Poor Suffer Most from Crime and Disasters, Says UN

THE HAGUE - The urban poor are the worst affected by crime, natural disasters and insecurity, says the Global Report on Human Settlements published by UN-HABITAT on World Habitat Day Monday.

Just policies and good governance at the local level are crucial for safe cities, the report says.

Half the world's population lives in cities. By 2030 an estimated two thirds will be urban dwellers. This rapid urbanization is creating new challenges, says the report, "Enhancing Urban Safety and Security." The Global Report on Human Settlements is published every two years by UN-HABITAT, the United Nations human settlements program.

Between 1980 and 2000, recorded crimes increased by 30 percent from 2,300 to more than 3,000 per 100,000 people, the report says. As a result, fear has become an important factor in city life. Public opinion surveys in both developed and developing countries reveal that more than half of citizens worry about crime often.

"About 60 percent of urban dwellers in developing and transitional countries have been victims of crime over the past five years," UN-HABITAT executive director Anna Tibaijuka said at the launch of the report here. "It shatters the misconception that the rich are most targeted by crime."

About 100 million street children are a consequence of drug and human trafficking, violence, abuse and poverty, the report says.

"For a city to be safe, people have to be safe at home," said Tibaijuka. But a third of the urban population is constantly threatened by forced evictions or insecurity of tenure. This undermines the safety of almost 1 billion slum dwellers. As land values within cities continue to rise and as housing solutions are increasingly left to market forces, at least 2 million slum dwellers are evicted annually, the UN-HABITAT report says.

The report also reveals that 98 percent of the 211 million people affected by natural disasters between 1991 and 2001 were in developing countries. The consequences have been severe, as natural disasters have increased fourfold since 1975, and man-made disasters increased tenfold. Many of these have hit cities, and the poor are often located in the most hazardous areas of the city.

"It was shocking for us to discover the figure of 98 percent," Naison Mutizwa-Mangiza, chief of the research division of UN-HABITAT told IPS. "At this moment, 19 African countries are affected by floods. That hasn't ever happened before in my life."

But the report is not only about gloom and doom, he said. "We describe many successful policies that give us hope. Cuba, for example, developed a successful system to prevent disasters. It is completely integrated in their planning system, and kids learn in the schools about disasters. It doesn't take additional money, it takes political will."

Something can be done also to prevent poor people from becoming criminal, and that goes beyond just a strong police force. "It is not just poverty, but idleness that leads to vice," Anna Tibaijuka told IPS. "Therefore it is necessary to focus on entrepreneurship. The majority of the poor are young, so creating employment for them is the key to a safer society. They are often ignored by politicians."

Urbanization is sometimes driven by poverty in rural areas, but that doesn't mean it is bad, Tibaijuka said. "Urbanization creates opportunities, and people want them. But we should focus on secondary towns, in order to prevent all the people from ending up in one big city."

Lindiwe Sisulu, minister for housing in South Africa, and keynote speaker on World Habitat Day, focused on the importance of housing after a period of conflict. "In the beginning we didn't realize that shelter is critical for reconstruction," she said, "but we discovered that people need the possibility of improving their lives. Otherwise they will never improve their environments, and that shapes society.

"We consider secure tenure as a right," she told IPS. "We want to provide all indigent people with free basic housing and free sanitation. Ten million people have already been provided for, but another 7 million are still waiting for it." The main difficulty is the people themselves. "They often don't want us to upgrade their settlements. Besides, all success stories attract new migrants, creating new problems while we are solving the old ones."

Sisulu pointed out that combating crime has to be cross-sectoral. "Our National Crime Strategy hinges on the community." Safety cannot be created by building walls, she added, criticizing the rich who often concentrate in "gated communities."

"Many rich people are living on islands," conference chair Jan Pronk, former Dutch minister for international cooperation and former minister for housing, told IPS. "However, social and economic integration is needed for real development."

In his home country, the Netherlands, the problem is slightly different. "Here the rich are moving back to the rural areas, leaving the cities with problems and less capacity to solve it."

Migrants, on the contrary, want to live in cities, because they can find more opportunities there, said Ella Vogelaar, Dutch minister for housing. The segregation that results from this creates a lot of tensions and socio-economic problems. "We decided to choose 40 problematic neighborhoods in the country. Together with other departments we integrate our housing, employment, education, integration and safety policy."

The solutions are similar across the world, she told IPS. "We have to focus on opportunities for the angry young population in the same way as developing countries do."

A mix of urban planning, policy, design and governance can help make cities safe and secure, UN-HABITAT believes. Therefore local authorities need to be democratic and accountable, said Bert Koenders, Dutch minister for international cooperation. "Where there is lack of governance, horror scenarios can unfold like in Guatemala City," he told IPS. "The elite flies to Miami for private health care, services like public transport go down, and 6,000 people are killed annually."

He points to the example of Rwanda. "Kigali is the cleanest city of Africa. People even do community service on Saturday mornings."

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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