6 June 2001


Press Release

General Assembly Thematic Committee

Twenty-fifth Special Session

2nd Meeting (PM)  



The Thematic Committee of the General Assembly’s special session, addressing the broad issue of shelter and services this afternoon, heard presentations on city development strategies in Egypt; holistic upgrading in Medellin, Colombia; improvement and restructuring of spontaneous settlements in Dakar, Senegal; and community-driven sanitation projects in India.

The special session is reviewing implementation of the Habitat Agenda, adopted at the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II)(Istanbul, 1996)  The Thematic Committee was established by the Assembly to allow local authorities and non-governmental organizations to present successful case studies of sustainable human settlement in the five years since Istanbul.

Presenting the case study on Medellin, Colombia, the representative of that country highlighted the city’s recent high rates of violence, crime and drug addiction and said that, in search of higher living standards through investment, it had started the Holistic Upgrading Programme for Incomplete or Inadequately Service Communities (PRIMED), which brought together the national Government, municipal authorities and community organizations.  The City financed half of the project and facilitated implementation through municipal employees.  The national Government offered financial support and a partnership had been formed with the people of Germany.  It was a successful alliance that could be reproduced in cities with even greater problems than those of Medellin, he said.

Also stressing local and non-governmental participation in rehabilitating problem areas, including spontaneous settlements in Dakar, the representative of Senegal said that the goal was to ensure employment, provide basic infrastructures and improve services.  More than a million inhabitants of Dakar's slums and informal settlements had acquired security of tenure over the last five years and no longer lived in fear of arbitrary, forced eviction.  Central to the process that won their secure tenure was the establishment of a dialogue between those living in informal settlements and the authorities.

Following the presentations, participants commented on the use of such terms as "subnormal", "incomplete" or "marginalized" settlements, saying that clear definitions would allow better understanding of the problems.  They also pointed out that irregular and spontaneous settlements presented a delicate problem, which was often more difficult than construction of new housing.  Such problems were connected to the issues of land ownership, eviction, relocation and central

planning, among others.  Other issues raised included the questions of subsidies, the lack of adequate resources for sustainable urban development, and the possibility of creating a global habitat fund for implementation of the Habitat Agenda.

Presentations were made by Mohamed Ibrahim Soliman, Minister of Housing, Public Utilities and Urban Communities of Egypt; Alavaro Jose Cabo Soto, Director-General of Housing in the Economic Development Ministry of Colombia; Seydon Sy Sall, Minister of Town Planning and National and Regional Development of Senegal, and a representative of SPARC, a non-governmental organization based in Mumbai, India (on behalf of the SPARC, the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan).

Acting as facilitators in the discussions were:  Michel Delebarre, former Housing Minister of France; Josefina Vasquez Mota, Minister of Social Development of Mexico; and Lidia Matel Martinez de Jimenez, Director of National Housing Policies of Argentina.

The Thematic Committee will continue its work at 9 a.m. Thursday, 7 June, when it is scheduled to take up reports by the United Republic of Tanzania, Sweden, China and Poland.

Egypt:  Participatory Urban Development

A discussion paper prepared for the session on participatory urban development states that Egypt is focused on:  creating more urgently needed housing units; upgrading informal settlements; and environmental management.  Government efforts since 1996 to provide shelter for all can be illustrated by the “Mubarak National Project for Youth” and “Future Housing” projects.  These initiatives are aimed at constructing 140,000 dwelling units through a package equally co-financed by private investment and the residents themselves, through "soft loans".

The aim is not only to secure houses for disadvantaged households, but also to improve the living environment, services and standards.  This can be illustrated by such urban development projects as:  the “Manshiet Nasser Upgrading Project”, “Comprehensive Development for the City of Luxor”, and “Sustainable Ismailia Governorate Project”.  The Ismailia programme's participatory approach is being replicated in many of Egypt's cities and towns.

