The dangers of rapid and chaotic urbanization were made obvious in the aftermath of the 12 January earthquake in Haiti as the population of the densely populated capital city was left vulnerable to the disaster’s consequences.
But the superpower to the north has long overlooked the importance of urbanization in its deployment of foreign assistance, according to legislation now being considered by the Senate. The Sustainable Urban Development Act of 2010 – introduced by Sens. Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland), Dick Durban (D-Illinois), and John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) on 20 April – directs USAID to better tackle the problems of enlarging slums, increasing levels of pollution, overburdened transport systems, and lack of affordable housing.
“We all recognize that the 21st century is the century of the city. There is an explosion of urban growth around the globe – already the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas, with approximately one billion people residing in slums. The phenomenon of urbanization will be ignored at our own peril. Responsible citizens of the world must consciously harness their creativity and ingenuity to increase the livability, economic viability, and environmental sustainability of our cities,” said Kerry, introducing the bill.
His point was reinforced at the recent World Economic Forum Africa meeting in Dar es Salaam, when Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT and UN Under-Secretary-General, emphasized that urbanization was one of the key challenges facing the continent. “Africa is urbanizing faster that any other continent, so much so that by 2030, Africa will cease to be a rural continent. Despite this, few African leaders are taking the issue seriously," she said.
"It is time that policy makers include plans for balanced territorial urban development. This is one of the keys to economic growth especially as investment in infrastructure and housing in African cities provides a great opportunity for the private sector,” she said.
Reversing the trend
William Cobbett, programme manager of the Cities Alliance, told IRIN the bill was significant because it showed the US was prepared to formally recognize the importance of urbanization. He said that in the wake of a “very steady” decline of US aid in this area, he was heartened by the possibility that trend would be reversed.
“I just applaud its existence,” he said of the bill, which he has been sending to colleagues throughout the world as an example of forward-thinking public policy.
The legislation directs the administrator of USAID to update the Making Cities Work Urban Strategy, which has been in existence for almost a decade. It also suggests establishing a senior adviser for urban sustainable development at the agency and launching a “pilot urban strategies initiative” implemented in select cities in the developing world.
A spokeswoman for USAID said the agency would not comment on pending legislation and recommended reviewing the urban programmes in operation.
However, Alanna Shaikh, a global health professional who blogs at UNDispatch.com and other sites, wrote: “The ideas in the legislation are nothing new, and adding another mandatory annual report to an already overburdened agency is just annoying. Not to mention that the legislation doesn’t include any new financial resources; it calls for USAID to support all of this out of its existing budget.
"If Congress really wants USAID to scale up efforts to make urbanization beneficial, then they ought to allocate more money to make that happen. If you want a new focus and new programmes to support it, you need to find new money.”
A congressional aide speaking to IRIN on condition of anonymity countered that the bill was a “first step”. The objective was to “bring about some awareness that this is something that is a priority”. Nothing would assist that process more, he suggested, than a piece of legislation that has passed both houses of Congress and been signed into law by President Barack Obama. Congress would then “put the money where the policy is”, he said.
The legislation, the aide said, can be seen as part of the broader effort to rethink the US approach to development, exemplified by the ongoing Presidential Study Directive on Global Development – conducted by the White House’s National Security Council – and State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.
The bill must first be voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – of which all three Senators are members – before being considered by the full Senate.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions