African governments offer common vision on urbanization

A key regional meeting ahead of Habitat III resulted in a forward-looking declaration and a landmark document outlining a shared regional stance.

Delegates gathered in Abuja, Nigeria, on 24-26 February for a key regional meeting on urbanization priorities ahead of the Habitat III conference. (Habitat III Secretariat)

ABUJA, Nigeria — Participants at the Habitat III regional meeting for Africa rose at the end of the three-day gathering here Friday to urge action on ensuring greater participation of all citizens in urban governance and management.

A six-page draft outcome document, known as the Abuja Declaration, was read out to participants by Nigeria’s minister for power, works and housing, Babatunde Fashola. The draft, which will eventually provide formal continent-wide input from the leaders of Africa for the Habitat III process, suggests ways to harness the significant potentials of Africa’s urbanization — and sidestep its equally significant pitfalls.

[See: With high population growth, Africa’s urban infrastructure under huge pressure]

On strengthening African institutions, the declaration suggests, “Promoting effective decentralised urban management by empowering cities and local governments, technically and financially, to deliver adequate shelter and sustainable human settlements.”

The declaration calls for the development of resilient infrastructure that will reduce the impact of disasters, especially in slums and informal settlements, as well as build institutional capacities and mechanisms. It also recommends mobilizing financial resources from both state and non-state actors.

[See: Achieving inclusiveness: The challenge and potential of informal settlements]

Participants included ministers, delegates and experts from more than a dozen African countries. In the end, they unanimously adopted the recommendations of the declaration.

“It’s a magnificent declaration,” said Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat and the secretary general of the Habitat III conference.

Minimal grass-roots voice

The draft succeeds in reeling off a laundry list of strategies that would, in the long run, enhance sustainable urbanization in the sub-region.

Still, critics worry that the declaration falls short of giving adequate voice for grass-roots people. Africa’s urban poor continue to be plagued with gender, income and social inequalities.

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

“We have come here, we have done our best, we have raised the issues, and we are trying to raise the bar so that we’ll be able to monitor them during the implementation of this particular declaration,” Fati Alhassan, a representative of grass-roots women in civil society, said at the end of the meeting.

“We got our voices heard, but whether our voices are completely inside [the Abuja declaration] is another issue,” she said. “We will not say that we are fully satisfied, because we don’t feel ourselves fully represented in this declaration.”

In Abuja, grass-roots women, informal settlement dwellers and informal workers joined forces to consolidate issues and priorities they see as essential. They said one of the challenges they face is land grabbing by rich developers who connive with government to build large homes and shopping malls for the rich while the urban poor are displaced from their homes and places of work.

Alhassan said it would be the responsibility of civil society groups to ensure that issues in the declaration affecting the grass roots are adhered to — issues such as land titling and inclusion.

“At the country level, we will take this declaration, we will look at … how it affects us,” she said. “We will also put measures in place at the civil society level to see how we can monitor the process at the government level.”

[In informal settlements of Nairobi, women look to Habitat III on inclusive planning]

Still, she expressed optimism that such issues are today being discussed at the top of the global agenda.

“We are hopeful that … perhaps there could be certain things that will be included when it comes to the global picture,” she said. “We will still be very grateful for the opportunity they have given us to make our voices heard, and we hope that we’ll be able to work hand in hand and to monitor each other for the successful implementation of the New Urban Agenda.”

The New Urban Agenda is the outcome strategy slated for adoption at Habitat III. Currently under debate, the details of this agenda will guide global efforts on sustainable urbanization for the next two decades.

Common stance

Arguably the key success of the regional meeting in Abuja is that Africa will be heading to Habitat III — being held in Quito in October — with a common purpose. Participating ministers adopted a draft Common African Position on Habitat III.

This is the first time this has happened since the Habitat conferences began in 1976. Indeed, the African group was largely non-existent during the last Habitat conference, which took place in 1996 in Istanbul. This was “probably because urbanisation hadn’t started to become a problem at that time,” said Akin Mabogunje, chairman of the Foundation for Development and Environmental Initiatives.

But ahead of this year’s Quito conference, the Abuja meeting was a key opportunity, said Jean Pierre Elong-Mbassi, secretary general of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) network in Africa.

“It is a dream come true, because we were not sure that Africa will come out with a common position,” Elong-Mbassi said. “And a common position on an issue like urbanization that the African countries didn’t want to face — they did ignore it. And they said at that time [in 1996] that Africa is mainly a rural continent, while the continent was urbanizing as any other region in the world.”

[See: Finding a truly common vision for African cities]

Africa is undergoing a historic transition from the primary sector of its economy — traditionally, agriculture and extractive industries — toward more productive sectors such as manufacturing and services. Clos said the success of this transition would depend largely on “good urbanization.”

“Urbanization will be the vehicle for this transition,” he said. “Good urbanization will be one of the most significant economic and social transformations, [which] will change the way of life of millions of people.”

African cities, for Africans

A key part of the discussions at the regional meeting centred on the quest by African leaders to model the continent’s urban areas on their counterparts in Europe and the United States — a vision that many warn is unrealistic.

Some 70 percent of African cities are comprised of informal settlements and inhabitants working in the informal sector, after all. Only a fraction of the continent’s population lead lives typical of those in Western countries.

“There are two attitudes — one is to be ashamed that our cities are pale copy of the cities in Europe and America,” said Elong-Mbassi.

“The other one is to say our cities are African cities, so we improve them the way they are,” he continued. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to have clean water, sanitation services, electricity, health, education. But you should do this respectful of the people, and you should do this thinking of the people not as problem but as an asset.”

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

As anywhere, Elong-Mbassi said, the inhabitants of Africa’s diverse communities just want to be respected — and a key part of that is being asked for their input on planning processes that will intimately affect them.

“Because in Africa they say, ‘What you do for me without me, you do against me,’” he said. “So inclusive cities are the only way to rebuild trust between people and government, and this trust is grounded in a bargain at the local level.”

But how to carry along local communities in city planning remains a massive challenge for Africa’s national and regional governments. More than half of the urban population in Kenya and Cameroon, for instance, lives in informal settlements and slums.

Kenya’s Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme is an innovation to address the country’s affordable housing and slum challenge aimed towards a citywide upgrading and prevention approach. According to Clos, integration of such programmes with countrywide planned urban development is the sustainable way to make substantive impact in urban informal settlements.

[See: Turning Kibera’s mud huts into apartment towers]

The Kenyan delegation at the Abuja meeting noted that sustainable urbanisation and human settlements are an “utmost priority” for the country.

“Quito will decide two critical things,” said Aldah Munano, principal secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Land, Housing and Urban Development. “First is whether or not urban and rural settlements are firmly incorporated in the New Urban Agenda. Second is whether or not UN-Habitat is strengthened, as the global agency responsible for driving the new agenda with its headquarters here in Africa.”

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s urban-rural conundrum]

Indeed, a key part of the draft Abuja Declaration also focuses on how to strengthen UN-Habitat, the lead agency on the Habitat III process. The declaration seeks to make the agency “politically visible”, recommending the establishment of “universal membership at its Governing Council to give it more authority and legitimacy in decision-making”.

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