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Dr. Anna Tibaijuka Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Executive Director of UN-HABITAT “Sustainable Urbanisation – some critical issues” The 10th Gandhi Memorial Lecture University of Nairobi, 22 July 2009
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Dr. Anna Tibaijuka
of the
United Nations
Executive Director of UN-HABITAT

“Sustainable Urbanisation – some critical issues”
The 10th Gandhi Memorial Lecture
University of Nairobi 

Nairobi, 22 July 2009

The Vice Chancellor,
The Deputy Vice Chancellors,
Principals, Deans and Chairmen of the various Departments
The Academic Community, Students
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

“In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth.” Mahatma Gandhi, Indian political and spiritual leader (1869 - 1948)

It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be invited to deliver the 10th Gandhi Memorial Lecture, here at the University of Nairobi. I would like too start my lecture by briefly reflecting on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, a real inspirational political and spiritual leader.

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Gandhi's non-violent struggles in South Africa and India represent a legacy that includes adulation and controversy. When he was asked to write his autobiography, he took it as an opportunity to explain himself. Although he accepted his status as a great innovator in the struggle against racism, violence, and colonialism, Gandhi feared that enthusiasm for his ideas tended to ignore a deeper understanding. He said that he was after truth rooted in devotion to God and attributed the turning points, successes, and challenges in his life to the will of God. His attempts to get closer to this divine power led him to seek purity through simple living, dietary practices (he called himself a fruitarian), celibacy, and a life without violence. It is in this sense that he calls his book “The Story of My Experiments with Truth” offering it also as a reference for those who would follow in his footsteps.

Gandhi is indeed one of the most inspiring figures of our time. He developed his concept of active non-violent resistance, which propelled the Indian struggle for independence and countless other nonviolent struggles of the twentieth century. Gandhi's "attitude of experimenting, of testing what will and will not bear close scrutiny, what can and cannot be adapted to new circumstances," is still very much valid today.

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen

For the first time in human history, half of humanity is living in towns and cities. We are at the beginning of a new urban era. And with this new era comes a new challenge, the challenge of “sustainable urbanization”. Today, over 3 billion people live in cities. But more significantly, one out of every three city dwellers lives in a slum, an informal settlement or sub-standard housing. Our research shows that the slum population in sub-Saharan Africa is growing by the day.

What lies behind this alarming trend?

What are its causes? We have been asking ourselves this very question since the 1996 Habitat II Conference. Our research shows that are several contributing factors.

First, the development discourse, including the discourse on sustainable development has, over the years, paid very little attention to urbanisation and urban development. Decades of international and national efforts in agricultural and rural development have not arrested rapid migration into cities. In fact, we now know that the more you develop rural areas, in terms of education and health, the faster young people move to cities. Access to education has naturally propelled qualified youth into cities for jobs and opportunities. Many of us today still hang on to the outdated belief that efforts in rural development will have an impact on migration. Whether we are successful or not is becoming irrelevant. We have reached the stage where most urban growth is due to the natural increase of the existing urban population, and no longer to migration.

A second trend lies in the dynamics of urban economies that are rapidly changing. The centre of gravity of economic growth of developing countries is located in towns and cities. In many countries, industry and services account for an ever-increasing proportion of national income relative to agriculture. In Asia, for example, urban areas typically account for 30 to 40 percent of the population and around 60 to 70 percent of GNP. Similarly, in Kenya, cities are home to 12 percent of the population but produce 30 percent of GNP.

What these figures hide, however, is the trend that most of the jobs are created in the informal sector of the economy. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that 7 out of 10 new jobs are created in the informal sector. Government policies as well as the policies of International Financial Institutions often neglect this reality. They assume that the informal economy will eventually be absorbed by the formal economy if the private sector is allowed to thrive and if proper fiscal and legal measures are put in place. This is not happening. Whether we like it or not, the informal economy is the main source of income and employment for the majority of the urban poor in low-income countries. Slums, in the final analyses, are the physical manifestations of the informal economy.

