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‘Habitat is a commitment to principles…’


MAY 29 – JUNE 15, 1996


‘Habitat is a commitment to principles…’

By Ashali Varma

Dr Wally N’Dow of Gambia is Secretary General of Habitat II.  He spoke recently with The Earth Times.  Excerpts from the interview:

What has been the most difficult challenge for you?

I think the lack of time. Most United Nations conferences have had at least four years to prepare the world for these meetings. Our conference really came into active preparation a little over two years ago. That has been a limitation that we had to fight against. The fact also that the conference is taking place at a time when the UN doesn’t have as many resources as it

used to have, has constrained us. We have  had to look for money from outside of the UN. All of this has actually tested us in important ways-tested the UN’s own purpose in holding this conference .

Looking back at the preparations for this conference are there things that you regret that have not been done?

I would have liked to have had a much  more intensive interaction with educational ministries, particularly in the developing . countries. I am firmly of the opinion that the school systems and their curricula have now to absorb the reality of urbanization and transmit the urban experience for children so that primary and secondary school children will be sensitized as they grow up to this very important human challenge. I think they must be involved in this effort. We have involved universities, but I believe the level of effort that we have deployed should have also addressed primary schools the world over, working with ministries of education. In some countries, that has been done through the national committees. But I would have liked to see more of that. That is one main regret that I have.

What is the significance of the parallel events in Istanbul involving people from all walks of life?

These events send a very important message. The message of partnerships made real. Actors that engage themselves beyond just the governmental arena-the private sector, youth, local authorities, nongovernmental organizations, women’s groups, professionals-have a major intellectual contribution to make to the  process by their wealth of ideas. They also have a material contribution to make, such as members of the private sector and the NGOs, who build houses and are concerned with the poor. These parallel events are our way of saying that this is a conference that goes beyond governments. This conference pulls along these other forces. Without them, the challenge of human settlements can never be fully addressed.

Have the mainstream media paid enough attention to the City Summit?

One can never have enough media coverage for an event like this. This is a major event as we prepare for the 21st century-talking about how mankind is going to live. In terms of concrete transformation of vision to action, at the level of people, nothing will happen without the media. The media have a very major role. Without them, these concepts that will animate future life and livelihoods, these concepts that will bring about transformations and action and change in thinking and outlook, will not happen, unless people who are specialized in conveying the message, educate the world. I am fully convinced that we are running a race between instructing the world and facing catastrophe. And the group most suited to bring about a winning of that race is the media. We are grateful for all the media support that we have had. We have had tremendous support from major networks such as CNN and others. And very good support from newspapers in different countries.

What would you like to See the NGOs achieve at this conference?

My hope is that the NGOs will craft a strong platform. I hope they carve out for themselves sections of the Habitat Agenda-the global plan of action-which they will distinctly but  purposefully identify as their own, and commit to. My hope is that the NGOs will identify a series of programs and act on them. The NGOs are active at the level of the poor and the communities.  They are active in the neighbourhoods and the villages. And I hope that NGOs will concern themselves, after Istanbul, with issues of housing and human settlements as  their center piece for seeking new directions for human welfare.

What are the most critical issues of the Habitat II Agenda?

First, getting a chorus of support for the idea of shelter-shelter for all as an objective, as an aspiration, as a challenge for the global community. Beyond that, better preparing ourselves for an urbanizing 21 century. All the member states of the UN 186 countries, have engaged themselves preparing for this conference. They have had national reports on housing. The raising  of Consciousness at the national level, at the regional level, at the international level, of  the centrality of the Habitat Agenda, the centrality of human settlements, is most important.

Secondly, I believe that we must address the means of how to bring this about. I’m talking about financing. I’m talking about access to land. I’m talking about enabling people and actors to contribute to the provision of their own shelter. Financing is critical. So financing strategies are a main pillar of this conference. How do we make: financing available to the poor? What approaches do we use? What concepts must guide us whether it’s a Grameen Bank-type effort, or whether it’s something at a higher level? Thirdly, the ability to share I information on what has worked. We must make out of this conference a global classroom so that people can learn from others. For example, what has been done to collect garbage better in one particular city or one particular town? How have cities brought the levels of crime down? How have mayors, for instance, been better defenders of women arid children? These are lessons that are useful for all countries, all cities and towns and villages. So, sharing of information is another aspect. Then, how do you measure what you have achieved? Indicators. The Istanbul conference isalso about being able to measure progress. It is our hope that with all of these approaches, we will galvanize interest and focus amongst the partners, including the United Nations system, to commit themselves to deliver the Habitat Agenda. We are concerned particularly that the UN Center for Human Settlements, which has been the secretariat entrusted with preparing this conference, will emerge strengthened to play its role in this concert of agencies of the United Nations, in this concert of  partners between governments, private sector, local authorities and others.  I hope, too, that local authorities, mayors in our cities and towns see this is as an opportunity to express themselves, contributing to the ideas, and helping to enact and to commit themselves to principles that come out of Istanbul.

Habitat II is taking place at a times when many nations are talking about streamlining and reorganizing the UN.  What impact has this had on your conference?

I think it has sharpened out focus.  The fact that there is debate in many councils of government, there are debates within the United Nations and think tanks and working groups are working on this restructuring process, shows there is focus on the issue.  The focus on restructuring has energized us to look for new directions for human settlements. New directions for financing.  New pathways to seek the objectives of Habitat II.

How do you see the right-to-housing issue being resolved?

I think there will be a consensus.  I think that there will be a consensus.  I think that there is an effort underway in both camps.  The two schools of thought on the issue of housing as a right as seeking ways of reaching common ground.

What new ideas will Habitat bring to the UN’s process of conferences?

I think what Habitat has been able to contribute and make real for the UN conferences is, number one, this important concept of partnership that must animate our work in the future in the advancement of human welfare.  Not only for human settlements but for every area of our endeavour in the UN.  Secondly, Habitat as a conference process has brought about the focus on the enabling environment.  There’s lots we can do if we can expand the opportunities of our citizens.  Make access to land available to them.  Create the legal environment for them to participate in their own self development.

In the final analysis, what is Istanbul really all about?

I think that Habitat II has created an opportunity for the previous UN conferences of the 1990’s to have their mandates renewed and rearticulated through our human settlements conference.  Habitat II touches the mandates of every previous conference.  It is the human dimension of the 1992 Rio Conference that produced Agenda 21; it is tied to the issue of human rights considered at Vienna in 1993, one of the most fundamental problems of the urban future; it touches on the Cairo Conference on Population and Development of 1994; it addresses the social agenda facing Copenhagen in 1995, and the matter of women and shelter, which was one of the primary questions raised at the Beijing Conference last year.  The Istanbul Conference has stimulated new concepts that are driving the discussion on development and partnerships new levels.  I think Habitat II has made all of these singular contributions to the UN’s purpose.