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Statement by Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN-HABITAT at the closing ceremony of the 22nd Session of the Governing Council of UN-HABITAT
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Statement by Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka,
and Executive Director of UN-HABITAT
 at the closing ceremony of the
 22nd session of the
Governing Council of UN-HABITAT,
Nairobi, Kenya, 3 April 2009.

Mr. President,
Honourable Ministers,
Your Excellencies, Honourable Members of Parliament,
Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives and Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Your Lordship the Mayors and leaders of various partner delegations
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

This twenty-second session of the Governing Council of UN-HABITAT comes to a close with a better and a deeper understanding of the critical role of affordable housing and sustainable urban development than ever before. This is of the utmost importance to us all as we enter a period of uncertainty over the increasing effects of climate change, and a period of economic downturn that threatens to roll back many of the recent gains in attaining the Millennium Development Goals.
From the discussions in various forums held during the week, it was clear to me that you, the member States who guide us in our work, fully realise that we cannot afford to leave anyone behind, especially the urban poor, and especially in these times of financial crisis.
I have a very special word of thanks to our Habitat Agenda partners for their fidelity: the Mayors and local authorities, the business sector, the non-governmental organizations, and the grass roots organisations. All of you participated in this Governing Council because of a shared sense of purpose, to better serve people and their communities.
Delegates from 104countries attended this twenty-second session, representing national and local governments, non-governmental and civil society organisations, financial institutions, professional associations and the private sector.

Landmark resolutions

I also heartily salute this twenty-second session of the Governing Council for reaching some landmark decisions.  
The resolutions on Cities and Climate Change and the request to the General Assembly to convene a third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) are clearly forward looking decisions. They provide our staff and our closest partners with the necessary vision and impetus to move ahead.
The resolution on affordable housing finance is also a major milestone. As the Secretary-General so starkly reminded us earlier this week, we are here to tackle persistent urban poverty. And the principle reason why urban poverty is so persistent is because we have, in far too many countries, ignored for far too long the critical importance of affordable housing and accessible urban infrastructure and basic services. These are key ingredients to sustainable economic growth. These are key ingredients to social equality and justice. And these are key ingredients to ensuring that our cities and communities can better withstand the effects of climate change.

Mr. President,

Distinguished Delegates,
The birth of an organisation

The closing of this twenty-second session of the Governing Council of UN-HABITAT marks a historic turning for this organization. Never before has it been stronger, better funded, better positioned within the United Nations system, or better known around the world.

This is largely thanks to you, the governments and partners. You stood by this organisation and provided your generous and wise support through the crisis that followed the successful Habitat II Conference. You ushered in a period of revitalization and transformation spanning 1998 to date.

To think that what is today known the world over as UN-HABITAT all started as a consequence of the World War II destruction of towns and cities across Europe and Asia. How many in this audience are even aware that the first UN-led housing programme was to provide emergency shelter to those huddling in the postwar ruins of cities? The General Assembly, in 1946, subsequently called for international exchange of expertise on housing to assist countries in their recovery and reconstruction.

Stockholm and beyond

Another thirty years would pass, however, before
housing and urban issues began to flicker on the radar screen of a United Nations created when two-thirds of humanity was still rural.

The UN General Assembly cited its concern at what it called the “deplorable world housing situation” in 1969, and declared human settlements as a priority for the 25th anniversary of the United Nations in 1971.

I wish to recall here today the words pronounced by the late Barbara Ward in 1971:

“In the world at large, the millions will be born. The settlements will grow – in squalor and violence, or in work and hope. The whole world – linked by its communications, its airlines, its hijackers and its terrorists – has really only one choice: to become a place worth living in or face ‘the way to dusty death’. And where else do people live, save in their settlements? So where else is the salvation to begin?”

The next year, the UN held its first global conference on the human environment in Stockholm. This Conference was historical in recognising the link between the environmental agenda – the so-called green agenda – and the root causes of the environmental degradation, namely human activity, human settlements and urbanisation.  

The Stockholm Conference recommended a global conference on human settlements and the creation of the United Nations Habitat and Human Settlements Foundation. The Foundation was established by the General Assembly in 1974 and the Habitat I Conference was held in Vancouver in 1976.

Subsequent to the Vancouver Conference, the General Assembly established the 58 member Commission on Human Settlements and its secretariat: the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, with its headquarters in Nairobi.  

Despite growing awareness of the consequences of rapid urbanisation, development theory and development practice would remain focused on rural poverty and rural development. Some of the underlying assumptions were:

  • That urbanisation was a temporary phenomenon that would eventually slow down and could even be reversed;
  • That the formal sector would absorb the informal sector over time; and
  • That market forces and trickle down effects would cater to the housing and basic needs of the burgeoning urban populations.