(The paper is available on the Conference Web site.  It has not been issued as an official United Nations document.  For additional information contact Mohamed Magd El-Din Ibrahim, Supervisor of the minister’s Cabinet, Ministry of Housing, Public Utilities and Urban Communities, 1 Esmail Abaza – El kaser El Anny, Cairo, Egypt)

As MOHAMED IBRAHIM SOLIMAN, Minister of Housing, Public Utilities and Urban Communities, presented Egypt’s case study, the Committee viewed a film that described the main challenges before the country as including the high density of urban population, traffic congestion, and poor city infrastructure.  The Government had adopted a programme to divert migration trends away from arable land, establish a network of roads, improve the water and sewage systems, provide housing and social services, expand the supply of potable water and improve the environment.  Special attention was being devoted to cultural and historical monuments.  Low-income and youth housing were among the Government’s priorities.

Mr. SOLIMAN then described his Government’s main projects, saying that new social contracts were being established between the disadvantaged and the affluent.  The Government was providing substantial amounts to subsidize several programmes, including the Mubarak Youth Housing Project.  To alleviate the State’s financial burden, along with new construction, the Government welcomed private sector participation.  It was also making efforts to rehabilitate abandoned and deteriorating areas.  For example, an upgrading project was being implemented in Cairo.

In Luxor, he said, technical assistance was being provided to local authorities in order to upgrade the living conditions and preserve the ancient monuments.  The Government’s efforts included investment promotion, micro-credit programmes, staff training and assistance for local businesses.  Special attention was being devoted to the promotion of environmentally sustainable urban development.  In particular, such an approach was being implemented through the “Sustainable Ismailia Project”.  Also important were non-governmental organization participation; slum upgrading; public awareness efforts; international cooperation and assistance; and comprehensive knowledge of the needs and cultural peculiarities of particular communities.

The Facilitator of the debate, JOSEFINA VAZQUEZ MOTA, Minister Social Development of Mexico, said that ongoing dialogue between various actors was of particular importance in Egypt.  Consensus and consultations at all levels were becoming increasingly relevant.  The government responsibility included the creation of financing mechanisms, and one of the important issues to be addressed was the balance between private and public investment.  She also stressed the importance of cooperation with international organizations, as well as regional efforts.  Monitoring and evaluation of particular projects was important for effective implementation of the agenda. 

In the discussion that followed, a participant stressed the importance of sharing experiences.  Another speaker raised the issue of creating an international fund for poverty alleviation, which would include the aspects of housing and urban development.  On gender, a speaker pointed out that three women were among the directors of one of the city projects in Egypt and she wanted additional information on that issue.

Among other issues addressed in the debate were:  the level of subsidies and debt recovery for the new housing; the role of civil society; housing for young families; relocation of families in response to natural disasters; and mechanisms to mainstream and upgrade pilot projects.

Responding to questions, Mr. SOLIMAN said that in the Mubarak Youth Project, for example, the subsidies of up to 55 per cent per unit were being provided by the Government.  The monthly payments were staggered over 40 years.  Some projects were entirely subsidized through private investments.  In other cases, the Government had provided land to be developed for housing free of charge, or for a symbolic price.

Regarding the contribution of the private sector to the Luxor project, he said that it was a question of local participation in the housing development -- it was an amazing example of both national and local contributions.  As a rule, the Egyptian Government was taking charge of providing housing for low-income population, allowing the private sector to take responsibility for fulfilling the needs of others.  The role of the Government was also important in setting rules for urban development, including the sale of land and units and setting the prices for low-income housing.  When relocating families for the purpose of urban development, the authorities took into account the distance to the place of work.  Efforts were made to build healthy communities not far from the original place of residence. 

Medellin:  Integrated Upgrading Programme

A discussion paper states that, owing to Medellin's commitment to community participation in reducing urban violence and crime over the last few years, 140,000 inhabitants of 30 inadequate settlements have benefited from the physical upgrading of housing and services, including the legalization of tenure.  With secure tenure for the first time, the community has been able to organize social programmes for youth aimed at further reducing urban violence.

In addition, community participation by all actors has helped to open up areas that were previously closed to the city police.  Medellin's "Holistic Upgrading Programme for Incomplete or Inadequately Serviced Communities" (PRIMED) brings together the national Government, municipal authorities, non-governmental organizations and community organizations.

(The paper is available on the Conference Web site, although not as an official United Nations document.  For further information, contact Carolina Barco de Botero, Department of Administration and District Planning, Bogota, Colombia; tel: 368-07-80; e-mail:

LIDIA MARTINEZ DE JIMENEZ (Argentina), facilitator, said subsidies were not only about financial matters.  A legal framework was equally important, as it could permit the purchase of land at a symbolic price.  A long-term vision and joint responsibility were also important where a couple had decided to take a micro-loan in order to build a house.

