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‘Africa Regional Dossier’ highlights some key issues raised by civil society groups in advance of Habitat III

RafaellaSimas Lima20 October 2016

 

For the past year and a half the DPU has worked in collaboration with the international civil society network Habitat International Coalition (HIC) to understand the various preparations and processes leading up to Habitat III, set to take place in Quito, Ecuador, in October. Namely, the intent has been to understand how civil society groups and grassroots movements have been involved (or not) in these processes, that are meant to culminate in the ‘New Urban Agenda’, to be agreed upon by national governments at the Habitat conference.

The first iteration of the DPU-HIC research was to look at the process of Habitat III national report production in eight countries where national report drafts were being prepared. Our research showed that in most cases, civil society participation in the national reporting process was quite limited, representing at best brief consultations, at worst reports undertaken by government institutions or consultants without much outside input. In addition, with a few exceptions, national reports themselves were quite limited in terms of commitments to ‘right to the city’ principles and other rights-based approaches advocated by some several civil society groups.

Alexandre Apsan Frediani speaking at the HIC general assembly meeting

Alexandre Apsan Frediani speaking at the HIC general assembly meeting

As attention shifted from the national level to regional meetings and the development of regional reports, the second project was an attempt to more actively respond to regional processes. Regional reports were developed by the five UN Regional Economic and Social Commissions and UN-Habitat. Like at the national level, the opportunity for civil society input at the regional level again seemed limited, and while regional reports were ostensibly supposed to build on national reports, it is unclear how much this actually happened in practice. Accordingly, the DPU, steered by an advisory committee of civil society networks, grass-roots movements and academics spanning the African continent, helped coordinate an Africa Regional Dossier (full report available here) to highlight key issues requiring more visibility and reframing in the New Urban Agenda, from a civil society vantage point. Beyond a reliance on selected interviews, the Dossier builds on two pan-African civil society gatherings organised in Johannesburg in November/December 2015: the Global Platform on the Right to the City’s regional meeting and the Session of Inhabitants coordinated by the International Alliance of Inhabitants at Africities VII. Meanwhile, HIC coordinated a Latin America response, which is taking the form of an alternative Latin American regional report (forthcoming).

The Africa Regional Dossier is not intended to be a comprehensive report, but serves to highlight a series of key urban issues and propositions articulated by civil society actors in need of further visibility and commitment from national and transnational actors, to be reflected in the New Urban Agenda. The propositional aspects of each issue are summarised as follows:

1) Forced evictions and land grabbing: The urbanisation practices that are driving evictions and land grabbing need to be placed at the centre of struggles around evictions. This implies rethinking the balance between collective rights (including the collective ‘right to occupation’) and individual land rights acquired through land markets. Habitat II commitments to ‘prevent and remedy’ unjustified evictions need to be upheld. There is a need to develop legislative frameworks for legal redress, in order to support community rights in case of evictions that are deemed unavoidable.

2) Land tenure: ‘Land tenure’ should not be limited to private ownership and private land rights. Rather, diverse forms of collective and individual tenure can be recognised and explored as mechanisms to ensure marginalised groups’ access to land.

3) Rural-urban ‘divide’: Re-framing ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ not as a dichotomy but as interconnected parts of the same system, allows for the recognition of diverse urbanisation trajectories. Policy making could reflect this plurality and the linkages between the ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ by emphasising inter-municipal and cross-departmental coordination rather than dealing with ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ as separate categories governed by different authorities.

4) Infrastructure: At the local scale, infrastructure development plans need to recognise and integrate decentralised, low-cost and low-skilled solutions through targeted financial resources and training. Understanding diverse infrastructure provisions within the urban-rural continuum and through a combination of financing sources that connects Africa’s diverse economies is key. This can be facilitated through cross-departmental and cross-boundary coordination among local governments. Additionally, there is an opportunity to view infrastructure and service delivery as providing environmental outcomes, creating employment or economic opportunities, as well as social outcomes, for example, in mobilising youth.

5) Governance and the right to political voice: There is a widespread call amongst African civil society actors to reframe ‘good governance’ through a focus on deepening meaningful democratic practices. This implies ensuring better recognition of different social actors, facilitating increased participation in decision-making structures, and achieving more equitable redistribution of wealth and services. Equally important as involving civil society actors and other stakeholders is recognising unequal power relations among actors, taking steps to address these power imbalances in decision-making fora, and ensuring that more democratic governance leads to equitable outcomes.

6) Economic opportunities: The ‘economy’ can be re-conceptualised within a plural perspective of diverse systems—formal, informal, social, solidarity, etc.—interacting together. The fluidity and adaptability of informal practices can be harnessed while pursuing policies to limit potential exploitative conditions. In addition, viewing employment conditions through a human rights perspective would imply the need for the protection of jobs, especially in the informal sector, and the right to legitimate and decent work. At the same time, a focus on the capacity of local governments could improve their ability to generate revenue through taxation and the capture of value from real estate or infrastructure developments.

