Urbanisation, Human Security and Survival

Second Leadership Seminar on Sustainable Urban Environment in South East Asia at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 3-4 October 1994.

At six minutes past midnight on 5 December  year 2006, according to one UN projection, the human being will become primarily an urban animal.

Three and a half million people will crowd onto one percent of the earth’s surface.

Global statistics vary but a fair estimate suggests that if we go the way we are going, two billion people - one-third of humanity- will be the absolute poor.

One half of this - one billion - will live in cities. They will contribute 90 percent of the poor people in Latin American, 40 percent of the poor in Africa and 45 percent in Asia. Northern countries may not be spared either, at least in relative terms.

Not only will there be more poor, the poor often pay more, and they often pay with their lives. For the poor it is not the luxury of the cost of living, it is the cruelty of the cost of survival.

Cities - a Burning Issue

Although cities have been concentrations of great human enterprise, they have a darker, painful side. Not only are we seeing a horrifying explosion of poverty, we are also witnessing a deafening implosion,  deepening of alienation, and anger, manifesting itself in urban violence, and even more, in urban terrorism The cities are becoming the battle zones.

We also see a painful “displosion” - a disintegration, a breaking up of family, community and  indigenous values. We see wasted lives of young children turned on to sick streets, and sicker values.

We face a “techplosion” -the introduction of new complex, often ruthless, technologies operating in environments inappropriately prepared for such ventures. We see the mindless proliferation of armaments of all kinds. We see them side by side with problems requiring, but not getting, the simple technologies that will give clean water, adequate nutrition, basic literacy and the kind of livelihood opportunities that could wipe out poverty in a decade, if not in a. generation. Instead we get potential Bhopals. (Bhopal was the city in India that suffered an industrial holocaust that became a mega gas chamber.) And we get Chernobyls. Our cesspools of sewage also end up as poisoned cocktails.

Not so long ago, a test for lead levels was done on umbilical cords of some two dozen babies born in a leading hospital in one of the South East Asian capitals. The shocking news was that every one of those samples had lead levels higher than those acceptable. These innocent babies were doomed to mental retardation. Is that to be our future - maddening development, and mad people!

We are also seeing an “infoplosion” - a proliferation of mindless entertainment and propaganda that is overwhelming and confusing, often creating new addictions and distractions, often enlarging the power of bureaucracy and commercial propaganda. The tapping of the power of these new information technologies by the poor for knowledge and advocacy is going to be necessary but it will not be easy, for power will more readily move to the already powerful.

Forgive my use of pyrotechnic images -explosion, implosion, displosion, techplosion and infoplosion – but these are burning issues.

We tolerate more chandeliers for “over-consumers,” while we deny communities their basic rights to food, shelter and education for their survival. We see a rush to build monuments feeding to national egos, while we deny people the right to adequate shelter. We evict whole communities for dubious economics and even cheap thrills for the conspicuously rich but bored. There is now a citizens movement against golf courses, which are proliferating as the “new rich” playgrounds in many Third World countries. These citizens groups believe that these playgrounds are at the expense of the environment and the poor.

We see the poor, the pregnant and the powerless blamed as victims of their own making, when in fact they struggle with great ingenuity and creativity in circumstances where they are virtual prisoners of perverted economics, and even more perverted politics.

A “Panchasila” for Cities

If we really want to make our cities our homes, we must draw an alternative vision. If our cities are to be our homes they must be built on five principles, what in many Asian cultures is called “panchasila.” I like to suggest a “panchasila” for our cities.

If our cities are to be our homes, they must be based on actions that are:

·         Socially Just

·         Ecologically Sustainable

·         Economically Productive

·         Politically Participatory

·         Culturally Vibrant

The challenge for all of us is to make this five-point vision a reality. If we don’t, we run a great risk (and some places already suffer it). Someone said it powerfully, nearly 20 years ago - “If cities do not deal more constructively with poverty, poverty may well begin to deal more destructively with cities.”

What We Can Do

We need a transformation. I like to use as my framework the great Chinese special diagnostic and therapeutic tool - acupuncture. Acupuncture needs the understanding of, firstly, a map which indicates critical points, secondly, needles to trigger those points, and thirdly, people trained to prepare and read the maps and use the needles effectively.

The Map – a Vision Needed

Nothing great happens without a vision and if we look at today’s world, it is characterised by three malignant cultures.

·         Firstly, the culture of violence, both the structural kind that through neglect of provision of essential services causes death and misery, and the technological kind emanating from armaments and other products, processes and wastes that maim and kill. Over a million people die each year due to the use of chemical pesticides in the Third World. (And these pesticides as you know were largely a product of the chemical divisions of armaments industry.)

·         Secondly, the culture of manipulation both from the machines of bureaucratic propaganda and the behaviour control exercised by unbridled advertising techniques. These can prevent the free and informed expression of peoples participation.

·         Thirdly, the culture of waste - garbage has become a good measure of mal-development. About 1.2 billion of the world’s 5.5 billion people are “over consumers” and they are responsible for 70 percent of the damage to the environment. Greenpeace estimates that some 3.2 million tons of waste are exported to developing countries which are playing a role as garbage dumps.

The new alternative vision could instead embody three benign cultures:

·         Firstly, a culture of balance and harmony, representing the cycles and systems so well established by the laws of nature.

