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UN Habitat Predicts The World Is a Ghetto, But Will Finance Be Addressed at Vancouver World Urban Forum?

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee at the U.N.

UNITED NATIONS, June 16 -- The world is a ghetto. Behind a lengthy PointPoint presentation and thick glossy report of which there were not enough copies, that was the message the UN-Habitat brought Friday to United Nations Headquarters, en route to a World Urban Forum on the topic next week in Vancouver. One billion people now live in slums, as defined by Habitat. This figure is growing globally at 2.2 percent a year, and at a higher rate in the developing world.

            The report takes on what it calls the Urban Penalty from a number of angles: health and environmental justice, poor education, vulnerability to conflict and natural disaster.  Inner City Press inquired into whether Habitat considers the private sector's financing, or lack thereof, of housing and small business in low-income areas, and if Habitat works with the UN Global Compact on the issue of banks' inclusion or exclusion of urban slums from their lending, along the lines of the U.S. Community Reinvestment Act. Agency director Anna Tibaijuka acknowledged that the issue of private finance "is not covered adequately in this report."  As to the Global Compact, at first no answer was given. When the issue was raised a second time, the response by rote was that all UN agencies work with the Global Compact, but that such collaboration has yet to take place on these issues.  Here's hoping.

Karachi per UNHCR

            New Orleans and the disparate impacts of Hurricane Katrina are addressed in one of Habitat's case studies. Analogy is made to Kobe, Japan: "when that city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1995, many residents lived in temporary housing for eight years, and areas of the city that had been affordable for families were rebuilt with housing beyond their financial reach."  While Ms. Tibaijuka jibed that mass evictions "used to happen even here, in the past," the reality is that in many cities in the developed world, the mass evictions continue in slow motion. Neighborhoods are gentrified and housing costs soar. Even the conversion of informal settlements to "security of tenure" is viewed skeptically, unless the de facto cost of the housing stays low.

            Inner City Press also asked about Habitat's view of the role of discrimination. Ms. Tibaijuka noted that many cities in the developing world are "colonial cities" and that the nationalist governments that took over and "not all in partnership with their own people." There is discrimination by race and ethnic group, by gender and by religion, she said.  The report's case study on immigrants in Paris states that in France, employers are "known to discriminate against those who lived in stigmatized suburbs" and "a similar study in Rio de Janeiro found that living in a favela appeared to be a bigger barrier to gaining employment that being dark skinned or female." Call it the Urban Penalty, or more precisely the Ghetto Penalty.

            Asked to crystallize the dangers of not acting on these issues, Ms. Tibaijuka said that "if the poor are not empowered, they are sure going to empower themselves." She mentioned crime and terrorism and even, if reporters heard her right, revolution. The World Is a Ghetto, indeed...

Footnote: There are 18,000 registrants for World Urban Forum III in Vancouver, June 19-23. In the run-up to the Forum, an online "Habitat Jam" was held. Inner City Press asked a Habitat staffer at the briefing for his view on "the Jam," as it was called. "It cost a lot," he responded, and did not yield as much input as expected.  Not mentioned in the report is the digital divide...

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