Habitat II, held eight years ago in Istanbul, was a remarkable example of the involvement of NGOs in a major UN conference. And the result was visible in the final document of the conference: the Habitat Agenda. During the almost two years that it took to prepare the document, NGOs were, along with local government associations, invited to submit their comments in writing on a first draft made by the Secretariat. In an unprecedented move they were also incorporated in the governmental committee which prepared the final text. Perhaps the most important of the many amendments submitted by NGOs dealt with the subject of “shelter delivery systems”. In the original text mention had only been made of houses supplied by the market. At the initiative of NGOs a section was added entitled 93 facilitating community-based production of housing94. It contained a series of recommendations on ways governments should facilitate and assist individuals as well as community-based and non-governmental organizations which in one way or another contributed to the production of their own shelter. This as an essential element of the world-wide shelter strategy which can be summarized in the following points: – All people have a right to adequate housing. – It are national governments which have the primary responsibility for the implementation of this right. – Part of this task they can leave to the market, but hundreds of millions cannot afford to buy or rent a decent house without assistance. – Many homeless people can, however, if properly facilitated, contribute to the “social production” of shelter through participation in the planning, design, financing, construction, improvement or management of their own houses and communities and the organization of related economic, social and cultural activities. – Without international financial assistance the goal of ensuring adequate financial assistance for all cannot be realized. The Habitat Agenda dealt not only with adequate housing; it also contained prescriptions for making human settlements sustainable, elaborating on the recommendations made in Agenda 21, the final document of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, held four year before. With its 79 “commitments” and more than 200 recommendations, the Habitat Agenda was generally welcomed as standard-setting. If all commitments and recommendations would be implemented, most of the world-wide problems in the field of human settlements would be solved. The document itself contained rules for how this implementation should take place and how progress should be evaluated and reported. Indicators were to be developed to measure the degree of implementation and to make reports comparable. The UN General Assembly was proposed to meet in five years time in a special session 93for an overall review and appraisal of the implementation of the outcome of Habitat II” Those who had hoped that agreement on the Habitat Agenda would quickly lead to substantial results were disappointed. The “Istanbul+5” meeting of 2001 showed that the solemn commitments by governments should not be taken too seriously. Little progress could be reported and no date was set for another evaluation meeting. A further sign that the Habitat Agenda is slowly disappearing into the background is the fact that the document was not even mentioned in the progress report on human settlements made by the UN Secretary-General for the recent (12th) session of the Commission on Sustainable Development. It would be wrong to conclude that nothing has happened to improve human settlements in the past eight years. Millions of people continue to work on small and large projects throughout the world. Several additional governments have started to draft national housing strategies and many more community-based microfinance institutions have been created, to name a few examples. The major break-through which was hoped for, however, did not occur. If present trends continue, the population of urban slums is projected to rise over the next 30 years to about 2 billion. Of all developing countries in the world, only three 97Chile, Costa Rica and El Salvador – have succeeded in halting slum growth by supporting sufficient supply of affordable housing. It is not surprising that the UN Secretary-General in his report to CSD-12 comes to the conclusion that the Millennium Development Goal of achieving a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020, “however commendable, is patently inadequate.” The history of the Habitat Agenda is another illustration that UN conferences are not legislative bodies which can impose rules of behaviour on governments. Many of the good intentions expressed at such meetings disappear into thin air unless governments are periodically reminded of their promises and put under pressure to carry them out. Here, NGOs have a major role to play. In addition to carrying out individual projects, however useful these are for the people directly concerned, they should concentrate more of their efforts on helping local groups to organize themselves and putting pressure on individual governments and the UN to give a higher priority to adequate shelter. The recently published facts about urban slums ask for a massive move. And the Habitat Agenda remains an important signpost.
Han van Putten 4 May 2004