Q&A: the World Urban Forum brought together governments and grassroots – what next?

This global urban conference was more inclusive than ever – but IIED researchers say talk needs to be followed up by action to unlock positive transformation for people living in informal settlements.

Article, 14 February 2018
More than 80 representatives of slum-dwellers federations attended the 9th World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur (Photo: United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Creative Commons via Flickr)

More than 80 representatives of slum-dwellers federations attended the 9th World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur (Photo: United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Creative Commons via Flickr)

IIED's Diane Archer (DA), Sarah Colenbrander (SC) and David Dodman (DD) were all at the 9th World Urban Forum, which took place in Kuala Lumpur from 7-13 February. Here we ask them to give their impressions of the event.

Q: What difference will developments coming out of the World Urban Forum make for people living in urban poverty in developing countries around the world?

DD: These big global conferences can seem a long way removed from the everyday lives of people living in low-income and informal settlements in cities around the world. But they have become more inclusive over the years: more than 80 representatives of slum-dwellers federations, supported by our partners at SDI (formerly Slum/Shack Dwellers International) played an active role in the World Urban Forum.

But while the needs and priorities of people living in poverty are better represented in these global policy discussions, this talk needs to be turned into commitments and to be followed by actions on the ground. 

If grassroots and civil society groups have a say in what these commitments are and follow this up by holding their local and national governments to account, there is a better opportunity for meaningful change to take place.

At the end of the World Urban Forum, the participants released the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Cities 2030. This highlights the roles for "key enablers capable of unlocking positive transformation" – which will include strengthening the role of subnational and local governments, building inclusive partnerships, and encouraging the sharing of creative solutions and innovative practices. These are all very positive directions, but they are still primarily about the approach to be taken – rather than the actions that are necessary. 

SC: Sometimes the most exciting conversations take place around the periphery of these formal events. IIED has just been part of a series of events and meetings exploring how grassroots organisations of the urban poor – SDI, the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), the Huairou Commission – could access climate finance to support adaptation in informal settlements. This could be transformational.

Resourcing local organisations with climate finance would build their capacity to plan and manage projects. It would enhance their credibility with local and central governments, helping to challenge the power imbalances and economic inequalities that drive vulnerability. The World Urban Forum offers a space where donors, governments and grassroots organisations can be brought together to move forward this agenda.

DA: Sixty per cent of the world's displaced populations (refugees and internally-displaced people (IDPs) are now estimated to be living in urban settings. It's been reassuring to see that the topic of urban humanitarian crises is now an integral part of the urban agenda, with 'humanitarian' as one of the key themes in the 9th World Urban Forum. There's been great input from local government representatives from host cities, and humanitarian and international agencies working on urban humanitarian response. 

However, while participation from networks like SDI, ACHR and WIEGO ensures the voices of informal settlement residents and workers are represented, the voices of displaced people are still missing. I wonder whether there are opportunities for fostering a similar network of global refugee or IDP voices, so that they can be included in the conversation in future WUFs, World Humanitarian Summits and other similar global events?

Q: What would you like the next steps to be?

SC: It would be fantastic to see UN agencies, multilateral development banks and central governments completely commit to upgrading informal settlements worldwide.

Informal settlements are common across the global South, in part because space, services and markets are not governed in ways that include the poorest people. In fact, urban planning and policy is often used to justify the eviction of low-income urban residents to the urban periphery. This makes poverty and exclusion worse.

The international development community and central governments can create enabling frameworks for upgrading informal settlements. The pioneering 'Baan Mankong' programme in Thailand and World Bank-funded programme 'Transforming Settlements of the Urban Poor in Uganda' have empowered residents to plan and deliver improvements to their houses, services and tenure security, and embedded their efforts in city-wide land use plans. Other countries and agencies should learn from and replicate these national successes.

DA: I'd like to see international agencies and humanitarian organisations working with displaced people helping to bring their voices to global platforms.

Q: UN-HABITAT is developing a guide on how informal settlements can be developed in a climate resilient way. During an event at the World Urban Forum, IIED set out its approach to building climate resilience in informal settlements – what does this look like?

DA: IIED is working with UN-HABITAT to develop a thematic guide targeted at city decision makers from government and from civil society to inform their approach to building resilience in informal settlements.

We're making the case that it is not possible to build climate resilience and reduce risk without addressing the underlying development deficits that exist in informal settlements: lack of basic infrastructure and services, lack of safe and secure housing. Development – wherever possible, low-carbon development – is an essential part of climate change adaptation.

At the same time, we're focusing on the assets and capacities that already exist in informal settlements and how these can be harnessed to build resilience.

Our networking session showcased what informal settlers are already doing to build their resilience. Examples included processes of disaster risk mapping and community risk analysis, communities working in partnership with local government to build drainage in settlements, having monthly rubbish-clearing days (reducing blocked drains), and micro-loans for solar panels (with additional respiratory health benefits).

It was clear that resilience is about much more than the physical structures: social capital, the bonds that emerge through savings processes (as well as the financial security this provides), and partnerships with local government, are equally important contributors to resilience-building in informal settlements.

It was great to have such a diversity of SDI and ACHR community experiences in the room, as well as the input of government representatives and multilateral agencies and the EU.

Q: Looking ahead to next month, the IPCC conference will focus on cities and climate science. The conference will explore how science can be the basis for inspiring and driving climate action in cities. What would you like to see come out of the IPCC conference?
DD: The IPCC Cities and Climate Change Science conference is bringing together science, policy and practice for responding to climate change in urban areas. This is exciting as there is real engagement from across the scientific community in the priorities and needs of cities.

But we need to make sure that this evidence is made relevant for the thousands of cities in low- and middle-income countries that will be undergoing rapid growth in the coming decades. The ways in which these urban areas are planned will have long-lasting implications for carbon emissions, even in places that currently have low emissions.

I also hope that the conference outcomes help to convince policymakers at all scales of the need to consider low-income and informal settlements in climate change adaptation. If this influences flows of climate finance to reduce risk for poor urban communities then the conference will have been a huge success.

Diane Archer is senior researcher, Sarah Colenbrander is senior researcher, David Dodman is director of IIED's Human Settlements research group.