CSD 13: The Slums must help themselves

by Knut Unger, Habitat Net Germany

Drinking water, sanitation and human settlements were the official topics of the 13th UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which took place from April 11 – 22 in New York City.

Expectations that CSD 13 would correct the almost total failure of the Johannesburg-Summit regarding settlements and local development were bitterly disappointed. CSD 13 again failed to deal with the problems of the cities in the north or the east (environment, traffic, financial, social) as well as with the urban consequences of economic globalisation, privatisation, sub-urbanization, population changes. In the conclusion document only with trouble formulaful confessions to sustainable consumption patterns in the north were implemented . The Local Agenda 21 and the Habitat Agenda nevertheless were casually mentioned. The role of settlement development in a global sense within the official sustainability process remains questionable. A further debate on city or local sustainability is not intended in the context of the coming CSDs.

Due to the proximity to the MDG +5 conference – the forthcoming examination of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the UN general assembly – CSD 13 predominantly concentrated on self-help strategies for the improvement of the survival conditions in slums, particularly in Asia and Africa. The fact that conclusions for the development financing must be drawn out if the world shall achieve the MDGs was in all mouth, but did only lead to weak appeals to the donors. Calls for “innovative” instruments by the poor dwellers themselves, such as micro credits, savings programs of the slum dwellers, or promotion of private investment, like Private Public Partnership, more and more replace the struggle for global solidarity.

The focus nevertheless offered the opportunity to debate the catastrophic situation in the exploding slums and options for local action.

The negotiated outcome document represents a snapshot of the minimal consensus mainstream of development policy within the range of the slum improvement, drinking water and toilet supply, – including numerous formula compromises and risky blank characters.

NGO community concentrated on two demands without chances: Orientation on human rights and the defence of privatisations, particularly with respect to water. Apart from support by Norway and Finland nearly nobody in the government camp wanted to re-open the barrel of the human rights debates. The paradigm change to a rights based development strategy, which particularly is supported by Norway, became hardly transparent in its consequence, also because the argumentation of the NGOs was quite weak.

For NGOs as for social movements “rights” are rather a combat term, a keyword for the refusal of privatisations, but by most governments exactly this is instinctively repelled. Only a small minority of countries – the clearest perhaps the pariah Venezuela – is ready to formulate a complete reformist alternative to the neo liberal strategy
of self care and privatisation. Their elements are social human rights and economic regularization, inviolable public goods and public infrastructure, inhabitant participation and the promotion of co-operative small scale business. Unfortunately the NGOs active at CSD so far hardly have been able to through-spell this alternative strategy
and its positive effects. Thus they were thrown back to protesting and morally appealing gestures, resulting in impressing speeches, but hardly with any real impact on the processes.

Under these conditions the traditional game between the G 77, the European Union and the US prevented any progress in the area of the social rights and above all serves a linguistic masquerade of market ideologies and own economic or power interests. The European Union however strongly supported decentralization and participation of the slum dwellers. But at the same time any support for fundamental right orientation and a revision of privatisation orientation was desired in vain.

In result the conclusion document mentions “rights” at only one place: in the case of people living under foreign occupation. Delegations struggled about the appropriate formulation until midnight of the last day of the hearing. The demand of the G 77 for a radical condemnation of the Israeli settlement politics nearly would have brought the conference to failure.

Despite this “Business as usual” the intensive debates and also the quite ready dialogue with the NGOs led to the fact that the conclusion document sharpens consciousness for pragmatic solutions in slum development. Surely important is the stress of participation of slum dwellers at improvement measures. A repressive policy directed against informal settlements meanwhile seems to become taboo in the official UN linguistic usage (facts and interpretations stand on another sheet). Promising measures concentrate on strengthening the self-help capacities: by self organization, micro credits, administrative reforms, co-ordination of development assistance, transfer of technology and a better co-ordination… Exemplarily the EU launched the demand to include settlements, water and sanitation into the national sustainability strategies.

Through the back doors even the dogma of the sacrosanct review of the MDGs was somehow broken. Briefly before the conference UN Habitat had demanded to improve the MDG 7, 11 (substantial improvement of the living conditions of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020). There is already a slum population of over 850 million and its number will rapidly grow. Therefore, UN Habitat called to replace the absolute number by a ratio for the respective countries A project, which had no chance to overcome the refusal front of the European Union (“no revision of agreed goals”). Instead however, it succeeded to heave a paragraph into the document, which calls for the prevention of new slum formation by “integrated planning”. Thus there is a better basis now to argue for a participative policy of slum alternatives and slum improvements. But, under the given conditions, implementation and defence against misuses will need a lasting sisyphus struggle.

Related Links:

Official CSD 13 side:

NGOs and CSD 13:

Slums and MDGs:

Millennium task Force:

UN Habitat