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Wilton Park networking event: fifth session of the World Urban Forum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil March 2010


By dxw

Daily blog from Dr Roger Williamson, Programme Director at Wilton Park, attending WUF in rio.

Rio floods

Since I attended the UN-Habitat Conference on cities and housing issues (World Urban Forum V), Rio and Niteroi have been hit by disastrous floods as a result of the worst rainfall for decades. In one 24 hour period, according to some reports, 30 cm (12″) of rain fell.

The consequences have been appalling with up to 200 people feared dead by today (9th April).

Anyone who has visited slums is Brazil (or elsewhere in Latin America) will instantly understand why. The ‘informal settlements’ are often on the steepest and least suitable land for building. The homes and livelihoods of the people living there are completely and literally precarious.

When enough rain falls, a cascade of mud will often descend through a settlement carrying away anything in its path. A tin or wood shack provides not protection. Anyone, particularly children caught inside, is likely to be drowned and suffocated in mud – many dying instantly – Fresh Brazil landslide ‘leaves 200 feared buried’

On the first day of my blog, I wrote a little about Diadema, where President Lula’s Workers’ Party began its long march through the political wilderness of repression and dictatorship towards the ‘promised land’ of a democratic and inclusive society. Even his most ardent followers – perhaps particularly them – will agree that there is a long way to go.

But the case of Diadema, which I mentioned, does show that there are alternatives, even for slum dwellers to living precariously in a hillside and dying one day in a river of mud.

The housing project which I developed was on a steep hillside and the community negotiated with the PT authorities to regularise the community. This involved discussion with an architect to draw up plans for getting roads, electricity and sanitation facilities into each plot of land. As I stressed on my first day of writing, their key demand was ‘no evictions’. The mud dug out of the hillside to make terracing was made into stabilised clay bricks (mixing the clay with a proportion of cement – one to five or one to ten – I can’t remember). The bricks were dried in the hot sun.

The community leaders (some church leaders, some community groups) convinced a section of the community each weekend to take down their shacks to allow the roads to be constructed, the terraces to be cut and the basic plots to be developed. Families would then take responsibility for rebuilding their homes and gradually improving them.

The two links below indicate what a long process is involved in moving towards a city without slums, Diadema’s aspiration.

Thinking Spaces, Urban Places

There are alternatives to the poor being suffocated by torrents of mud. But these involve community organisation; planning; deployment of resources – and as Raquel Rolnik (Brazilian professor and UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing) argued in Rio at the conference, effective implementation of housing as a right. If housing is treated as a commodity and the assumption made that the market will sort it out.

Author Charles Morris, called his book Trillion dollar meltdown, then Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown – now he is up to Three Trillion Dollars.

As the head of UN-Habitat, Anna Tibaijuka never fails to stress, the crisis has been a “housing and finance crisis”, not just a finance crisis or a credit crunch. There are connections between Brazilian slum dwellers on less than a dollar a day drowning in a sea of mud and three trillion dollars disappearing into a financial black hole.

There are also alternatives – policies which can help, brick by brick, to provide housing for the poor. It’s a question of what the international community values more, good policy choices, immediate response and a long-term commitment.

A Final Footnote: “Believe it or not” – Projections for Asian Urban Growth to 2030

In the blog below on “More from Day 2”, I asked myself whether the figures I thought that I remembered from my conversation with Professor Brian Roberts could possibly be correct. Could Asian urban growth to 2030 really take out the equivalent of the land needed to feed 150 million people or about the area of Bangladesh? He responded to my inquiry whether figures of this magnitude can be correct or whether I had remembered them wrong or misunderstood:

“On the area of land for urbanization, in our book Urbanization and Sustainability in Asia published by the ADB we estimated that an additional 175,000 sq km would be added to the area of Asian cities by 2030. The area of Bangladesh is 134,000 sq km, which is the country that comes closest to the figure in Asia. The effect is that we are going to take a lot of land out of production for cities in the future. This raises an important question about where will the food be grown, given that most of this land is currently agricultural land.”

The message above emphasizes the spatial dimension. It terms of sheer population numbers, the book estimates an additional 1.1 billion people added to the urban population of Asia in 25 years to 2030 (a 70% increase), or 44 million per year, or 120,000 per day.

Even a quick look at the summary of the publication shows the huge challenges faced by Asia’s cities, in terms of space, size and speed of transition. Five examples of good practice are examined for comparative purposes: Curitiba, Vancouver, Singapore, Brisbane and Manchester. “The innovative solutions that Greater Manchester adopted during its urban development trajectory of over 200 years offer valuable insight for many Asia cities, which have had similar experiences in only 20 years”.

The book (mainly national case studies) edited by Brian Roberts and Trevor Kanaley for the Asian Development Bank in 2006 can be downloaded free – all 500 pages – Urbanization and sustainability: case studies of good practice

A footnote: “The Great Stink” and Infrastructure

In one of the Monty Python set pieces in ‘The Life of Brian’, the immortal question is asked by a bickering set of would be revolutionaries in first century Holy Land – “What did the Romans ever do for us?”

The BBC repeated the question with the What the Victorians Did For Us

Looking down on Rio with Professor Brian Roberts, emeritus professor from Canberra, he made the case that the Victorian visionary and engineer Bazalgette probably did more for the health of the British population than any other engineer.

In 1858, Parliament had almost ground to a halt as a result of ‘The Great Stink’, the unsanitary and foul state of the Thames.

It was Bazalgette who designed the sewerage system which is still in use today. 1300 miles (2100 km) of sewerage tunnels under the city. His design for the Embankment was particularly clever, hiding the sewage pipes, providing space for the Underground’s Circle Line and – above ground – the Embankment itself as a major road and tourist attraction for walking along the Thames.

I was reminded of Rio and that conversation listening to Melvin Bragg’s programme on Cities – part 2 & Seven wonders of the industrial world – in which inter alia, the great Peter Hall, author of Cities in Civilization, spoke about this achievement.

