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UN-HABITAT report on global slums

The figures are startling: globally, one billion people now live in urban slums, claims a new report. This number is expected to double within the next 30 years, if no action is taken

On October 6, which is celebrated by the United Nations as World Habitat Day, the human settlements programme of the international body, UN-HABITAT, released its annual report on human settlements entitled `The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003'.

Based on studies of 37 cities across the globe, the organisation has compiled the most comprehensive report ever published on the growing problem of urban slums worldwide.

In a foreword to the report, United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan says: "The locus of global poverty is moving to cities, a process now recognised as the urbanisation of poverty. Without concerted action on the part of the municipal authorities, national governments, civil society actors and the international community, the number of slum-dwellers is likely to increase in most developing countries."

The report's major concern is the growing challenge presented by this crisis. The world's rural population has reached its peak, and almost all further population growth will be absorbed by urban settlements -- a critical situation recognised by very few governments, cities and other agencies.

There are a number of startling figures and facts in the report, which, its authors warn, should serve as a wake-up call to the global community to take concerted action to address urban problems in order to prevent the situation, which is already dire, from becoming worse.

Some figures thrown up by the report:
  • The number of people living in abysmal conditions in urban slums worldwide has reached the 1 billion mark, making up 32% of the global urban population. Globally, one in six people is now a slum-dweller.
  • In 2001, 924 million people, that is, 31.6% of the world's urban population, lived in slums, most of them in developing countries.
  • The situation is so dire that this figure will double, to 2 billion, within the next 30 years if no immediate action is taken.
  • By 2050, the report says, there may be 3.5 billion slum-dwellers out of a total urban population of about 6 billion.
  • In developing regions, urban slum-dwellers account for 43% of the population, in contrast to about 6% in more developed regions.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of urban residents in slums is highest, at 71.9%, the report claims. The Oceania region had the lowest, at 24.1%. South-central Asia accounted for 58%, east Asia 36.4%, western Asia 33.1%, Latin America and the Caribbean 31.9%, north Africa 28.2% and southeast Asia 28%. In Europe only 6.2% of urban residents live in slums.
  • Although the concentration of slum-dwellers is highest in African cities, in numbers alone, Asia accounts for some 60% of the world's urban slum residents.

The report notes that the 1990s witnessed a rapid increase in the number of urban slum-dwellers. Encouragingly however, national approaches have generally moved away from "negative policies such as forced eviction, benign neglect and involuntary resettlement". Instead, the report observes, the emphasis is increasingly on self-help, upgrading existing slums rather than resettling their inhabitants, nurturing the abilities of the people who live in them, and respecting their rights.

The report also expresses concern about globalisation, saying that current evidence suggests that in its present form it "has not always worked in favour of the urban poor".

In addition to the figures, the report contains case studies of a situation that has made governments the world over increasingly concerned -- enough to have adopted a specific clause, Target 11 of Millennium Development Goal 7 -- to "significantly improve" the lives of at least 100 million slum-dwellers by the year 2020. UN-HABITAT is the agency tasked with implementing Target 11.

However, the report treads largely familiar ground in its prescriptions for change. The following are extracts from the Main Messages section:
  • In facing the challenge of slums, urban development policies should urgently address the issue of livelihoods of slum-dwellers and urban poverty in general, thus going beyond traditional approaches.
  • Up-scaling and replication of slum-upgrading is among the most important of the strategies that have received greater emphasis in recent years, though it should be recognised that slum-upgrading is only one solution among several others.
  • For slum policies to be successful, the kind of apathy and lack of political will that has characterised both national and local levels of government in many developing countries in recent decades needs to be reversed.
  • There is great potential for enhancing the effectiveness of slum policies by fully involving the urban poor and those traditionally responsible for investment in housing development. This requires urban policies to be more inclusive and the public sector to be much more accountable to all citizens.
  • It is now recognised that security of tenure is more important for many of the urban poor than home ownership, as slum policies based on home ownership and large scale granting of individual land titles have not always worked.
  • To improve urban inclusiveness, urban policies should increasingly aim at creating safer cities. This could be achieved through better housing policies for the urban low-income population (including slum-dwellers), effective urban employment generation policies, more effective formal policing and public justice institutions, as well as strong community-based mechanisms for dealing with urban crime.
  • To attain the goals of cities without slums, developing country cities should vigorously implement urban planning and management policies designed to prevent the emergence of slums, alongside slum-upgrading and within the strategic context of poverty reduction.
  • Investment in city-wide infrastructure is a pre-condition for successful and affordable slum-upgrading, as the lack of it is one strong mechanism by which the urban poor are excluded, and also by which improved slum housing remains unaffordable for them.
  • Experience accumulated over the last few decades suggests that in-situ slum-upgrading is more effective than the resettlement of slum-dwellers and should be the norm in most slum-upgrading projects and programmes.

(InfoChange News & Features, October 2003)