A third reason why we are now facing the urban challenge is misinformed government policies. There has been a long-standing notion that the urban poor are better off than the rural poor. For decades, development planners, statisticians, and decision makers have confused proximity with access. We have assumed that by virtue of the fact that slums and low-income neighborhoods are often located close to schools, hospitals, and trunk infrastructure, that slum dwellers have access to these services. The 2006-2007 State of the World Cities report, published by UN-HABITAT demystifies for the first time this major assumption. This report revealed that the urban poor and especially slum dwellers are more likely to die early, suffer from malnutrition and disease, be less educated and have fewer employment opportunities than any other segment of the population. On the health front, studies have shown that prevalence of the five diseases responsible for more than half of child mortality, namely pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS, is directly linked to the living conditions found in slums and not to income. These conditions are overcrowded living space, poor security, lack of access to potable water and sanitation, lack of garbage removal, and contaminated food. Indeed, slum dwellers suffer from a double jeopardy: they live in life-threatening conditions and their plight is the blind spot of government action and of international development assistance.

Honorable Vice Chancellor,

Let me try to describe what these living conditions are. I will use just one example. In Kibera, Africa’s largest contiguous slum, up to 300 people share a single toilet. This lack of access to sanitation is the single biggest cause of disease among women, and the key contributing factor to why adolescent girls drop out of school. The average woman or girl in Kibera spends up to four hours a day to fetch water. Those who can afford to buy water from a vendor pay up to 50 times more than those who have access to piped water
supply. The lack of modern energy supply forces most slum dwellers to use either charcoal or kerosene, a major cause of respiratory disease and fire hazards. It is these 700,000 inhabitants of Kibera, which would qualify Kibera as a sizeable city in Europe, who work in our plants and factories and produce affordable goods and services. Without them, the economy of Nairobi would most probably grind to a halt.

What is the UN’s role?

The U.N. General Assembly first cited its concern at the “deplorable world housing situation” in 1969, and it declared human settlements a priority for the twenty fifth anniversary of the United Nations in 1971.

I wish to recall here today the words pronounced by the late Barbara Ward back 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, in 1972, 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. 

In 1977, the Secretary-General of the first U.N. Human Settlements Conference, Enrique Peñalosa, asked “whether urban growth would continue to be a spontaneous chaotic process or be planned to meet the needs of the community.”

1996 marked a first but still timid turning point. The Habitat II Conference held in Istanbul in June of that year saw 171 countries adopt the Habitat Agenda, a comprehensive guide to inclusive and participatory urban development.

In 2000, world leaders committed themselves to the Millennium Development Goals. Targets 10 and 11 on water and sanitation and slum upgrading within Goal 7 on environmental sustainability have a strong urban focus.

In 2001, the General Assembly called on UN-HABITAT to establish the World Urban Forum as a think tank on urban issues. More than 25,000 delegates have since attended four sessions of the World Urban Forum. And the biggest change we can see is that now ministers, mayors, civil society and the business sector all recognize that we need to combine our knowledge, our expertise and our resources to overcome the current urban chaos and to put in place the systems and institutions to properly manage our urban future.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
What needs to be done?

Progress has been slow, but the political machinery is finally beginning to recognize urbanization as a major development issue. In 2006, the United States Senate held its first hearing on African urbanization, while the British Parliament held its first debate on urbanization in developing countries.

More recently in June, this year, we held the ACP/EC/UN-HABITAT International Tripartite Conference on “Urbanisation Challenges & Poverty Reduction in ACP Countries”. The Blair Commission for Africa, of which I was a member, highlighted urbanization as the second greatest challenge confronting the continent after HIV/AIDS.

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.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

There are signs of hope. We see more best practices everyday showing what measures can be taken to improve housing conditions for the urban poor. Many cities in East and South Asia are beginning to reduce the share of their people living in urban poverty. Though many civil society partners have contributed to this improvement, a common trait has been the critical role of central government and local authorities. Their political will has spurred increased investment in making cities and towns socially more inclusive, economically more vibrant and ultimately, more sustainable.

As an African, living in the world’s fastest urbanizing continent, I am aware that we need to persuade everyone – from presidents to policymakers - of the urgency of urban issues. I invite the academic institutions in Kenya to partner more closely with UN-HABITAT and our partners to mainstream the sustainable urbanization agenda.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Turning challenges into opportunities

Climate Change is now recognized as one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. Global warming, the risk of rising of sea levels, ever frequent and stronger tropical cyclones, and inland flooding have now become significant issues in public debate and media coverage.

