World Urban Forum 9: The good, the same-old, the hopeful, the shocking…

The World Urban Forum (WUF9) is a major conference run every two years by UN-Habitat. This year it took place in the city of Kuala Lumpur from 7-13 February 2018.

The last time this global community came together was in October 2016 to negotiate the ‘New Urban Agenda’ – the global urban agreement endorsed by the UN General Assembly about the future of the world’s cities. It was meant to give a steer to how all 17 Sustainable Development Goals should be implemented in cities.

WUF9 was therefore an opportunity to take stock ahead of the more formal process of SDG reviews that will take place later this year, which will include a review of SDG Goal 11 on cities.

Practical Action has long been involved in questions of good urban development, speaking from our experience of 20 years or so of working with urban slum communities on building materials, livelihoods, participatory planning and access to basic services. Our current strategy reinforces our commitment to supporting urban informal and slum communities with access to water, sanitation, hygiene and waste management. We have had representation at almost all of such conferences since they began in 2002.

Uttam Saha, Lucy Stevens and Hasin Jahan at the Bangladesh Exhibition Stand at WUF9

This time, we were a team of four: I was there from the global policy perspective and to fulfil our role as a lead partner of the World Urban Campaign. Three team members came from Bangladesh including our Country Director Hasin Jahan on the invitation of the Government of Bangladesh’s Urban Development Division. The delegation included the Minister of Housing and representatives from academia, women’s groups, and NGOs. They had an exhibition stand and two events where we had an opportunity to talk about our work.

So what were my impressions? Of course, with such a large event with over 25,000 participants registered and hundreds of sessions over 7 days, we could only scratch the surface, but these are a few reflections:

The good

  • UN-Habitat has a good track record of taking multi-stakeholder participation seriously, and this was again the case. Slum dweller representatives talked freely and openly with Ministers: academics, professionals and planners shared their views without an overt sense of hierarchy getting in the way.
  • We were able to form new partnerships and re-energise old ones. For example, we talked with PLAN International colleagues who are very keen to trial some examples of our composting work in Bangladesh. And in Kenya, we have made a link with UN-Habitat’s energy team on issues of waste-to-energy, with an invitation to participate in an up-coming workshop.
  • Our sessions allowed us to showcase our work on Faecal Sludge Management both in the context of secondary towns and for the displaced Rohingya community. They helped us to cement our relationship with key government actors and other partners.

The Same-old Same-old

The New Urban Agenda was supposed to be a turning point, setting a new direction for good development in urban areas. It contains excellent wording about e.g.: policies to prevent “arbitrary forced evictions”, “recognizing the contribution of the working poor in the informal economy”, and allowing “all inhabitants, whether living in formal or informal settlements, to lead decent, dignified and rewarding lives and to achieve their full human potential“.

However, I was left feeling that it has not had an impact. It is not providing a challenge to ‘business as usual’ for example:

  • The vision for cities expressed by those in authority, or sometimes by technocrats, is too often about glass, steel and highways, but people are rarely present in their vision. Certainly not people who provide services to the city, like recycling its waste, or feeding its office workers, or cleaning its homes. Slums and their resident are still talked about as a problem that other people need to solve – dismissing the people and their ability to be part of and lead their own solutions.
  • Federations of the urban poor represented by SDI (and also outside SDI), still have a struggle to make their voices heard at the local level with their municipalities

    Just outside the conference venue

  • Data collected at the global level (for example on WASH) still does not reflect carefully collected community enumerations despite continuing evidence that these numbers consistently underestimate urban poverty
  • The Special Session on Access to Basic Services seemed old-fashioned, with too much emphasis on city-wide master-planning and not enough on the latest thinking on markets-based approaches, and how to incorporate the formal and informal private sector.

The Hopeful

  • UN-Habitat has drifted somewhat since Habitat III. It has not take the leadership it should have on SDG discussions, for example. However, a new Executive Director, Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif  has taken up her position (just 3 weeks ago). She comes from being Mayor of Penang City in Malaysia for the last 7 years, so hopefully she has the skills to get things done, and to show the leadership the organisation so desperately needs. She is a champion of gender-responsive and participatory planning and budgeting.
  • Similarly the World Urban Campaign remains a growing and committed multi-stakeholder group: a project of UN-Habitat, with a collective aim of campaigning to raise issues of The City We Need. The group felt re-energised and with a clearer direction.

The shocking

Perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked. but it was still horrifying to hear about the times when poorer, less powerful city residents are deprived of their homes and their livelihoods. And sometimes this is done in the name of ‘climate resilience’ if people are living on land that is prone to flooding for example (whether or not that flooding may actually caused by man-made actions further up the chain…).

In my view, the best cities are those with vibrancy, local colour, life and mixing on the streets, safe public spaces that can be used by all for a variety of purposes, bringing together a diversity of people. Cities are their people as much as their physical fabric. It’s similar to Practical Action’s approach to technology: putting people at the heart of the solution. That is what we will continue to push for across all our areas of work, including our programmes in urban slums.


One response to “World Urban Forum 9: The good, the same-old, the hopeful, the shocking…”

  1. privanus Says:

    its so nice to know and share these opportunities to local societies.
    Big up

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