ALVARO JOSE CABO SOTO, Director-General of Housing in the Economic Development Ministry of Colombia, said the north-western city of Medellin was the industrial centre of the country.  Its population of approximately 2 million people lived in 293 neighbourhoods of significantly varied living standards. Forty-five per cent of the city's population, or 900,000 people, lived in the

100 poorest neighbourhoods and 8.1 per cent lived in the 29 wealthiest ones.

He said that rapid growth and disorder during the 1960s and 1970s had caused a large wave of migration and fragmented urban networks, resulting in social and territorial segregation, social inequity, inequality and weak community organizations.  Gradually, low-income immigrants had come to occupy the high-risk periphery and the mountainous areas of Medellin.

Recently, Medellin had experienced the highest rates of violence, crime and drug addiction, accompanied by the law of "survival of the strongest", he said.  That situation had been marked by the existence of gangs, vigilantes and self-defence groups, each imposing elimination on its enemies as a form of private justice.  That was the lesson learned from partial and ad hoc solutions taken in the past.

The city had formed an alliance with the people of Germany and the national Government in seeking to generate higher living standards through investment, he said.  The PRIMED coordinated the actions of all participating national and municipal entities, universities, private entities, non-governmental organizations and other groups.

He said that the German people, as major partners in the alliance, participated financially, providing a local technical director.  The City of Medellin financed half of the project and facilitated implementation through municipal employees.  The national Government participated by offering financial support to the municipality.  PRIMED was a successful alliance that could be reproduced in cities with even greater problems than those of Medellin, he said.

Ms. MARTINEZ DE JIMENEZ (Argentina), facilitator, stressed the need to pay attention to integrated programmes which replaced traditional approaches.  She also emphasized the provision of physical housing and social programmes, as well as security of tenure.

In the ensuing discussion, a speaker asked about the extent to which international financial institutions had influenced the internal processes and what time-frame they might have imposed, which, in the long term, could add to inherent difficulties.  He also asked about the description of the urban texture.  What were "subnormal", "incomplete" or "marginalized" settlements?  The use of terms that did not really describe reality prevented real understanding of the roots of the problem.

Another speaker asked how Medellin dealt with the problem of speculation, where people sold their land then moved elsewhere and started another shantytown.  What economic activities had PRIMED initiated to enable people to get jobs and pay for their houses?  Were rehabilitation costs included in its budget?

Referring to the disorder of Medellin, another speaker asked whether it was the responsibility of the municipal authorities or the community to maintain facilities established in ungovernable areas.  He asked whether PRIMED had been able to identify the underlying causes of Medellin's social problems before establishing its programmes in order to avoid a possible future relapse.  Another speaker asked how PRIMED had been initiated in light of the prevalent insecurity.  How had civil society come to participate?

Mr. CABO SOTO said the proposals and programmes arose from the necessity to deal with a population that needed help and that should not be discriminated against.  It should be defined as a community and the resources for solving its problems should also be defined.  Explaining the terminology used to describe the community, he said it was a means to point out its need for rehabilitation and find an acceptable standard of living.

Community funding, transport and other services formed a part of projects being set up on a regular basis, he said.  Once the important areas were dealt with, a network of services started to develop.  Medellin had not only sought to improve its physical conditions, but was also trying to improve from a social point of view.  An effort was being made to develop a new type of citizen, who wanted to change his situation.  That citizen participation carried with it rights and obligations, including maintaining a new standard of living in terms of safety, security and mutual support in safeguarding rights.

Summarizing the debate on this issue, the FACILITATOR said that the definition of the word “subnormal” was important.  It referred to people who had been unable to reach normal living conditions, but were willing to improve them.  Also important was the sustainability of projects and community participation in the development and maintenance of services.  Among the general conclusions to be drawn was the possibility of improving the living conditions in troubled areas, which could be integrated with the rest of the city.  Of particular importance was the role of government officials, who should be able to reduce the level of violence and increase local participation.  Given the importance of the social credibility of the projects based on community participation, adequate financing must be guaranteed.

