The Caribbean seeks to assert its identity in the New Urban Agenda

The Habitat III process is just the beginning of this push.

GROS ISLET, ST. LUCIA — “If you are a big tree, we are a small axe,” goes the Jamaican proverb. The saying easily holds true for the Caribbean, a collection of some of the world’s smallest countries that is nonetheless grouped together by the United Nations into a region — Latin America — that contains some of its biggest cities. The result is an apparent disconnect.

As such, participants at the fifth annual Caribbean Urban Forum, recently held here, were keen to discuss how they fit into the much larger regional and global picture of urbanization. They now hope to get the attention of their national governments ahead of next year’s Habitat III conference on cities.

In particular, these voices are mobilizing to ensure that issues near and dear to their small island and low-lying coastal states are inserted into the New Urban Agenda, the Habitat III outcome document that will set global urbanization strategy for the next two decades. The end result, they hope, is enhancing their own economic and social development in the process.

The Caribbean is no stranger to Habitat conferences. Nine countries from the region sent delegates to Habitat II in 1996, including the housing ministers of Barbados as well as Trinidad and Tobago. Many are now hoping that even more countries will participate in 2016, spurred in part by regional gatherings like the Caribbean Urban Forum.

Thus far, just one Caribbean country, Jamaica, has submitted its national report to the Habitat III Secretariat (a draft of that report is available here). That makes this month’s forum an opportunity to outline the Habitat process and explain how to get involved for an audience still new to the conference’s preparations.

Yet one of the unique advantages of small countries is the relative ease with which a professional community can get the ear of national government to push for, for example, the formation of a Habitat national committee.

Still, even while this mobilization takes place, local experts hope to gain more than just a voice. “Habitat III is not an end in itself,” says Asad Mohammed, director of the Caribbean Network for Urban and Land Management, also known as BlueSpace Caribbean. “Whatever we initiate for the Habitat III process could lead to better data collection for the region.”

Data is a major sticking point for Caribbean planners, who struggle with national statistics that rarely disaggregate to the local level. Further, the data that is collected is typically prepared without sensitivity to the context of small island nations. The State of Latin American and Caribbean Cities, for example, which is published by UN-Habitat, relies on information from the U. N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) — which Mohammed bluntly refers to as “poor data.”

Differentiating the islands

Major institutions sent representatives to St. Lucia for this year’s Caribbean Urban Forum, including the aforementioned U. N. agencies and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). These multilaterals professed a hope that the Caribbean could play a strong role in the Habitat process.

“It’s important to put the ‘C’ back in ‘LAC’. Oftentimes, global reports do bias Latin America and don’t acknowledge the Caribbean enough.’”

Michael Donovan
Inter-American Development Bank

They also extended an offer of assistance. “It’s important to put the ‘C’ back in ‘LAC’,” says the IDB’s Michael Donovan, referring to the grouping known as Latin America and the Caribbean. “Oftentimes, global reports do bias Latin America and don’t acknowledge the Caribbean enough.”

Already, the IDB is planning for the first time to host its regular meeting of finance ministers in the Caribbean, in the Bahamas. ECLAC also intends to organize a locally relevant expert-group meeting. “Having a meeting discussing Mexico City and Sao Paulo may not be the most useful if we want to give higher visibility to the Caribbean,” explains ECLAC’s Vera Kiss.

This opportunity to differentiate the Caribbean from the rest of its neighbours prompted Mohammed to suggest a parallel urban agenda for small islands, similar to the sustainable development agenda that the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) group prepared for the Rio+20 conference in 2012. “This could be a possible follow-up to Habitat III,” he explained. “For example, we could create useful comparatives between the Caribbean and Central America.”

Roi Chiti, who coordinates national and regional reports for the Habitat III Secretariat, cautioned that the Habitat process will not include a separate report for the Caribbean. The number of regional reports is fixed at five, one for each of the U. N. regional commissions, including ECLAC.

However, a group of countries in the Pacific region have banded together with this intention, he noted. “They agreed to prepare a joint report in order to have a better reflection on a set of priorities and issues specific to that subregion,” Chiti explains. Ultimately, that report will function like a national report and feed into the New Urban Agenda as part of the broader Asia-Pacific regional report, not as a standalone document.

Urban-ocean linkages

At the national level, Jamaica, the largest English-speaking Caribbean country, has already submitted its Habitat III national report. The Ministry of Transport, Housing and Works spearheaded the effort by drafting a national committee comprised of stakeholders from various ministries and the Planning Institute of Jamaica. It also hired a consultant to review the last 20 years of national plans related to housing and urbanization and hosted three public consultations in highly urbanized parishes.

“Informal settlements, decentralization and strengthening of local authorities, improving social inclusion and equity, and improving access to affordable housing are the big issues for Jamaica,” the ministry’s Otis Roberts says, summing up the report’s findings.

While each Caribbean country is unique, they share common challenges. To the list of issues raised by Jamaica, Caribbean Urban Forum panellists also mention historic urban landscapes, urban resilience in the face of natural disasters and urban-ocean linkages — a unique regional spin on the widely discussed issue of urban-rural linkages — as important topics for the New Urban Agenda to cover.

Although the Caribbean can be querulous about how the United Nations geopolitically affixed it to Latin America, the location of next year’s Habitat III conference, in the Ecuadorian capital, could also provide an oblique spotlight. “Because Habitat III will be in Quito, all eyes will be on LAC,” Donovan said. “There is a lot to learn from local experience.”

With a South American location, cities like Medellin, Bogota and Curitiba are also eager to highlight the urban lessons from Latin America. But as the presentations at the Caribbean Urban Forum showcase, there are nascent efforts in Port of Spain, Georgetown and even right here in Gros Islet that offer a model for sustainable urbanization.

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