Interview with Anna Tibaijuka, UN-HABITAT Executive Director

Anna Tibaijuka, UN-HABITAT Executive Director, addresses WUF 5 in Rio de Janeiro

18 June 2010 – Anna Tibaijuka, a Tanzanian economist, has headed the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) since 2000 when she became the first African woman elected by the General Assembly as Under-Secretary-General of a UN programme.

UN News Centre: Today more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. How can developing countries and the UN overcome this challenge?

Anna Tibaijuka: UN-HABITAT is of course mandated within the UN agencies, programmes and funds to work precisely on this reality of settlement patterns and, as you have observed, 62 per cent of people are now in cities and towns and by 2030 even continents like Africa which are still predominantly rural will no longer be in that situation. So the United Nations is working together to assist Member States and communities and partners to cope with this new settlements reality; the demographic traThe target should be to halve the proportion of people living in slums and squatter settlements.nsition of human beings becoming urban creatures; the challenges but also the opportunities it presents.

UN News Centre: The international community is increasingly focused on sustainable development issues. How does it change the work of UN-HABITAT?

Anna Tibaijuka: The World Urban Forum has come of age as the premier conference and marketplace to discuss opportunities, challenges, best practices in sustainable urbanization. The Rio [World Urban] Forum, which has just concluded in Rio de Janeiro, focused for example on the challenges of inequality and social harmony in cities. We call it bridging the urban divide because at the moment I am afraid we have a less than satisfactory situation with 1 billion people living in slums and squatters settling without access to safe drinking water, sanitation and durable housing, without any security of tenure, being victims when their shacks are razed by municipal authorities. So basically the challenge is that we want a win-win situation for everybody. Right now we have the Shanghai Expo going on which is focusing on Better City Better Life. Sustainable urbanization is a prerequisite for sustainable development and this will require inclusion.

UN News Centre: What are the key messages that you delivered at the Shanghai World Expo? Why is it important for UN-HABITAT to be there?

Anna Tibaijuka: With UN-HABITAT, we are the lead agency in the UN pavilion because the Expo is focusing on Better City Better Life and in my statement there I launched what we call the UN Pavilion Lectures, which will be a speakers’ corner debating how we secure our urban future. I have left the following message: that we are confronted with the challenges of the environment, the economy and equity and that you have to move with these three pillars together. The pillar of urban sustainability is ecology, economy and equity.

Inclusion is about empowering the marginalized. Inclusion is looking at the disadvantaged groups, normally women, young people nowadays, the youth. In many of the developing countries, 60 per cent of the people are below 30 years old. So if you do not really have clear soci-economic policies to include them, to provide them with livelihoods, to provide them with education and vocational training, how will they improve their lot?

Inclusion is about also distributing national wealth because, regrettably of course, under rapid globalization and liberalization there has been a tendency for economic growth accompanied by inequality.

And, as we speak now, you know we have the challenge of climate change. We are now aware that disasters are on the increase. There is a lot of vulnerability. In many cities, coastal cities, they are under tremendous stress should there be sea-level rise, so the whole question of urban planning, the whole question of reducing vulnerability, disaster mitigation becomes central. And then of course you have the economy and that leads to job creation, employment, international trade and regional trade, so urban economies have to be lively.

UN News Centre: You were the first African woman elected by the General Assembly as Under-Secretary-General of a UN programme. Are you a good example of gender empowerment?

UN-HABITAT Executive Director, Anna Tibaijuka visits China’s earthquake disaster region

Anna Tibaijuka: As an African woman who so far has had the honour and the privilege of running an UN programme and, in my view, quite successfully with a lot of support, I have been empowered and I have been supported. Clearly I could not do this alone. You need partnership, you need support from Members States, from your colleagues, the staff, the Secretary-General of the day who gave me the chance to lead and show that even African women could actually do our work and do it well. So this is empowerment. Basically, empowerment is giving people a chance to prove themselves, especially the marginalized groups.

UN News Centre: As a young woman, did you think that you would one day lead a UN agency?

Anna Tibaijuka: To be honest with you I did not because I am actually of that generation of Africans born, bred and brought up in the countryside. The only reason I went to school was because my father decided that [I could go to] this missionary school... So he was progressive in that sense, and then the rest follows, so there was a lot of missionary activity in my home area and through mission schools I got a chance and then one thing leads to another. But basically it was through education that I was able then to come and end up in the United Nations. It was not something that I consciously worked for.

I am an economist by background but also a wife like many other women. It so happened that after my training in Tanzania, my late husband was a Tanzanian diplomat and he was working in Stockholm so as a very young bride I found myself there and I did not know what to do, so I started to go to school. As you know Sweden is one of the most progressive countries. You could study. Education was free and after that I went back to work in my country as a professor in academia, but it was very clear for me in 1998 that we needed to put in our perspective at the international level so I joined the United Nations to work on trade issues. I was recruited by UNCTAD [UN Conference on Trade and Development] as the director of the Least Developed Countries there, but then my tenure there was short-lived… [then Secretary-General] Kofi Annan said that I have to come to Nairobi to run this Habitat programme.

UN News Centre: What are the key challenges and targets regarding slum dwellers, of which there are millions worldwide?

Anna Tibaijuka: The MDG [Millennium Development Goal] target for UN-Habitat was grossly inadequate. In fact it was a conceptual omission. The target stated “to make significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers,” but this is made at a time when you already had 1 billion slum dwellers. So you are trying to improve the situation of 10 per cent of the slum dwellers. I have always argued, and this continues to be unfinished business on the part of Member States, that the target should be stated as a proportion. The target should be to halve the proportion of people living in slums and squatter settlements, which is really more in line with the ideal of cities without slums that was endorsed in the Millennium Declaration.

So while the Millennium Declaration was correct and endorsed the principle of cities without slums, when it came to the MDG, the slum target was poorly formulated into a number. I would like to say that much as we are happy the 100 million [people out of slums] have been proved, it is no cause for celebration. Because the net effect between 2000 and now is that there have been about 60 million new additions and they will continue [to grow].

What is more, these 100 million slum dweller target has been reached by only a few countries – China and India mostly… But if you look at sub-Saharan Africa, the number of slum dwellers is increasing by the day. The same goes for South-East Asia and other places. So I would like to say that we really applaud the gains made but the target was itself problematic from the outset.



Read related news story:

NEWSMAKER: Equal opportunity key to sustainable urban development – UN official