Twenty years after 1976, the UN Conference on Human Settlements (HABITAT II) was convened in June 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey, largely in recognition of the fact that these basic assumptions had been taken over by a very different reality, a reality characterised by urban slums, urban poverty and accelerating urbanisation.  The Habitat Agenda, and its twin goals on “shelter for all” and sustainable human settlements in an urbanising world, provided the basis for a renewed and explicit normative mandate.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In 2000 when I was asked by the Former Secretary-General Mr Kofi Annan to leave my career of choice at UNCTAD and move to Nairobi to revitalize this organisation, the Millennium Summit marked another major milestone in our history. It recognised the dire circumstances of the world’s urban poor. It articulated the commitment of member States to achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020. (Target 11, Millennium Development Goal No. 7). It also pledged to reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by the year 2015. (MDG 7, Target 10).

These two targets showed a new political commitment of direct relevance to UN-HABITAT’s mandate. Shortly thereafter, and as a result of the special session of the General Assembly in 2001 to review progress in the implementation of the Habitat Agenda, UN-HABITAT was elevated to a full fledged programme and the Commission on Human Settlements, which was a mere standing committee of ECOSOC, was transformed into this August body,  a Governing Council which is a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly.

One of the first decisions of the new Governing Council was to convene the World Urban Forum, merging two previous forums, one on urban poverty and the other on urban sustainability. The first World Urban Forum took place in Nairobi in 2002 as part of the preparatory process for the World Summit on Sustainable Development later that year in Johannesburg.

The second World Urban Forum was held in Barcelona in 2004, the third in Vancouver marking our thirtieth birthday. The most recent one was held in Nanjing, China late last year.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

As we prepare for the next Forum in Rio de Janeiro in 2010, I must stress that it is with your blessing that the Forum has become the world’s premier gathering of minds, of ideas and of exchange of practices on matters urban.
The most telling indicators of your success in enabling UN-Habitat to elevate the visibility and importance accorded to housing and urban development issues can be found with a few key indicators.

One obvious indicator is the progression of our budget which has steadily increased during this period. This is indeed a great show of faith in our work and our vision.

Another key indicator is the volume of delivery in our country level activities. These have also progressed substantially over the last five years.

A third key indicator is the ratio between fixed costs, or staff costs, and activities. This ratio has improved over the last biennium, and constitutes the first steps in efficiency gains and the lowering of transaction costs.
Other key indicators include our membership in the CEB and in the IASC, the scope and depth of our partnership agreements with UN agencies, professional associations, grass roots organisations and the private sector. Last but not least, I can proudly point to the fact that we are increasingly leveraging our policy advisory and capacity building services with investment follow-up.

One indicator that we can all feel proud about is that we have moved from a peripheral technical organisation to an agency responsible for convening global forums and to spearhead a system-wide event devoted to “Better Cities, Better Life” at the Shanghai Expo in 2010.  

But these gains are still minute when compared to the 1 billion people living in slums, and the thousands that are joining them every day.  We are indeed sitting on a social time bomb that is ticking away in many overcrowded, poverty-stricken corners of a geopolitical chessboard already fraught with problems.

The Commission for Africa, established by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, concluded that Africa’s future will be defined by two factors. First, is the arrest and reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS; and second is prevailing over rapid and chaotic urbanization.

The figures from our latest research show that sub-Saharan Africa today still has the world’s highest proportion of its city dwellers living in slums. They constitute 62 percent of Africa’s urban population. That compares to 43 percent in South Asia, 37 percent in East Asia, 28 percent in Southeast Asia, 27 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 15 percent in North Africa.  These are not just figures. The majority of these slum dwellers are living in life-threatening conditions. The worst affected are women and girls.

Because slum dwellers have little or no access to affordable sources of modern energy, they burn biomass and have become unwitting contributors to environmental degradation.  Because they have little or no access to clean water and sanitation, slums have become sources of disease and contagion.

For this reason, we will continue to focus our work in the normative, capacity building and operational areas to help prevent the future formation of slums and to support the efforts of member States in improving the living conditions of slum dwellers.

We will also do everything we can, through our Gender Equality Action Plan, in ensuring that women and girls do not remain or become the victims of triple injustices in terms of lack of access to land, housing and basic services. 

