1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Special Events (2000 - 2009)

UNRISD’s Contribution to Istanbul+5: Follow-up to Habitat II

  • Project from: 2000 to 2005


On the eve of Habitat II in 1996, UNRISD and UNV (United Nations Volunteers) brought together researchers and community activists from Chicago, East St. Louis, Ho Chi Minh City, Jinja, Johannesburg, Lima, Mumbai and São Paulo in Kumburgaz, Turkey, to review the preliminary findings of their research on collaboration between community organizations and local authorities. The research took place under the Institute’s project on Volunteer Action and Local Democracy: A Partnership for a Better Urban Future (VALD). The project assessed the extent to which such collaboration contributed to lasting improvement in the conditions of life and livelihood of low-income and marginalized groups in the cities. Contrary to the early expectations of the organizers and researchers, the case studies showed that many such efforts at collaboration were extremely fragile, flawed and often fraught with conflict. Indeed, from the perspective of improving conditions in the neighbourhoods involved, many appeared to have a limited future.

Since Habitat II, if not in part because of it, the call for community-local authority partnerships has grown ever stronger. All the major development institutions have enshrined such mechanisms as a crucial component of solutions to many seemingly intractable urban social problems.

At the same time, the global urban crisis is deepening. Many lay the blame at the door of globalization, which concentrates wealth and socioeconomic disparities in the largest cities. This theme was examined by UNRISD in its contribution to Istanbul+5, the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly to review and appraise implementation of the Habitat Agenda. UNRISD invited the researchers and community activists to update their case studies on the collaborations they had been monitoring since 1996. At a closed meeting on 4 June, they presented their updates of the cities’ situations, compared and contrasted their findings, and sought to draw out the most important conclusions concerning the impacts on collaboration resulting from globalization, on the one hand, and from national and local conditions, on the other. Then on 5 June, they presented a synthesis of their findings in a public meeting at United Nations Headquarters. The audience included delegates to Istanbul+5, staff members of UN agencies in New York, NGO representatives attending parallel events, local academics and the public. A synopsis of the findings and discussions from the public meeting was distributed to delegates and others attending Istanbul+5 events in New York.

The following is a brief overview of their findings.

The collaborations addressing the core issues of interest to low-income or marginalized groups were not only fragile, but also ephemeral. Of the 22 collaborations in seven cities re-visited for Istanbul+5, one third had become defunct, despite the continuing existence of the problems they were meant to address and the desire of the community actors to continue working with local authorities. Less than 15 per cent of the cases had had a positive impact on income or asset distribution in the target communities.

In about half of the cases of collaboration, the physical conditions in the target area had improved, at least during the period of the most intense interaction between the local authorities and community groups. Roughly half of the collaborations had also resulted in improved access to decision-making processes for target community members, and nearly two-fifths appeared to have influenced policy in one way or another.

Yet improvements in physical conditions, access to decision-making processes and policy impact did not appear to have been sustained or cumulative. Indeed, the phenomenon of more micro-level participation—evidenced by the growing number of neighbourhood consultations with local authorities, community contributions to project implementation and improving legal and administrative frameworks governing relationships with civil society organizations—appeared to have been confined to the immediate project neighbourhood. None of the VALD project experiences became citywide practices receiving the full support of local authorities. Researchers repeatedly spoke of the tendency of authorities to accept small-scale collaborations as a form of lip-service—but once collaboration had begun to challenge the status quo at city or regional level, those in power reacted strongly, forcing the experience “back into the micro” and sometimes even threatening previous gains.

One opinion that received general support among the researchers was that collaboration at the micro level, while important as a tool for communities to begin building their own organizational and personal capacities, should not be over-emphasized as a strategy for change. Rather, collaboration had to be accompanied by broader networking across the city or metropolitan area and become part of the still-rare participatory process of decision making (such as that occurring in the Participatory Budget in Porto Alegre, Brazil).

This discussion led the researchers to identify questions for further research.

First, what kinds of institutionalization enhance the effectiveness of collaboration?

Second, how does the integration of local economies into the international economy affect: municipal and submunicipal financing of infrastructure, services and housing; the “political stance” of municipal governments vis-à-vis low-income groups; and the capacity of different kinds of global corporations to determine wages and working conditions of workers independent of government or union intervention.

Third, to what extent are the leaders of community organizations handicapped by their understanding of themselves, their relations with community organizations and the role of community organizations in a larger “political scenario”?

The researchers are revising their studies, and although the research co-ordinator left UNRISD in mid-2001, some of them may be published as Programme Papers and brought together in an edited volume.

Funding for the project was provided by the government of Switzerland, in addition to UNRISD core funds.

The following papers were prepared for the event:

Graeme Gotz, Partnerships between Government and Community Organizations in the Johannesburg Inner City

Jaime Joseph, Community-Based Organizations in Lima Five Years On: Old Actors, New Tasks

Mzwanele Mayekiso, South Africa’s Enduring Local Crisis: Change and Continuity in Relations between Municipal Government and Community Organizations in Alexandra from Late Apartheid to Democracy

David C. Ranney and Patricia A. Wright, Chicago’s Near South Side: Five Years Later

Raquel Rolnik and Renato Cymbalista, Communities and Local Government: A Case Study in São Paulo—Housing Construction by Self-Managed Community Work “Apuanã”

Sebastien Wust, Jean-Claude Bolay and Thai Thi Ngoc Du, Initiatives for Improving Housing and Infrastructure in Poor Communities in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam

YUVA (Youth for Unity and Volunteer Action), Status of Collaborations between Community Organizations and Local Authorities in Mumabai, India