Interview: Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT

Posted: 5 February 2003

In many cities in the developing world, 50 to 70 per cent of the population lives in spontaneous settlements, slums, kampungs and favelas, according to UN-HABITAT. AnnaTibaijukaIt estimates that there is about one billion poor people living without adequate shelter or basic services in the slums and squatter settlements. Here, Anna Tibaijuka, UN-HABITAT's Executive Director speaks to Dorothy Morrisey about the problems of the urban poor.

You are predicting a major demographic shift to urban living in the developing world. How do you envisage the pace of change in the next 20 years?Urbanisation is - and always has - taken place because of structural transformation and economic development. Western societies, such as Europe, the US and Japan, are almost fully urbanised at about 80 per cent. In the last thirty years Latin America has moved from being rural to now being urbanised at about 75 per cent. Africa is at 37 per cent and Asia 36 per cent. In the case of Africa, urbanisation is too rapid. Cities are becoming bigger and bigger. People move because they have an expectation of a better life. Partly because of conflict, lack of stability, people search for security and come to cities.

Does this mean there has been an insufficient focus on rural development?The crisis of our time, and the reason for much poverty, is what we can call premature urbanisation. People move to cities without being backed by the requisite complementary rise in agricultural productivity.

This also means that food is expensive and not available when they come to urban areas. At the same time there is not enough employment in the cities. So you have hunger in cities and problems of housing.

The economy is not big enough to absorb them, to provide the housing and services they need. So you have a situation where 50 or 60 per cent of the people are found in slums. The reality of economic development and structural transformation is that rural populations will decline in the developing world, as they have done in Europe, in the US and many other places, and those of us living in developing countries must not deny this reality.

The majority of the world's poor, those living in extreme poverty and food insecurity, live in rural areas. How do you see the rural/urban focus in development policy? Is there enough awareness about the problems of the urban poor?We need a two-pronged development strategy. On the one hand, we need to address rural development to reduce the pace at which people are leaving the countryside because of sheer poverty. This includes the regional development of small towns.

But we also need adaptive strategies within urban areas where there are already large numbers of slum dwellers. This ranges from upgrading slums to improving the shelter conditions and health of those who have already come to cities. This is the kind of campaign we are carrying on.

It seems that this issue has moved up the political agenda recently. For instance, at the World Summit in Johannesburg you managed to get the concept of adequate shelter included in the final declaration.Indeed. The Summit had concentrated on water, sanitation, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity - what is commonly known as WEHAB. But in the political declaration - actually also in the plan of implementation - the issues of shelter and slum upgrading were included.

We are happy that shelter has become mainstreamed along with these other sectors as these are all basic needs. You cannot provide basic needs to homeless people. So the recognition of the notion of a decent, affordable place is something that we at UN-HABITAT are happy about.

Could you speak about one of the practical issues UN-HABITAT is involved in, the question of land tenure in cities. Why is this such an important issue?We have a global advocacy campaign called the "Security of tenure" campaign. This campaign discourages governments from arbitrary and unlawful evictions, because that doesn't solve the problem. If you evict the poor from one area, they will move to another. The best thing is to start a dialogue with the poor, to create an environment in which they can also solve their own problems.

The reality is that the poor work very hard, harder than many of us. They save, they try to invest, and put up their shacks where they are trying to live. If they don't own their shacks they have to pay exorbitant rents for them. They buy water, sometimes at a price 20 times higher than we are paying. Few of them are connected to municipal supplies.

The poor can contribute to the improvement of their own living environment, provided that they have some form of long-term security so that they can invest in their own homes. This is why we are promoting this campaign on security of tenure and good urban governance.

Is this where the concept of "sweat equity" comes in?Yes. I am not sure where this phrase originated but I know that the South African Housing Programme is built on the contribution of sweat equity by the poor. When the poor have nothing else to give they can give their labour and their sweat.

One of our key partner organisations is the NGO (non-governmental organisation) Habitat for Humanity, which works worldwide and has been promoting this concept.

Its approach, which has proved very effective, includes the poor putting in hours of their own labour as "sweat equity". They are helped with planning, with techniques of putting up a decent home, but the poor put in the labour. That becomes the initial down payment they make to be able to get a decent house. It is working well in many places.

There are many community-based slum upgrading initiatives, where the communities are empowered to do the work themselves.

This is a shortened version of an interview which first appeared in The Courier (No. 195 November-December 2002), published by the Directorate General for Development of the European Commission.

Related link:

UN-HABITAT (United Nations Human Settlements Programme)