Distinguished delegates

I am pleased to say that we will be co-organising and hosting the first tri-partite ACP-EC-UN-Habitat International Conference on Urbanisation Challenges and Poverty Reduction for ACP countries, here at our headquarters 8-10 June.  This Conference will advance three-way cooperation for the implementation of a combined operational and normative approach to slum upgrading and prevention.

Emerging issues

I would like to share with you what UN-Habitat believes are some of the emerging issues that need to be addressed head on and with firm commitments. These issues are:

1/ The link between rapid and chaotic urbanization and the urbanisation of poverty. Understanding this link will be critical to our collective ability to attain not just the slum and water and sanitation targets of the MDGs, but practically all of the MDGs;

2/ The link between rapidly growing, poorly planned and managed cities with increasing volatility in the prices of food, energy and water. This link is vital to developing effective strategies that recognise the importance of urban-rural linkages and managing the complexities of metropolitan development;

3/ The link between rapid and chaotic urbanisation and climate change. This link is born form the realisation that any serious attempt at climate change mitigation and adaptation must include our cities as front line actors.

These are the red warning lights, so to speak; the battleground for sustainable development.
This is battle which members of this Governing Council and partners will need to carry forward to the next Governing Council and beyond.

Many of the soldiers that battled for the past two decades to help bring us to where we are will no longer be here at the next Governing Council.

I think it most appropriate to recognise two of my closest advisors for their contribution to furthering the human settlements cause and to this organisation.

Rolf Wichmann:  Rolf, a German national raised in the United States, joined UN HABITAT in 1983. He started working with the policy section where he helped mainstream the urban agenda in the work of the United Nations system and built the foundation for Habitat’s flagship reports. He moved to the Office of the Executive Director where he has served each of the Executive Directors of UN-HABITAT as a special assistant and later as chief of office. He was my Chief of Staff and close collaborator for six years during a time of reform and institutional strengthening.  He has been serving as the Secretary of the Governing Council and the World Urban Forum since 2005 and this is his last Governing Council.  Like most intellectuals if you don’t know him well you would dismiss as a cynic. But those who know him well, like myself, can only like him intensely because of his sincerity and integrity.  I depended entirely on this virtues throughout my first term when he served as my Chief of Staff.  Thank you Rolf for your support. What UN-Habitat has achieved, we did together. 

Nicholas You: Nicholas, a Chinese who studied in Europe, is the son of one of the first UN staff to join the UN when its headquarters were still in Oyster  Bay, Long Island, New York. He started his career with the United Nations 30 years ago today with UNICEF, as a consultant. Coming from the private sector, he joined UN-Habitat in 1981 and has always been a man of new ideas. His long list of innovations include the establishment of our training services, the partnership concept for Habitat II, best practices, messengers of truth, and his instrumental role in formulating the MTSIP. I have decided that he will be the best person to help me kick start the Global Campaign on Sustainable Urbanisation, the street name of which is the World Urban Campaign. A free spirit, sometimes difficult to find and follow, Nick can nonetheless be counted on to deliver even in the most difficult of circumstances. His capacity to work defies imagination. Nick, rest assured I have never taken anything for granted. But given our meagre human resources I hope you will forgive me for putting so much on your plate.

Apart from my two colleagues, I shall also have completed my term when you next meet in 2011. Allow me therefore to take this opportunity to thank you very sincerely for the support you extended to me in our common quest to revitalise this important agency.

I shall leave the evaluation of what we have achieved in your able hands. But I would like to say that I am convinced that we have turned the fate and fortunes of this agency around. It is now on a solid footing on which my successor will be able to build.

I wish to recognise the inheritance that I was able to build upon from my predecessors. You will notice that some served for long periods while others had but brief sojourns at the helm of this agency. We also had others who served in a caretaker capacity. I believe that with your guidance of the transition process, we will be able to ensure a smooth succession and handover for the leadership of this organisation.  It will be crucial at this moment of transition to consolidate our gains and inject new vigour in realising the vision we set ourselves in the MTSIP.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the President of this Governing Council, Mr. Warmington.  You have led the bureau and this process with calm, steady assurance and competence.

As we carry the torch for a sustainable urban future, and hold it as high as we can, we need the support of all of you more than ever. We cannot do it alone. Governments cannot do it alone.  Cities and civil society cannot do it alone.

In this first decade of the new Millennium our legacy will speak for itself. We have a unique opportunity to get things right, and the time to act is now.
Make our cities better, and we make the world better. And as you leave, if you have some spare change, ladies and gentlemen, every bit counts for our hungry Kenyan brothers and sisters, the unwilling victims of chaotic urbanisation, poor urban governance, and climate change.

Thank you.


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