Journal Issue

The significance of Habitat: The United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in perspective

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
March 1976
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Robert S. McNamara

Habitat will be the sixth in a series of global conferences to have been held in this decade, under the auspices of the United Nations, on a specific major problem. The earlier conferences—on the environment, population, food, the law of the sea, and the status of women—drew together the governments of the world, as well as a broad spectrum of the concerned public, into a forum in which these issues could be debated and clarified, and feasible lines of cooperative action explored.

It is far too early to assess the final results of these conferences, but one thing is certain: that the conferences took place at all is symbolic of a major development in the way in which governments and peoples everywhere have come to regard the world in which they live.

However imperfect the response to the problems these conferences dealt with may be, the central fact is that most governments now consider it appropriate—indeed virtually routine—that such issues should be analyzed and addressed at the international level.

To say this today seems obvious. But that in itself is proof of the shift in thinking that these conferences have helped shape. A decade or two ago it simply would not have been feasible to get most of the governments of the world to sit down in a public forum and seriously discuss the inadequacy of the global food supply, the dangers of the global population growth rate, or the precariousness of the global human environment. Not only would many governments have been unprepared to discuss the need for cooperative solutions to these problems, some would have been reluctant to recognize them as problems at all.

That is no longer true. However controversial these issues may remain, they are at least accepted as requiring international attention. The concept of global interdependence has at last begun to be seen as something more than a mere theoretical abstraction. It is now increasingly perceived as a fact; an unsettling fact, perhaps; even a painful fact; but a fact nonetheless to be reckoned with by governments everywhere.

That the series of United Nations world conferences over the past five years could have been convened and carried out is, then, both a cause and an effect of the growing recognition of this reality.

We have obviously not yet discovered genuinely global solutions to these problems. But what we have discovered is that the problems themselves have a genuinely global dimension. That itself is progress. Indeed, in the broader perspective of history it may well turn out to be much more significant progress than many observers suspect.

Habitat will continue, and I hope strengthen, this trend toward a global consideration of the quality of life. The World Bank, with its mandate to assist the economic and social progress of the two billion people in our more than a hundred developing member countries is of course involved on a day-to-day basis with many of the issues that the Conference will consider.

Beyond the specifics of the Bank’s project work, its technical assistance, its advice to governments, and its analytical evaluation of various strategies lies our central concern with the fundamental issue of all human development: improving the opportunity for individuals to achieve more fully their inherent potential. Development is meaningless if it does not in the end enhance the lives of individual human beings—particularly those individuals whose circumstances are so wretchedly deprived as to constitute an intolerable insult to human dignity itself.

The absolute poor

These are the individuals trapped in what I have termed absolute poverty. They are caught up in a malaise of malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, underemployment, high child mortality, and low life expectancy that in effect condemns them to an existence beneath any rational definition of decency.

The absolute poor number some 900 million individuals—roughly 700 million in the countryside of the developing world, and some 200 million in its exploding cities. They constitute as much as 40 per cent of the entire population in most developing societies, and unless specific efforts are made to help them realize their own productive potential, no feasible degree of traditional welfare or simple redistribution of already inadequate national wealth can fundamentally alter the circumstances that impoverish them.

The self-perpetuating plight of the absolute poor is that their circumstances cut them off from much of the development activity in their own societies: in their present situation they neither contribute significantly to their country’s economic progress, nor do they share equitably in its benefits. They stand largely outside, isolated, and untouched by the entire development process.

That need not be. Indeed, in the light of every reasonable human value, it must not be. Absolute poverty can be substantially reduced. Given the requisite resources, and the sustained effort, it can even be finally eliminated.

In the end, I think it is fair to say that Habitat’s ultimate significance will revolve largely around that outcome.

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