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Statement by Dr. Anna Tibaijuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations &Executive Director of UN-HABITAT on accepting The Göteborg Award for Sustainable Development in Göteborg, Sweden on 24 November 2009
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Your worship Mrs. Anneli Hulthen, Mayor of Gothenburg
Mr. Carl Bennet and distinguished Award Founders
Mr. Stefan Edman, Chairman of the Jury and All Distinguished Jury Members
Honourable Ministers and Excellencies
My fellow Award Winners

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is with a deep sense of honour, gratitude and humility that I accept this prize, not only for myself but also for my colleagues at UN-HABITAT who have been by my side in our campaign for sustainable urbanization. We continue to seek an end to homelessness, urban poverty, deprivation, social exclusion and suffering throughout the world. If we cannot secure the human habitat, we shall not be able to secure the environment. Sustainable urbanization is a prerequisite for sustainable development.

On such an auspicious occasion, I am grateful to my parents for their foresight and the sacrifice they had to make to put me in school. My late husband  for his support and encouragement, my children for their sacrifice and understanding of my situation.  My educators both in Tanzania and later in Sweden. My relatives, friends and  community and national leaders whose support and delight in my work and your recognition of it is exemplified by their  presence here. For special mention is  Tanzanian Deputy Foreign Minister, Hon. Seif  Idd, as a special  envoy of President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania. In keeping with the spirit of East African Cooperation, I also wish to recognize the presence of H.E. Joseph Tomusange, Ambassador of Uganda to Sweden, representing President Yoweri Museveni.

Clearly, the vision and wisdom of the Founders of this award and its supporters is vindicated. The impact and power of this award as an instrument to raise awareness and the visibility of  outstanding issues in sustainable development will revibarate throughout the world. I sincerely thank the people of Sweden in general and Goteborg in particular for your culture of recognizing talent and achievement. In this you are a best practice and an example that is increasingly being emulated.

The scope and character of UN-HABITAT's activities are perhaps unique, in that it is the only United Nations body which deals with the built environment – the towns, cities and villages where already more than half of humanity lives today. It is unique too, in that it deals with the other side of the climate debate – the most important urban dimension.

And although our work may be unique in some ways, in many other ways, it is typical of the work being done by our partners in hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, government and municipal offices, schools, universities and other institutions of learning, and private sector companies which strive for cleaner, greener and more sustainable cities; for human rights cities where all feel they belong equally; for cities where women feel safe; for cities where the women and the children they support can get clean water and sanitation and the right to health services, utilities, an education, clean streets, safe alleys, green parks. I could go on and on here.

Like most Göteborg laureates, we have struggled to carry out our work in such a way that more and more people are made aware of just how fragile our world is. On the eve of the Copenhagen climate talks, it is clear that we have never been better equipped to deal with the problems than in this day and age. But never have they seemed so daunting.

Some basic facts and figures
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

I therefore stand before you tonight with a sense of urgency. As we witness a slowdown in world economic growth, we are already seeing the impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.

The continuing worldwide impact of climate change, compounded by the global financial crisis, conflicts in many countries and migration patterns accelerating the rate of urbanization, are taxing us more and more. Indeed, this means that the international community is facing an unprecedented set of daunting challenges on several fronts.

The economic crisis and the growing number of disasters wrought by climate change threaten to undo and possibly reverse many of the gains made on achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

In this first decade of our new urban era, there are approximately 1 billion people living in slums and other sub-standard housing around the world. Slums are dwellings without any or all of the following: safe drinking water, sanitation, durable building structures, overcrowded and security of tenure. Slum prevalence is highest in sub-Saharan Africa at 62 percent. Then comes south Asia at 43 percent, East Asia 37 percent, and Latin America and the Caribbean, 27 percent. Even the advanced economies are not immune. About 6 percent of their populations are classified by us as living under slum-like conditions. This number has risen with the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. In short one out of every three people living in cities of the developing world lives in a slum. If no remedial action is taken, their numbers are projected to rise to 1.4 billion by 2020. This implies that developing countries will face even greater urban poverty problems than they do today.

Yet I also stand before you with a renewed sense of optimism and hope.

World Habitat Day, 2009

Awareness on the need for sustainable urbanization is on the increase in both developed and developing nations. A paradign shift from focus on economic development to focus on Ecology, Economy and Equity driven development approaches is in sight. For example, On World Habitat Day, the 5th of October 2009 hosted by the United States in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama said in his message to us and I quote:

Every year, World Habitat Day gives us the opportunity to raise awareness and offer ideas about how we can make our planet a better place for ourselves and our children. This year’s commemoration comes at a moment of challenge for America and the world. We find ourselves in the midst of a global recession. Millions of families in our nation and all nations have lost their homes or fear that they will lose their homes some time in the future….We are committed to working with the United Nations and our partners around the world to help more families to find a safe and secure place to live.”

It is wonderful indeed that after many years in obscurity, the Habitat Agenda is attracting attention and recognition from such high offices. Indeed, in Washington, World Habitat Day was transformed into World Habitat Week, drawing participants from all parts of US Government from the White House down.

It is amazing to reflect that when I was born in 1950 in the Kagera district of Tanzania, near the shores of Africa’s great Lake Victoria, that UN-HABITAT too was an infant of sorts.

