Lacking participation, Caribbean could face loss of influence on New Urban Agenda

At this week’s Habitat III regional meeting for Latin America, many felt an important perspective was missing.

A bus stop in Barbados. (Valery Shanin/Shutterstock)

TOLUCA, Mexico — What does Grenada, a speck of an island that can be circumnavigated in a day, have in common with a continental-size country such as Brazil? It’s a head-scratching question for the Caribbean, which often finds itself an appendage to larger Latin America in international negotiations.

That feeling was very much in evidence here this week during the Habitat III Regional Meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean. In theory, this was a chance for delegates, generally drawn from the ranks of ministries of housing and urban development, to share their national experience with neighbors from around the region ahead of the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III).

In practice, few Caribbean countries made it to Toluca in significant numbers. Barbados, Belize, Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, St. Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago were represented, some by just one or two technical staff or an NGO.

“I have observed that few speakers have mentioned the Caribbean, and when they do it is in a passing comment,” said Denis Kellman, Barbados’s minister of housing, lands and rural development, one of only a few high-level Caribbean officials here. Cuba also sent its vice-minister of physical planning, and the mayor of Belize City attended.

[See: Habitat III host region takes stock of its urbanization process — warts and all]

As a result, the event here in Toluca felt more like Latin America’s regional meeting than one that also encompassed the Caribbean islands. That missing perspective may end up reflected in the Toluca Declaration — a formal input to the Habitat process, meaning that it will form part of the raw material for the New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s 20-year urbanization strategy that will be finalized this year. Caribbean concerns on issues such as, for instance, climate change and coastal communities may subsequently not come across as strongly. (The draft Toluca Declaration is available here.)

“The Caribbean needs to ensure that its collective voice is heard now and leading up Habitat III,” said Jamaican planner Pauline McHardy. “Too often, housing and planning issues peculiar to these small, vulnerable states get lost in broader urban programmes which provide solutions that do not necessarily address the constraints facing the Caribbean.”

Odd couple

In the United Nations’ way of dividing up the world, Latin America and the Caribbean — LAC for short — are always a joint package.

“I have observed that few speakers have mentioned the Caribbean, and when they do it is in a passing comment.”

Denis Kellman
Barbados’s minister of housing, lands and rural development

The ramifications of this pairing go well beyond bureaucratic structuring, as the set-up filters down to the worlds of research and policymaking. Major multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund treat the region as a single unit. Social scientists pit LAC against sub-Saharan Africa or the Asia-Pacific region when comparing global trends.

For example, the region as a whole is often heralded as the most urbanized in the world. But that statistic is tilted by the weight of countries such as Mexico and the heavily urban Southern Cone of South America.

Breaking this down to a more granular level, the Caribbean itself varies widely from 100 percent urbanized (Bahamas) to just 10 percent (Trinidad and Tobago). In part, this is because measurements of urbanization that make sense for large countries don’t make sense for small ones.

[See: The Caribbean seeks to assert its identity in the New Urban Agenda]

Parts of Barbados, for instance, look rural to the naked eye but are still an easy commute to the capital, Bridgetown. By conventional definitions like “commutershed” (the geographic range where people commute to the central city), that would make the rocky bluffs on the eastern end of the island still “urbanized” or at least part of a metropolitan area.

“The Latin America and the Caribbean region is an odd couple, if ever there was one,” observed Jamaican planner and climate analyst Hilary Smith in an online forum ahead of the Toluca meeting.

“The official language of the citizens of most of the countries in the Caribbean is British English whilst Spanish is the primary language in the Latin American countries of the region,” Smith wrote. “Within the education systems second languages are offered in the curriculum however for many English speaking Caribbean nationals proficiency in a second language is limited.”

As Fernando Antonio Perez, the Dominican ambassador to Mexico, noted in a riddle of regional identity, “The Caribbean is one and many.” His country, for example, finds itself caucusing more with the Spanish speakers of Central America than the other islands in the Antilles. In Toluca, the Dominican delegation hosted the only Caribbean-themed event, which focused on how the islands’ intermediate cities could better share ideas with cities on the continent.

[See: How will Latin America deal with its Tolucas?]

“We [the Caribbean] have the same history and culture, but at the level of international relations, we tend not to understand each other because we speak different languages,” Perez said. Next week, for example, the Dominican government is hosting an international seminar on Habitat III, but Perez confessed that participation will be largely confined to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

The language divide plagues regional meetings, as well. While English translation was available in Toluca, for instance, it was clear that Spanish was the dominant working language, which reflected the meeting’s content. No plenary discussions or side events addressed the non-Spanish Caribbean.

This oversight comes after some Caribbean countries made considerable strides to engage with the Habitat process. Jamaica was the first Caribbean country to submit a Habitat III national report, looking back on the last 20 years of housing and urban development in the region, and offered lessons on its experience to its compatriots at last year’s Caribbean Urban Forum in St. Lucia.

The Latin American and Caribbean forum for ministerial discussions of housing and urban development, known by its Spanish acronym MINURVI, met in Montego Bay, Jamaica last August, where it laid the groundwork for a joint ministerial declaration on Habitat III. Barbados engaged in a nationwide listening tour to prepare its national report that could be a model for small countries, and last December it hosted one of two officially sanctioned expert meetings on Habitat III for the LAC region.

[See: Barbados’s Habitat III community roadshow (and jingle!)]

But Jamaica just went through a change in government. One result has been to fold the housing and urban development portfolio into what local observers are calling a “super-ministry” that merges four cabinet positions into one — resulting in four ministers still sorting out how this bureaucratic behemoth will function. Consequently, none of them made it to Toluca.

