This week in Cairo marked the beginning of the three day First Egyptian Urban Forum (FEUF), organized by the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UNHSP) in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of State for Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements (MURIS). According to its official documents, the forum aims to provide a common platform for dialogue between the various development partners on sustainable urbanization issues. The FEUF hopes to ensure better observation of housing issues at the national level, showcase best urban practices at the local/international level, create the appropriate climate for forming alliances necessary to reform urban development policies, and enable Egyptian contributions to the existing global dialogue on housing and urbanization issues.
This is the first time Egypt has hosted such a forum, which is part of a group of activities taking place at the international level in preparation for the “United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development,” more widely known as Habitat III, which will be held in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016. Preparations for Habitat III began in September 2014 when the first Preparatory Committee convened at UN Headquarters in New York. The committee established national committees to prepare reports on urban issues and strategies for each country. Later on, the preparation of regional-level reports took place for the publication of a global report. The second Preparatory Committee was held in Nairobi, Kenya in April 2015. The committee defined the details of upcoming events, confirmed the date of the third preparatory committee, and discussed the themes and outcomes expected in Habitat III (i.e. “The New Urban Agenda”).
As its name suggests, Habitat III is the third in a series of UN conferences focusing on human settlements which happens every 20 years. The first conference was held in Vancouver, Canada, in 1976 as the “United Nations Conference on Human Settlements.” The second conference was held in Istanbul, Turkey in 1996, under the same name. The demand for these conferences rose after the steady increase in the number of urban residents worldwide as a result of rural-urban migration in the 1960s and 1970s. There was also rapid growth of informal settlements within and on the city borders, especially in developing countries. Many governments were uncertain of how to properly address these rapid developments, leading to the alienation of new inhabitants as the government tried to forcefully evict them.
While urban migration increased, international development goals were influenced by visions of economic growth to combat poverty and rural area development as a means of curbing urbanization. The severity of the urban crisis and its relationship to poverty and inequality among the population was understated, and national governments did not have the solutions to tackle these problems. The experiences of dealing with this issue remained primarily local with no real exchange of expertise at the international level. This led the UN General Assembly to hold the Vancouver Conference in 1976. Representatives of many governments and civil society joined the conference to share their experiences. The outcome was the Vancouver Declaration for Human Settlements. It also led to the establishment of the United Nations Center for Human Settlements in 1977, which later became a United Nations Human Settlements Program. The Vancouver Declaration recognized how the deterioration present in many human settlements around the world impacts the quality of life for millions. It attributed the causes of this deterioration to inequality in economic growth; environmental, social and economic deterioration; rapid population growth and urbanization; the deterioration of rural areas; and involuntary migration, whether as a result of political or economic conditions. The declaration also stated that the solution to these problems must be based on achieving human dignity, equality and justice, respect for the rights of citizens, and solidarity between the parties of the international community. It also noted that these solutions must be linked to meeting the basic needs of the population: employment, housing, health, essential services, education, and recreational activities. The statement ended with the issuance of 64 recommendations for governments to adopt at the national level.
Despite the momentum that this conference gave to urbanization issues around the world, the governments that adopted most of these solutions did so out of the mistaken belief that solving human settlement issues is merely a technical problem—that building more housing units, rather than addressing complex social, economic, and political contexts, would solve these crises. The conference also focused on the participation of central governments as the only key player in addressing human settlement issues, neglecting the role of local authorities and administrations as well as civil society.
The Habitat II conference, held in Istanbul in 1996, tried to rectify the mistakes of Habitat I by expanding the list of participants to include many local authorities and administrations, members of civil society, academics, and representatives of the private sector. Habitat II was inspired by another United Nations conference in 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which put a strong focus on environmental and sustainable development issues. Habitat II was concerned with the sustainability issues that have since become an integral part of the urban development agenda. It published many documents, the most important being the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements and the Urban Agenda.
Compared to Habitat I (Vancouver, 1976), Habitat II emphasized the necessity of raising the standard of living in human settlements around the world. It also expanded participation in the conference to include parties other than central governments. The conference focused on sustainable development and providing adequate housing for all.
The Urban Agenda was reflected in the Millennium Development Goals, which the UN adopted in 2001 to set a course for development through 2015. One stated goal was to “achieve[e] a significant improvement for the living conditions of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.” Although the UN said that this goal was already achieved several years ago, the number of people living in slums increased to 863 million in 2012, compared to 650 million in 1990 and 760 million in 2000.
Today, cities are more interested in urban growth and poverty issues, and urbanization is an essential part of the debate on development prospects. Habitat II failed to effectively deal with these challenges. Globalization and the increased attention to cities as economic, social and cultural hubs have all led to uncontrollable city growth. In 2007, for the first time in history, the urban population outnumbered the rural population globally.
That urban growth was accompanied by a steady rise in poverty and deprivation levels, an absence of social justice, and an imbalance in the distribution of resources between different urban areas, especially in countries that adopted neoliberalism and trusted that the market economy and the fruits of growth would ultimately reach all citizens. There was an apparent absence of the social role of the state in protecting the victims of this kind of development, especially the underprivileged. This led to unprecedented levels of economic, social, and environmental inequality between different social groups in urban areas. Urban development policies have, in turn, became a significant cause of inequality and the absence of social justice.