The challenge on a global scale is the same – how to finance the infrastructure projects needed in the countries of South! That really is it for my experimental city blog.

Day 5

Getting it together at last

This was the title of an Economist special report on Brazil (Nov 14 2009).

I am taking it as the motto for my final Brazil blog. (At school there was a class comedian who made us all laugh with his travelogue Alan Whicker impersonations …. “And so we say farewell to Sri Lanka, island in the sun …..”) He could also do the Wrigley’s Spearmint gum advertisement with Buster the Beaver whose “teeth had losts of work to do, like chewing tree trunks, right in two”.

The Economist works on a higher level of ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ school of journalism. Naturally, the review of business and finance focuses on the banking, industrial and economic issues, but does not obscure the other reality. “Like America, Brazil is so big and varied that it often feels to contain at least two separate countries …. This country has sophisticated economic policymaking and financial markets, as well as a growing collection of world-beating companies …..The other Brazil has a stubbornly high murder rate and a violent police force ….It is a place of misery where 17% of homes do not have running water and too many families live in home made shacks by motorway bridges …. What makes the country so exciting at the moment is that, thanks to its newfound stability, Brazil’s better self now has a much greater chance of prevailing.” (p18).

What about the efforts to sort out ALL the world’s cities? The agenda that brought 20,000 people to an intense, vibrant difficult-to-organise event? If the “grand narratives” (flash phrase for big stories) don’t work, what about the patchwork of initiatives from here there and everywhere; from the UN, from national government, academics, grassroots groups (should probably be concrete initiatives in this context), the planners and campaigners, the sitters and thinkers as well as the sit-in protestors? Can we get it together at last?

The Obama government was here at pretty high level with a substantial delegation. Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Housing was upbeat. He comes from the civil rights tradition. “What my grandfather could only dream about, what my parents could only hope for, has come true – we elected a black President to the White House”. Now they have plans and money and initiatives to invest – they too have big urban problems, the de-industrialisation of Detroit, the legacy of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but they have re-joined the international attempts to work on solutions and make the connections. Somsook Boonyabacha, with her work on Asian Housing Rights comes from the other side of the world, the grass roots and a firm belief that popular organising, local planning and mobilisation of local communities can do it. UN-Habitat has a Sustainable Urban Development Network (SUD-Net, a World Urban Campaign building partnerships with anyone who wants to build – including big business.

It also has its Scroll of Honour Awards to those who have made outstanding contributions to the work for cities – it can be city council or an individual. Two British names stand out form the varied and impressive list. The Big Issue Magazine (2004) and Lord Scarman (1990) – the who presided over the inquiry into and report on the Brixton riots.

In 2009, the Obama administration hosted World Habitat Day on 4 October The UN Secretary’s message says: “A troubling trend has emerged in many cities in developed and developing countries alike: the growth of up-market suburban areas and gated communities, on the one hand, and the simultaneous increase in overcrowded tenement zones, ethnic enclaves, slums and informal settlements , on the other. Stark contrasts have also emerged between technologically advanced and well-serviced business sectors, and other areas defined by declining industry, sweatshops and informal businesses.”

Two final images: Rob Muggah tells me that he was out at night between 1-4 am with the Brazilian peacekeepers as they sorted out the ‘night soil’ – you’d be surprised what can be re-cycled – as fertiliser or to produce methane. The method requires jumping into the cess pit and scooping out bucket loads of the ‘essential material’. The Brazilian has a big smile on his face. Rob asks him – what is it. The Brazilian says: “I’m at home”. There are people who will do anything to improve conditions for the vulnerable. In these situations you are probably better off with a Brazilian from a poor background than an over refined, academically trained anthropologist or army officer from Western Europe. Call it what you like, however big the plan, someone will have to do the dirty work. For those of you who would rather read about it in a university library, I recommend the Global Atlas of Excreta, Wastewater Sludge, and Biosolids Management: Moving Forward the Sustainable and Welcome Uses of a Global Resource (632 pp, UN-Habitat 2008).

Or – if you are a primary school teacher, you could go for: Tommy Has a Tummy Ache. (I feel for Tommy). He ‘disregarded all advice about drinking clean, boiled water. He regrets it immediately and suffers terribly. Find out what happens to Tommy in this exciting story’ (New publication from Habitat).

Second image: A man with a trim white beard stops me getting run over in the massive Rio rush hour traffic (from an emissions perspective, it could be worse, the Brazilians do have 30 year record of running cars and buses on biofuels). We get chatting, he helps me get my prescription from the pharmacy – and supports me as I explain that I want twelve paracetemol tablets not 12 packs. (Tommy may have a headache, but it’s not that bad). He came here as a social worker from Germany 30 years ago – “best decision I ever made.” He worked in Duque de Caxias, one of the poorest and most violent communities I ever visited. That was 1983, when the Catholic Bishop, Dom Mauro Morrelli was legendary for his work for the community, defending poor and organising his diocese to help the most vulnerable. A decaying urban industrial area – yes, my colleague says – it’s bigger and has got better (I suspect better does not mean that good). He now works mainly with rainwater technology. The profitable side of the business is for industrial units, sports stadia and so on. His socially committed side is applying the same basic ideas to the favelas. These are often built on the side of a hill. Many used to just be on mud, and when it rained the danger was that everything slid down to the bottom of the hill. Water is delivered in 2000 litre tanks. But his firm’s technology collects the rain water. As we experience worldwide more and more frequent “extreme weather” events, that manifests itself here in sudden huge rainstorms. Now many of the favels are concreted over, what goes in at the top of the hill gathers forces and hit the houses at the bottom pretty hard. Collecting the rainwater off the roof of each house prevents the worst; it also provides water which is clean enough for flushing toilets and washing clothes.

The world is changing. We are in the global South here, not the Third World. Political scientists are using new categories – first we had the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China), now increasingly it’s IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa). I’ll spare you the analysis and reasoning.

