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Address by the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT to conference delegates

Anna Tibaijuka

Exec Director, UN-Habitat

Excellencies, Honourable Mayors, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honoured to have been asked to make a keynote address for this important conference on Local Agenda 21 and Sustainable Communities. I would like to thank the Department of Environment and Heritage of the Commonwealth Government of Australia, the State Government of South Australia, the Adelaide City Council and Habitat Pacific for organising this important milestone to the World Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in Johannesburg later this year.

Ten years after the Rio Conference it is important to assess the progress made in the implementation of Agenda 21. Since the adoption of Agenda 21, cities have moved to the forefront of socio-economic change and sustainable development. Half of the world’s population is now living in cities and urban settlements, while the other half is increasingly dependent on cities and towns for their economic survival and livelihood. Cities have become centres of innovation and engines of development. It is now generally understood that cities are the key to social and economic advancement and environmental improvement.

But in contrast to their promise, many cities — especially in the developing world — represent today the most alarming concentrations of poverty. The pace of urbanisation is simply too fast to manage. It is estimated that there are about one billion urban dwellers living without adequate shelter and basic services; what is worse most of them live in life-threatening conditions of deprivation and environmental degradation. This number is expected to double by 2025. Thus, the global trend in urbanisation implies nothing less than the ‘urbanisation of poverty and deprivation’. Unemployment with weak social services, lack of adequate shelter and basic infrastructure combined with increasing disparities are resulting in a high degree of social exclusion leading to the principle forms of social dysfunction, crime and violence. This is a recipe for unsustainable communities.

The urgent needs of the urban poor were recently given international recognition at the Millennium Summit where world leaders committed themselves to improving the living conditions of at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020. This target was reinforced in the UN Declaration on Cities and Other Human Settlements in the new Millennium, which was adopted last June at Istanbul +5, the Special Session of the General Assembly in New York, and more recently through the elevation of our agency to a fully fledged UN Human Settlements Programme.

Distinguished Delegates,

It is encouraging to note that over the last ten years more than 6,000 local governments in 100 countries have responded actively to the call to engage in Local Agenda 21 processes with their communities. In Australia there is a rich diversity of initiatives to support Local Agenda 21. This is a major achievement for local authorities and communities world-wide.

However, we at UN-HABITAT feel that more can be done to integrate the needs of the urban poor into the processes of Local Agenda 21. In particular, we believe that WSSD should help better articulate an integrated and coordinated strategy to advance the cause of sustainable urbanisation with a clear pro-poor focus.

To achieve this goal, I propose a two-pronged approach. One will be the need for the Summit to articulate effective strategies for taking preventive measures in favour of sustainable urbanisation. The other is effective adaptive strategies, programs, policies and concrete projects to deal with reality in the present cities. I am convinced that the mechanism of Local Agenda 21, which you will review this week, has the potential to contribute simultaneously to both of these approaches.

Let us take preventive measures first. There is evidence that the most immediate and fundamental bottlenecks to sustainable urban development are not necessarily lack of technology, funding, or international agreements (although these are important) but local implementation capacity and governance. In practical terms, therefore, we need to focus on policies, such as Local Agenda 21, that build capacity in governance, help generate employment, and enable an improvement in the living conditions in smaller towns and villages. Rural to Urban linkages need to be understood and addressed if we are to minimise the rush to migrate to larger cities.

As far as adaptive strategies are concerned, sustainable urbanisation lies in forging partnerships with the urban poor and empowering them to solve their own problems. International meetings such as this should endorse and popularise the principle of fighting urban poverty without fighting the poor. Our experience shows that slum upgrading programs with a participatory foundation are visible and effective action plans which can and should be integrated into Local Agenda 21 processes.

Distinguished Participants,

UN-HABITAT is already addressing the challenges of urban poverty and sustainability. To assist cities, we offer operational support through our regional offices, specialised global programs and global campaigns in a number of high priority areas. These include water and sanitation, slum upgrading, disaster preparedness and response, reconstruction in war torn societies, and environmental planning and management. Our support to cities focuses specifically on capacity building that includes the capturing of lessons in guidebooks, and the documentation of best practices.

In several countries of the Asia and Pacific Region we are currently supporting some promising mechanisms to enhance the relevance of Local Agenda 21 initiatives for urban poverty reduction. These include pro-poor City Development Strategies; toolkits to promote collaboration between local authorities and civil society; capacity building programs for local government associations; and policy dialogue and coordination through the establishment of national Urban Forums.

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

To address issues of sustainable urbanisation, we are privileged to work with a group of strong partners with whom we are promoting a unified and coordinated input at the WSSD. To this effect, we are organising the first session of the World Urban Forum in Nairobi, starting 29 April 2002. In this Forum we will bring together our partners in the public, private and civil society sectors to review progress in sustainable urbanisation, to agree on a formal input to the intergovernmental process and to commit ourselves to long-term follow-up action and implementation. I would like to encourage all countries from this region to actively contribute to this Forum.

At this meeting we are looking forward to strengthening our cooperation with the Commonwealth Government of Australia, State Governments, Municipalities and NGOs involved in human settlements. We also look forward to the active participation of the Government of Australia in our Governing Council.

Distinguished Delegates,

Let me conclude by encouraging you to critically look during the coming days at the potential contribution of this region in refining Local Agenda 21 processes so that they can provide a significant contribution towards urban poverty reduction.

I would like to thank the organisers and sponsors of this challenging conference. I wish you every success in your deliberations which I am sure will be very productive. Together we can make sure that our children will live in cities and towns that are environmentally and socially sustainable and that women will be able to find the recognition they deserve.

I thank you.

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