·         Secondly, a culture of trusteeship and stewardship of this earth. We are only guardians of this earth.

·         Thirdly, a culture of accountability, not only in the political sense but also to the future and for many of us to God Almighty.

The Needles - Our Key Points

We need to rethink our concepts of progress, of development. There are many new ideas and I‘d like to share with you some that have been articulated recently in one of the most important books of this year. It is called the Human Development Report 1994 and prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It calls for a fundamental rethink on planet hood management Among other things, it calls for a radical transformation of both thinking and global institutions.

The report says global military spending has been falling by 3.6 percent a year since 1987, yielding a cumulative ‘peace dividend’ of US$935 billion during 1987 -1994. But this dividend has not been harnessed to meet human needs and the report warns this opportunity should not be lost in future years. The report says those encouraging the arms made in developing countries are the very nations that have been charged with global security policy - the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

James Gustave Speth, Administrator of UNDP has stated that  “A large part of the blame for this trading in death rests with the industrial countries who, while giving aid in the order of US$60 billion a year, earn in compensation an estimated US$125 billion per year from military expenditures of the developing world.”

The report makes a number of other telling points. At the beginning of this century, about 90 percent of war casualties were military - today, about 90 per cent are civilians; of the 82 conflicts in the last three years, 79 were within nations; many nations have sacrificed human security in favour of more sophisticated arms; all military assistance, military bases and subsidies to arms exporters should be phased out over a three year period; aid should undergo major restructuring so that the richest 40 percent of the worlds population no longer gets twice as much aid as the poorest; there should be a serious study of new institutions for global governance in the 21st century, including a World Central Bank, an International Investment Trust, and a World Anti-Monopoly Authority.

A Seven Point Agenda for Transformation

The Human Development Report 1994 has proposed to the World Social Summit (scheduled to be held in Copenhagen in March 1995) the following seven point agenda.

·         A World Social Charter to arrive at a new social contract among all nations and all people.

·         A new development paradigm of sustainable human development - economic growth centred around people which is sustainable from one generation to the next.

·         A reduction of 3 percent, a year in future global military spending, with 20 percent of savings by the rich nations and 10 percent of the small nations earmarked for global human security.

·         A 20:20 global compact for human development - to provide basic education, primary health care, safe drinking water and essential family planning services to all people -by earmarking at least 20 percent of the existing developing country budgets and 20 percent of donor aid allocations to those basic human priority concerns.

·         A global human security fund - financed from global taxes such as “Robin Tax” on speculative movements of the international funds, an international tax on consumption of non-renewable energy, global environment permits and a tax on arms trade.

·         A new frame work of development cooperation, to graduate from the present ‘aid’ relationship to a development ‘partnership,’ by including trade, technology, investment and labour flows in a broader design to be negotiated among nations.

·         An Economic Security Council in the United Nations, as the highest decision-making forum to consider basic issues of human security such as global poverty, unemployment, food security, drug trafficking, global pollution, international migration and a new framework for sustainable human development.

Taking Action - the People Rising

We have seen a map of a cruel world. We have seen many creative strategies that can act as needles. But in the end it is people’s action that will make the difference.

I would like to share with you seven action areas that can help to develop our strength to make the transformation needed.

Firstly, think

Poor and Politics

- understand the nature and structure of power and politics in our society, know how decisions are reached and fully utilise the pressures that make politics work for you.

Secondly, think

Multiplying Leadership

-we have to create not just more followers but more leaders especially among women and youth.

Thirdly, think Lateral - link with other groups - mass media, women, ecology, youth and religious groups. Such alliances make powerful synergy.

Fourthly, think Everywhere - encourage the proliferation of autonomous self-reliant groups at all levels and all places. Little victories have a way of creeping up to become national revolutions.

Fifthly, think Action -there must be a constant stream of simple, high profile, do-able activities that must be specific and have visible targets.

Sixthly, think Structural - look at the root cause of the problems, not just at the symptoms.

There is a story I would like to share that helps us to remember this

A man sees a baby drowning in a river. He jumps in and saves the baby. As he is bringing the baby ashore, he sees another baby floating down the river and he rushes in to save the second one. And then he sees a third, a fourth, and a fifth. He is so busy saving the drowning babies that he has no time to look up the river to see the person throwing the babies into the water.

Seventhly, think Long Term - social problems are not going to disappear easily or quickly. We have to build frameworks, institutions, resources and people who will ensure the stamina for a long struggle.


Conclusion -The Three “Peaces”


We have ransacked mother earth in the name of development. We have raped mother earth many times over to satisfy our lust for materialism and sheer greed.

Today it appears to us as if mother earth itself is suffering from AIDS. It is as if her immune system is being devastated


·         her circulation systems, the water and air, are being poisoned.

·         her lungs, the forests, are being wantonly destroyed.

·         her skin, the ozone layer and soil, are being seared and scraped.


All this devastation may go down the paths from which there may be no return.

Can we do something to reverse this madness, can we create a new paradigm of development and happiness that enables three kinds of peace?

·         peace with ourselves

·         peace with other people and

·         peace with mother earth


We can make these three peaces, and we must. Little people doing little things in little places everywhere can change the world and make it happen. Let us work together and make it happen quicker.

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