I have a mass of publications all over the Hotel’s business centre floor. The loudest coffee break I have ever heard is shouting in preparation for some business training session, or dealmaking do. I can’t explain The Case for Incremental Housing (Cities Alliance:Cities without Slums) or Future Megacities: Energy and Climate-Efficient Structures in Urban Growth Centres (I heard about that one from two German academics, one of whom was working with a Chinese central Asian city with over a million inhabitants – but I hadn’t a clue where it is and cannot remember what it was called – we were queueing to get into the conference complex in the line for metal scanning and security.)

It sad to see a conference being broken down. It all goes so quickly. The people who were so keen to promote their material a day ago are rolling their displays into reinforced tubes, wondering if they can justify chucking expensively produced material rather than carrying them home, taking down the stands. Animated discussion is happening around some stands (free drinks – not a sudden late surge in interest for this version of slum upgrading or city planning). The usual discarded leaflets, plastic cups and conference rubbish being quickly scooped into plastic sacks. The next stage is people all over the city in hotel rooms looking at a pile of material thinking: Can I carry it?; will I ever read it? Is it worth risking excess baggage? Thank goodness for the DVDs not the 200 page publications – are we allowed to play it on our systems at the office?

So we say farewell to Rio, city of tourist sights and slums, skyscrapers and overpriced cocktails, cable cars and dodgy pavements, charm and violence, serious analysis and clichés.

The urban future is here. There is enough to do to sort it out.

In the State of the World’s Cities, a complex picture emerges. The Millennium Development Goal related to cities, that of lifting 100 million out of slum conditions by 2020, has been more than met, 10 years early. 227 million have made this positive development – 172 million in Asia, with over 125 million of those in India and China. But this has not been enough to keep up with demographic growth and the world’s slum population is predicted to rise to 889 million by 2020.

What would it be like to be really poor in a third world city? Whatever difficulties those reading this blog have faced, it is not very likely that most have experienced this. I tried to find out during the conference what is really is like for the urban poor.

One street theatre type approach was provided by a group in the walkway between the different meeting halls. They had a box of coloured chalks and wanted to sell a piece of the city to anyone passing by – their point was that this is what is happening in Rio. Entertaining for a while – as you wrote down what you would do with your piece of Rio, but hardly a real insight.

Apparently the really radical Brazilian groups have a parallel congress just 300 yards down the road. I ask one guy with both badges what the difference is. He explains that it is like the World Economic Forum (Davos) and the World Social Forum (Porto Alegre). They also cannot or would not pay the fee (which was quite expensive for a smaller group – if his information is correct) to get an information stall at the World Urban Forum. I don’t make it there – he tells me anyway that if I don’t speak portuguese I’m not going to get far – these are real grass roots activists, not the ones with the education, languages and contacts to make it in the international NGO world.

A woman from a Liberian NGO explained the economics of being a street vendor to me. For example, you buy $20 worth of goods from a bulk supplier – whatever the commodity is, maize floor another basic foodstuff, or chewing gum. You divide it up into small quantities and sell it. You have to sell it all to make a profit. Perhaps you make $22 on the day. You have $1 to live and $1 to add to your capital. Perhaps you only make $21.50 and after 6 days you have $3 profit. Then you are ill. You eat less than usual, but in four days your profit is wiped out, you are back to square one.

In our session, Davious from Zimbabwe talked about the relief of getting security of tenure. He had lived in a shack with no legal right to be there from 1991 – 2002. 11 years. No -one wants to live like that. His home was four long poles, one at each corner for the uprights, and four more from which to hang the roofing. Walls and roof were thick plastic sheeting. But even if you are inside the shack, it is easy to slit the plastic with a razor and steal anything inside. The plastic needs to be replaced perhaps ten times a year.

Or take water and sanitation. I have had an upset stomach this week and have been more acutely aware than usual of the value of ‘improved sanitation’. UNICEF figures state that this is beyond the reach of 2.5 billion people. 1.2 billion “have no facilities at all and are forced to engage in the hazardous and demeaning practice of open defecation”. When I visited Kibera, Nairobi I was introduced to the concept of the ‘flying toilet’ and told not to tread on any plastic bags. Practised at night, the results are then thrown anywhere, into the allies or streams. You can imagine what it is like when it rains. You can also imagine the health consequences, especially for children playing outside in an area like this. Two residents of Kibera give a graphic description on line (YouTube + Kibera + flying toilet).

I was able just to go and buy the medicine prescribed by one of the conference doctors for the various conditions, but probably spent in 5 minutes in a pharmacy more than the annual budget of an average african health service per person for a whole year.

Another indicator of being poor in the city. I picked up a pamphlet from a Brazilian campaign entitled: ‘Homeless or with no documents, Everyone has the Right to the City’. This is an initiative of a coalition of Brazilian groups under the banner of the National Forum of Urban Reform, supported by Oxfam, Action Aid and FENAE. I ask one of the young helpers at the information stand what this means. Quickly one of the supervisors comes across. He is a professional interpreter and very well informed. If you have no ID, you cannot get a job in the formal sector. If you have no ID you won’t get a home or a loan. If you work in the informal sector, you have very few rights. If you have been employed illegally and get sacked and can prove that you have been there a number of years, it is technically possible that your employers could face a heavy fine. But then there is no way that any employers will touch you again – the names of ‘troublemakers’ are passed round. Anyway, what unemployed person, almost certainly with an interrupted pattern of schooling stands a chance of getting a lawyer and getting a case heard in a court. Forget it.

I ask what the situation of street children is. I remember a presentation by the great Brazilian researcher and sociologist Bettinho at a peace research conference here over twenty years ago. He estimated that there were 7 million or so street children in Brazil alone. Now the situation is better, but still bad. The worst excesses of police ruthlessness and brutality are a thing of the past.

For those who want to follow one of the most notorious cases, brought to dramatic life in the Film Bus 174, a search on La Candelaria + street children + murder will give you a trail to follow. La Candelaria is a famous church which used to let street children sleep there.

