Sheela Patel
SPARC - Society for the promotion of area resource centers Mumbai, India.

At The Special Session On Habitat II

New York
June 8, 2001


1. I welcome this opportunity and honor of being able to address the general assembly of the United Nations today. I do so on the behalf of my organization SPARC and its partners National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan, two people's organizations, which are now working in many large cities and small towns in India. I also speak on behalf of the Shack Dwellers International, a network of similar community based federations in urban poor settlements and partner NGOs in 12 countries in Asia and Africa. We have representatives from South Africa, Peoples Dialogue Land and Shelter and the South African Homeless Peoples Federation, from Namibia, the Namibian Housing Action Group and the Namibian Homeless People's Federation, from Zimbabwe, the Dialogue on Shelter and the Zimbabwe Homeless Peoples Federation, from Thailand, the Urban Community Development Office and the Community networks of Thailand, apart from India. We are all here to understand how our governments are representing our interests in this assembly. Some of us, from Namibia and South Africa for instance, are part of government delegations.

2. Our cities already house many of our countries poor and this number will increase dramatically in the next few decades. In Istanbul five years ago, there was a strong commitment on the part of the international community and national governments to assist cities to be able to straddle this dual challenge - of ensuring the development of cities which are the engines of economic development and prosperity as well as of fulfilling the commitment to equity and social justice for all in cities. Evidence from many cities around the world suggests that most cities are unable grapple with increased numbers of their citizens who are housed in slums and shanty towns. Yet these problems cannot be wished away.

3. Rather than waiting for the governments to do something about the poor, the communities of the poor in these countries have got together and formed national federations and begun to save money, collect information about themselves and create solutions to their problems. They have begun seeking solutions for housing and infrastructure, the two most vital requirements for survival in the city. Cities are going to face huge immigration as more and more people migrate to the city. Since many of the migrants will be poor, the usual responses of evictions, demolitions, denying communities the right to live in cities will become a very dysfunctional response. What SDI member communities are doing are indicators to solutions that cities need to take on. These solutions are developed by communities and shared through community exchanges among the various countries. As a result innovative practices found successful in one city and one country are quickly functioning in other countries.

4. Thus, Shack Dwellers International (SDI) is a new and emerging organization which characterizes the changing world in which we live. Even very poor people know the need to have global connectivity. This organization, which is only 5 years old, has the potential to demonstrate many innovative practices that all of us, especially national and local governments and development agencies who are making investments in cities and their development, can take heed of.

5. Knowledge is power in this new millennium. Federated communities within SDI have solutions based on information rather than platitudes to discuss with their governments. We hope that each of you locate such groups in your own country and begin to explore new ways of working with them. There are many special and unique features of this form of organizational process:

a.    The most vital aspect being that women are at the center of all activity - driving the process builds their confidence to manage money, construction and negotiate with government and municipal authorities.
b.    Every country federation has a community fund which finances the development - it is started with community savings and topped with funds from government that is managed by communities.
c.    Communities create an information base about their cities and their communities - this is a vital basis for dialogue with cities.
d.    Houses and toilets all over these countries are being designed and constructed by communities who have involved their municipalities in this process as partners. Increasingly, government and communities have begun to work together to build houses and hand over neighborhood management to communities.
e.    Micro communities organized but alone cannot make a difference. It is the critical mass of many communities from many cities working together seeking solutions together which makes them effective as partners for municipalities to work with.
6. An example of our community advocacy - of how communities share their experiences with local and city governments - are the two exhibits of a house model and a toilet block in the lobby of the United Nations which His Excellency Dr Kofi Annan and Dr Tubijouka, the executive director of UNCHS, have visited. It is an example of how communities develop solutions and through such exhibits create dialogue with their cities. Many delegations and professionals attending this conference have visited this exhibit and we hope each one of you come and take away a new possibility of communicating with informal settlements.

7. Our message is that we want our governments to remember that most of the housing stock in the world today is designed, constructed and financed by the poor themselves. Examining what is being done and refining it incrementally, creating incentives to encourage communities to continue to do so with support of tenure is the only way forward. Creating restrictions and barriers and making such processes illegal is dysfunctional.

8. We urge our governments to explore new and innovative ways to develop partnerships with communities and to explore the rich resources that lie in integrated and well-knit communities. Cities in the future need peace and harmony.

9. The poor in cities need access to secure housing and basic infrastructure as they struggle for survival, and national governments need to assist cities to develop laws and regulations to do that. It means that our politicians and our administrators have to learn to listen and to dialogue with organizations of the poor to help manage cities better and create solutions that work for the city and the poor.

10. Habitat is a people's agenda. Can national governments and those committed to assisting in development support communities achieve solutions in Habitat that work for the poor? Or will all of us continue to see governments drive the development agenda in Habitat and make communities objects of development?