Commentary

How can we ensure Habitat III delivers on citizen priorities?

The international system of development is too often failing to deliver to local communities. Next year’s cities conference is a key opportunity to change that.

Sworup Nhasiju

In April, I was part of the official Egyptian delegation to the second preparatory session for next year’s Habitat III conference on cities. As I was leaving Cairo for Nairobi, where the “PrepCom 2” negotiations took place, the public discussion in Egypt was all about just-released plans for what could become the country’s new capital city.

The idea is that the new capital, proposed for an area some 40 miles away from Cairo’s city centre, would be able to leave behind all of the pollution, overcrowding and other development problems of the current capital. This new ‘megacity’ is planned to have more than a million residential units and would cost some USD 45 billion.

Some are stridently supporting the idea, while others vehemently oppose it on grounds of feasibility, location, cost — and whether it is actually needed. The discussion has raised some critical questions. Are Egyptians willing to bear this cost? For the ordinary Egyptian, would it be better to spend tens of billions of dollars on a new capital or, rather, on the development of Cairo and other Egyptian cities with the intent of achieving international development goals?

With these questions in the air back home, I sensed a real disconnect between the discussions in Egypt and many of those that took place in Nairobi. The Habitat process aims to create a New Urban Agenda, after all, to inform urban planning for the next two decades. Yet too often there is a real gap between what international organizations propose (and government representatives approve) and the policies that eventually get implemented at the national and local levels.

Too often, the end result is starkly different on the ground from what was initially envisioned — and what citizens need. How, then, can we ensure that the New Urban Agenda lives up to its promise in every town and city around the world?

Insufficient accountability

In Nairobi, there was much discussion as to whether the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are being met and what should replace them after they expire this year, the new Sustainable Development Goals. Yet there was far less discussion on how governments, particularly local governments, actually interpret these goals — and, correspondingly, how to set the agenda for the coming decades.

“How can we ensure that participation is real and not fictitious? Do local inhabitants really have a right to express their concerns and propose solutions for solving problems in their community?”

International development goals have long been based on indicators that are invalid for many urban areas and most developing countries. For the MDG on water and sanitation, for instance, the official U. N. indicators measure only who has access to what, as defined by “improved provision” of these services. But this is not measuring who has access to, for instance, water that is safe and adequate, or combined with sanitation that is also safe and adequate. And where does affordability fit in here?

Thus, after 15 years of implementing the MDGs, local governments are only required to report on one metric: How many people were served by water and sewage services a decade and a half ago versus today. That’s highly problematic, as in most places the number of such connections will certainly have increased after 15 years.

Likewise, some development goals have translated into questionable forms of implementation. One of the most high profile of the MDG targets — that of limiting the number of citizens living in informal or slum areas — has in some countries led to policies of forced eviction. Those countries may well have attained an important development goal, but only at the expense of some of their citizens. How have those most directly affected by the slum-related MDG target felt the benefits of this goal?

Partial participation

The issue of whether development priorities should be set at the international, central or local level remains highly controversial.

Certainly there has been movement toward integrating this process, with so-called participatory approaches today widely recognized as a key element of sustainable development. In practice, this means setting development priorities for a community in collaboration with locals and other stakeholders directly representing the people.

Yet here too there are problems in implementation.

One participatory approach to setting urban-planning goals has been put forward by UN-Habitat. Known as Rapid Urban Sector Profiling for Sustainability, RUSPS is a technique for obtaining key urban indicators for a village, city or country. Each RUSPS process includes four priorities — on governance, slums, gender and environment — with interviews carried out among key stakeholders by a consultant.

A RUSPS process took place in Egypt a few years ago, a national project aimed at preparing a participatory strategic plan for Egyptian villages. Interview guidelines and questions prepared at the city level were translate into Arabic and adopted as a methodology.

I was involved in this process, which was implemented in collaboration with the United Nations. The undertaking turned out to be massive, going into more than 4,000 Egyptian villages and thereafter into cities. It also became an important exercise in setting development boundaries for settlements across Egypt for the following 20 years.

Still, it’s unclear just how “participatory” this planning was. The process was aimed at getting each locality’s inhabitants to give planners a better understanding of the real problems in these four priority areas and to determine priorities for their solutions. Yet due to practicalities and differing interpretations, the process didn’t quite live up to this ideal.

“We need a robust mechanism by which international agencies give more space to the regional level, national governments and cities, in collaboration with civil society, to set goals. In turn, these goals can then be presented to international agencies to adapt and adopt — not vice versa.”

Often, for instance, a date would be set for a meeting between the consultant and a village’s stakeholders, but then the mayor of the area would invite only a particular selection of the locals. Politics typically played a role in the decision on who would attend, or those who showed up had major financial stakes in potential planning decisions.

Eventually, the planners would indeed receive feedback from the consultants, packaged according to U. N. formats. These reports would then be presented at the next village-level meeting — but in most cases, they would be shown to different inhabitants than were at the first meeting.

This is just a single example, but it underscores how participatory planning, developed with good intentions by international organizations, can become void of real content at the local level. How can we ensure that participation is real and not fictitious? Do local inhabitants really have a right to express their concerns and propose solutions for solving problems in their community?

New mechanism

Priorities at the international level are, of course, highly diverse, and that creates huge complexity for setting global goals. From this perspective, it is far more realistic to determine priorities at the regional or local levels.

This is what started to take place at the recent PrepCom 2 discussions in Nairobi, which included regional-level meetings. The Habitat III process will eventually include the creation of regional reports, as input into the New Urban Agenda. This lower-level process is important. In the case of the Arab states, it will result in proposed regional goals and strategies that are, hopefully, compatible with common interests throughout the Arab world.

Unfortunately, the violence and other tensions in the Arab region limited the participation in these recent meetings, as in the Nairobi sessions as a whole. The question now is how to direct strategies so as to meet local priorities, how to determine these priorities, and who is to determine them. Who is to represent the ordinary Arab citizen, for instance — the governments or the NGOs?

What we need is a robust mechanism by which international agencies give more space to the regional level, national governments and cities, in collaboration with civil society, to set goals. In turn, these goals can then be presented to international agencies to adapt and adopt — not vice versa.

For all of the talk of a Post-2015 Development Agenda, today’s development process looks very similar to that of decades past. The application of development policies is typically neither what was envisioned at the international level nor what is needed at the local level.

Fortunately, we now have a key opportunity before us to deal with some of these concerns head on. The Habitat III process, which is specifically focused on city-level development, stands as a striking mechanism by which to start turning this trend around — ensuring that development strategies not only respond to the needs of local communities, but that they start there.

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Azza Sirry

Azza Sirry is a professor of urban planning at the Housing and Building National Research Center in Cairo and a part-time lecturer at several Egyptian universities. She has more than three decades of experience in urban planning, urban management, informal-settlement upgrading, and infrastructure management and finance. Last year, Sirry was a jury member for the Metropolis Awards and a member of the technical committee for the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation.