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How can cities in the Middle East and North Africa be more inclusive?

How can cities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) become more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable as they grapple with devastating conflicts, mass displacements of people, widespread inequality, and rapid population growth combined with increasing water and food insecurity?

What kinds of urban governance systems are needed to ensure that cities in the region are just and inclusive of citizens and noncitizens alike? And what social, political, and economic alliances will be needed to support them?

These are critical questions that leaders from the MENA region must address as they prepare for October’s Habitat III Conference—a global summit focused on housing and sustainable development. The summit brings together world leaders to address the most crucial issues facing cities, including migration, affordable housing, economic inequality, and the environment. Together, the leaders will decide on how to manage the world’s rapidly urbanizing cities and its impacts under a framework called the New Urban Agenda. It will be the model for how the international community deals with urbanization for the next 20 years; so hopefully the New Urban Agenda will integrate sustainable development, equity, and shared prosperity.

The Ford Foundation and the Habitat III Secretariat recently hosted a briefing on urban challenges and sustainable development in the MENA region (access the recorded conversation here via WebEx). Experts from Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates came together to discuss the New Urban Agenda and what it means for cities in the MENA region. Here are the major takeaways from the conversation:

The success of the New Urban Agenda will require broad participation, transparency, and accountability. To achieve this, local governments will need fiscal, administrative, and political support. As Kareem Ibrahim of the Tadamun Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative explained during the panel, “There is a presumption that there is an effective and local government that is working for the common good, but this is not the case in many [MENA] countries, including in Egypt.” In fact, most governments in MENA are highly centralized. Where local governments do exist, they often lack human and financial resources and the administrative authority to govern effectively. For example, in Lebanon, municipalities often have no full-time staff. Combined with limited public oversight of municipal decision making, local leaders become vulnerable to private interests. Improved communication to citizens on public service activities would allow citizens to monitor government performance, and electoral reforms would allow for proportional representation and increased diversity of elected representatives. Early experiments in participatory budgeting in Tunisia and Egypt show great promise and should be built on.

Civil society groups can help solve urban challenges. They bring new perspectives on and can provide expert analysis of existing data. According to Ibrahim, “In Cairo, youths are taking matters into their own hands, seeking solutions for accountability, access to information, and development in their neighborhoods.” And in Lebanon, young people have led efforts to improve public services, reform local administration, and protect the environment and urban heritage sites.

Equitable cities require a shared understanding of public goods and ensuring that public spaces are accessible to all. Everyone suffers when the benefits of public goods and public spaces are captured by the few. Protecting the public good can mean the difference between sustaining or destroying ecologically fragile waterfronts and aquifers. It can mean the difference between public spaces that invite social dialogue and a diversity of artistic and cultural expression and those that reinforce isolation and social divisions. Residents who are educated about their rights to their city and its public spaces are better able to build effective alliances to secure those rights for everyone’s enjoyment. While early drafts of the New Urban Agenda include language on the rights to public spaces and adequate housing, more must be done to address the political economy that has created challenges to these rights in the first place.

Migrants and refugees are an integral part of MENA cities and must be included in their planning and governance. From the Gulf to North Africa, migrants and refugees make up a substantial portion of the urban population, sometimes outnumbering citizens. Often they cluster in underserved and informal neighborhoods where they contribute to local economies. In areas with weak infrastructure and services, their presence can be a boon to landlords and a challenge for service providers. Including migrants and refugees—and the resources they bring—in planning and local governance offers immediate and long-term development benefits to host communities.

Efforts to address climate change must not reinforce existing unequal access to public goods and services. In a region with a history of channeling resources to new cities rather than improving existing ones, and to cities over rural areas, there is a real risk that the impact of climate change will be borne disproportionately by poor and marginalized people. Already in Egypt poor neighborhoods and villages have vastly reduced access to drinking water compared with wealthier urban neighborhoods. Technical innovation can contribute to reducing the impact of climate change, but lasting solutions will require improved governance systems that can better distribute public goods and resources in a more equitable, fair, and accountable way.

 

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