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Nairobi, 15 Feb 11

The group photo of all the participants of Human Library Conference that took place at the UN complex Photo © UN-HABITAT / Julius Mwelu

A group of 25 retired UN-HABITAT veterans from countries around the world returned to the agency's headquarters this week to share their experiences and insights with a view to helping establish a new direction for the agency.

The group, all of whom once held senior positions at UN-HABITAT, signed up for a Human Library Conference convened to enable these veterans, who have worked in the field in many countries around the world, to provide on-camera interviews to ensure that UN-HABITAT's collective body of knowledge is duly recorded for posterity. Each was also asked to prepare a paper looking at the agency’s future direction in a rapidly urbanising world, based on their own experience.

Forged in the tradition of African story telling, it was conceived by Mr. Daniel Biau, Director of UN-HABITAT’s Regional and Technical Cooperation Division.

“In quantitative terms we have implemented more than 1,000 projects in more than 100 countries. We have mobilized and disbursed more than USD 2 billion over the last 25 years. We, in this room, have created a number of impressive networks. We have built human settlements expertise in many countries and in all regions of the planet. We have worked with Mayors, Ministers, senior officials, and also with NGOs and CSOs and made Habitat known and respected all over the world,” he said.

The meeting, a novel idea in the UN system, was inspired by the Malian intellectual, Amadou Hampâté Bâ, a former member of the UNESCO Executive Council, who founded the Institute of Human Sciences in Bamako and helped establish a unified system for the transcription of African language.

A famous quotation attributed to him says: "In Africa, an elder dying is a library in flames." Referring to this in opening remarks, Mr. Alioune Badiane, Director of the Regional Office for African and Arab States, said the idea was to bring the oral traditions of Africa to help keep UN-HABITAT’s collective memory alive.

UN-HABITAT's Executive Director, Dr. Joan Clos said that with humanity urbanising faster than at any time in history, he was keen to hear from the veteran experts whether they thought it possible to convince mayors and governments that they should plan in advance for this growth.

“The pace of urbanisation, over the last 20 years, is the highest ever in the history of humanity,” he said. With the urban population of the developing world projected to grow from 2.55 billion in 2010 to 3.86 billion in 2030, he added: “The conditions of people in cities are very poor. People go to cities for a better life, but end up in misery. We need to re-think how this process is taking place.”

While much of such growth was historically accompanied by industrialization as in America and Europe in times past, and today in China, this is not the case in large parts of Africa, he said: “We do not have a clear idea how to manage the huge population without jobs in cities.”

Citing the example of Manhattan 200 years ago in 1811, he said that if a city's population was projected to double, then this growth should be planned for. Why was it possible to plan back then, he asked, while today it no longer seems possible to do so? With the notable exception of China, which was planning on a large scale, he added that much was said about improving slum conditions. However, he asked them, whether it was not possible to plan for the prevention of slums, through job creation and new mind-sets to meet what he called this global challenge.

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