peripheral activities include the extension of networking, the exchange of information, new funding opportunities (on both sides of this relationship) and a useful opportunity to cheaply organize international meetings and workshops that were due to be held some time during the year.

The New Challenges

The myth of partnership

Habitat II rightly placed considerable emphasis on partnership, and particularly the importance of a partnership between all of those involved in urban development. It emphasised the role of local authorities by admitting them as an additional party to the negotiations. In many meetings, speakers stressed the important contribution to be made by different groups within civil society, unions, private sector associations, NGOs and people's organizations. The proceedings of the official event further allowed many opportunities for both informal and formal inputs from a wide range of different groups.

However, whilst there was considerable enthusiasm for partnership, there was little critical review of the necessary conditions for effective partnership to be realised. Many of those speaking at Habitat II correctly identified a significant change in thinking about the governance of urban development. Many local authorities and state agencies are increasingly willing to work in partnership with other groups involved in urban development

However, there remain many countries and cities in which this general trend is less evident and it should not be forgotten that there are many cases in which a wide range of non-government groups are excluded from state activities.


Moreover, such partnerships appear consistently to be partnerships of professionals. The major means for securing greater participation in the diagnosis of problems and solutions are consultative workshops, seminars and meetings. In many towns and cities, such strategies have been effective in drawing in private sector groups, NGOs and academics interested in urban development issues. However, in general, the consultation process is driven by professionals for professionally implemented policies and programmes. As a consequence, many low-income groups are excluded from participation in debates around the problems, priorities and solutions for urban development. Whilst a small number of cities have made significant attempts to draw in those living in low- income settlements, in most they remain excluded. And this is despite an increasing willingness to recognise that it is low-income households themselves that are often the major urban developers.

Many of those at Habitat II assume that NGOs are effective representatives of the low-income groups with which they work. Increasingly such an assumption is being questioned. NGOs may be as likely to misunderstand and misrepresent, and be as reluctant to relinquish power as any other group. All too often, little attention is given to supporting the community to develop their own capacity and participate as prime movers in plans and programmes to improve their situation

In the context of the experiences exchanged at Habitat II, partnership has resulted in better policies but they are policies that are determined within the existing distribution of power. It is not a partnership for those most excluded from urban development programmes and policies.

The myth of best practice

Habitat II invested heavily in the concept of "best practice". "Best practices" are intended to provide a learning mechanism to enable the lessons that have emerged from substantive projects and programmes to be more widely disseminated.

Perhaps inevitably, the good intentions behind encouraging learning and sharing have become a selection process. Within such a process, accounting for success takes priority over a more considered sharing of experiences, including the lessons of failure. Best practice exhibits and demonstrations emphasise what has been achieved. However, there was little consideration given to the lessons that have emerged from difficulties, threats and failures. It is increasingly accepted that the process of development cannot be simply perceived as the identification of solutions to be replicated. There are many reasons why this has been the case and the following three are merely illustrative of the problems that have to be faced.

First, critical to the success of local development strategies is a strong sense of ownership. Where local people and local institutions are not committed and involved, programmes are rarely effective. Second, contextual factors often important to the success of a project. Replications often try to adapt themselves to take account of such factors, but often do so poorly. Third, many successful development strategies and programmes rely on opportunism. That is, for example, fitting new innovations and developments into a range of local opportunities that arise as a result of political change. The more rigid the replication process, the harder all these are to achieve.

This is not to say that agencies should not learn from other experiences. But such learning needs to be based on an accurate understanding of the challenge and the experiences to date. Such learning needs to go behind many of the best practice examples and consider a much wider range of issues. Learning also needs to start by recognising another myth, which best practice does little to address, the myth of agency effectiveness.

The myth of agency effectiveness

Perhaps inevitably, occasions such as major UN conferences encourage the exaggeration of the effectiveness of the programmes and projects of the development agencies that are present. Habitat II provided many opportunities, through seminars, workshops and exhibitions, for agencies to demonstrate the real problems that they have addressed and the things that have been achieved.

However, such discussions have to be viewed within a threefold context:

- very few urban development programmes are effective in providing support for large numbers of the urban poor over a long period.

- as already argued, very little development assistance is allocated to programmes that address urban poverty issues

- development assistance is only a small component of the global economy

Most development assistance programmes do little to effectively address the needs of the poor. Many projects increase the level of dependency and reinforce among the poor a belief that they cannot address their own problems. Many projects have failed to develop the institutional structure that is needed to maintain and sustain the projects that have been initiated And, despite many different initiatives from Northern and Southern NGOs, bilateral and multilateral agencies, few are successful in developing models that can begin to reach the estimated 600 million urban dwellers that are living in need.

At events such as Habitat II, the insignificance of much urban development assistance is often forgotten. Many governments do not listen to the policies and priorities of aid agencies and many of those that do listen are too weak to implement programmes on a substantive scale.

What remains is a situation in which the private sector exploiting the city resources and the poor are living within the informal urban economy. It is perhaps indicative of the lack of effective programmes and strategies that, it might be argued, privatization has done more to assist the poor than most NGO and agency programmes. The contribution of privatization has been to allow the poor access to services that were denied them when these services were in public hands Public agencies were reluctant to offer connections to the poor because of the legitimacy of their occupation of the land that was implied. With privatization, financial considerations have become dominant and households long denied access to legal services have now been invited to apply for connections.

This accidental and unintended significance of this policy measure in improving the lives of the poor throws into sharp contrast the large number of development assistance projects that touch the lives of a tiny proportion of the urban poor with ineffective and irrelevant investments. Habitat II did little to encourage such agencies to have a more realistic view of their achievements.

Diana Mitlin,
International Institute
for Environment
and Development (IIED)