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THE curtains recently came down on the UN Conference on
Human Settlements (Habitat II), held at Istanbul, Turkey. The
event was the last of the mega UN conferences to be held in this'.
century. The overall mandate was to come up with better ways
to manage the world's burgeoning cities and to provide their
poor with better shelters. But did the conference's participants
attain these objectives at the end of the day? Not really.
Although the UN seems to be keen on projecting itself as a
messiah of the downtrodden, it has not been able to do anything worthwhile for them. The Organization's sincerity is
increasingly up for scrutiny, despite the string of high-profile
conferences (preceding Habitat II) held recently: on human
rights in Vienna (1993), on population in Cairo (1994), on
social development in Copenhagen (1995) and on women in
Beijing (1995). At Istanbul, the us resorted to its usual arm-twisting tactics and the rest of the world meekly toed the line.
Although the G-77 countries and China stood firmly behind
the agreement reached by Habitat I held 20 years ago at
Vancouver (that of recognising shelter as a basic human
right), Habitat II's agenda turned out to be a watered-down
version of the same which spoke of "the full and progressive
realisation of the right to adequate housing
as provided for in international instruments". The feet-dragging on decisions that
could affect the world's 500 million homeless contrasts starkly with the alacrity with
which sanctions, embargoes and military
interventions designed to benefit the West
Intense lobbying on the part of the
developing countries at the Rio Conference
(1992) had compelled developed nations to
set aside 0.7 per cent of their gross national
product (GNP) as aid to implement the Rio
action plan. But as the spokesperson of the
G-77 said, "Only one per cent of the Rio
action plan has been implemented." The main reason for this
has been slack financing, resulting from the failure and unwillingness of the developed world to honour its commitments.
But at Istanbul, discussions on the crucial sections of the agenda that dealt with post-conference structures and hence with
financial assistance concerning shelter, could not even
progress because the us refused to adhere to the earlier 0.7 per
cent agreement. All the fuss created was over an amount that
adds up to just three-four per cent of what the developing
countries pay as debt service charges to the West. Yet, should
the developed countries be made to compensate for the social
costs they levy on the Third World, they would end up parting
with at least 20-30 per cent of their GNP.
A crucial question addressed by the conference was the
issue of the representativeness of such meets. Do such fora
genuinely reflect the aspirations of the people they are supposed to be meant for? To be fair, Habitat ii made a significant
departure from the other UN conferences held so far because
for the first time, community-based organisations (CBOs) were
recognised as being a separate and distinct category from non-
governmental organisations (NGOs). NGOs had actively participated in all the PrepComs that were held before Habitat II,
and have played a major role in the drafting of documents. But
the Istanbul conference marked the first ever participation on
the part of the CBOs.
Recognising CBOs - which work for the betterment of the
marginalised and the under-privileged - is equivalent to rendering credence to the aspirations of the people themselves.
However, the actual situation turned out to be somewhat
different. Only 'accredited NGOs and CBOs' were permitted to
participate in Habitat ii. With the process for attaining accreditation being suitably elaborate, Most CBOs are effectively sidelined. Therefore representation from the masses, who hold a
major stake in the dialogue regarding shelter, remains a myth.
Like bureaucrats, the vast majority of people managing
NGOs are from middle-class, professional
backgrounds who only 'represent' the
masses. On the other hand, those involved
in, a CBO's activities are people who are
themselves from among the masses. By
printing out the same one is not in any
manner trying to question the sincerity of
NGOs to this whole process of negotiation,
but is it not high time the disadvantaged did
their own talking?
To begin with, governments and NGOs
would gain more insight into the issues
involved if they were to hold meetings with
CBOs in their own regions and discussed
their experiences, rather than take off on
high-browed foreign meets. Instead of more mega melees of
the kind we have just seen, the UN could perhaps arrange
exchanges between organisations and officials. There are any
number of mass-based organisations working in the subcontinent itself, such as the Grameen Bank, the Orangi Project and
the Self-Employed Women's Association, to name a few.
These organisations have the answers to our problems.
UN and governmental operations should be based on a
more holistic approach rather than concentrate on post-disaster tactics, as they are presently doing. With every second
human being in the world expected to live in a city by the year
2000, problems should be tackled at their roots. If tracks are
not switched, as urban populations continue to swell, the gulf
between the haves and the have-nots will widen further.