When the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, Habitat I, was held in Vancouver, Canada, in 1976, the design and implementation of programmes and policies to address the problems of housing and human settlements were seen to be the almost exclusive responsibility of governments. At that time, it was still generally believed that rapid urbanization could be slowed and its negative effects mitigated. Contrary to these optimistic projections, urbanization has continued unabated in many parts of the world. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the majority of the world's population will be living in cities, and by some estimates that proportion will increase to two thirds by the year 2025. The number of mega cities (cities with populations over 8 million), which are often characterized as "ungovernable" as a result of the seemingly intractable nature and concentration of social problems they encompass, grew from two in 1950 to 21 in 1990. Sixteen of these are in developing countries. By the year 2015, the number of mega cities is expected to reach 33, with 27 in developing countries.
Today civil society plays a crucial role in finding and implementing solutions to the problems of urbanization, and it appears that this role will only grow in the coming decades. People's organizations, such as community-based organizations (CBOs), grassroots movements and volunteer groups at the very basis of civil society, see no future in permanent confrontation or competition with the state. Rather, they want a responsible and competent state at all levels - one that is responsive and accountable to the needs of all people. In many countries, achieving this will require reforms that strengthen local governments in ways that enable them to become better partners with local communities in implementing bottom-up development strategies. And, for such reforms to achieve optimal results, civil society organizations at the local level will have to be strengthened as well.
To address these needs a joint project was developed by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the United Nations Volunteers Programme (UNV): Volunteer Action and Local Democracy: A Partnership for a Better Urban Future. The goal was to identify the successes of, and constraints on, collaborations between CBOs and volunteer organizations, on one side, and local governments, on the other, in designing, implementing and evaluating social and economic policy at the local level, and to use this information to initiate and inform a dialogue among local actors about concrete ways of enhancing future collaborations of this kind.
To read the rest of by David Westendorff's Uneasy Partnerships between City Hall and Citizens, follow this link to the UN Habitat website