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Op-Ed: Act Globally, Think Locally

Act Globally, Think Locally
June 2001

A recent mayor of New York City would begin his talks with constituents with the question, "How are we doing?" The UN General Assembly meets on June 6-8 for a special session to ask this question of itself on the condition of the world's cities. Specifically the issue is whether there has been improvement in the qual-ity of life for urban dwellers in developing countries since 1996, when the UN World Conference on Human Settlements, "Habitat II" was held in Istanbul. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Clearly, the UN will have to change its approach if it is to move beyond meetings to meaningful solutions.

Eight hundred million people are still faced with substandard housing, 600 million live in life threatening conditions, 450 million have no sanitary facilities and 330 million exist in 'absolute poverty' (defined by the World Bank as living on US$1 a day). Moreover, many cities around the globe are wracked by violent con-flict among contending ethnic or racial groups. Major changes are needed if urban poverty, and social ills like violence, are to be abated.

Today, more than half of the world's population lives in cities, and this proportion will increase to two thirds by 2025. The number of 'megacities' (cities with populations over 10 million) grew from two in 1950 to 27 today, of which 16 are in developing countries. 90 per cent of the expected 2.7 billion births in the next 25 years will be in cities.

Cities are neither 'good' nor 'bad'. For development, they offer both positives and negatives. The objective is not perfection, as UN resolutions aiming for lofty goals would seem to prescribe; urban policy should maximize the positive aspects of urbanization, while minimizing the negative.

Habitat II was a 'partnership conference'. It allowed a voice to representatives of local authorities and non-governmental organizations, but the policy pronouncements contained in the "Habitat Agenda" were those of national governments. Unfortunately, after the meeting ended in Istanbul, most of the representatives of UN member states went home and turned their attention to other things.

Most mayors don't know about Habitat II. Of those mayors who do, most would describe the national plans it produced as lists of platitudinous demands made without the necessary resources provided, irrelevant to the day-to-day management responsibilities they face.

National governments need to turn greater attention to dealing with urban problems. If the five years since Habitat II have shown anything, it is that national governments need local partners, and local governments need help from the non-profit and private sectors.

How can the United Nations make a difference? We propose five steps.

  • The General Assembly can start by devoting resources to facilitating the partnerships cultivated at Habi-tat II. It should revisit the UN world meetings of the 1990s. Many of the resulting proposals are mutually supportive, yet there has been no attempt to codify these recommendations in more practical terms. Simplify them with realistic objectives that move toward measurable outcomes. Tailor them to the specific needs of regions and urban areas.

  • Insist that UN bodies and agencies promote intergovernmental cooperation, especially between national governments and local governments. It has long been an accepted principle of development that decen-tralization of resources and decision-making to the local level is more efficient and productive than top-down directives that lack local input and commitment. Unfortunately, UN directives and field activity too often involve UN officials who work with national governments alone. Local officials and their constituents are left out of the picture. UN managers recognize this need, but must confront the fact that many na-tional government representatives like it this way. This approach must be changed.

  • The General Assembly must develop and implement practices that encourage greater cooperation be-tween governments, nonprofits and the private sector. The UN, World Bank and other international bod-ies don't have enough resources to make a meaningful difference in addressing urban problems world-wide. Effective governance, especially at the local level, requires partnerships with NGOs to fill gaps in city services and to provide services in settlements on urban fringes. The private sector, too, must be brought into the partnership, as investor applying the estimated $27 trillion in capital markets throughout the world to the production of infrastructure, including housing. If the enormous needs of the poor in ur-ban areas are ever to be addressed, new and dramatic steps are needed to increase the supply of land and credit.

  • The General Assembly should consciously seek regular involvement and better communication with local governments. The UN Commission on Human Settlements should have local government representa-tives as voting members. In addition, the UN should be providing better information. Databases produced at the U.N. need to provide information for mayors and urban managers. Regular surveys of local offi-cials should seek the input of mayors. For example, surveys of mayors done for UNDP in 1994 and 1997 by the International Union of Local Authorities (IULA) revealed that 52 per cent of mayors see unem-ployment as their number one problem. Where is this issue in the UN deliberations in New York?

  • The UN should more directly foster innovative developments in local democracy. Cities were the origins of modern democracy, and they remain critical building blocks of vibrant national-level democracies to-day. Local self-government is compelling in an era of global interdependence. Municipalities are leading the way in developing creative approaches to direct citizen consultation and involvement, many using new information technologies for service delivery and civic engagement.

Unfortunately, the June General Assembly session will not take up a draft resolution that provides an inter-national 'norm' or right, to democratic local self-government. The UN should encourage and facilitate further negotiation on an international charter that affirms the importance of local democracy and self-governance as a necessary condition for meeting the myriad challenges of sustainable development in growing cities worldwide.

Arno Loessner is Senior Policy Fellow at the University of Delaware and Director of the IULA Office for Research & Training. Timothy Sisk is an Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Denver and principal author of the International IDEA Handbook on Democracy at the Local Level, published in May 2001.

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