From internet cafes in the slums of Nairobi, New Delhi and Lima to flashy office blocks in Europe and north America, thousands of people from around the world at the weekend beamed into the Habitat Jam for a global internet discussion of urban problems aimed at bringing fresh ideas from ordinary people to leaders and experts preparing for the third session of UN-HABITAT’s World Urban Forum in Vancouver next June. Even people who could not read or write used township meetings arranged by UN-HABITAT to get their points across. “You mean that even though I am 65, I don’t speak English and cannot write, I can make my voice heard?” asked a woman in the sprawling Nairobi slum of Kibera. Young people at hand helped her, one among many, bridge the digital and literacy divide that is so great between the northern and southern hemispheres.
The Kibera meeting was one of 50 World Urban Cafe Jam Sessions in slums in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Each session, specifically held for people normally without access to computers or the Internet, sought to capture the ideas and concerns of people living in slums, so that their views could be brought into the Habitat JAM discussion.
The jam started on Thursday and ended on Sunday with participants raising their concerns as well as suggesting solutions to global problems facing human settlements.
“The Habitat Jam helped bring to the fore the concerns of the urban poor, especially in developing countries,” said Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT. “The concerted efforts of all UN-HABITAT’s partners have meant that for the first time many slum dwellers were given access to Internet facilities. They made their voices heard.”
Participants posting comments were as varied as their countries and backgrounds. Government officials, students, professionals and ordinary people, young and old, joined in. Comments were received from across continents, from countries as far apart as the United Kingdom, India, Canada, Congo, Senegal, Bangladesh, Brazil, Australia, and The Netherlands, to name a few.
Thus a person called Askona writing online from Ghana with a message for local and national authorities: “Residents in high class society areas of cities should be made to support those more vulnerable by making them pay about four times more their water than the normal delivery price.” The Ghanaian correspondent’s view was a direct reflection on the fact that people living in slums around the world always pay more for their household water which they have to carry home, than those better off who enjoy the benefits of piped municipal supplies. It ties in directly with Millennium Development Goal 7, Target 10 – reducing by half the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.
From Nepal, Lajana Manandhar, said: “Slum dwellers in Nepal have difficulty in obtaining citizenship documents. They are asked to produce land ownership documents when they apply for the citizenship. Without the citizenship, slum dwellers could never own land and housing and exercise other basic rights.” His remarks tie in with Target 11 of MDG 7 which calls for achieving significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.
An urban planner in Egypt who helped coordinate the discussions, Mr. Mohammed Eid wrote: “This should be the way we address future issues, when citizens get involved they think of their future in a much more practical way than the planner. It is a learning experience for the planner and for the citizens.”
The final scorecards showed that those most active in the jam were slum dwellers in poor countries. “The fact that thousands have been willing to patiently wait in line here, sometimes for hours, to be able to contribute to this debate has been a profoundly moving experience for me. The fact that the debate on slums has moved from the academic world to the streets of cities such as Nairobi, Dakar, Cape Town and Mumbai, Rio, Lima and Manila is in and of itself a powerful signal to world leaders on the need for concerted action,” Mrs. Tibaijuka said.
In Nairobi, she joined the Canadian High Commissioner, Mr. Jim Wall, the Mazingira Institute and other partners for the local launch of the jam, which was organized in collaboration with the Canadian Government and IBM. She also inaugurated a new internet café with 10 computers specially set up for occasion and pledged that it would remain a permanent fixture for Kibera’s residents.
“Over two days of jamming together with women and youth face to face with five computers, our group moved from feeling alienated from the UN Process to seeing the jam as process for inclusion and exchange of information,” said the representative of a Canadian women’s group.