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Political will and good policies 'key to a city without slums'

Strong political will and good policies which provide affordable housing and access to finance are key to developing a city without slums, a top United Nations official said on Sunday.

This is why Singapore ‘is one of the cities that is inspiring, especially for its best practices’, said United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) undersecretary-general and executive director Anna Tibaijuka.

Speaking to The Straits Times ahead of the World Cities Summit in Singapore this week, Mrs Tibaijuka said the Republic has met the challenges of urban development by ‘sheer determination and appropriate investment’.

‘In cities such as Singapore, where leaders have approached the problems head-on, it has empowered the poor,’ said the 60-year-old from Tanzania, who is the highest-ranking African woman in the UN.

Singapore’s success - it has housed 80 per cent of its population in public housing over the past four decades - in supplying affordable housing and implementing a mortgage finance system suited for the low-income is crucial in eliminating slums, she pointed out.

‘We cannot depend on the private sector or the free market to provide for the poor,’ she said. The 2008 global financial crisis triggered by the sub-prime loans in the United States ‘was an affordable housing financial crisis’, she added. Banks had issued easy credit to home buyers who did not necessarily have the ability to pay it back, resulting in mass defaults of such housing loans.

‘People thought affordable housing can be provided by the market, but that obviously didn’t happen, and the rest, you know, (is history),’ she said.

Mrs Tibaijuka will be marking the Asia launch of the latest UN-Habitat 2010 report - State Of The World’s Cities: Bridging The Urban Divide - tomorrow at the World Cities Summit at Suntec City.

The report states that the world has exceeded its Millennium Development Goal to improve significantly the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers around the world by 2020, and has done it ahead of deadline.

It estimates that between 2000 and this year, 227 million people in the developing world would have moved out of slum conditions, with Asia at the forefront of such efforts.

The governments in the region improved the lives of an estimated 172 million slum dwellers in that period.

But the good news ends there.

In absolute terms, the number of slum dwellers swelled considerably by more than 50 million from 776.7 million in 2000 to 827.6 million this year, the report estimates.

This ‘urban divide’ between those who benefit from cities and those who are unable to, opens up a gap - an ‘open wound’ - which can produce social instability and generate high costs for society at large, notes the report.

Mrs Tibaijuka said the solutions require awareness, long-term political commitment and policy reforms.

Not mincing her words, she said: ‘The presence of slums in cities is actually a shame on its political leaders. There is no dignity for these people who do not have even the basic access to safe drinking water or toilets… It is a reflection on the will of its leaders.’

The official, who has been credited with raising awareness about the global challenge of chaotic urbanisation through her campaigning for the past decade, said she is glad Singapore is taking the lead by hosting the World Cities Summit.

Asked to describe the Republic in one word, she looked out at Singapore’s city skyline of Marina Bay from the top-floor of the Ritz-Carlton hotel and said: ‘Spectacular.’

‘It is my hope successful cities such as Singapore and Bahrain, where the next World Urban Forum is held, will inspire others with their best practices.

‘We advocate everyone’s basic ‘right to the city’, and I hope through our campaigning, we will be able to address this urban divide,’ she said.

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