HABITAT II: PREPARING FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

PCDForum Article #12r.   Revised for Release Date July 10, 1995

by David C. Korten

There is a long world-wide tradition of observing the coming of each new year as a time of reflection and resolution. The year 2001 will be a very special anniversary as it will mark our entry not only into the 21st century, but also into the 3rd millennium. It seems a propitious time for the world's people to engage in a collective process of reflecting on the meaning of the human experience, envisioning a desired future, and committing to new beginnings in the most profound sense. The UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), which will convene in Istanbul from June 3-14, 1996, provides a special opportunity to launch such a process.

Habitat II has been officially billed as the last United Nations global summit planned for the 20th century--the final event in a series of UN summits held over the period of two decades. These conferences--on subjects ranging from environmental stress, human rights violations, food and nutrition security, runaway population growth, homelessness, poverty, and joblessness to social disintegration--have focused global attention on some of the most serious global crises of our time.

Reluctant to challenge the 20th century ideas and institutions that are the foundations of their own power, official delegations to these conferences have avoided serious examination of the causes of our collective crisis and produced little more than a patchwork of toothless commitments to adjustments at the margins of a failing system. It is surely time not simply to mark an ending to this series of less than consequential conferences, but to move beyond it. It is the potential to move beyond--to envision and embrace the possibilities of a new millennium--that makes Habitat II an event of major potential significance.

The human project that brings us to the threshold of the new millennium presents a record of both triumph and tragedy. We have achieved the technological and organizational capacity to assure every person on the planet the opportunity for a full and secure life in harmony with our planet's richly diverse living systems. Yet we seem to be moving ever further from the realization of this potential.

As a few among us grow fabulously wealthy, the majority suffer a growing sense of loss and frustration as their lives, their families, their communities, and their hopes for the future disintegrate. More than a billion people lack secure and adequate shelter and basic sustenance--and their numbers are growing--not only because of population growth, but as well because of war, physical displacement, technological displacement, and the growing pressures of global competition. People of all classes find violence and fear of violence a constant companion. Day by passing day, we are adding more pollutants to the air, poisoning our ground waters, paving over our agricultural lands, depleting our soils and fisheries, stripping away our forests, and killing off ever more species of plant and animal life as the competition for resources intensifies.

Our current circumstance might be characterized as a period of adolescent passage in which we have acquired powers beyond our imagination without the maturity to use them the wisely. The new millennium calls on us to move beyond our adolescent recklessness--beyond the ideas and institutions of the 20th century that threaten to carry us ever further into a deep abyss of deprivation and anarchy. It calls on us to set a new direction--to accept responsibility for the consequences of how we chose to use the power at our command--to take the step to a new era of adult maturity.

Given the speed with which our current ways are destroying both the ecosystems and the social fabric on which our well-being depend the transition to this new era must be negotiated with a speed and conscious intention unprecedented in human history. It must involve profound transformational changes in the ways in which we define human progress, our relation to the environment, and the relationships between people, governments, and the global corporations and financial institutions that have become the most powerful institutions of governance.

It is appropriate that we approach the millennium as marking our passage to the new era. This will require that we engage the process of creating a new global consciousness through a far reaching and broadly participatory public dialogue that is also without historical precedent. That dialogue must embrace the lessons of our past, yet move beyond its flawed assumptions to focus on the task of using our technical and organizational abilities to create just and sustainable societies suited to meeting the challenges and opportunities of a new era.

The foundations of such a dialogue are already being put into place through spontaneous initiatives of people everywhere who are gathering together with their neighbors to define and create the kinds of communities and societies in which they want to live. This dialogue has been a dynamic central theme of the civil society fora that have been organized in parallel to the official UN summits. Indeed, one of the few consequential outcomes of these conferences has been to bring diverse elements of civil society together in the dialogue that official fora have avoided and to facilitate the formation of a dense and growing fabric of alliances among civil society organizations all around the world.

Habitat II will be a significant historical event to the extent that it brings this discussion into the mainstream. To do so it must encourage a form of dialogue very different than that which characterized previous UN global conferences. It must engage civil society--in its full breadth and depth--and recognize civil society's essential leadership role in shaping a transformational vision. It must be grounded in the experience and aspirations of those who have borne the major consequences of the failure of twentieth century institutions--those who have the least to lose and the most to gain from the creation of a new world order of just, democratic, and sustainable societies. It must embrace the leadership of those who remain in contact with the living systems of the planet on which our survival depends and have knowledge and experience essential to the success of this collective enterprise. Its preparatory processes must build on the grassroots agenda building initiatives of people all around the world. It must encourage every locality and nation to join in similar reflection, visioning, and action-taking processes as part of the follow-on to Habitat II.

The guiding principles of Habitat II--civic engagement, sustainability, and equity--align with the principles emerging from the global civic dialogue. Thus, Habitat II offers a natural venue for sharing and celebrating the visions and action programs being created by ordinary people the world over. From these many individual visions a shared citizen vision and action plan may be crafted for creating a transformed global system that roots power in people and place within a framework of mutual respect, sharing, and cooperation.

These citizen agenda-building processes are already giving reality to the Habitat II principle of civic engagement and are essential to fulfilling the vision of the organizers of Habitat II that this global gathering should:

  • Provide a holistic perspective on the issues addressed by the preceding UN conferences and engage the discussion of difficult crosscutting issues that the previous conferences have neglected.
  • Support the efforts of people working to address their needs within the context of local communities and ecosystems.
  • Model the processes of participatory problem solving and decision making in which civil society, local and national governments, and progressive local businesses engage in creative partnership to address human needs.

Previous UN conferences have focused on producing official negotiated documents and global plans of action. The resulting agreements are filled with noble language and largely vacuous commitments. While Habitat II will produce a statement of principles and a global plan of action, its organizers recognize the need for new approaches to dealing with the realities of a new century and want to advance an open process in which new ideas and issues can get on the table for public discussion.

This creates potentials for Habitat II well beyond those of previous UN conferences. It creates an opening for the organizations of civil society to come forward with their visions and agendas in a spirit of open dialogue to move beyond the institutional and conceptual limits of a century now drawing to a troubled close. Rather than an ending, we must look to Habitat II as a new beginning, as initiating a preparatory process toward creating the new era of the 3rd millennium.


David C. Korten is president and fellow of the People- Centered Development Forum and author of When Corporations Rule the World, to be released in September 1995 by Kumarian Press, 630 Oakwood Ave., Suite 119, West Hartford, CT 06110-1529, U.S.A. phone (1-203) 953-0214 or fax (1-203) 953-8589 and Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 155 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA 94104-4109, U.S.A., phone (1-415) 288-0260 or fax (1-415) 362-2512 in September 1995. Additional information on Habitat II is available from Bob Naiker, UN Centre for Human Settlements, P. O. Box 30300, Nairobi, Kenya (25-42) 621-234; Fax (25-42) 624-266.


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