The first World Urban Forum opened at the United Nations headquarters in Kenya Monday. The major goal of the five-day conference is to find ways of dealing with the explosive growth of cities in the developing world.
Around the world, seven out of ten city dwellers live in slums.
Opening the first World Urban Forum in Nairobi, the U.N. Habitat's executive director, Anna Tibaijuka, described what life is like for poor people in overcrowded cities. "They live densely packed. Their shacks are vulnerable to natural disasters such as heavy rains or sudden fires," she listed. "They have precarious employment. They are exposed to higher incidence of infectious diseases including HIV-AIDS, arbitrary arrest and unlawful forced eviction. Neglected by formal institutions, they are often left unprotected against violence, drug dealers, corrupt officials, unscrupulous slumlords and organized crime. For lack of alternatives, a good number of slum dwellers also become drawn into such anti-social behavior themselves."
U.N. officials say the urban areas of Africa and Asia have exploding populations and will soon be getting even bigger. By 2010, another 340 million people will have moved from rural to urban areas.
Ms Tibaijuka urged delegates at the World Urban Forum to find ways of working with these new migrants to the cities. "The challenge is, where feasible, providing security of tenure to the squatters through upgrading and where relocation must take place, doing it through community-led initiatives to avoid conflicts and ensure sustainability," she said. "Sustainable urbanization lies in forging partnerships with the urban poor and empowering them to solve their own problems instead of fighting them through arbitrary forced evictions."
Though Ms. Tibaijuka made no mention of the Kenyan government, it has come under fire from human rights groups in recent months over its city clean-up campaign. Thousands of people have lost their homes and businesses after the government bulldozed their illegal roadside kiosks.
The World Urban Forum is being hosted by the United Nations to help prepare for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which is taking place in South Africa at the end of August.