CIVIL SOCIETY THE RIO+10 INTERVIEW WALLY N'DOW
Dr. Wally N'Dow, from Gambia, was the Secretary-General of HABITAT II - the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, which Michael O'Callaghan attended in Istanbul in 1996 and which brought the world community together to address the future of cities and other human settlements.
WALLY N'DOW: I am fully convinced that the summit of Habitat II held in Istanbul six years ago has brought about a new awareness of the importance of human settlements the world over, in nations large and small. Both in terms of how we are going to live in the 21st century, and where we are going to live, all of us, in our billions. It's so very crucial that when you look at the world today, over a billion people do not have housing! But that awareness was not evident before Istanbul. That conference was able to galvanise the international community, and the UN led this major conversation about the importance of human settlements, cities, and how to make them work better.
It has a lot to do with how our society functions. When there is no housing, neighbourhoods fail. When neighbourhoods fail, towns fail, villages fail, cities fail. When cities fail, economies fail and nations fail. That is the security dimension of poor human settlements.
But there is another dimension to it all. It has to do with the need to make sure that these human settlements, these habitats for mankind, function so that there is a cohesiveness in society. We need, as a society, in nations large and small, things that bind us together rather than divide us. We need that cement of human solidarity. Istanbul brought about that new dimension of consideration and concept for people to work through in their own towns, villages and their hamlets and their megacities. But importantly, also, it brought into very sharp focus the need for a new environmental, a new understanding, a new literacy about sustainable environments, particularly in areas where humans live. If you look at the sum total of all our collective endeavours for human welfare, you realise that unless you have a functioning human habitat, you can't do anything much, for instance, with education - there's no housing. You can not do anything about health, clean water, you cannot do anything about physical security of people, you cannot do anything at all - at all - about democracy and civic responsibility when these places fail. That's a new understanding of that dynamic [which has] come out of that relationship. It that concept that came out of Istanbul was how to make these human habitats - these cities, towns, villages, townships - more sustainable, by what concepts must we be animated - in Asia, in Africa, but also in the developed societies - to make sure that we don't have these pockets of desperation, these pockets of social catastrophe, marring life and livelihoods and human welfare, undermining the very concept of human progress? This has come centre-stage in this discussion. And here in Johannesburg, where the Rio concepts - that is the concepts of sustainable human development, negotiating as a global community how we are living in the 21st century, how to make it more workable for more and more people, how to make it work better - is the central issue here is sustainability. What will we bequeath to generations down the road? How shall they see that the human family, in terms of their own human journey, has to do with sharing and co-operation and collaboration - rather than conflict, competition and contest? I think that all of these new ideas coming from civil society, coming from governments, coming from people with tremendous wisdom that are gathered here and other places, will help us make this journey into a better and more workable 21st century.
That's the significance of this meeting. It's a culmination of a major effort by the United Nations in the past decade or so, of engaging and leading these great conversations. How do we negotiate our future? Conversations on population: carrying capacities of the land. Conversations about women: their rightful role in human society, their role in national life, economic, political and social. Conversations on children: how to protect them, how to make them better citizens. Conversations about housing: cities. Conversations, basically, about human rights: democracy. These can only be spearheaded by the UN. And we think that we are coming to the culmination of that decade of intense discussion and debate about negotiating our human future. That is the significance of Johannesburg for me.
Is it not time to redefine our concept of security?
Until recently, our language has clouded, in a way, and impeded our efforts for progress in human welfare generally. The language, for instance, of security is getting a new definition. That definition has to do with seeing human security not in terms of necessarily, territorial safety and security in terms of national territory, mediated by military forces and armies and armaments and competition and contest between nations and states, but security more in terms of the human person: in terms of how you meet their basic needs for human welfare, how you make the world work better for them, security in terms of education, health and health of children, education for their children, education for people, water, security in terms of the safety of the human person, their own human rights and civic rights - all of these are entering into the discourse and strengthening this new literacy about the importance of environmental sustainability, the importance of working together. It used to be that when you talked about security you first think in terms of military battalions and armaments. Today when you talk about human security, you really think about satisfying those needs without which the 21st century will be a very very difficult, unworkable place.
Why are sustainable cities important?
It's often thought that a big city - Johannesburg, for instance, Tokyo, New York - when they on the surface examine, they think they're doing everything right. Their services work, their banking works, their food supply works, the water system is clean. Quite often, the hidden reality is they have a tremendously impactful footprint on national territory and international life. What does it take to get Tokyo to work? How much wood is consumed from outside of Tokyo, outside of Japan itself, to make Tokyo work? How much water, how much agricultural production? What is the imprint, what is the footprint of the big city? That is significant! So in order to really analyse the impact - not only nationally but globally - of the cities, we have to look at their ecological footprint. This is the significance of consumption. The consumption and the production of waste is one of the major challenge that we have in the 21st century, for people in nations large and small.
What about the emergence of civil society?
There is a shift - it's an important shift - in terms of international collaboration, the search for world peace, and on the forces that mediate that search. It used to be again that the discussion of international collaboration and international relations was the province entirely of governments, was the province of ministries of foreign affairs, of departments of states the world over. Today the reality is that new actors are coming on board. There's been this shift in human relations: people reaching out across national territory, joining hands with people in faraway countries, working closely with them, forming almost an international social movement, a global one, for humanitarianism, for the support of human welfare projects all over the world.
That new humanitarianism is exemplified by very many organisations, but one that comes first in mind, into mind, is Airline Ambassadors, where ordinary people are reaching out with a new vision about the human journey, and it has to do with sharing, it has to do with covenants, it has to do with ah, ah, human solidarity, reaching out to people, taking support, taking the spiritual dimension and giving of themselves spiritually and materially. These are the new actors on the stage. They are a reality for the 21st century. And we should be well advised to give them as much support and advocacy as possible. They fulfil a critical role because their first animating concept is human solidarity, the sharing, the covenanting that is engaged in that process - not the contracting that the governmental process is mediated by. It is more a question of seeing that this 21st century journey, in my view, will be a spiritual journey... as opposed to a journey for competition. It will be a journey of sharing and working together as opposed to contest. It will be a journey of we all win as opposed to I win you lose. It will be a journey that says the problems of Asia are my problems in California or in France, as opposed to an old worn-out concept that says that the problems of Africa are Africa's. Because there is a new wisdom come out of this, which is that these problems of Asia, of South America, of Africa, of the poor neighbourhoods in rich societies, have an uncanny way of transforming themselves into big tidal waves and hitting everybody's shore. So I think that this new wisdom that is born out of these major conversations and the contribution of people with tremendous spirituality, are going to help us chart our pathway into the 21st century with a much more secure footing.
I am a firm believer that civil society is not anti-government. I'm a firm believer that NGOs are not anti-governmental organisations, that they are partners in an endeavour to make sure that the 21st century works better for more and more people. And they are going to be on the landscape for a very long time. They make a contribution in ideas, they make a contribution spiritually, they make a contribution materially, and they make a tremendous tremendous contribution in terms of inspiring people everywhere.