From Medellín to the world: Tenacious advocacy needed to ensure adequate housing for all

April 14, 2014

By Elizabeth Blake: SVP - Government Affairs, Advocacy, and Legal,  Habitat for Humanity International

Spending last week in Medellín reminded me why advocacy energizes me even more than several cups of the richest Colombian coffee. Between presenting at the Seventh Session of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum (WUF7), seeing familiar faces among the 25,000 participants, and exploring partnerships with fellow urban development experts, I noted with delight how many civil society organizations are offering informed solutions for cities. Voices in our sector have grown in number and power since 1996 when the Second UN Conference on Human Settlements, also known as the “City Summit,” was held in Turkey and yielded the Habitat II agenda.

Now two years away from the Habitat III meeting of world leaders to review the global urban agenda and mandate of UN-Habitat, the voice of civil society loudly proclaims that to break the cycle of poverty, the new urban agenda must address the increasing demand for adequate housing around the world. WUF7 events, receptions, and conversations collectively reinforced the need for housing, both in urban and rural areas, recognizing that adequate housing requires access to land and secure tenure. At the Civil Society Organization Roundtable, “The New Urban Agenda Responsive to People’s Priorities for an Equitable Urban Future,” for example, representatives repeatedly emphasized those two key issues. With more than 350 organizations involved, this standing-room only session underscored the need for all stakeholders, including organizations like Habitat for Humanity International, to ensure that the next global agenda mandates access to land and secure tenure. As our CEO Jonathan Reckford reported as host and rapporteur of that roundtable, the voices of civil society are calling for an increase in legal, adequate, dignified housing and an informed decrease in slums that avoids unintended consequences, such as an increase in forced evictions.

The task at hand may seem daunting, particularly in light of how little attention housing received in the Millennium Development Goals. But in addition to the impressive successes in Medellín, consider recent progress on land tenure in Haiti. In 2012, a renowned expert declared that clarifying Haitian property law was “impossible.” In 2013, thanks to the work of a broad coalition of representatives from the Haitian government, civil society organizations, the private sector and, most importantly, the community itself, the Haiti Property Law Working Group published its first manual, which is now being used to train judges and notaries and to change the economic and political status of the poor. In short, if all stakeholders are at the table and take a teamwork approach toward a common goal, nothing is impossible. 

Civil society must take that approach now. The lack of tenure security and equitable laws around land ownership combined with rapid urbanization and a growing population underscore the urgency of housing as a priority in both the UN’s Post-2015 agenda and in Habitat III. The new development agendas will shape future policies worldwide and, if we are to eliminate poverty in our lifetime, civil society’s focus on housing must be a priority.

As WUF7 participants return to our respective homes around the world, we must be persistent and strategic in calling for greater emphasis on housing and land tenure. We made great progress at WUF7, but as we look toward the future, our work is far from done. In fact, the next several months are critical to ensuring that housing and land remain on the Post-2015 sustainable development agenda. As the Open Working Group (OWG) prepares to issue a final report in June, we must intensify our call for Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements to be a stand-alone goal and for issues surrounding housing and land to be reflected in targets and indicators throughout the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We also must remain actively engaged in the conversations leading up to Habitat III and shape the future urban agenda through partnerships, constructive dialogue, and involvement of all stakeholders. This will not be easy; it will require time, energy, and tenacious advocacy. While I can’t fit enough coffee in my bag to carry me through to 2016, I know the enthusiasm generated at WUF7 will.

To join Habitat for Humanity International in calling for housing to be a global priority, add your name to the petition here: (o en Español:


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