Twenty years ago, in 1996, the UN General Assembly convened in Istanbul to discuss the issue of housing and urban development. They decided that it was important for every human being to be dignified and to have access to decent, affordable housing. The initiative is known as the “Habitat Agenda” and as a result, UN-Habitat was created.
UN-Habitat is a program meant to carry out the work outlined in the Habitat Agenda. Its mission is to promote the development of socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements and to achieve adequate shelter for all.
Lessons from UN-Habitat’s Initial Work
As UN-Habitat got started, the main question was how to get people out of poverty and give them the basics of life – water, sanitation, and housing? At that time, about 700 million people around the globe were trapped in poverty, and the initial reaction was that we needed to upgrade the conditions in slums. UN-Habitat members worked very hard to achieve the mission of adequate shelter for all, and some progress was made. Unfortunately, however, the work didn’t go far enough to address the problem of poverty and inadequate housing.
There are several reasons why the initial efforts of UN-Habitat were not as successful as they could have been. For one, the solution was reactive and not proactive. By 2015, we had gotten 200 million people out of slums and slum-like conditions, but we were not addressing the problem head on. Despite all our work, there are now currently 900 million people living in slums. Responding and reacting can only go so far when the problem is still running rampant.
Another thing that has stalled the success of UN-Habitat’s mission is the growing gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Growing inequality is a problem in itself, and we need the right leadership to address this problem. What policies do we have in place? How are we implementing them? Urbanization and housing goals require socio-economic transformation, not simply upgrading slums.
The Housing at the Center Approach
At UN-Habitat, we realize that the biggest mistake we made was to pull housing out of the fabric of urbanization. Although people need adequate housing, what they are really looking for is the chance to have a better livelihood. Housing is only a part of this. This realization helped us change our direction to a “Housing at the Center” approach.
A Housing at the Center approach recognizes that housing is part of the ecosystem of urbanization. With the right planning and governance, we can lead the way in urbanization thereby creating the socio-economic transformation process that we are looking for. This can help us achieve the goal of safe, inclusive, sustainable and resilient human settlements and cities.
Our experience has also taught us that achieving these goals requires a great deal of coordination, where everyone must work together on the mission. National urban and housing policies must be coordinated and supported by local governments. Local governments must work together to create coordination on a regional level. Coordination must be improved in the UN too. As it is structured, the UN is segmented into branches that don’t talk to one another sufficiently. If these branches can work together, we can better solve problems and reach goals.
Today, we are faced with a humanitarian crisis that is much bigger and much more intense than 20 years ago when UN-Habitat got its start. Natural disasters, manmade disasters, political conflicts, and other issues cause upheaval around the globe. Even in the midst of crisis, people want decent, accessible and affordable housing. This has changed the scope of UN-Habitat because, although we were created as a development agency, we now spend 60-70 percent of our work in humanitarian efforts.
Our efforts in the slum upgrading program have expanded from a narrow focus on housing to a complete view of the person within the context of urbanization. One new focus is on employment creation because when we open up employment opportunities, then it is possible for people to upgrade their homes and transform their lives. We also focus on skills training, land ownership, and giving people access to the mayor so they can have a voice in planning slum improvements.
Slum upgrading is still a promising method of reaching the goal of adequate housing for many communities around the world, but it’s not the end of our work. The Housing at the Center approach recognizes that housing is only one part of urbanization. People also deserve good education, public spaces, and jobs. By focusing on urbanization and the specific needs of people, we can reach the goal of decent, affordable housing for all.