There are organisations who help the children get ID even without a birth certificate – that is one small step towards finding a foot on a precarious ladder.

At the Rio Forum the World Charter for the right to the city ( and/or was further discussed.

I mentioned the work of Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. That office has published two vital pieces of advice – How to Deal with Projects that Involve Forced Evictions and Displacement? – a small booklet based on 4 workshops held in August-September 2009; and They Want to evict us. What Now?
I hope you never need them.

Day 4

On communicating, sustainability, traffic, health and sanitation

I sit with two African women at breakfast. As an opener I ask “what was best in the conference for you?” The Ugandan woman who seemed so serious suddenly became animated. She had been to a session yesterday led by a Canadian on culture and inclusion. The coordinator explained that the session would be different. Everybody was given a coloured sticker and had to find their way into their group. Without talking. Smile – shake the head… thumbs up. It takes five minutes for the crowd to get sorted into groups. “Everyone wants to belong. They need a place to feel at home. Other people to identify with. Even if you have never met, being human you must have something in common. But more and more, you see that in times of pressure or situations of stress this belonging can turn nasty – look at the Kenyan elections and the clashes between ethnic groups in the slums.

At the end of the session, everyone had to write their e-mail address on a big sheet of paper. Then something they had learnt and wanted to apply in their own situation. Then they made it into a paper dart and threw it. Chaos. You picked up one from near you. In two weeks you had to write to that person, make contact – ask how it’s going.

Earlier she did another exercise. How are you on dealing with conflict? Express this with your body. Some reach up, others hunch down on the floor. Feedback time. Those with a high tolerance level for conflict are often the campaigners, who get things done by confrontation. They are not easily intimidated. But they are easily marked out as targets for reprisals. Low conflict tolerance. The listeners – they soak up information, they see what is going on. They try to reconcile. But they can be fobbed off or pushed around more easily.. Both have strengths and both have weaknesses. I tell them about the old comment (was it Rebecca West?): “People call me a feminist when I express opinions which distinguish me from a doormat”. They like that comment – women have put up with too much for too long they agree.

The day before I had been discussing with one of these two women and her colleague from the same country. One government, one NGO. They tell me that they are impressed by the Brazilians. “Why?” I ask. They say a Brazilian minister had been making a speech explaining all the big initiatives, high budget commitments to social projects, dramatic improvements. At question time, half of Brazil (many of them women) queues up to have a go at the minister. Come and see the conditions in our favela. It may look like that from your office, but down in the streets it is different. My breakfast colleagues say; “No-one would talk to an African minister like that. The women from the community would hardly get the chance for direct encounter. The advisers are deferential “Some ministers have many advisers, but they don’t want advice, they say”. No wonder it is hard to get things done.

I go to another session where an African government minister and his senior official are explaining a mass housing project. Renovating hostels and trying to improve the standards. Later in the day I meet a real specialist in the field who shakes his head and says: someone should advise them. How do you mean? There are people who know how to do these projects – you can do them better or worse. And someone should tell them how to do a PowerPoint presentation, And it’s not to put up your whole talk on a screen in small print and read every word. They want to encourage investment. Was there anyone in the room who was likely to invest? How do you get the balance right between international experts who have ‘seen it all before’ and can write papers on local/national ownership, the importance of consultation, the specificities of each context and the Ministers and officials from the South who are doing this for the first time, who really are trying to make a difference, who are proud to be independent and take decisions themselves? Where is the balance between not disempowering national ministers and officials – letting them make their own mistakes if necessary, and the important principle that poor people should not suffer while the government ‘learns on the job’?

At an evening reception for the launch of the State of the World’s Cities report 2010-2011 I sit with two urban planners. Planning is back in. One is Spanish, one Mexican – with a higher degree from Oxford Brookes University (lucky for me, I don’t have to improvise in mangled Spanish – I think of my friend Perico Rodriguez, former mayor in a city in Argentina, imprisoned by the junta, released as a result of Amnesty International’s efforts. He began all his human rights speeches: Excuse me, I speak English like Tarzan. He was actually a very good communicator. Speaking Spanish beyond the level of the apes from Tarzan’s jungle is something I’ve achieved, but Tarzan’s eloquence is a few steps ahead ). Anyway, the town planners. ISOCARP – membership organisations. The younger ones are into the entire agenda. Increasingly from all over the world. Want their congresses in the South. Into green transport – urban spaces, community design, experimental projects, intercultural exchange. Some of the old timers remember when it was all more sedate and European; they look back to moving round the European cities and not going too far out the comfort zone. Not so easy to hold the membership together. They give me their latest book (in English, thanks goodness) on cities and climate change – a subject I am really keen to do a conference on at Wilton Park, if we can get it together with a good coalition (including ISOCARP). The Earth Institute – founded by Jeffrey Sachs are up for it as well – a quick exchange of cards and an explanation of who we are with the speaker from there. Get in touch. I am not going to give away all my secrets and say all of my ideas and contacts – it is quite a crowded field.

Speaking of crowded fields, I feel a fact coming on. This is a crowded planet and we are pushing against the carrying capacity, particularly with current greenhouse gas emission patterns, growth and consumption levels (I hear Malthus waking up from a couple of hundred years’ slumber and the Club of Rome shouting from the wings: “We told you so….”

I pick up a publication from the Swedish booth in the exhibition centre. Cities – part of the solution. Highlights from the EU conference on urban development and climate change 2009. Qui Baoxing, Vice Minister, Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, China announced that we would need three planets if China caught up with US per capita emissions. His conclusion – no, not a massive space programme to find another couple of planets (I remember the German eco-sticker for the back of cars – we are using the planet as though we had a spare in the boot). ‘To save the climate, China must not follow the pattern of industrialised countries with massive use of private cars and high energy consumption. We need to choose a different path’. Another article in the same publication is headed: ‘Putting Africa on the agenda’. Not great editing (the article is pretty good). Africa is certainly on the Africans’ agenda. There is a network AMCHUD in which African housing ministers cooperate together. There is also a report by the Economic Commission for Africa and UN-Habitat , The State of African Cities 2008 for anyone who still has an agenda without Africa on, and has noticed that it might be a good idea.

