Supporting Towns and Cities to Achieve the MDGs -- Improving the Lives of Slum Dwellers

It has been eight years since world leaders made a commitment to eradicate extreme poverty through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These Goals are aimed at achieving universal primary education, empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability, and forging a new partnership for development.

The MDGs are people-centred, time-bound and measurable. They are simple yet powerful objectives that every woman, man and young person in the street, from Washington to Monrovia, from Jakarta to Nairobi and from Oslo to Cape Town, can understand. They have political support because they mark the first time world leaders have held themselves accountable to such a covenant. However, we are painfully aware that many people, especially the urban poor, do not know enough about the MDGs. This is because the change advocated is still not reaching slum dwellers in the inner cities, where the Goals have to be implemented -- at street and neighbourhood levels -- with municipal, provincial and national government working in partnership with the communities.

By 2050, six billion people -- two thirds of humanity -- will be living in towns and cities. And as urban centres grow, the locus of global poverty is moving into these towns and cities, especially into the burgeoning informal settlements and slums of the developing world. For this reason, we need surveys, facts and figures, as well as indicators to map out clearly how we can accomplish the Goals in the poorest communities. We have found this to be a complex aspect of how we at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) and our partners apply ourselves to MDG 7, target 11 -- achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020. If we are to bring hope to the urban poor, we need innovative governance as well as local thinking and reporting. Equally importantly, we need to support our towns and cities, indeed our countries, to adopt pro-poor policies and strategies that will obviate the need for further slum creation.

In backing these Goals, rich countries have for the first time accepted their share of responsibility to support the efforts of poor countries, through better and more focused aid, debt cancellation and fairer trade. Developing countries have accepted their share, through better use of resources and initiatives on democracy, accountability and improved governance, such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

Indeed, the MDGs are achievable. The number of people living in extreme poverty in Asia has been reduced by more than a quarter of a billion since 1990. But key figures from the latest research of UN-HABITAT give a measure of the urban crisis: Asia accounts for nearly 60 per cent of the world's slum population with a total of 581 million slum dwellers in 2005; sub-Saharan Africa had 199 million slum dwellers constituting some 20 per cent of the world's total; and Latin America had 134 million making up 14 per cent of the total. At the global level, 30 per cent of all urban dwellers lived in slums in 2005, a proportion that has not changed significantly since 1990. However, in the last 15 years, the magnitude of the problem has increased substantially -- 283 million more slum dwellers have joined the global urban population.

In short, at the time of UN-HABITAT's establishment in Vancouver 30 years ago, urbanization and its impacts were barely on the radar screen of a United Nations created just three decades earlier, when two thirds of humanity was still rural. Today, the world is witnessing the greatest and fastest migration to cities and towns in history. An estimated 1 billion people -- one in five people in the developing world -- still live below the extreme poverty line, and the results of national efforts so far are uneven. Indeed, many Governments and local authorities have still to establish their national and local action plans and targets for improving the lives of slum dwellers.

There has been headway in reducing hunger, improving access to drinking water and sending more children to primary school. Yet, mothers continue to die unnecessarily during childbirth in urban slums throughout the developing world, while HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are rife in the poorest urban settlements. Gender equality remains no more than a dream for women in many countries. Damage to the urban environment and its surroundings is a growing threat to city food and water supplies, homes and livelihoods.

There is no magic solution and, if current trends persist, some of the poorest countries may not meet any of the MDGs. Such a failure would spell tragedy, and this is why world leaders are holding a five-year review summit. This is why, in 2008, the concept of a global partnership between rich and poor countries must be turned into a reality in our towns and cities.