Monday, March 29, 2010

Poverty: Human Rights - not for 830 million slum dwellers

By Babukar Kashka

Republished courtesy of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

Photo: UN-HABITAT Executive Director Anna Tibaijuka

NAIROBI (IDN) – The number of people residing in slums has climbed from 777 million in 2000 to almost 830 million in 2010 and will likely reach some 900 million by 2020. However, their life conditions are an open violation of all basic human rights.

This is the dire picture that the UN presented at the World Urban Forum, which took place in the last week of March in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro.

In fact, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described “appalling living conditions in slums as a violation of human rights,” saying that helping the urban poor reclaim their rights strengthened societies and stemmed environmental degradation.

“Conditions in slums are a violation of human rights,” Ban said in a message to the Forum inaugural session on March 22.

“The children who have no clean water, the women who fear for their safety, the young people who have no chance to receive a decent education have a right to better, and we have a responsibility to do better to help them,” he said.

The Forum was established by the United Nations to examine the effects of rapid urbanisation on communities, cities, economies and the climate. It held its first meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2002.

Ban noted that an estimated 22 million people in developing countries had managed to move out of slums each year during the past decade, “but that achievement was not enough to have the impact required to reduce urban poverty.”

According to the Nairobi-based UN Human Settlements Programme (HABITAT), the number of people living in slums rose from 777 million in 2000 to almost 830 million in 2010.

“All people have the right to safe drinking water, sanitation, shelter and basic services. All people have the right to live with a sense of security. All people should have the opportunity to work for a better future,” Ban stressed.

“Your plan to launch the World Urban Campaign will advance our work to reach these life-saving goals,” he added.

The World Urban Campaign is a platform for public, private and civil society actors to discuss policies and share practical tools for sustainable urbanisation.


While some 227 million slum-dwellers worldwide have escaped their conditions in the past decade, the overall population of slums has swelled by nearly 60 million in the same period, a new United Nations report finds.

These 227 million people have moved out of slum conditions, largely due to slum upgrading, since 2000, more than double the target of improving the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020 set by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were agreed upon by world leaders.

“However, this achievement is not uniformly distributed across regions,” Anna Tibaijuka, HABITAT executive director wrote in the introduction to the agency’s biennial ‘State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011’ report.

“Success is highly skewed towards the more advanced emerging economies, while poorer countries have not done as well,” she says, stressing: “There is no room for complacency.”

The report, which focuses on the theme ‘Bridging the Urban Divide’, characterises efforts to reduce the number of slum dwellers as “neither satisfactory nor adequate”, especially given that just over half of the world’s population – or nearly 3.5 billion – now lives in urban areas.

Short of drastic action, it warns, the world’s slum population will likely increase by 6 million annually to reach nearly 900 million by 2020.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to nearly two-thirds of the world’s slum population, with 200 million people, with South Asia, East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South-East Asia rounding out the top five regions with the largest number of slum dwellers.


The report also finds that “urbanisation benefits political leaders, public servants and the rich in Africa, Asia and Latin American and the Caribbean, leaving millions behind”.

Urban planning and policies seem to favour the empowered, usually the local and regional economic elite, and in the developing world, this pattern is usually linked to historical and cultural hegemony.

“Achieving sustainable urban development is likely to prove impossible if the urban divide is allowed not only to persist, but to continue growing, opening up an enormous gap, even in some cities a gulf, an open wound, which can produce social instability or at least generate high social and economic costs not only for the urban poor, but for society at large,” Tibaijuka stated.

The report calls on governments to implement inclusive policies “to narrow inequalities dividing residents of many cities in developing nations and allow them access to decent housing, transport, education, recreation, communication, employment and the judiciary.”

“In an inclusive city, residents take part in decision-making that ranges from the political to issues of daily life,” it says. “Such participation injects a sense of belonging, identity, place into residents, and guarantees them a stake in the benefits of urban development.”

In-depth reviews of cities’ systems, structures and institutions, the document argues, are vital to kick-start real change.

In the space of a few short years, the World Urban Forum has turned into the world's premier conference on cities.


The Forum was established by the United Nations to examine one of the most pressing problems facing the world today: rapid urbanisation and its impact on communities, cities, economies, climate change and policies.

Since the first meeting in Nairobi, Kenya in 2002, the Forum has grown in size and stature as it travelled to Barcelona in 2004, Vancouver 2006, and Nanjing in 2008.

With half of humanity already living in towns and cities, it is projected that in the next 50 years, two-thirds of humankind will be living in towns and cities.

A major challenge is to minimize burgeoning poverty in cities, improve access of the urban poor to basic facilities such as shelter, clean water and sanitation and to achieve environmentally friendly, sustainable urban growth and development.

UN-HABITAT and the government of Brazil sponsored the Rio de Janeiro Forum, held March 22- 26, 2010.

The Forum brings together government leaders, ministers, mayors, diplomats, members of national, regional and international associations of local governments, NGOs and community organizations, professionals, academics, grassroots women's organizations, youth and slum dwellers groups as partners working for better cities.

The theme for Rio 2010, ‘The Right to the City - Bridging the Urban Divide’ is in harmony with UN-HABITAT's flagship report, State of the World's Cities 2010-2011.

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