As usual … I ran out of time before I ran out of things to say. More on some of the promised topics anon. I’m off to network with Brazilian Foundations.

Day 3

Wednesday 24 March

So – the day of our event on Affordable Housing. A Wilton Park event in an official UN meeting in Rio – uncharted territory – so of course I am wondering whether and how it will all work.

Having spent much of my life working for NGOs and church organisations, I am worried about ‘church hall syndrome’, where the projector breaks down and there is a shuffling of feet while someone pulls wires or suggests it might be the bulb, or for those of you who are older like me will remember, a broken piece of film flicks round and round and the lights have to go on. But everything is fine. The film produced by tve for BBC World works well.

As Wiston House comes up on the screen, with the beautiful English countryside and lush green grass, I wonder how the audience are reacting. If your home is a slum in Africa as is the case for at least some of the participants – certainly to my knowledge that is the case for a number of the Africans – can one suspend disbelief and think that anything useful for the poor of the world can come from such luxurious surroundings?

The film is effective. Anna Tibaijuka is forceful. Three of the panel are again with us as speakers – David Smith of the Affordable Housing Institute in Boston gets a laugh as he appears on screen. He is wearing the same suit and tie. Somsook Boonyabancha of the Asian Voaltion for Housing Rights, Bangkok has her usual direct and original take on the issues. Professor Raquel Rolnik of the University of Sao Paulo, who is also Special Rapporteur for the Right to Adequate Housing for the United Nations and I exchange an informal whispered word – she lets me know that she has more than one outfit to wear. We agreed before the session that she would speak English – and I also ask her for a Portuguese summary while we sort out whether our young interpreter will be needed. She does not need to translate everything, but has a small cluster at the back of the room. She is Anna Paula Baretto, who works with Slum/Shack Dwellers International and various other social movements in Brazil She has an MA from the USA but wanted to come back to Brazil to be involved with the various groups and movements.

Earlier that morning, in the big plenary session, Raquel Rolnik made an impassioned and dynamic presentation. Those who have come up through the popular movements have a powerful rhetorical style. We experienced big time with President Lula ditching his prepared speech and treating the packed conference hall like a political rally.


WP974 - Melin and Rolnik
Thomas Melin (left), formerly Lead Urban Specialist, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, now at UN-Habitat with Raquel Rolnik, Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing for the Human Rights Council, United Nations; Professor, University of Sao Paulo at the Affordable Housing Conference at Wilton Park, May 2009

Raquel does the same, to very loud applause in the morning plenary session. For her the issues are not technocratic issues to be solved. The President’s housing programme is called Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My house, my life). Raquel speaks in this spirit. She is contemptuous of talk of building millions of housing ‘units’. A home is not a box with a roof. Building homes is not like making washing machines – producing identical items as quickly as possible. Housing is a rights issue – not something only for those with enough money. Security of tenure is the key. How can you live with any sense of security if you do not know whether you will come home and find your dwelling crushed by a bulldozer.

Thirty communities are threatened in Rio alone because of the big sporting spectacles on the horizon, the Olympics and the World Cup.

She gives credit where it is due, yes progress is being made, but she insists – housing is a right, not a commodity. Her passionate delivery forces the message across and she emphasizes the point with dramatic gestures and her whole body. The strong Brazilian contingent – and many others give loud applause. She concludes with the most basic challenge possible. We have to decide: ‘Is there any place for the poor in this world?’

It is always different seeing people perform on home territory in their own language. But in the afternoon she is equally effective, in English in a much smaller room.

From Bonnie Hewson (UN Habitat) we hear about parallels and differences with microfinance and the need for new housing finance models. Bonnie has come to the UN system from a career in ‘real’ finance, the private sector. David Smith is both an optimist and a pragmatist. There is no chance of stopping the tide of people moving to the cities, but there is plenty to be done with providing affordable alternatives.

Rose Molokoane from Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) is co-chair of the world network and also leads the wonderfully named South African branch. I ask her to explain why she is FED UP. (The organisation is the Federation of the Urban Poor). She begins with the rousing ritual greetings of the movement and launches into a description of how, every two years, different themes are discussed by thousands of people at the world urban forum but the discussion is always the same. Whatever the slogan, slum upgrading, integrated approaches, women’s empowerment, the right to the city – the same litany of suffering is documented and the ‘powers that be’ move slowly forward.

WP974 Jockin
Jockin Arputham, President, Shack/Slum Dwellers International at the Wilton Park Affordable Housing Conference, May 2009

Capt Dilipkumar Mahajan is a surprise addition to the panel – the Indian World Bank speaker has arranged for him to speak instead of himself. He is Deputy Municipal Commissioner for Ahmedabad and has come equipped with a PowerPoint presentation and a film of the slum upgrading experience of Ahmedabad. There are initiatives all round the world and people keen to present them.

On to question and answer. Far too many people want to talk. I begin to wonder what the phrase ‘just briefly’ actually means. I think it means ‘you may be in the chair, but I am determined to say this’. Eventually, I just have to stop – the 10 minute warning and 5 minute warning came and went and people still want to talk and bring in their experiences. There’s a new one – the guy from the Joe Slovo settlement in Cape Town gets the floor eventually, then tells me that he is dividing his time with his compatriot. They are an interesting double act – one head shaved, and the other looking like a cross between Biko and Bob Marley. There is an irony in this – Joe Slovo was the first housing minister after apartheid who had a plan to build a million houses, but died before the plan could be completed. The settlement which bears his name is in dispute with the authorities and the authorities particularly don’t like the direct action methods they use – at one point they blockaded the main highway between Cape Town and the airport to publicise their cause. They have also used the courts.

