The 21st session of UN-HABITAT Governing Council opened on Monday, 16 April 2007 – in the year of homo urbanus – with the sounding a new alarm on the world’s growing urban poverty crisis, especially in developing countries.
The week-long meeting of government ministers, senior officials and other representatives of the 58 governments that constitute the Governing Council was formally inaugurated by the President of Kenya, Mr. Mwai Kibaki after a glittering opening ceremony crowned by the songs of four teenage girls in Kenya’s Moipei Quartet.
“Every two years, we gather here in Nairobi, the home of UN headquarters in Africa and the Developing World, to decide on how we will conduct our business for the following two years with regard to the activities of the UN Human Settlements Programme,” said UN-HABITAT Executive Director, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka in her opening address.
Sounding a new alarm, she said the 21st Session of the Governing Council was being held at a critical time in history: “The year 2007 is a year when human beings will become an urban species, homo urbanus. From now on the majority of people will no longer be rural but urban. And there is no going back for this demographic shift. The transition is irreversible.”
The year 2007 also marks the first Governing Council session after the agency marked its 30th anniversary in Vancouver last year at the Third Session of the World Urban Forum. It also marked the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Habitat Agenda in 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey. Therefore, Mrs. Tibaijuka said, “it is an opportune time to take stock of what we have accomplished and to re-strategize, taking into account the ongoing UN system-wide reform that has been given emphasis by member States.”
She warned delegates that UN-HABITAT research showed that across the planet the rate of slum formation was today almost the same as the rate of urban growth.
“This implies that most of the people who are migrating to cities, and who are born in cities, are joining the ranks of the urban poor and slum dwellers.
“The conclusion of these and other findings are clear. We can no longer ignore the urbanisation of poverty and the growth of slums. We do so at the risk of not achieving the Millennium Development Goals for a significant and growing portion of the population. We also do so at the risk of massive social deprivation and exclusion, with all of its attendant consequences for peace, social stability and security.”
She also used the occasion of her address to remind delegates that on his first mission to Africa within a month of assuming office, UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon had made a point of visiting the Nairobi district of Kibera, Africa’s largest contiguous slum settlement.
In a message read out on his behalf by Ambassador Inga Bjork-Klevby, UN-HABITAT’s Deputy Executive Director, Mr. Ban referred to key discussions scheduled during the week on a new medium-term strategic and institutional plan, and on mechanisms such as the UN Habitat and Human Settlements Foundation, for which new financial regulations and Rules were promulgated last August.
“It is my hope that your efforts will strengthen UN-HABITAT, and enable it to work more effectively with your partners towards truly sustainable urbanization,” he added.
The audience of several hundred listened closely as Mr. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said that the ecological footprint of cities was growing and growing. He said the two Nairobi-based agencies had to work more closely than before.
“It is quite sobering to sit back and look at the challenges facing millions of people around the world and the United Nations. We need a sense of common purpose,” Mr. Steiner said, “and Governing Councils are the ultimate platform on which governments can move for the common good.”
Mrs. Tibaijuka used the occasion of the opening ceremony to pay a special tribute to the winner of the prestigious Special Citation Award of the Habitat Scroll of Honor for year 2006, His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Bahrain.
His Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Fahmi Al Jowder told the Governing Council members: “Throughout his premiership extending over 35 years, Shaikh Khalifa has made it his life’s goal to lift the living standards of all Bahrainis and to focus on economic development and welfare programmes which help eliminate the root causes of poverty.”
President Kibaki, the last speaker to take the podium, touched a key topic of the deliberations when he said that over the years, inadequate financing and a lack of capacity for efficient urban planning had been cited as the greatest challenges to effective local action in our urban centres.
“I am therefore pleased to note that you will be laying emphasis on finance and urban planning, which are crucial to the sustainable development of our urban centres,” he said.
In speech outlining many of Kenya’s own urban poverty problems – typical of much of the developing world – he said Local Authorities had to be better supported and resourced and that ordinary citizens should have a say in the way municipalities spend the taxes they collect.
In the first order of business, the 21st Governing Council of UN-HABITAT elected India as its Chair to take on the helm for the next two years from the Czech Republic.