Clare Short: 'We need to shake ourselves and mean it'

Clare Short, chairperson of Cities Alliance and former U.K. secretary of state for international development. Photo by: The EITI / CC BY-SA

Mass urbanization is one of the defining issues of the century — and it is set to continue. By 2030, around two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities, but cities are struggling to keep up with the pace; around 40 percent of the global population will need proper housing and access to basic infrastructure and services, such as access to clean water and sanitation systems. This is already a major issue, and in some cities today up to 80 percent of the population lives in slums.

According to U.N. Habitat, better housing and slum upgrading will contribute to reducing social inequalities, trigger local economic development, and also improve urban safety, rather than remaining “islands of informality, social exclusion, poor housing and underdevelopment.” But, if housing is put at the heart of action in urban areas, then it is the residents of informal areas that should play a bigger part in planning for the future of slums.

Slum Dwellers International, a network of organizations of the urban poor, say that there can be no inclusive or equitable development planning and investment, nor effective city governance if the increasing majority of the residents of informal settlements remain unaccounted for. To address some of the issues facing cities, SDI works with low-income urban communities to collect data to map informal settlements, in order to help build partnerships between communities and government.

As the highly anticipated Habitat III summit begins this week, SDI — along with other stakeholders across the development community — are calling for inclusive urban habitat and infrastructure solutions. One aspect of their community-driven informal settlement upgrading process means data are incorporated into city planning, so the needs of residents that have previously been invisible in the planning process can be brought to light.

Devex spoke with Clare Short, chairperson of Cities Alliance management board, a former U.K. member of Parliament and secretary of state for international development, about the need to put housing at the center of Habitat III discussions.

Short shared her thoughts on what a truly sustainable city would look like, the importance of putting women at the heart of urban planning, and action items for success on the Sustainable Development Goals. Here are some highlights from that conversation:

What would you say is fundamental to achieving sustainable urbanization?

It has got to be driven by local government. At the moment neither development actors nor the governments in developing countries give priority to local government, [which] tends to be extremely weak, have no financial resources, and very few people [working] with the necessary skills. We need to empower local governments in both skills and some kind of financial [support], along with a willingness of governments to decentralize.

Slum Dwellers International is a network in Asia and Africa of organized slum dwellers, led by women, but that doesn't exclude men. The women of the slums — and lots of the households are women-headed — are all in savings groups. This isn't just meeting for a chat. You can see the power of the organization and the strength of these women and these people and that is the most optimistic side to me. It's not all doom and gloom — these women are phenomenal, but they need the space to be able to achieve what they're capable of.

If governments will just respect these people, bring them to the table, discuss what needs to be done in order to develop cities in a sustainable and decent way it could be a leap. And if there isn't a leap, we won't achieve the sustainable development goals.

And in terms of sustainability, and learning from others’ mistakes, what would you say is the top priority?

Our model of the city, sprawling out with lots of roads, lots of cars, and with the old fashioned forms of energy production, means we can't reach the Paris [climate change agreement] targets.

So it's got to be walkable cities, public transport systems of quality, renewable technologies for energy. Our cities need to correct themselves.

If we get some models of getting it right then we'll inspire others. The famous example is Medellin, Colombia, but we need to get some of those exemplary cities in Africa.

What’s an example of community-driven engagement in urban areas that you’ve found to be successful?

We're working on bringing the slum dwellers to the table — having local governments meeting with central government, being honest about the challenge, and then starting to get the reforms.

You need to mobilize the people and the structures, and then get the investment. Because this isn't just the case of a little bit of donor money here and there. Yes, the donor money can be a bit of leverage, but there’s got to be decent taxation systems, and there's got to be private sector investment, because there's an opportunity in slums to provide decent services that people will pay for.

But for that [to emerge] you have to create the conditions where people are willing to invest because they can see a safe return. At the moment, people are expecting a much higher return on investment in Africa because they think it’s full of risk. So with better governance, more organized local government, decent skills, with a local taxation base that can partner with local government, people will get the services for which they would be willing to pay.

And of course if you get this investment in building houses, getting access to electricity, that results in a lot of jobs. It's like a Keynesian multiplier, and people will have more money and the people will be employed.

Looking towards Habitat III, what would be a successful outcome in the negotiations?

We've already got the targets, so I think Habitat III needs to be about how are we going to get on with it: Who's going to do what, and how are we going to measure who's doing what right. There should be a lot of stress on implementation and measuring progress and learning lessons from good progress — that's where I think the stress needs to be instead of, again, elaborating the objectives.  

The language of the SDGs is so impressive — it's going to be heaven if we do all that: Extreme poverty eliminated, violence eliminated, no one left behind, sustainability for the world, everything you've ever wanted. And we've got to do it in 15 years by the way … [But] it's doable. We have the capital, the knowledge, the technology, the communications — look at the technology that's in the military. If we want to do this, and it's the way to make the world safe, as well as more decent, we can do it, but we need to shake ourselves and mean it.

What do you want to see on the #NewUrbanAgenda? Habitat for Humanity, Cities Alliance and Devex join forces to explore the future of our increasingly urbanized world in the run-up to Habitat III in October. Spread the word, share your views below or tag @devex and #NewUrbanAgenda.

About the author

  • Helen Morgan

    Helen Morgan is an Associate Editor at Devex. She has a background in human rights, radio and journalism, and has written for a variety of international publications while living and working in Buenos Aires, New York and Shanghai. She is now based in Barcelona and supports editorial content on campaigns and media partnerships at Devex. She is currently studying a master's degree in contemporary migration.