Leave No One Behind – A Promise to the Urban Poorest

Leave on one behind is a catchy phrase which is used in various contexts so often that one might forget it is also a promise. One that is unfulfilled, Franka Bernreiter argues and reminds us that neither slums nor the responsibility to create sustainable cities are exclusive to the Global South.



Leave no one behind. This catchy phrase is used often and in various contexts. It is written, read, and said so frequently that one might become numb to its meaning and easily forget that it is more than a nice speech opener: it is a promise. Still, a yet unfulfilled one. The promise to the world’s poorest, most marginalised, and vulnerable groups that, in the implementation of the 2030 agenda, they wouldn’t be forgotten.


Taking a look at Sustainable Development Goal 11 the urban’s poorest, most marginalised and vulnerable groups are easy to identify. They populate the many slums in urbanised areas in the Global North and Global South. According to UN-Habitat, 29 per cent of the world’s urban population live in slums. In other words: that is one in eight people. Slums and many areas of informal settlements are home to people working in the informal sector as well as in the formal sector. Due to their often large number, the city’s poorest are a substantial part of a city’s economy. The city itself, therefore, benefits from the slum’s inhabitants, often depending on those people’s hands. At the same time, the city’s poorest are unable to unlock their full potential due to their precarious living situation. They are left behind. Nevertheless, slums are very diverse and more than areas of poverty, health crisis and violence. Slums and informal settlements are at the same time areas of innovation, social cohesion, and creativity.


The Youth is Taking Responsibility

Let me give you an example I witnessed myself. While visiting Nairobi I was invited by a group of young people to Kibera, the biggest slum of the city and their home. They let me accompany them on their daily working routine. To free the closer neighbourhood from waste, they have established a local garbage patrol to collect and dispose of the collected garbage. For this, the households pay them a small amount of money. I asked them what happens if a family is unable to pay them for their service and they explained how they still collect those families’ garbage and, in doing so, live up to their social responsibility. The project is called „slums going green and clean“.


To find a structural solution for a problem in an area lacking structure, to establish a social-just solution while facing great social injustice and to do that in a self-organised and responsible manner are qualities that these young people show throughout their project. This may serve as an example for the many other innovative community projects in slums worldwide. These qualities are exactly what our world needs to resolve challenges and crises ahead. Now imagine how those communities could contribute to resolving challenges if their own living circumstances were more decent. In times of multiple crises, we are running out of time and can’t afford to leave potential unfulfilled and billions of people behind.


We do Have the Money, Let’s Find the Will

The first target of SDG 11 is to „upgrade slums and ensure safe and affordable housing as well as basic services to all people“. Providing the basic infrastructural needs to the poorest urban residents wouldn’t be too expensive. Let us look at the energy provision: Currently, 200 million urban inhabitants worldwide lack access to electricity. According to IIED’s Human Settlements Group supplying these people with basic energy would cost only $1.37 trillion annually; with climate-friendly energy, it would cost a little more: only $1.38 trillion annually. These figures raise the question of whether the precarious situation of the many urban poor is rather due to the lack of political will than to technical or financial hurdles. Another grievance that makes the exploitation of humans in slums and informal settlements possible is the legal status of the residents and their land.


The legal status of informal settlements is often unclear, which is why often, there are no land rights for the inhabitants, even if they have been settling on this land for generations. To ensure more legal security for the urban poor, we need to rethink our notions of how property is recorded. In many slums and informal settlements, title deeds and formal registrations are uncommon or even impossible. Therefore, models must be developed that also secure informal land rights. One example is the so-called “Social Tenure Domain model” (STDM) which tries to capture the relationship of individuals and groups to their land. It is a model that is said to be pro-poor and thus, makes an important contribution to leaving no one behind. It uses unconventional ways of documentation, for example, photographs, fingerprints, and maps. The question of land use, especially in slums, is closely related to the question of ownership.


To prevent neglecting the needs of the poorest on our way to a sustainable future, it is essential to break down stereotypes. The prejudice that many people have against slums is that they exist exclusively in countries of the Global South. This stereotype is false, slums and informal settlements exist in countries of the global north as well. Holding on to it is dangerous because it allows countries in the global North to not live up to their social responsibility.


Data provided by UN-Habitat proves that the percentage of urban residents living in slums has decreased largely between 1990 and 2016. Still, there are also countries in which the opposite, an increase, is the case. Nonetheless: 29 percent of urban residents living in slums or informal settlements is a huge number. They are still left behind.


I am not an expert on urbanization nor on sustainable urban development. I do not have all the solutions to the obvious challenges and within this article, I am only addressing a small number of challenges and possible solutions. Nevertheless, it hardly needs an expert to understand some things: First, without sustainable cities, there will be no sustainable future since cities already consume 70 percent of the world’s resources. Second, there will be no sustainable cities if nearly a third of the world’s population lives in slums and therefore cannot develop their full potential. This includes recognizing that slums are not exclusively a problem of the Global South, but a global one.


Last but not least, we owe it to the poorest and most vulnerable of the cities to at least make a serious attempt to keep our promise to them. Meaning promises seriously and not using them as empty phrases has something to do with decency – not with expertise.


Article by Franka Bernreiter - Republished from Urbanet

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