In a historic first of its kind, the British House of Commons recently held an adjournment debate on Urbanisation in Developing Countries. Members of Parliament from all parties recognized that urbanisation in the developing world was both a challenge and an opportunity.
They unanimously recognised the urgent need for increased political will and resources to support this sector. The British Secretary of State for International Development, Mr. Hilary Benn, paid glowing tribute to the work undertaken by UN-HABITAT in urban areas.
Ms. Sally Keeble, Labour Member for North Northampton, secured the debate after hearing an appraisal of global urbanisation trends by UN-HABITAT’s Executive Director Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka last year to the All Part Group on Africa chaired by Mr. Hugh Bayley, the Labour MP for the City of York.
From Mrs. Tibaijuka’s address, Ms. Keeble said that it had became clear that urbanisation had slipped down the political agenda and that this debate aimed to partly redress the balance and pressing needs of the world's 1 billion slum dwellers. She pointed out that the scale of the population shifts now taking place were outstripping anything that had been seen in the past. Ms. Keeble said urbanisation was fastest in the developing countries in the south and that it was greatest in countries that are the least equipped to deal with it by virtue of the weakness of their economies and the fragility of the systems of governance.
“Previously, 75 percent of the world's dollar-a-day poor lived in rural areas, which is perhaps why so much development assistance has focused on rural communities,” she said adding that the picture was changing and that the world was seeing the urbanisation of poverty.
Ms. Keeble urged Mr. Benn to give priority to the promotion of security of tenure for slum dwellers accompanied by better urban governance. She also asked that financial instruments for slum upgrading be prioritized so that they could tap the considerable financial resources of the urban poor. Finally, she called for support of UN-HABITAT’s Slum Upgrading Facility, which would require financing to the tune of $250 million a year for five years.
“Above all what is required, and what the debate is intended to achieve, is a high priority for urbanization on the international development agenda,” she said in conclusion.
Mr. Bayley, the MP for York, quoted the 2003 UN-HABITAT report, The Challenge of Slums which said that slum dwellers constituted 72 percent of people living in urban areas in Africa, 58 percent on the Indian subcontinent, and 32 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean.
He emphasized the urgent need to improve the capacities of local authorities in cities across Africa mentioning the possibilities offered by twinning cities and also by the excellent work being done by the Commonwealth Local Government Forum. He also highlighted the appalling crime statistics in most slums and presented a case for working towards safer cities. Finally, he called upon the Secretary of State for International Development to ensure that this debate on urbanization would be seen as part of the consultation process of a new White Paper recently been published by Department for International Development (DfID).
“Without strong local government in developing countries, they will not rise to the challenge of creating decent conditions in which people can live and prosper in the growing cities of the developing world,” Mr. Bayley said.
Mr. John Barrett, the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, told the House “Our aid efforts often seem to focus on farmers and rural challenges when the biggest challenges are perhaps in the urban cities and townships. All too often, donor agencies prioritize investment in rural areas and it not does not reach the majority of the poor.”
Mr. Barrett highlighted grim statistics for water and sanitation in the slums of the developing world pointing out that most cities in Africa have less than 10 percent of their urban populations connected to sewers. The results of the lack of such facilities is that, in slums, one in every four children dies before their fifth birthday. Citing the impressive research done by the International Institute for Environment and Development, he said there were many best practices around the world showing that with good governance and well targeted investment, it was possible to turn cities around and make them sustainable.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield, opened his remarks by saying how much political parties in the United Kingdom were in agreement on the urbanisation crisis. On many international development issues, he said there was no longer a Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat Agenda – but simply a British one.
Mr. Mitchell asked how the private sector could contribute to the delivery of essential services such as water. He also an important way to empower the urban poor was to strengthen and formalize property rights, stating that the poor suffered most where property rights are weak. He asked Mr. Benn how the Government would incorporate concerns raised in debate in the work of DfID.
In his response, Mr. Benn said he agreed with much that was said by the MPs from across all parties. He also said he was equally concerned about the fact that since the 1970s there had been greater investment in rural poverty than urban poverty, and that it was important to tackle the problem in a much more well rounded way.
He said the British government pledged to continue working UN-HABITAT and other partners in its pace setting slum upgrading work. He said the government had already given 11 million US dollars for slum upgrading work the agency was undertaking in Ghana, Tanzania and Sri Lanka, and that additional funding would depend on the outcome of the pilot projects.
“The biggest challenge, if good governance and local government are secured, is the cash to make things happen. The way in which we finance the work, and developing countries raise the necessary resources to finance the improvements in their towns and cities that the people who live in them, above all, want, is our big challenge for the coming months and years,” Mr. Benn said.