Spontaneous Settlements in Dakar, Senegal

A discussion paper states that more than a million inhabitants of Dakar's slums and informal settlements have acquired security of tenure over the last five years and no longer live in fear of arbitrary forced eviction.  Central to the process that won their secure tenure was the establishment of a dialogue between those living in informal settlements and the authorities.  The project's success has led to improvements in basic services, including water delivery and sanitation.  The upgrading of the settlements provided training and employment opportunities for members of the community.

(See Conference Web site for paper, which is not available as a United Nations document.  For more information contact Ministry of Town Planning and National and Regional Development, Dakar, Senegal; tel: 221-8-23-32-78;

fax: 221- 8 23 62 45.)

SEYDON SY SALL, Minister of Town Planning and National and Regional Development of Senegal, pointed out the high level of urbanization in his country, with 50 per cent of the population living in cities.  There was a proliferation of spontaneous settlements, and a restructuring project was started in 1996 in Dalikor, a small city of 7,000.  Now the programme had been expanded to involve several other areas, including several neighbourhoods in Dakar, with participation of local, international and public sector partners.  The goal was to ensure employment, provide basic infrastructures and improve services.  Local and non-governmental organization participation was being stressed.  Taking into account the experiences of the pilot projects, the Government would now be able to launch a national programme with confidence.

He went on to say that land ownership laws had been amended to promote the new programmes, and activities to create revenues were underway.  The participation of women was also important.  Also, environmental matters and the cultural value of buildings being demolished must be taken into account.  Pilot projects had also demonstrated that it sometimes took a long time to carry out the rehabilitation plans.  Institutional machinery should be developed to resolve the problems of spontaneous settlements.  The problem of access to credit for the poor was among the lessons learned from the pilot projects.  It was important to deal with vacant land, already on the market, in particular, the question of guarantees against land speculation.  Combating poverty in the neighborhoods in question was of utmost importance.

The facilitator of the segment, MICHEL DELEBARRE, former Minister for Housing of France, said that spontaneous occupation phenomenon was taking place in many areas.  The rural exodus could further exacerbate urban problems, despite the efforts to rehabilitate troubled areas.  Poor services, poverty, promiscuity and poor quality of life were among the problems.  An important question was, could the projects be replicated?  Land tenure, infrastructures, mobilization of inhabitants and cooperation among all actors were important for success.  Sanitation, water and schools should be provided for the population.

A participant said that people in troubled neighbourhoods did not have control over their fate and did not trust the Government.  Reliable mechanisms were needed to understand the concerns of the people.  To have a successful city, all its elements must work together on a permanent basis.  People must listen to each other to produce a workable contract.

Irregular settlements presented a delicate situation, which was often more difficult than construction of new housing, another speaker said.  The problems of a population displaced by restructuring needed to be addressed, for relocation presented certain dangers to the people.

The most important constraint was the lack of adequate resources, and it was suggested that a global habitat fund be created for the implementation of the Habitat Agenda worldwide.  There should be concentrated efforts on behalf of the United Nations to gather the best practices, which needed to be pooled for the benefit of humankind at large.  Also addressed from the floor were the long-term effects of the projects being implemented, monitoring of their implementation, and good practices with regard to poverty alleviation.

Responding to comments, Mr. SALL said that the growth of population in Dakar was due mostly to the natural population growth, rather than migration from rural areas.  That problem needed to be addressed, especially because the suburban population was growing at a fast rate.  With good planning, it was possible to reverse the trend of rural exodus, but the solution was harder to find for the natural population growth.  Government policies should avoid putting the urban and rural areas in conflict. 

With good will, it was possible to create partnerships in cities, he continued.  His Government was promoting the participation of individuals and organizations, having set up institutional mechanisms to deal with restructuring.  Local authorities, municipalities and grass-roots organizations were taking part in the efforts.  Regarding land ownership, he said that his country’s restructuring projects had encountered many problems in that respect.  In Senegal, more than 30 per cent of cities were built on the basis of spontaneous settlements.  Restructuring projects tried to reapportion the land, dealing with the issue of its ownership and tenure.

He went on to say that the national fund for restructuring and financial regulations had been established with a State subsidy of $450,000.  It received the population’s financial contributions for the purchase of plots, also investing in new projects.  The money was being devoted to the development and infrastructure operations, the construction of community equipment, and provision of services.

