Keynote speakers addressing the plenary of the Third Session of the World Urban Forum on Tuesday highlighted the crisis of the world's urban poor as a key challenge of the new millennium.
Ms. Lindiwe Sisulu, South Africa's housing minister said that just as the world had united in the fight against Nazism during the Second World War, it must now unite against the common scourge of poverty. Urbanization, she added, had thrown up new challenges.
"It is now a generally accepted truth of our time that urbanisation will throw up one of the biggest challenges," she said. "When coupled with poverty it creates the complexity of problems that we seek to unravel today. Within the context of developing continents, the two are inextricably linked. And this is why urban shelter has become such a pressing issue. For nothing defines the reality of the developing world more starkly than through this prism."
Ms. Sisulu, who addressed the plenary in her capacity as Chair of the African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development (AMCHUD), said that in order to fully understand social exclusion, it was necessary to bring poverty, urban poverty in particular, back into the centre discussions on development. She noted that the international community currently devoted only 2 to 12 per cent of donor funding to urban areas, as the bulk of assistance was still focused on rural areas.
South Africa's experience had shown that the inclusion of the communities involved was essential. Shack Dwellers International and other organizations therefore needed government support. They had the answer to their problem: saving schemes. All they required was support, and their efforts only bode well for governments, she said. Ms. Sisulu said African governments at the inaugural meeting of AMCHUD in South Africa in February 2005 had committed themselves to pay more attention to housing because this was at the core of urban poverty. Quoting the Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace laureate, Elie Wiesel, she warned that indifference was tantamount to a crime.
Earlier, Mr. Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development of the United States reiterated the importance of home ownership as a means to make the world's cities stronger, safer and more prosperous. He said that the mission of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was to increase home ownership in the country as currently some 30 per cent of the American population did not live in their own homes. Many of these people were from groups that had been discriminated against in the past.
"For many of our citizens, particularly those who live in volatile real estate markets like New York City , renting makes good financial sense," he said. "But for most renters, home ownership represents a sure parth out of dependency into financial security."
The US government was working hard to ensure that Americans were aware of the benefits of home ownership and his job under the Bush administration was to promote what he called an "ownership society", especially among low- and middle-income minorities. The United States had also dedicated the month of June as Home Ownership Month.
Mr. Jackson noted that the housing market made up nearly one-fourth of the United States' GDP in 2005 and for every home built, 3.5 jobs were created, adding that the private sector had been a great partner in the growth of the housing market and the national economy.
He told delegates that both President Bush and himself were committed to partnering with government officials to create greater opportunities for people in other countries to improve their housing. But, he warned, while his country was willing to help, the initiative to bring about change had to come from countries themselves.
The third speaker to take the podium at the plenary, Mr. Jockin Arputham, Fournder of the National Slum Dwellers Federation of India, thanked UN-HABITAT's Executive Director, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, for allowing slum dwellers like himself to participate in the World Urban Forum. He said some 35 slum dwellers and 2 pavement dwellers were among the participants at the Forum.
Mr. Arputham said that many conferences had been held to address the problem of slums, but few had resulted in tangible changes in the lives of slum dwellers. He challenged delegates to let slum dwellers to take control of their own lives instead of just talking about their problems at conferences and seminars. Slum dwellers, he said, needed to take development into their own hands by getting organized and coming up with their own housing solutions, as they were closest to the problem.
He said that for many years the United Nations and governments had paid mere lip service to the plight of slum dwellers and had not pledged sufficient funds to improve their lives. He noted that every year millions of people in Asia and Africa were evicted from their homes, but UN-HABITAT and other international organizations had been unable to prevent evictions and only intervened once the eviction had taken place.
Mr. Arputham urged governments to follow the example of the Government of South Africa, which had allocated 235 million rand to shack dwellers groups to enable the urban poor to build their own homes, and which was working closely with organized groups of the urban poor to come up with housing solutions.
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