The need for action on urban problems in Africa, Asia and Latin America has never been greater. At least 600 million urban citizens in these regions live in housing of such poor quality with such inadequate provision for water, sanitation and solid waste collection that their lives are continually at risk. In such circumstances, it is common for one child in three to die before the age of five. Meanwhile, most infants, children and adults who survive have disease burdens many times higher than they should, The commitments made by governments at Habitat, the first UN Conference on Human Settlements in 1976 for greater priority to improving housing conditions and basic services have not been met in most countries.
But the last 20 years has brought a critical shift in thinking about how to address urban problems. This is to recognise that urban problems cannot be addressed without drawing on local knowledge, innovation and capacity to organise, This is also to recognise that all cities are the result of an enormous range of investments of capital, expertise and time by individuals, households, communities, and NGOs, as well as by private enterprises, investors and government agencies. Encourage and support the efforts of households, communities and NGOs and you have a powerful force for addressing urban problems.
This shift in thinking can be seen in the documents prepared for Habitat II, the second UN Conference on Human Settlements. As David Korten has pointed out, what makes Habitat II so unusual is that it is recommending more power and resources to citizens groups, NGOs and local urban authorities, not national authorities and international agencies. Most global UN Conferences do the opposite. But if this recommendation is to be realised, it implies the need for new partnerships between households, community organizations, NGOs and municipal agencies to address environment and development problems. There is also a new stress on good governances within the Habitat II documents – and this includes the need for public authorities to become more accountable and democratic and also more transparent to city inhabitants in their operations.
These are not new concepts. Indeed, ENDA has long been undertaking pioneering research and action around the issue of cities built “from the bottom up”. This has also shown the strength and diversity of the popular economy and popular culture within cities. It has shown the many initiatives that low income households and grassroots organisations take to address urban problems.
Fortunately, these insights are no longer the insights of the few. They are becoming guiding principles accepted by governments and international agencies. But as more governments and international agencies recognise this, so must they develop new ways to support community initiatives and the popular economy. This is why Entrepreneurial cities is so important. It helps governments and international agencies understand the potential for community action – and the constraints – and how to develop partnerships between community organizations, NGOs and the municipal authorities. It highlights the often forgotten health problems faced by most low-income groups and their underlying causes – and how low-income communities can themselves work to prevent these health problems or limit their health impact. It describes ENDA’s own experience in setting up new partnerships between municipal authorities, NGOs and community based organizations. It illustrates the potential for mutually beneficial partnerships between grassroots groups, local authorities and the private sector. One can only hope that governments and international agencies intent on addressing the large and mounting urban problems in the South take heed of this experience.