Due to these unpredicted changes, the world does not seem prepared for Habitat III. In addition to the current economic and political conditions, two other important international events are slated for 2015. The first is the United Nations Summit to Adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda in New York in September 2015. This summit aims to encourage the members of the UN General Assembly to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which are already expiring in 2015. The second event is the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December this year, which will set policies for dealing with climate change, especially in urban areas, for the coming decades.
The overarching international agenda will undoubtedly shape Habitat III, with many governments eager to play a role in forming urban development policies for the next two decades. The conference, now known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, will place a higher priority on issues of justice, as well as economic, social, and environmental sustainability. It will also update the Urban Agenda that was drafted two decades ago in Habitat II to formulate the New Urban Agenda. This effort will undoubtedly affect the formulation of future guidelines for many governments, agencies, and institutions, including the UN and the World Bank.
But the question remains: What do all these local and international mechanisms and events mean to an Egyptian citizen living in Duwaiqa, Stable Antar, Nahia, or Al-Salam? Unfortunately, it may not mean much. At the international level, most governments have evaded the obligations they agreed to in Habitat I and II. Although the right to adequate housing has been included in the constitutions of more than 100 countries worldwide in recent years, we still witness a steady increase in violations of this right. In addition, the Habitat conferences target mainly the governments of member states of the UN General Assembly, not civil society, local authorities, administrations, or NGOs. Consequently, only governments are responsible for drafting the urban agenda during these conferences, and they may or may not agree to the participation of other non-governmental parties. Unfortunately, so far, it is unlikely to see the involvement of non-governmental parties in Habitat III, despite their inclusion in the previous conference in Istanbul.
Locally, the conditions of urban Egypt are dire. Estimates indicate that up to two-thirds of the population of Greater Cairo now live in informal urban areas (slums), most of which suffer from a lack of governmental investments. This lack of resources extends past housing, and has even more damaging effects on water, sanitation, essential services, public transportation, and preserving urban heritage.
The construction debate in Egypt is no different from the debate in the rest of the world. There are two different approaches to deal with construction issues, both locally and internationally. The first approach is technical: creating mega projects and quantitative solutions. Such an approach means “solving” the housing problem by building a half million units every year, directing most of the state’s resources to develop new cities (inhabited by only a minority of the population), announcing increased percentages of water and sanitation coverage without disclosing the quality and efficiency of these networks, or blaming problems of local administration on the capabilities of its employees with no serious discussion about popular participation or the effective accountability of citizens to state agencies. The second approach focuses on achieving a better quality of life in urban areas, the fair distribution of public resources between those areas, addressing the right to live in the city, and enacting rational, efficient, and transparent local administration that can be held accountable by citizens.
Neither approach has been proven more effective than the other. The incongruences between them and the intellectual clashes amongst those who adopt them enrich the global dialogue about urbanization. Attempts in Latin American countries to build upon the second approach, focusing on residents and resources, has led to many creative solutions directly related to social movements in those countries.
Egypt, however, has not participated in this dialogue for several decades. The voices of ordinary citizens were markedly absent from any serious discussion of urbanization. For decades, the technical approach has dominated Egypt’s urbanization policies. The result is a severe imbalance in the distribution of public resources between different urban areas. Real estate prices have reached unprecedented levels as a result of the land and housing commodity policies pursued by the State, and real estate is thus prohibitively expensive, pricing out most citizens. Locally, it does not seem likely that any serious discussion of efficiency, the inclusion of citizens in development decisions, access to public information, or administrative accountability will occur in the near future.
In Egypt during the fiscal year 2014-2015, the budget of the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA)—which serves around 6 million residents—was around 23 times higher than the one the Egyptian Ministry of State for Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements (MURIS) allocated to address informal settlements (slums), in which more than 12 million residents live. In the year 2009-2010, official reports indicated that Cairo receives seven times more water per capita than Minya. For many years, housing ministers have expressed the need to build 500,000 housing units annually to eliminate the housing crisis. Official reports state that in 2006, the number of vacant housing units in Egypt was around seven million units. Those units, if made available through appropriate policies, would resolve the housing crisis for many years. In 2011, the local administration’s budget in Egypt did not exceed 16 percent of recurrent total government spending, compared to 31 percent in Cambodia, 39 percent in Mozambique, and 45 percent in Afghanistan.
Will the First Egyptian Urban Forum address these complicated issues? To what extent can the process of preparing for Habitat III contribute to facilitating real dialogue in Egypt regarding the link between urban development policies and issues of social justice, good governance, and control of open market mechanisms in urbanization policies? More importantly, how does this relate to the right of citizens to democratic participation in urbanization management?
The first day of the First Egyptian Urban Forum, which will be held in a hotel overlooking the Nile whose website is only available in English, may answer many of these questions. Habitat III activities may not improve the quality of life for millions of Egyptians, as evidenced by the history of the 40-year Habitat conferences. Governments evade responsibilities and procrastinate, with no tangible change on the ground. Any changes that happen are the result of tireless demands by civil society and the struggles of millions of people who have built and are still building their societies from scratch.
Nevertheless, active participation in the process of preparing for Habitat III remains a real opportunity for Egyptians to address their urban issues. It is an opportunity that we should all seize to establish a real dialogue in which ordinary citizens of our various regions participate in formulating a popular urban agenda that will help us rectify the adverse effects of urbanization in the coming years.
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