Chairman of the Thematic Committee, SLAHEDDINE BELAID, Minister of Building, Planning and Habitat of Tunisia, spoke about the need to exchange information and best practices.  For example, a network for the exchange of information had been set up by several Arab countries, which was beginning to provide excellent results.  Perhaps such a programme could be replicated on a larger scale.

The facilitator, Mr. DELEBARRE, said that the information provided by Senegal was useful.  A number of horizontal evaluations were needed, if the approaches described today were to be implemented on a larger scale.  Democratic participation of citizens was needed to assure the sustainability of new projects. A proposal on the setting up of an international fund for habitats deserved attention.  Housing should also be considered as part of the investment structure by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

India: City-wide Sanitation in Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore

A discussion paper states that a major problem of most informal settlements is a lack of basic sanitation, which leads to various health problems.  In Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore, a partnership among three civil society actors -– the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), a non-governmental organization; Mahila Milan, a grass-roots women's network; and the National Slum Dwellers Federation -- has worked with city and state governments to provide comprehensive sanitation to informal settlements.  The activities carried out by these projects have led to training for the poor, which has in turn enhanced their employment opportunities.  The three organizations are also working actively with the city and state governments to provide security of tenure for the residents of these settlements.

(The paper is available on the Conference Web site.  For further information contact Sheela Patel, SPARC, Mumbai, India; tel: 91-22-3865053;

fax: 91-22-3887566.)

SHEELA PATEL spoke on behalf of SPARC, the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan.  She said the projects aimed to serve the 30 to 50 per cent of the population that inhabited informal settlements.  Those people lived in conditions of general sanitation breakdown, without toilets or proper water delivery.  In the last 15 years, the three organizations had examined various ways to provide basic sanitation.

Stressing that communities knew best what was best for them, she said that given ownership, they would value the projects even more than they would aid projects by municipal or state authorities.  In addition, municipal and state decision-making processes took too long.

Pointing out that cities would grow at an unprecedented rate in the next

15 years, she emphasized the need for change.  The success in providing improved sanitation in three of India's larger cities made it possible to inspire other cities to follow the same example, she added.

Ms. MARTINEZ DE JIMENEZ, facilitator, noted that the presentation, the first by a non-governmental organization, gave an impression of the strength and scope of projects undertaken by civil society.  She added that sanitation was not just a problem for the poor, but one that eventually became a problem for a whole city.  The invisibility of the problem ended when the poor got together and made demands.  The non-governmental organizations had found a way for community organizations to push their own solutions through innovative methods.

Local governments must find a way to solve the problems of the poor and the entire city, she said.  It also promoted community participation and opened space for their contributions in other parts of the city, as well as helping them insert themselves into the market through their productive capabilities.

In the ensuing discussion, a speaker asked whether the hiring of professionals and other specialized people was included in the cost of the project.  Another speaker asked for the actual percentage contribution of local government, non-governmental organizations and the community, what the new facilities would cost the community, and whether there was any evidence of

improving or deteriorating health.  What type of systems were used and how affordable were they? a speaker asked.  Another speaker requested further information on how the partnership between the municipal authorities and the non-governmental organizations were negotiated.

Ms. PATEL said in all three cities the cost of hiring professionals was a percentage of the construction cost.  The professionals had worked in long association with the organizations.  One important role they played was working with communities in designing sanitation facilities.

On contributions, she said that even if municipal staff cleaned toilets, the authorities had to pay them extra money, because their accountability system was unable to ensure that they did the work.  It was better when they were involved in the design and construction, because they understood how the facility worked.  Their involvement was seen in the superior construction quality and they taught superior technique to the community.

Predicting that diarrhoeal and water-borne diseases would go down, she said sewer systems in most major municipalities connected as many informal settlements as possible to a treatment system.  If that was not possible, a septic tank was used, based on the number of people it would serve and their understanding of the importance of maintaining it.

She said that for the last 15 years, non-governmental organizations had used grant funding to help communities.  The most important change was that municipalities could have contractual agreements with non-governmental organizations.

Ms. MARTINEZ DE JIMENEZ, facilitator, underscored the importance of creating health services for all residents of an inclusive and governable city, especially when such facilities became a focus of social interaction.  The development of infrastructure construction programmes benefited the community by giving greater exposure to their work and demonstrated its value, creating a "showcase effect".

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For information media. Not an official record.