12/10/2012 07:44 am ET | Updated Feb 09, 2013

Safe Shelter, Health and Wellbeing in the World's Poorest Cities

This Human Rights Day, let's talk about housing.

We've been paying more attention to housing here in the U.S. lately, given the calamitous impact of Hurricane Sandy on entire New York and New Jersey communities and the countless American families with homes still in foreclosure.

Globally, of course, the situation is even more dire. More than a billion people -- a sixth of the world's population -- live in slums; an additional 600 million inhabit substandard housing, another 100 million are homeless altogether, and every single week, more than a million are born or move into developing world cities. In-migration from failed harvests, climate change and the draw of urban opportunities has dramatically upped the pressure on these cities, where entire neighborhoods lack streets and drainage, clean water and sanitation, electricity, clinics and jobs, and yet the people keep coming.

In the year 2000 the international community embraced the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including the commitment to reduce the numbers of those living in slums by 100 million by the year 2020. In 2005 the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Housing report, A Home in the City, estimated that this target could be achieved at a cost of $18 billion per year for the next 16 years, for a total of $288 billion. But the donor countries didn't come through. Now, as we mark the three-fifths mark in the time we gave ourselves to achieve this goal, it's safe to say -- although precise numbers are hard to nail down -- that the number of those living in slums has already increased by at least 100 million. The formerly rich nations, now strapped and lined up for their own financial assistance packages, likely regard the notion of pouring $18 billion a year into developing world slums as a non-starter. Actually, though, once we drill down to look at any particular slum in a particular place, we discover a finite number of quantifiable problems to which there are identifiable, achievable solutions.

There are commonalities, of course, to many of the challenges confronting the urban poor, the under-resourced municipal governments charged with serving them and concerned policymakers worldwide. Yet each slum settlement presents its own specific configuration of details that, once studied, add up to a precise, multi-sectoral diagnosis of what is keeping each community entrenched in poverty.

Which factors are responsible, for instance, in a given neighborhood, for giving so many young children severe diarrhea, jeopardizing their cognitive growth and keeping them out of school? Why are this neighborhood's women out of the formal workforce for years on end? is it their lack of formal training or literacy? the prohibitive distances to places of work, or to the clinic where they regularly need to bring one or another sick child? or simply the absence of decent roads, enough bus lines, bus stops and buses that would enable them to travel those distances? Might a careful analysis reveal some combination of these? and if so, what would be the prescribed combination of elements that, once translated into a targeted package of phased interventions, can make all the difference in the life, health, economic growth and vitality of this community?

At the Millennium Cities Initiative, a Columbia University Earth Institute project focused on helping sub-Saharan cities eradicate extreme poverty and realize sustainable growth, we have developed a comprehensive, MDG-based household survey to answer exactly these questions. Our survey, believed by urban experts to be among the most comprehensive instruments developed to-date, is predicated on three premises: first, that where specific problems can be described and measured, specific solutions can be derived; second, that because these problems are intrinsically complex and involve more than one aspect of life for the urban poor, these solutions will need to be multi-disciplinary in nature, necessitating a cooperative, integrated approach to urban planning, if their application is to succeed; and third, that communities themselves need to chart their own course to sustainable development and lead the implementation as far as possible of the carefully crafted programs they have helped design.

MCI chose this 64th Human Rights Day to publish our first completed comprehensive household survey, carried out in three impoverished communities in Kisumu, Kenya's third largest city and its poorest. When we returned to these communities to share our findings and receive residents' feedback, our study subjects told us that although they'd cooperated with repeated research initiatives in the past, ours was the first research team ever to return to share its findings or recommendations with them.

Our results were also shared with a broad array of Kisumu citizens, who came together to determine the city's top development priorities on the basis of their own first-hand knowledge, our survey findings and our extensive research in the areas of education, gender, public health, water/sanitation and private-sector investment. These thoughtfully chosen priorities will hopefully form the basis for the kind of smart packages of targeted interventions intended to accelerate progress toward achieving all of the MDGs, both in our study sites and across this underserved and under-resourced city, for which such change will be transformative.

So when we suggest commemorating Human Rights Day by talking about housing, we're not being reductionist, nor are we just talking about housing: we're talking about access, about opportunity, about communities finding their voice. We're talking about individual and community empowerment -- that is, about fundamental human rights, and civil and political rights, as embodied in the entire social, economic and developmental fabric of the neighborhoods where we work, hand-in-hand, residents and technicians such as ourselves, to bring about transformations that everyone can envisage and that, therefore, must be well within our reach.