It all started just five years earlier as a consequence of the World War II destruction of towns and cities across much of Europe and Asia. The first UN-led housing programme was to provide emergency shelter to those huddling in the ruins. The UN General Assembly, in 1946, subsequently called for international exchange of expertise on housing to assist countries in their recovery and reconstruction.

Another 30 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; when the environment and climate change were not issues to worry about.

Citing what it called, the deplorable world housing situation” in 1969, the UN General Assembly declared human settlements as a priority for the 25th anniversary of the United Nations in 1971.

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.

To think, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, that in those days, I was a student right here in this wonderful country, Sweden. In a sense, I am as indebted to Sweden as UN-HABITAT!

After the Vancouver Conference, the General Assembly established the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, headquartered in Nairobi.  

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

It was against this backdrop that I was asked in 2000 by the Former Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan to revitalize an organisation that had not been able to perform to expectation.  The same year 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).  The sanitation target was added in Johannesburg in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

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 fully fledged Programme of the United Nations overseen by a Governing Council of 58 nations.  It was a major milestone for us.

And tonight, I acknowledge your recognition of this. I could not have done it alone. We did it as a team at UN-HABITAT. And never has that team been stronger or more committed.

Again, this is thanks in no small way to Sweden’s political, moral and financial support.

The World Urban Forum

One of the first decisions of the new Governing Council was to convene the World Urban Forum. Since the first in Nairobi in 2002, the forum held every two years has grown into the world’s premier conference on cities. The numbers of those attending grew and grew as we moved from Barcelona, Vancouver, and Nanjing last year.

We intend to use the next Forum in Rio de Janeiro in March 2010 to elevate the Habitat Agenda still further with the launch a new World Urban Campaign. It is going to be our new clarion call – our new drive to get the importance and the urgency of better, smarter and more sustainable cities firmly embedded in global and local policy making, and it everybody’s minds.

It is important to say here that the most telling indicators of our success so far in enabling UN-HABITAT to elevate the visibility and importance accorded to housing and urban development can be found with a few key indicators.

An obvious one is the progression of our budget which has steadily increased 10-fold during the period of my tenure. 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 nine years.

Looking ahead, a cornerstone of our strategy is to engage young people at every level. In Nanjing we launched Opportunities Fund for Urban Youth-led Development.


And so I wish to state in expressing my gratitude for the great honour you have bestowed on me here that the monies coming from this award are going straight into UN-HABITAT’s youth fund. The fund is intended to help those getting the grants become pathfinders for others in this rapidly urbanizing world.

Further, we can all feel proud about is that we have moved from a peripheral technical organisation to an agency responsible for convening global forums to the extent of being entrusted to lead a UN system-wide event devoted to “Better Cities, Better Life” at the Shanghai Expo in 2010.  We look forward to welcoming you all to visit the spectacular UN Pavilion for which we have been designated manager for the entire 6 months of the exhibition.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

As we constantly seek to raise the profile of the Habitat Agenda, it is important to understand this: It is no coincidence that global climate change has become a leading international development issue precisely at the same time and at the same rate as the world has become urbanized. 

It is also important to point out that the cities and climate change debate is helping us close the loop started in Stockholm in 1972: it clearly demonstrates the convergence between the two environmental agendas, the so called green environmental agenda, and the human settlements agenda.

But the former still dominates public policy and public debate with the consequence that 1 billion people live today in life-threatening slums and sub-standard housing where their plight is further threatened by the consequences of climate change. Everywhere it is the slum dwellers whose homes get wiped away first when disaster strikes. And everywhere this happens, women and the children they support are usually the first to suffer.

Just think for a moment how many fewer boat people from Africa and Asia would be migrating to Europe every summer risking life and limb if climate change impacts could be reduced.

Thus when tackling urban poverty and climate change, we have to think globally and locally at the same time.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

In concluding, let me say that around the world I have met courageous people who struggle in destitute poverty to make a go of life under heartbreaking circumstances: A woman standing on what remained of her home in Sri Lanka after the tsunami; a man consoling his family after being evicted in Zimbabwe; or a smiling, dirty child in a crowded slum in Africa or India.

I draw inspiration from their judgement and wisdom, their faith and their courage. I am humbled by the wonderful progress such people achieve in life when given an opportunity to use their innate talents.

The richer world cannot leave these people behind, especially in today’s economic climate. It still needs to understand better the plight of so many people living in despair. It has to make the commitment and share with others more of its excessive wealth.

This is why the other side of the climate change debate, the debate over poverty, the environment, the economic crisis – the urban side – is so important. And so here I honour also those sharing the award with me, two of the world’s greatest environment heros, Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, on the urban side, and Sören Hermansen, of Samsö, Denmark.

As I now prepare to take my leave from the helm of UN-HABITAT, I intend to devote my remaining months in office to the launch and establishment of the World Urban Campaign. This Campaign is designed with a single purpose in mind – to elevate the importance accorded to pro-poor, socially inclusive and environmentally sound housing and urban development in public policy and in private investment. 

I thank you most humbly for giving the urban side of the environment agenda such great recognition in the award you have bestowed upon me tonight.

Thank you.

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