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Urban Governance for exploding cities

Kuala Lumpur. April 10 - The people are familiar with the futuristic doomsday landscape of cities choked with garbage, rivers of waste and citizens struggling to survive in makeshift shelters. The reality is that this
future has already been played out, in countless cities throughout the world, particularly in the developing countries where population growth continues.

In fact, according to a United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) report, in the next twenty-nine years, the global population will increase by approximately 3.7 billion. Ninety percent of this will happen in the developing countries and, with 90% of that taking place in urban areas.

The tragedy is, says one UNCHS report, the population is increasing at twice the rate of the growth of the cities and slums are growing at four times the growth rate of the cities. That is not all. Within this millenium, 33 Asian cities will have populations greater than five million. With this pressure of population fuelled further by the migration of rural people to the cities, the very sustainability of the cities are at stake and the number of urban poor on the increase. Again, according to the Habitat report, although the proportion of people defined as "poor" in the developing world is declining in parts of East Asia, absolute numbers are still rising from 1051 million people in 1985 to 1133 million in 1990. This 82 million must have doubled in the last ten years. Unfortunately, the urban poor invariably have to live under conditions of poor sanitation and waste disposal, poor housing, lack of clean water, and inadequate health services. Many of the flash points of civil unrest, such as those seen in Watts (USA) almost three decades ago, and very recently, on the Indonesian-governed part of Borneo,
have their roots in "exploding cities".

The importance of good urban governance thus cannot be under-stated and governments in the more developed countries of the Asia-Pacific Region are well aware of its need. Yet, most local governments are in trouble, as the resources are scarce and the skills and attitude require changes. As a result, criteria such as transparency and accountability in decision-making,treatment of all citizens (regardless of status) according to the law, public participation, and the capacity to implement decisions, were not
being strictly followed.

Reasons are many: lack of political will, fund shortage, inadequate urbantaxes, poor collection and so on. Funding may be obtained through overseas loans or aid from international organisations, but increasingly, governments in the Asia Pacific region have begun to forge deeper partnerships with the
private sector as well as NGOs active in the field.

While the concept of good governance is gaining ground in the Asia Pacific, regional governments are aware that time is running out for many "exploding cities or areas" and that swift action is required to address urban issues. One example is the small-scale unrest at the Medan and Lindungan areas near
Kuala Lumpur, during March 2001. Though portrayed as a racial issue by some, the obvious cause was identified as poor living conditions. Similar civil unrest, though on a larger scale, is still playing out in Indonesia and Thailand, the two countries most affected by the economic crisis.

Despite the myriad problems in the region, more governments in Asia Pacific had become part of the global and regional initiatives to improve the sustainability of their cities. In 1992, leaders gathered at the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro to finalise Agenda 21; a global action plan to harmonise urban development and ecological sustainability. As a follow up to the Summit, many countries around the world formulated their own set of sustainable development indicators.

In Malaysia, the state of Penang was the first to do so. The Sustainable Penang Initiative brought together local government, citizen groups and the business community to discuss the state's economic progress, ecological sustainability, social justice, cultural vibrancy and public participation. It is a long-term project conducted by the Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute, supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and receives assistance from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

UNDP has been involved in urban programmes in Asia since the late 1980s. It continues its involvement with The Urban Governance Initiative (TUGI) which has as its main objective " to contribute to making cities in the region more liveable for the residents by strengthening capacities, improving the
governance principles, and enhancing the tools available to urban administrators and decision-makers."

TUGI's executing agency is the Kuala Lumpur based United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) - Asia Office.

Apart from Penang, TUGI has also established pilot projects on urban governance in Kathmandu (Nepal) and Suva (Fiji). In Kathmandu, the Kathmandu Metropolitan Corporation is working on improving the environmental management capacity of the city administration, particularly in the monitoring and improvement of water and air quality in the urban areas. The Suva project deals with road asset management and planning and promoting more public participation. New projects in the pipeline will be based in Dalian and Shenyang (PR China) where the focus is on urban waste management, and a public welfare information platform aimed at creating greater political participation, respectively.

Many other cities in South Asia have also become part of the initiative, supported by a website, list of experts and Urban Links, a quarterly current awareness service, providing all the information needed for creating a better urban environment.

TUGI also produces Report Cards, an innovative tool for performance audit and action planning of cities.

While the experts and governments are struggling with the growing cities, where resources are scarce but problems galore, one message comes out loud and clear; without transparency and people's participation the cities will become urban ghettos and the quality of life chimeral.

Yet, cities which are the centres for advancement, not only in economic scale, but also from the social, cultural and educational aspects are today characterised by a deteriorating quality of life and marginalisation of the urban poor. This phenomenon is obviously not confined to Asia, but is a scenario repeated in all large urban centres as well, including those in North America and Europe. Currently, societies in the developed world are better able to recognise and demand that their governments implement the principles of good governance. In Asia a decade is too short a time for

Dateline Asia Feature (1070 words).
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