In these discussions, you feel the passion of the communities, but you also have some sympathy with the authorities. Even progressive governments like Brazil and South Africa have inherited a huge pent up demand for housing. The struggles against military dictatorship in Brazil and apartheid in South Africa have led to genuinely popular governments being elected. But in the hard world of normality, miracles are hard to come by. Hard choices have to be made, priorities have to be set – so some issues get pushed down the list. People get frustrated, this is not why they suffered and protested – they march and organised and protested for change, but are still residents of informal settlements and see little improvement in their living conditions.

The business centre wants to close – we conference goers in e-mail contact with people round the world don’t want to leave. Ever so politely the young woman in charge of the room has already given us 10 minutes overtime, no she informs us politely but firmly “I will close in 10 minutes, OK.” Fair enough – you can’t begrudge anyone wanting to end their working day at twenty past ten at night.

Mind you – for Brazilians the night is still young at that time. Last night at 11 pm we were in a hugely noisy bar/restaurant opposite the famous ‘Girl from Ipanema’ bar where the legendary song about the head-turningly beautiful eponymous Ipaneman was allegedly written. She wasn’t there last night (but then I guess she would probably be 70 years old by now). No time to report on the session on urban violence or much else… My frantically typing late night colleagues are leaving one by one and the young woman from the business centre wants to go home. I look round. If I stop now, I won’t be last. One other typer left. Good night. Boa noite… Roger (and out).

More from Day 2
Night time questions, urban violence and affordable housing

Night time is a good time to sleep, and if you can’t sleep it’s a good time to wax philosophical. Even if you can’t sleep, it’s much better to be in a hotel than ‘sleeping’ rough in the doorway of a bank in this commercial area. Strong advice not to walk around after dark.

My first two questions for this ‘extra-blog’ are: Why do people do what they do? and What’s going to happen?

Now if I could answer those two questions the even deeper question from the old jazz//blues song would not apply: “If you so smart, how come you ain’t rich”? Except I am. On a world scale, I belong to what Robert Chambers, development economist, advocate of everything from rural development to rural development calls the 20% of over consumers in our world.

Why am I awake? I’m in the wrong time zone; I’ve got the inevitable sore throat and headache effectively spread by aircraft air conditioning and I’m over-stimulated by the city and the conference.

On Sunday, I was a tourist ( I prefer to call it a local urban exposure visit) with emeritus professor Brian Roberts – and Australian urban expert I met in the hotel gym – a speaker at the World Urban Forum. Among other things, we went up the world famous Sugarloaf mountain and looked at the city. As well as the stunning beaches, you see it’s high density and high cost land because of the steep-sided granite terrain. A place of rich and poor; hope and despair – but more hope now than under the military dictatorships and with a second Programme for Accelerated growth on the way from Lula’s government. A career spanning decades he has worked in ten capital cities and in one year clocked up 160,000 miles advising on urban policy. What keeps such specialists in the field going, year after year? How do they manage to make at least partially dysfunctional organisations work better than one might expect when the problems are so huge? He told me a lot on a day long travelling tutorial as we roamed the city on the free travel passes issued to all delegates. For example, if Asia’s cities keep growing at current rates within a few decades (three? four? as a tourist I didn’t write it down), they will take out an area the size of Bangladesh through their sprawling development and remove rural land that could support 150 million people (blame me if the figures are wrong!) Will it happen?? That depends on demographics and planning.

Next question: What is a blog? This is my first. Here’s my definition: a personal, impressionistic account available to the computerised world using information technology. So – built into my blog is the digital divide. In the knowledge economy, a new measure of exclusion is not having access to a computer through lack of money, electricity, education or skills.

This comes to you from the business centre of a hotel in a megacity half a world away from my office in rural England (thanks, Sue!) to wherever you are. We are the knowledge rich and well connected.

Anyway – back to the city and the conference. Friends will be surprised that there is a book that I didn’t buy. As a civil servant, the title interested me (up to a point): ‘What Motivates Bureaucrats? On our theme,cities, why do the city planners and housing specialists do what they do?’

But more interesting: why do people move to cities? The head of UN Habitat, Anna Tibaijuka from Tanzania has a good answer. The cities are vibrant places. They may not be paved with gold for you, but they hold out the hope of a better life for you, or if not for you, for your children. Others point out that the people on the move are often the most ambitious and ready to take a chance – moving from rural to urban, then often in an onward but not necessarily upward journey, abroad.

WP974 Anna Tibaijuka
Anna Tibaijuka speaking at Wilton Park Affordable Housing Conference, May 2009


In the hotel lobby, the Brazilian travel agency for the conference, Tamoyo, has set up stall. I thought the young guy staffing the stall is a local; but no, he’s also a Tanzanian, Mohammed, we joke. I greet him in all the languages that I know that he knows. Salaam aleikum – Arabic; hi – English international; tudo bem -literally “everything good?” Brazilian Portuguese – he’s helping me with the nasal pronunciation and Jambo – Swahili. The first three words are the easiest investment in any language.

He’s friendly and doesn’t try too hard to sell me the trips. He tells me about the Sugarloaf (been already) botanical gardens (interesting, no time, I’m working), Christ the Redeemer, the huge statue overlooking the city (been before); Stern the jewellers. You can visit the showroom and see the precious stones being cut and the gold settings being made. No, I say, I went in 1983 and I’d be tempted to spend too much money. Anyway, he tells me about Stern the jeweller. A Jewish emigre fleeing Nazi persecution, who arrived in Brazil with an accordion and not much else, so he tells me. He sold the accordion and started dealing in the amazing semi-precious and precious stones. He prospered. More expensive stones, bigger turnover, settings to fit all prices. Moving up the value chain. The recipe for personal wealth (and indeed a model for development in the South – processing goods with comparative advantage and export-led growth. Mohammed is interested in ideas and history and soaks up information, ad well as teaching anyone who will listen. He’s made the move.- and e-mails his mum and brothers (“too many boys in one place, we had to spread out”). He has family around the world; one was educated in a Russian university).

OK, so my point is? I’ll tie it back in to cities and meetings and some facts from my new urban library.

