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Let Us Not Leave Behind the Least Among Us: Lessons for WUF12 from WUF11

Singumbe Muyeba, Assistant Professor, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

The Twelfth Session of the World Urban Forum (WUF12) will be convened by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) from November 4 to 8, 2024 in Cairo, Egypt. As we look forward to that historic event, difficult lessons need to be learned from the Eleventh World Urban Forum (WUF11) held in June 2022 in Katowice, Poland. The eleventh WUF left out a substantial part of over 1.6 billion inhabitants who live in slums and inadequate housing, despite reiterating the New Urban Agenda’s commitment to leave no one behind. The agenda and conversations among national and international urban policy makers, urban scholars, housing developers and financiers, activists and advocates mainly framed the global housing crisis in terms of lack of affordable housing. The passive way in which low-income and social housing was paid attention to was deeply concerning. As UN-Habitat and the world prepares for WUF12, we need to wake up to the reality that to solve the housing crisis in 6 years, we need low income and social housing and that the “new social contract” requires operationalization through tangible financial commitment and action.

A large and growing part of the population of cities cannot afford affordable housing. After the pandemic, almost a billion people live in extreme poverty. Over 1 billion people live with disabilities globally, with up to 90 percent of them unemployed in developing countries and up to 70 percent in developed countries. About 190 million of those aged 15 years old and above are living with significant disabilities which make economic and other functioning nearly impossible. There are an estimated 258 million widows around the world, with 26 million of them living in extreme poverty. UNICEF data reveals that there are 150 million children aged 0 to 17 years old who are orphans. These grow up navigating ineffective social welfare systems with many of them ending up depending on state welfare programs way into their adulthood. In addition, 2 billion working age people on this planet, representing 61.2 per cent of global employment earn their living in the informal sector. How can they afford formal affordable housing when the majority are living hand to mouth? Moreover, despite living at the most prosperous time in human history, the world is confronted with high and rising inequality where the top earning 10 percent have over 50 percent of income. Where inequality is high, those at the bottom quintile experience poverty severely. By 2030, we are likely to experience at least two recessions considering that recessions have been occurring with more frequency. People we know are couch-surfing, camping in cities, falling into homelessness, sliding into slums or drowning in the undercurrents of the sea of eviction as inequality rises and inflation punishes them.

Why do we frame the housing crisis as an affordable housing issue? At WUF11, representatives of institutions that set the global development agenda and hold the purse spoke for the market and the role of the private sector in solving the housing crisis. In two different panels, a senior official from the European Central Bank cautioned that if we let government invest in housing, “it will definitely fail.” In another session, a World Bank official framed the main discussion question in terms of markets as the way to address both the affordable and low-income housing crisis. When I raised the issue of insufficient social and low-income housing in Africa in another session, two funding organizations revealed that they had zero percent of social housing projects in their portfolio.

The big elephant in the rooms and corridors at WUF11 was that markets fail the poor and least among us in terms of supply of low-income and social housing. The market follows money and the poor do not have it. Markets as the answer and government as failure rests on market fundamentalist ideological argument about markets being able to solve every problem. Do we forget that neoliberalism has exposed its fractures since the 2008 global recession – which started within the housing market by the way?

Participants in several sessions pointed to the successes of the Kenya Slum Upgrading Program. I have systematically studied the case and know well that vulnerable populations - the categories of people I referred to above - are not benefitting. They have been unable to save and raise the requisite down payment. Some have been evicted from the temporary relocation housing at Langata while some beneficiaries have moved to other slums, putting their new houses on rent to make the monthly mortgage payments. To be sure, markets work, but not in terms of supply of housing to those who cannot even afford affordable housing.

When it comes to low-income and social housing, governments will only fail if we look at housing as a commodity on the market rather than as a human right and as a public good,a view which leaves behind orphans, poor widows and other economically and socially vulnerable populations. The UN Secretary General’s appeal to embrace the “New Social Contract”, which calls upon states to guarantee universal housing among other public goods, needs to be operationalized through tangible financial commitment and action for the least among us.

When our children examine the resolutions of WUF11, they will judge us not by how we treated those who can afford but by our passive actions to the least among us while we said no one left behind. When they examine WUF12, let them come to a better conclusion - that we learned from WUF11.

Muyeba S. & Kabandula, A. (2023). “Deadly Earnest and Serious”: Successes and missed opportunities at the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. ICRS Article. https://korbel.du.edu/regional-studies/news-events/all-articles/deadly-earnest-and-serious-successes-and-missed-opportunities-us-africa-leaders-summit