Bridging the GAP: The Habitat III strategy ‘is an agenda affecting grass-roots people’

Community groups want to show next month’s conference that answers begin at the bottom, not at the top.

Women sew at a community workshop in South Africa. (Monkey Business Images)

This story is part of an occasional series on the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), the main vehicle for civil society to organize and advocate ahead of Habitat III, the U. N. urbanization summit in October in Quito. The GAP represents a wide range of interests, which have coalesced into 16 constituent groups. Citiscope is profiling these groups about their preparations on the road to Quito with a focus on why sustainable urban development matters to their constituents.

For Rose Molokoane, a grass-roots leader from South Africa, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development was a wake-up call.

The United Nations conference, which met in Johannesburg, covered a host of pressing global issues, including the state of urbanization, and emerged with a slogan: “Cities without slums”. While that phrase seemed like an admirable goal to public officials and development professionals, for Molokoane, who lives in Oukasie, a township 35 km from Pretoria, it read like a threat.

“If they are saying ‘Cities without slums’ — meaning they are going to evict us?” she asked herself and her colleagues at the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDUP). While the Johannesburg summit wasn’t her first major international conference — she attended the Habitat II “City Summit” in 1996 but confesses that she didn’t fully grasp the finer points of the negotiations — it was this moment on her home soil that galvanized Molokoane to take her local activism into the global policy arena.

That revelation has led Molokoane, who is also a coordinator for Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), to take on a leadership role as co-chair of the GAP’s grass-roots constituency in the run-up to next month’s Habitat III conference on urbanization in Quito, Ecuador. In this position, she is able to articulate the needs and demands of the urban poor at the highest levels of power at the United Nations.

She took on this role, she said, because the Habitat III strategy — a 20-year document known as the New Urban Agenda — is “an agenda affecting the grass-roots people.” She elaborated, “They are talking about inclusiveness and people at the centre — they should start in Quito, when the people are there. Acknowledge their presence.”

[See: South Africa has been key to putting informal settlements on the Habitat III agenda]

Molokoane’s call is echoed by her co-chair, Gloria Solorzano Espinosa, a street vendor from Lima who has organized locally for the local and national governments to stop harassing informal workers like her. Similar to Molokoane’s relationship to SDI, Solorzano Espinosa’s efforts in the Peruvian capital led to her involvement with an international advocacy network, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).

“The informal economy sector — we feel excluded by different policies from different governments,” she explained. “The theme of Habitat III for us is opening a door to inclusion, to development to generate a more social economy. I think Habitat is the opportunity they are giving us to be part of the dialogue. Through dialogue we can strengthen, influence and promote where we want to arrive.”

[See: The New Urban Agenda must prompt planners to recognize informal labour]

Opening space

The two women shoulder an exceptional burden as GAP co-chairs, given that they represent among the world’s lowest-income people. Traveling to a U. N. advocacy meeting is well beyond their financial means, and yet the decisions made at these diplomatic meetings can trickle down to affect their everyday lives.

“Most people don’t know what is the United Nations. ‘I know my councilor, I know my mayor’ — it ends there,” Molokoane explained. “People are not interested in a lot of talk; they just want to see toilet, water, electricity, house, school, health facility, entertainment facilities. Those are the important things that people want to see, not all these talks and big meetings.”

[See: How Durban set the global standard for providing water and sanitation for the poor]

In South Africa, many of those basic needs have come about through a grass-roots relationship with the national government that Molokoane believes is a model for others. “Through our organizing, we started to vigorously open space for ourselves to engage with our government,” she said.

Specifically, her group wanted more say in government housing policies and programmes so that, for example, the “cities without slums” mantra would not mean the wholesale removal of their townships communities.

As a result of engagement by FEDUP and other similar grass-roots organizations with the national government, the South African Ministry of Human Settlements unveiled the People’s Housing Process in 1998.

This policy adds a qualitative dimension to the quantitative effort of producing enough housing units to keep up with demand. Rather than treating housing merely as shelter, the policy engages residents in a proposed area — whether a slum-upgrading project, new “social housing” effort or township-revitalization project — about what type of dwelling best suits their needs. In effect, it thinks of housing as “home” and not just “shelter”.

[See: Habitat III must institutionalize participatory urban development]

The groups’ success in South Africa spread through SDI. The international NGO serves as a hub for grass-roots organizations representing people who live in informal settlements. “Through exchange programmes, we learn from each other,” Molokoane explained. SDI currently works in 33 countries, with Molokoane having shared ideas and strategies with colleagues from Namibia, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, the Philippines, India and Brazil.

What they lack in financial resources and slick presentations, the grass-roots makes up in numbers. SDI is a regular presence at global gatherings such as the World Urban Forum and will be sending a delegation to Habitat III.

[See: Habitat III is a critical opportunity for grass-roots women]

WIEGO’s informal workers, meanwhile, have participated in the annual International Labour Conference and also will send a group to Quito. According to the Huairou Commission, a network of grass-roots women’s groups, there will be at least 100 grass-roots representatives who travel to Quito, as well as community leaders from Ecuador. (According to the Huairou Commission, the Habitat III Secretariat is anticipated to finance the bulk of these delegations.)

With such numbers, Molokoane hopes to show that answers begin at the bottom, not at the top. “They are saying reinvent the wheel,” she said, referring, for example, to calls to create a “paradigm shift” through Habitat III. “What we have done on the ground can easily influence the New Urban Agenda.”

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