UN Habitat’s 9th World Urban Forum – What is Said and What Isn’t

I just attended the 9th World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur and many thoughts and learnings come to my mind on the themes elaborated upon and why these have been chosen and who is talking.

Sharing of experiences is one of the main purposes of this forum. Topics mainly discussed related to the New Urban Agenda adopted in 2016 and to the UN Sustainable Development goals.

Being RWI’s Team Leader for Inclusive Societies, I have mainly participated in seminars and sessions related to this topic such inclusive urban planning and local governance processes.

One thing that stands out, is that many talk about inclusion but who is included in an inclusive societies is often not clear. In discussions it has become evident that, for example, refugees and people with disabilities are sometimes but not always considered.

Many speakers stress here the need for civil participation in decision making processes and I have heard many concrete examples in this regard from both countries representing both the global south and north.

Also interesting to reflect upon has been researchers arguing that civil participation can never be equitable and therefore will not give a true picture of the will of people, concluding that civil participation therefore should not be something to strive for.

I can agree that this could be true in practice as it is difficult to design and implement such processes. BUT I would argue that when properly designed, civil participation is very useful and an important method to use the expertise of people and a way forward in building trust in societies.

Issues that scarcely are mentioned here are transparency in governance, the need to address corruption, accountability and human rights. These topics are addressed by few speakers in different panel discussions under themes like inclusive and open societies.

Why is it that almost all countries in the world have ratified international conventions on human rights and still don’t link these obligations to the SDGs and the creation of open, inclusive societies? Why is it that many argue that development and being inclusive cost money, yet still do not reflect up where the money goes?

Could the reason for not using rights as a basis for development be as simple as steering away from obligations that come with being a duty-bearer for human rights? An example made from one of the cities was that basic services such as water and sanitation was reaching 90 % of the population. However, as someone pointed out, the statistics only included legal settlements, thus not the big slum areas where hundreds of thousands of people are living. Taking a human rights-based approach is to see every individual as a right holder no matter what legal status that individual has.

In doing so the same statistics on access to clean water and sanitation would probably look very different.

To end my reflections from this forum, it is interesting to see the great presence of country delegations from Asia, Africa and to some extent also Latin America and the USA and the very few from Europe. Why is that? Given the estimate that in 2050, 70 % of all people will live in urban areas it is obvious that all countries will face challenges to handle this transition and we better share experiences in doing so.