It's the Environment, Stupid.

Monday, June 19, 2006

WUF - the real world perspective

I must say, that while the sessions I attended today were extremely interesting, more interesting have been the people I've talked to while in line or on the shuttle bus from UBC to the WUF convention site.

This evening on the ride back to UBC I happened to sit in an empty seat next to a gentleman from the Nigerian administration. I asked him what he hoped to learn or take away from the conference and one thing he mentioned was how his administration might better implement the MDGs in his country.

The MDGs are the United Nation's most recent cause - the Millennium Development Goals. There are 8, the most prominent one being eradicating poverty. Part of this effort includes the reduction of slums. The problem with this goal is that many governments around the world tackle it in part by forced evictions - making people move from their "illegal" settlements, and not always asking nicely.

When I asked about other challenges they faced, he said that part of the problem was implementing policy, and educating the public about the policies (and education in general). When I asked if funding/financing was part of the problem, he said that while Nigeria has a lot of petroleum money, funds have a tendency to be mismanaged. What I realized in talking to him was that many of these issues are not specific to his country, but they are issues facing many countries.

My questions were rooted in things I had learned from reading countless "should do" and "needs to do" official papers and reports put out by the United Nations and The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Over and over again, the point that is repeated in these types of documents is that good governance is key in policy implementation, governments need to manage their funds better and put priorities on spending for social needs (and needs of MDGs) - but in the short conversation I had with this man from Nigeria I was able to glean some of the realities that make the "should" and the "need to" not all that easy to accomplish. The papers do create a potential vision or goal to achieve, but things are often easier said (or written about) than done. However, when I asked him if he was positive or hopeful about the future of his country, without hesitating he answered, "yes."

Another "should" that is often mentioned in these reports is community level participation, or a bottom up participatory process. On the ride to the forum this morning, I spoke with a young man from Senegal who works with an NGO in urban agriculture. (This is of course after he scolded me for not being able to speak French, and good-naturedly making me admit that I refused to learn it.) When I asked about community participation in his work he told me it was very complex issue. One problem he talked about was who was represented from the community. Do you work with the community leaders? Do you work with the elders, or the men, or the women or the youth? Is everyone represented? While the notion of community involvment is important, there are additional factors that include representation, pride and ownership that also must be considered in order for a project to be successful and sustainable. Later he shared with me his wish to go on to get his PhD (in an anglophone country).

So, as much as I discount all of the "shoulds" out there, one that I'll definitely act on is that we should, as a global community, learn from one another. Collective knowledge and action can only help us all in the long term. That is, in part, what I think this World Urban Forum is trying to accomplish.

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