The United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-Habitat, is the United Nations agency for human settlements. It is mandated by the UN General Assembly to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all. The main documents outlining the mandate of the organisation are the Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements, Habitat Agenda, Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements, the Declaration on Cities and Other Human Settlements in the New Millennium, and Resolution 56/206.

The United Nations Millennium Declaration recognises the dire circumstances of the world’s urban poor. It articulates the commitment of Member States to improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020 – Target 11 of Goal No.7 – a task mandated to UN-Habitat.

As large as 100 million may seem, however, it is only 10 per cent of the present worldwide slum population, which, if left unchecked, will multiply threefold to 3 billion by the year 2050. The challenge is made more daunting by the fact that, according to UN-Habitat’s own research, the world’s slum population has already grown by 75 million in barely three years since the Millennium Declaration.

As our towns and cities grow at unprecedented rates setting the social, political, cultural and environmental trends of the world, sustainable urbanisation is one of the most pressing challenges facing the global community in the 21st century. In 1950, one-third of the world’s people lived in cities. Just 50 years later, this proportion has risen to one-half and will continue to grow to two-thirds, or 6 billion people, by 2050. Cities are now home to half of humankind. They are the hub for much national production and consumption – economic and social processes that generate wealth and opportunity. But they also create disease, crime, pollution and poverty. In many cities, especially in developing countries, slum dwellers number more than 50 per cent of the population and have little or no access to shelter, water, and sanitation. This is where UN-Habitat is mandated to make a difference for the better.