Blue urbanism

For the Caribbean, meanwhile, Habitat III could be a key opportunity to shed some light on new challenges for the land-constrained region, where demographic changes that would barely register in bigger Latin American countries can have profound impacts.

“For the Caribbean, Habitat III could be a key opportunity to shed some light on new challenges for the land-constrained region, where demographic changes that would barely register in bigger Latin American countries can have profound impacts.”

As Caribbean economies have shifted from agriculture to services, especially tourism, linear growth has overtaken most coastlines. In low-lying and island countries, this pattern of development is risky in the face of the impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels and more intense hurricanes.

[See: Will Habitat III note the unique urbanization of small island states?]

Whereas a Latin American country such as Costa Rica may push for sustainable “green urbanism” that contains urban growth to protect forest ecosystems, the Caribbean sees its built environment from the perspective of “blue urbanism”, where development impacts are felt most immediately on the ocean. In international negotiations, it tends to ally itself with the Small Island Developing States, a formal grouping that incorporates countries with a similar geography from the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

On issues common to the rest of LAC, like housing, the Caribbean also has its unique needs. Last week, the Inter-American Development Bank reported that USD 1.8 billion is needed to make up the housing deficit in six Caribbean countries (Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago).

Such research has been prepared with an eye toward Habitat III, which will focus the attention of national governments, donor institutions and major players in the global development community. Some suggest that fixing the housing problem in a handful of small developing countries could constitute low-hanging fruit that could show demonstrable results.

“Caribbean states are classified as high-income countries. However, economic growth has faltered, per capita incomes have fallen and it is becoming increasingly difficult for these countries to meet their housing needs,” said the report’s co-author, Jamaican planner Pauline McHardy. “The task is daunting and examining issues around new financing mechanisms for housing in the New Urban Agenda would be most helpful to Caribbean states.”

[See: In Latin America, housing advocates set their sights on Habitat III]

At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, people are being squeezed as well. Offshore banking and the tourism industry have brought tremendous wealth to the Caribbean, but not all of it filters down to the full-time residents of islands that must contend with seasonal second homeowners and land gobbled up for hotels. Last month, the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper cited housing for young professionals as one of the top concerns for the country’s new administration.

From Suriname to Surabaya

As the Caribbean increasingly conceives of itself as an urban region and grapples with the challenges that come with urbanization, impressive strides have been made to deal with this new reality.

“The Caribbean needs to ensure that its collective voice is heard now and leading up Habitat III. Too often, housing and planning issues peculiar to these small, vulnerable states get lost in broader urban programmes which provide solutions that do not necessarily address the constraints facing the Caribbean.”

Pauline McHardy
Jamaican planner

Five years ago, the Caribbean Planners Association (CPA) was founded as a professional organization modeled on similar entities in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada — the same countries where many Caribbean planning professionals receive their academic training. The CPA meets annually at the Caribbean Urban Forum to refine the Caribbean Urban Agenda, a document that has been formally taken up by CARICOM, the region’s political and economic union.

[See: Ahead of Habitat III, the Caribbean makes case for a region of cities]

The forum is a rare opportunity for the region’s planners — separated by water — to gather and share ideas. Its next meeting is slated for 27-30 April in Paramaribo, Suriname. (Although located on the South American mainland, Suriname has historical and cultural ties to the Dutch-speaking Caribbean and is a CARICOM member.)

Habitat III will be a major topic of discussion at the event, even though the forum itself will not result in a formal input to the Habitat process. But better late than never, says Ricardo Jordan of the U. N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“We will have this opportunity in Suriname to check out the resolution from Toluca,” he said. That will offer participants an opportunity to ask, “Are you content with this? Do you need more?” Jordan continued.

In turn the forum will provide Caribbean planning and housing advocates with an opportunity to come up with key messages for the first draft of the New Urban Agenda, due just days after the meeting’s conclusion, during the first week of May. One advantage of small countries, meanwhile, is easy access to national government representatives and a tendency to vote as a bloc — which if organized well could give the Caribbean some lobbying power on Habitat III.

The region certainly showed its political clout in Paris last December during the COP 21 climate negotiations, making a powerful case that climate change is an existential threat to many Caribbean countries. Given Habitat III’s likely focus on climate change, this could prove the necessary hook to convince national governments to pay more attention to the Habitat process. With limited resources, Caribbean countries are often spread thin, and must pick and choose to which multilateral negotiations they dedicate their time and energy.

[See: Habitat III must make climate change a top priority]

At the Habitat III preparatory negotiations last April in Nairobi, for example, the number of Caribbean delegations present could be counted on one hand, a troubling sign at an official U. N. negotiation where every country gets a vote. If the region stands a chance of getting its concerns reflected in the New Urban Agenda, observers are noting that the same cannot be repeated at the third and final preparatory negotiations, taking place in July in Surabaya, Indonesia. “You have to take some guns and ammunition to Surabaya on the zero draft,” Jordan said.

Moreover, many Surinamese trace their heritage to Indonesia. The Dutch, who colonized both countries, brought Indonesian indentured labour to work the sugarcane plantations of Suriname after the abolition of slavery. Foods such as bami and nasi are staples in Paramaribo as much as in Jakarta, while mosques are a regular feature on the streets of Surinamese cities and towns. If this historical coincidence serves as motivation, there may be hope yet for the New Urban Agenda to reflect the Caribbean urban agenda.

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