Daniel Biau: "There is Room for Optimism but Certainly Not for Complacency"

The following farewell remarks were delivered by Mr. Daniel Biau, Director of UN-Habitat’s Regional and Technical Cooperation Division, at the Cities Alliance Annual Meeting in Mexico City 15 November 2010. Mr. Biau is retiring after 30 years in the field of urban development. 
 
Dear Colleagues and friends of the [Cities Alliance Executive Committee],
 
Mr. Daniel Biau at the 2010 Cities Alliance Annual Meeting in Mexico City.
I have worked for 30 years in international cooperation on housing and urban development. I have managed the technical cooperation division of UN-Habitat since 1994, established the network of UN-Habitat Offices around the world, initiated the World Urban Forum, the State of the World’s Cities Reports, directed a number of global programmes, guided the drafting of international guidelines and of dozens of reports, co-chaired the [Cities Alliance Consultative Group] during 2001-2004, etc.
 
I joined the UN by political ideal, impressed by its mandate and the respect it gets, committed to bring my humble contribution to the noble cause of the world Peace and Development. At the time of retirement I am still proud and happy to have served at the UN but I am looking backward with mixed feelings.
 
After joining UN-Habitat I realised quickly that the urban agenda was too broad to be an international priority.  This explains why during the last decades, the United Nations system has tried to give it some focus and to link it to clearer or simpler priorities such as sustainable development, democratic governance or poverty eradication.  This has not worked very well in terms of resource mobilisation and overall visibility.  But it has allowed better understanding of the on-going urban transition, to identify and highlight local policy options and to advise a number of governments on the best ways and means to develop and implement housing and urban strategies. 
 
In fact the urbanisation process of the developing world has been less chaotic than forecasted by the media.  Many countries are managing their urban development relatively well, particularly in Asia, the Arab States and Latin America.  Ideas and good practices have been shared, adapted and successfully applied in a number of emerging economies. Of course many other countries, particularly the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), are lagging behind and are unable to address the slum crisis. But the urbanisation of our planet should not be seen as an outright disaster. It has both positive and negative features. The United Nations has usually stressed the negative to raise awareness while not placing enough emphasis on the positive role of cities, including their impact on rural development.
 
We need to address this imbalance and to adopt a comprehensive and objective point of view.  I have described in various articles the major milestones of the international urban debate over the last 35 years, from the viewpoint of a UN manager and expert who has been personally involved in many stages of this journey.
 
We all know that the Urban Agenda covers by essence a cross-sectoral and multi-disciplinary field, and has to be related to many aspects of the economic, social, environmental, cultural and political life.  It has to provide the territorial or spatial dimensions of a number of societal challenges that the UN system tries to bring together at the global level, in an often scattered but consensual manner. This might be the weakness of the urban agenda: because it is too broad it cannot stand on its own and needs to be subsumed under – or associated with – more popular and fashionable topics (such as climate change). But then it loses its explanatory power, its comprehensiveness, its political value. Therefore urban specialists have no choice but to continue the struggle and frequently restructure this agenda in various ways to reach the world leaders.
 
I have followed these periodical changes in the urban discourse with some cynicism; I have even contributed to formulate that discourse.  I have seen physical projects replacing institution-building in the 70s, then urban management replacing projects in the 80s, then the birth of the governance paradigm, the increasing emphasis on local authorities, the abandon of the noble cause of shelter for all and its resurrection in the anti-slum MDG 7,  the death of traditional urban planning and the appearance of CDS at the turn of the century,  the continuous divorce between experts advocating participatory and incremental upgrading and politicians adept of slum eradication, the recent revival of climate change and green energy concerns, the permanent and rather fruitless search for simple monitoring indicators, the gender equality credo and its subsidiary debate on mainstreaming vs. direct women empowerment, the youth bulge vs. ageing societies, and last but not least the unbelievably persistent question on how to stop (for good!) rural-to-urban migrations.
 
At the City Summit (Istanbul, June 1996) governments argued about urban governance concepts and later refused that UN-Habitat be called “the City Agency”. They did not understand what was underway. Now they have moved forward. They have agreed that they must decentralise powers and resources to local authorities. Many cities have adopted the City Development Strategy (CDS) approach, sometimes without calling it CDS but by implementing participation and partnership principles as key ingredients of renewed urban planning. Very few have upgraded the urban slums but many, particularly in Asia, have improved the material lives of slum-dwellers by relocating them in the suburbs. Goal 7/11 has been met in only 5 years, instead of 20. Of course it was very un-ambitious but we (UN-Habitat and its Cities Alliance partners) are now goalless, orphans of the MDGs.
 
Indeed slums remain a major problem in only two sub-regions, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The rest of the developing world has progressed slowly but steadily and cities are better in spite of their tremendous growth. The urban population of the developing world increased from 1.35 billion in 1988 to 1.97 in 2000 and 2.6 billion in 2010. However cities have been able to cope and to become effective engines of development in most regions of the planet.
 
My interrogation is the following: what role did we – international agencies active within UN-Habitat field of expertise and particularly Cities Alliance members – play in this positive evolution? How did we help or influence the urban transition?  We implemented many projects but they were mostly drops in the enormous bucket of urban initiatives. They were useful but with little quantitative impact, they did not address the magnitude of the needs.
 
I believe that our influence has been essentially political and ideological. Ministers came to Nairobi and to other meeting places and heard experts repeating the same messages over and over again. In their countries our local experts adapted the same messages to the specific situations. Reports, guidelines, films, websites, pamphlets, articles, informal discussions, site visits, resulted in an overall change of mindset towards housing and urban issues. Country projects were seen as demonstrations of new approaches, not as ends in themselves. They gave us the required credibility and allowed our recommendations to be taken seriously, not always followed but always kept in mind as references. We have been an implicit think tank rooted in country realities, not a research network but a “policy-making organ” as so nicely characterised by the UN jargon.
 
I am convinced that we have played a progressive role by spreading and testing valuable ideas and concepts which were just a step ahead of standard policies and helped in due course politicians to respond better to the needs and expectations of their peoples. We have probably contributed to realise the ambitions of the UN Charter by linking and bridging “We, the peoples” and “We, the governments” in our area of work.
 
There is room for optimism but certainly not for complacency. Still millions of people live in abject poverty, still corruption is widespread, still wars, violence and disasters destroy human lives and settlements, still the urban environment is badly polluted, still social inequalities divide our agglomerations in ghettos, still international cooperation is under-funded… The combat for better cities and better life must therefore go on. It will remain on my agenda.
 
I wish the Cities Alliance more success and thank you for listening to my soul searching.
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