Global Warming

The effects of global warming are already putting cities at great risk. With ongoing climate change, we are entering a new era of urban vulnerability. The rapid pace of urbanization and concentrated living patterns in towns and cities will significantly increase the overall risk factors facing urban areas. The most affected today, and in the future, will be the world’s urban poor – and notably among them, the slum dwellers.

There is no doubt that local authorities will be the front-line actors in finding local answers to these global challenges. There are no “one-size fit all” solutions and each local authority will have to assess its own risks and vulnerability and plan accordingly, whether in coping with rising sea levels, cyclones, droughts, flooding, or environmental refugees. It is obvious that local authorities, especially in secondary cities in Africa that are growing the fastest, will be the most severely tested by these challenges.

These cities, despite their rapid growth, contribute a minimal share to global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, they are the cities that are most at risk in terms of feeling the impacts of climate change.

Until now, few comprehensive examples of mitigation and adaptation at the local level exist. However, cities worldwide are alerted to take action. This is an opportunity for all of us – academicians, policy makers, planners and environmental specialists – to join forces and place cities and urban issues at the forefront of the sustainable development agenda.

Adapting to climate change will require that we revisit our planning laws and bylaws, our building standards, our energy supply systems, our infrastructure and transportation systems. This is an excellent opportunity to re-examine how we manage and plan our cities. It is an opportunity to re-think many of our policies that have made cities the single biggest source of green house gas emissions in the North, while at the same time, excluding up to 70 percent of the urban population from decent living standards in the South. In essence, reducing the vulnerability of cities to the effects of climate change should and needs to be seized as an opportunity to improve the living conditions of the most vulnerable segments of our urban populations.

Housing Finance

A key to finding a lasting solution is affordable housing finance. In today’s world, nobody is expected to pay for their housing solutions through savings alone. We rely on various forms of housing finance from the conventional mortgage to other forms of credit to meet our housing needs. Yet the majority of the urban poor in the world today are excluded from most forms of finance. We have been struggling for over three decades to address the issues of cost of land and infrastructure, cost of building and construction. We have neglected the most important factor that determines access to decent housing. This factor is the cost and conditions of acquiring money.

UN-HABITAT seeks to package technical assistance and policy reform with seed capital to enable housing cooperatives and women’s groups to access housing finance. Our approach is to complement micro-credit, which is largely limited to short-term loans, with provisions for longer-term finance for land acquisition. It is our hope that such an approach will help overcome one of the last remaining barriers to urban poverty reduction – to enable and empower the urban poor to do what most wealthier people do everyday, namely to leverage their savings and assets to create wealth through housing and become true stakeholders in society.

Last year, here in Kenya, UN-Habitat signed an agreement with Housing Finance, to co-finance development and ownership of affordable housing under a pilot project initiative on a 50 acre parcel of land in Mavoko Municipality off Mombasa road. During its first phase, this project will benefit at least 100 low-income households organized around cooperative organizations that have been developed to mobilize savings through a Sustainable Neighborhood Program (SNP). The project has adopted an innovative financial model to avail affordable housing to low income earners through commercially viable terms and aims at attracting private long term capital for investment into affordable housing supply.

Distinguished delegates
Some emerging issues for empirical research and policy analysis:

I would like to share with you what UN-Habitat believes are some of the emerging issues that the academic community may wish to take on for research and policy analysis. These issues are:

  • Understanding 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;
  • Understanding 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;
  • Understanding 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 indeed research issues that if addressed may shade light in our efforts to understand and address the challenges of sustainable urbanization. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, “Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth”.

Distinguished Ladies and gentlemen,

In closing, I wish to thank and congratulate the University of Nairobi, and the Coordinating Committee of the Gandhi Memorial Lecture for organizing this forum and I would like to extent to you, an invitation to the next World Urban Forum to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in March 2010, where the theme is “The right to the City – Bridging the Urban Divide”. This is world’s premier gathering of minds, of ideas and of exchange of practices on our urban future.

I thank you for your kind attention.

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