A call from within

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

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 are imposed.

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.

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