7) Security and urban conflict: In order for urban stakeholders to meaningfully address urban security, the varying manifestations of urban conflict and violence must be acknowledged along with the intersecting social, political and economic factors behind such violence. Often, interventions to address urban safety address merely the side effects rather than the root causes of urban violence. Security commitments need to call for building linkages between humanitarian, development and human rights approaches, and the fundamental principles of security and equity.

8) Climate change and environment: Climate change can go beyond concepts of sustainability and resilience, and be re-framed from the perspective of environmental justice. This allows for the links between social justice and climate change to be acknowledged, and for a discussion about the distribution of environmental benefits and hazards, so that the differentiated effects of climate change can be addressed.

In addition to these eight issues, the Africa Regional Dossier argues that the New Urban Agenda should place more emphasis on protecting against the loss of entitlements (for example, those outlined in previous Habitat agendas and human rights conventions), the distribution of resources and opportunities towards a more equitable urban development, and to the roles, responsibilities and capacity of local actors to implement and monitor the agreed agenda. The case studies in the Regional Dossier demonstrate some ways in which civil society groups can partake in such processes.

The regional scope of this Dossier reinforces the need for territorial debates in the process of elaborating international agendas such as the New Urban Agenda. This research also highlighted the lack of opportunities for civil society groups to participate meaningfully in such a process. Lack of transparency and limited access to regional reporting procedures compromised the potential of the agenda-making process to deepen a collective understanding of on-going urban challenges in Africa. This has thus represented a missed opportunity to build commitments from a variety of stakeholders towards a transformative New Urban Agenda.

The process of coordinating the African Regional Dossier demonstrated the appetite of civil society groups to share experiences, deepen their understanding about wider regional processes, and collaboratively build synergies for transnational collective action. We hope that this Dossier, far from being an exhaustive list of key issues, can contribute to the on-going discussions within and around Habitat III, but most importantly, that it can be of use in the building of linkages and collaboration among civil society groups across the Africa region advocating for more just urban development.

Shifting Perspectives – A reflection on the use of video in the field

DavidMcEwen23 August 2016

The lens is an eye. Video and photography offer a unique opportunity to represent or share a situation, an event, a person, a moment in time. Within the context of academia and research, where it can be far too easy to dilute a point through a mass of text or statistics (or big words), these mediums serve as infinitely powerful and diverse tools to reflect on a particular subject (or no subject at all).

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Through my experience on the field, I have viewed the capacities of video in a few different, interrelated ways: as a documentary, evidence gathering tool; as a democratising force, a platform with which to share hidden or silent perspectives; as a tool for advocacy, support and ‘legitimisation’. As three broad categories, these ultimately refer to the opportunity to craft a certain narrative to, one that engages with the senses on a scale that other mediums cannot. You see the sights of the cameraman, you hear what and who they hear, you feel what they feel.

Working with local communities on our field-trip to Cambodia (as part of the BUDD masters), we used video to document the results of participatory design workshops we ran alongside community members. This proved valuable as a resource to draw from during presentations in front of key local and national government officials, demonstrating the success of our participatory planning pilot and suggesting a potential future for participation within the planning system. Similarly, while on the field in Uganda, I worked alongside local NGO ACTogether to document community planning meetings in which participatory exercises were conducted to attempt to address the issue of flooding. The video and media content produced as part of these meetings is invaluable in not only sharing the general aims and methodology of the NGO, but in legitimising its efforts, providing firsthand evidence of its work, efficacy and influence.

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The value of crafting a narrative is particularly felt when viewing video as a democratising tool, as an amplifier for those voices unheard. Within the context of London, I have used documentary films as a platform with which to express and elucidate the concerns of various community groups fighting juggernaut developers and regeneration proposals. The typical structure for participation within the planning system does not offer many opportunities to voice objections and concerns, and where present, they remain particularly formal and confined. Creating films and sharing them online, we were able to share and voice our views to a much wider audience than would otherwise be available and generate greater opportunities for discussion than standard methods for participation would allow. This felt particularly empowering as we were able to craft a message within boundaries set by ourselves, rather than an outside agent.

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The freedom offered by the last case is something that deserves greater reflection as it is not something that will necessarily be available in situations where video and media is tasked with representing the views of others in research and academic work. There is an inherent bias and degree of manipulation involved in the creation of video/film/photography; this is its greatest asset and weakness. In an academic or research context (perhaps in every context), it is important to meditate on the role of the photographer/videographer, how they may be shaping or influencing their surroundings and the material they record, and consequently the role of the editor or curator, tasked with weaving a particular narrative or message. Questions of fidelity and authenticity are necessary at each of these stages to avoid the potential of misrepresenting or distorting a subject. I am afraid I have no concrete answers though; the ultimate beauty of the medium lies in its ability to be interpreted in many different ways: to portray the right and the wrong, the easy and the hard, the simple and the contradictory, all at the same time.

 

My final advice:

 

Think, record, then think again.


David McEwen is a filmmaker and architect, a recent graduate of the BUDD masters programme, with an interest in design and democratic spatial practices. His work has included the production of documentaries on development processes in Cambodia and Uganda and more recently the representation and advocacy of minority ethnic interests in urban design and planning practices in London.