At last night’s dinner for Brazilian Wilton Park ‘alumni’, we had think tanks and personal contacts and a cluster of specialists from Viva Rio.

Small arms specialist Robert Muggah was also there (now in Brazil via Canada, Switzerland (Small Arms Survey) and Haiti – seven times Wilton Park veteran even though he’ s still young. He was wearing the T-shirt. I spared him the joke – I’ve used it before. What’s the government policy on small arms? Wear a short-sleeved shirt.

Their seminar is today. Check out the Viva Rio website. It is an inspirational movement trying to bring peace to the city. They also have links to the Brazilian peacekeeping operation in Haiti, they have advised Colombia on their problems with FARC, they work to understand the links between child soldiers and getting slum kids out of the drug gangs. The keys – easy to list, harder to do: other jobs, alternative livelihoods offering hope and stability, reintergration into the community. We strike a deal. They’ll come to the Wilton Park event Affordable Housing; I’ll go to their’s on Urban Violence Reducation; from local to global. (Geneva Declaration, Small Arms Survey, UNDP, Quaker UN Office).

Nearly forty years ago, President Robert McNamara launched the World Bank’s housing assistance programmes. Why? “If cities do not deal more constructively with poverty, poverty may begin to deal more destructively with cities.” (World Bank, Thirty Years of World Bank Shelter Lending: What have we learned? 2006). Yes, it happened and it happens.

Next question: What’s a slum dwelling? It lacks one or more of the following: durable housing; no more than 3 people to a room; access to improved water (sufficient, affordable, available); access to improved sanitation (private or public); secure tenure. (UN -Habitat definition, slightly simplified – Urban World Dec.2009-Jan 2010, p 25.)

How many people live in slums? You try counting. The best at doing it are the community organisations like Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) who know that knowledge is the best basis for effective leverage in negotiating housing rights. ‘Evidence-based policy’ to the civil servant who also thinks that commissioning accurate statistics is too difficult, too time consuming, too expensive in times of tight budgets. SDI do it quickly, cheaply and well. They have trained lots of poor people who know their area and they need the data for campaigning.

So how many people do live in slums? Habitat’s answer. 1.15 billion people; one-sixth of humanity. How many will it be if we hit a 9 billion world population? Let’s not find out. How to avoid it? Educating girls and women, access to affordable family planning and renewed attention to demographics.

581 million slum dwellers in Asia; 199 million in Sub-Saharan Africa; 120 million (30% of Latin America’s population). The situation is worst in Sub Saharan Africa where being born urban or moving to a city is almost the same as ending up in a slum. (Bitat annual Report 2009, p 22).

By 2030 on current projections, 3000 000 000 (three billion) more people will need access to adequate housing. Who is going to build nearly 100,000 housing units per day. India alone will need an additional 40 million housing units in 20 years.

Isn’t everyone in favour of cities without slums? Well no, actually.

Anna Tibaijuka (see her new book Building Prosperity: Housing and Economic Development, Earthscan 2009) always stresses that the recent economic meltdown was/is a ‘housing and finance crisis’ which began in the US sub-prime market. But people made money from over-extending credit in the richest country in the world. If the US can’t provide adequate housing for its poorest people how can a poor African country?

WP974 Roger Williamson with Ann Tibaijuka
Roger Williamson with Ann Tibaijuka at Wilton Park Affordable Housing Conference, May 2009


When we were planning for our 2009 housing conference at Wilton Park, Joshua Kaiganane showed me round Kibera, Nairobi’s best known slum. 800.000 people living in shacks in the area of a golf course (and yes, there is a nice golf course nearby, and a worldclass medical research clinic the other side of the road and the other side of a wall) and yes, the former President does live in a big house nearby and no, the residents of Kibera get no benefit from any of the above.

So – why Kibera? People need somewhere to live. Pay back period from building and renting out a shack is only 9 months. There is money to be made in terrible housing for desperate people with no alternative. Do you want your office cleaned in the commercial heart of Nairobi at 5 in the morning. A slum within walking distance keeps labour costs down.

Addressing slums is a financial problem and it is also political. You are working against vested interests who profit from slums.

Anyway, enough for now. Thanks for sharing my impressions and my new library. More sessions today. A bit of impromptu distribution of flyers round the stall to generate interest in our event (I expect it to be packed). There are many impressive stalls in Warehouse 5 : UN agencies, governments from around the world; campaigning groups and networks, African and Brazilian handicrafts. City, water, sanitation, housing, development – you name it. We even have the 1968 timewarp – Hare Krishna devotees, a Marxist bookstall and one selling Che Guevara t-shirts (revolutionary chic or serious politics). We are in Latin America, after all. There are rich and poor – and different kinds of struggle continue.

So wish me well for our big event. Today’s the day FOR affordable housing and AGAINST urban violence …. Now for breakfast and another busy day.

Day 2

Tuesday 23 March

21,000 people trying to make sense of the urban present – half the world´s people now live in cities. Today in the port alongside the huge warehouses where the meetings are being held, huge cruise ship announces its departure with three blasts on the siren which you feel as well as here. Passengers whistle as the last young couple run to the ship. It is sticky and hot. In the late afternoon the heat is relieved by a breeze from the water. The long, graceful bridge to Niteroi stretches across the horizon. As the liner pulls away a fully loaded cargo ship from the China Shipping Line pulls in. Coastal cities are drivers of growth – globalisation in practice.

The latest analyses also suggest that urban corridors are a key to economic development. The Sao Paulo to Rio mega-region is home to 43 million people. In most atlases it is an inch or two. A thousand miles (Beijing,- Tokyo – Pyongyang – Seoul) includes 80 cities with almost 100 million people.

The largest 40 mega-regions are a pinprick on the schoolroom globe, but are home to 18% of the world´s population. They are responsible for 66% of the world’s economic activity and about 85% of technical and scientific innovation.

How can we make sense of the complexity and contradictions? Two ways which don´t work are rhetoric (“it is clear that the metanarratives are no longer plausible”) and clichés (“there is no silver bullet”) . I have never met anyone who did believe in a silver bullet to solve any major problem, nor do I know why people in business push envelopes or think outside the box (unless of course you are an undertaker).

The book which serves as the conference programme lists 150 networking events (our one on affordable housing is tomorrow) as well as the big ‘set piece’ plenaries. Some delegates are frustrated – but in different ways. The South African activist with dreadlocks from the Jo Slovo settlement you see from the main freeway by Cape Town airport said that he thought this would be a place where the voice of the communities would be dominant, but who concluded that the talking elites are in charge here as well as at home. Others have clocked up many years of experience and hundreds of thousands of airmiles, but wonder why the solutions offered are so partial and unsatisfactory.

In the midst of it all there are real glimpses of new forms of solidarity. Plans for new funding initiatives to address the challenges of ‘chaotic urbanisation’ – mixes of community action, progressive local government, housing administration which want to get things done and parts of the private sector.

There was also a challenging session on Haiti, led by two government ministers from Brazil, with the Prime Minister of Haiti, Margaeta Wahlstrom and Anna Tibaijuka, who runs UN-Habitat pledging the support of the international community. Even before the devastating earthquake, Brazil was heavily involved with Haiti, through 1500 peacekeepers. Under the heading ‘Building Back Better’, the Prime Minister of Haiti outlined the scale of the disaster (“one of the biggest urban disasters of modern times” – Anna Tibaijuka). Margaretha Wahlstrom stressed the need not to build the old risks and vulnerabilities back into the recovery and rebuilding. Haiti is one of the poorest and most vulnerable countries on earth, particularly exposed to cyclones, with high levels of urban deprivation, one faultlines for earthquakes – you name it. The new response, the passion and commitment of the Brazilian government ministers is a sign of a new form of South-South solidarity. I believe that it is more than fine words.

So now – just time to change to meet Brazilian participants from previous Wilton Park conferences with the British Consul General and think about tomorrow’s networking event on Affordable Housing. The signs are good that people are interested. The mayor of Harare greeted me warmly, remembering his visit, as did an official from the Tanzanian government who attended with his minister. Shack/Slum Dwellers International have adopted the event as one of theirs. We’ll see who else comes. Somehow or another, I have met most of the speakers in the milling crowds as we go from event to event. And by the way – the figures are from the new State of the World´s Cities, just launched by UN-Habitat, published by Earthsacan. More tomorrow. …..

Day 1

Monday 22 March

The usual problems with getting everyone into the conference centre on the first day. This is UN-Habitat´s biggest WUF yet – 21,000 registered. Fortunately  though, the opening ceremony started late so we all got to hear President Lula. He was in an empassioned and upbeat mood. Handing back his written speech to his staff, he spoke form the heart. A former union organiser, now presiding over one of the most dynamic emerging economies in the world, over 80% urbanised,with nearly 200 million citizens. In February alone the economy produced 209,000 jobs – proper jobs, with contracts, not casual labour.

Nearly 30 years ago, in 1983, with Brazil still under military dictatorship, I visited the first urban area/municipality, where Lula´s Workers Party (PT) took over the administration. That urban area Diadema is in the heavy industry area near Sao Paulo. The people of Diadema had never expected anything good from the Town Hall – many were squatting illegally on almost uninhabitable land on the side of a hill. But working with the community, they built roads, got toilets installed and got electricity connections in – and the community had to take down and rebuild their houses to do it. Their first insistent point was ´no evictions´and there were none. That´s where it began – 20 years of organising and now 7 years of government, Very impressive.

Other parts of the world still have the lessons to learn. Jockin Arputham founder and co-president of Shack/Slum Dwellers Internations reported in a session on the struggle of the people of Dharavi – half a million people, with many jobs created, informal shops. Another Wilton Park conference speaker, David Satterthwaite summed up the meeting. The main lessons included that it is better and cheaper to work with communities, rather than the evictions and struggles which have characterised slum clearances around the world. I also met Raquel Rolnik, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing and Rose Molokoane of the South African Federation of the Urban Poor (FED-UP) who both attended the Wilton Park housing conference last year.

A very full day, lots of impressions. The conference itself is held in a series of huge warehouses down on the docks – an appropriate setting for a conference on strategies to address urban problems and decline. The US are now taking the issues more seriously and have sent a higher level delegation than before.

I am now being thrown out of the hotel business centre, so perhaps it is time to leave it there …. more tomorrow.

UN Habitat news

The UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum has quickly established itself as a vibrant and essential gathering on all issues relating to cities and the built environment. For the first time, Wilton Park is organising an event at the WUF.

Date of event: Wednesday 24 March 2010
Timing: 14.00-16.00 (2pm – 4pm)
Venue: Meeting Room W2-13

The meeting will continue the lively exchanges at the May 2009 Wilton Park conference.

The networking event was designed:

To show part of the BBC World Debate ‘Housing the Future’ produced by tve – broadcast 1st August 2009, filmed at the Wilton Park Conference, featuring Anna Tibaijuka and other speakers from the conference (15 minutes);
This sets the scene of the urban housing crisis and introduces key issues

To hear short presentations updating the issue from UN-Habitat and international experts (5 minutes each)
The Panel was:

  • Barbara (Bonnie) Hewson, Chief of the Urban Finance Branch, UN-Habitat, Nairobi
  • Raquel Rolnik (invited), Professor, Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning – University of São Paulo; Special Rapporteur for the Right to Adequate Housing for the United Nations – Human Rights Council, Geneva
  • Somsook Boonyabancha, Secretary General, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, Bangkok
  • David Smith, Chief Executive Officer, Affordable Housing Institute, Boston
  • Mr Dilip Mahajan, Deputy Commissioner of Ahmedabad

To continue the discussion of models and alternatives for financing (60 minutes).


Further information

Information on the Wilton Park May 2009 conference 

UN-Habitat and the World Urban Forum

The annual State of the World’s Cities Report has just been published.