30 October 2020. Nay Pyi Taw /Yangon – UN-Habitat in partnership with the Department of Urban Housing and Development (DUHD) of the Ministry of Construction (MoC) of Myanmar celebrated “World Cities Day”. The Event was successfully held on Friday 30 October 2020 on a zoom virtual platform.
The United Nations General Assembly designated 31st of October as World Cities Day, by a resolution, in 2013. The Day is expected to greatly promote the international community’s interest in global urbanization, push forward cooperation among countries in meeting opportunities and addressing challenges of urbanization, and contributing to sustainable development goals around the world. The 2020 Theme is Valuing Our Communities and Cities. It afforded an opportunity to reflect on our cities informal settlements and consider their future in light of the impact of COVID 19 and its social, political and financial upheavals.
The event was graced by the presence of His Excellency U Han Zaw, the Union Minister of the Ministry of Construction. Members of the National Urban Committee; senior officials from Department of Urban and Housing Development (DUHD); DUHD advisors; development partners; representatives from Embassies, UN agencies; professional associations and Urban professionals. A total of 98 participants attended the online forum.
Opening Remarks by H.E U Han Zaw, Union Minister of Construction
H.E. U Han Zaw, the Union Minister of Construction, delivered the opening remarks in which he took the opportunity to relay to the participants a decade of strong collaboration with UN-Habitat in joint efforts in creating a better urban future for Myanmar. He noted that World Cities Day 2020 reflects commitment towards building inclusive and environmentally sustainable cities in Myanmar, and given the lessons of COVID-19 pandemic, the compulsion of communities and relevant stakeholders to come together to build resilient cities. He noted that cities are centers of democracy, innovation, economic development, and culture, thus, making them drivers of sustainable development.
He recalled that the poor and vulnerable were the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the realities by which urban life have been starkly revealed in this past year, where the most affected are the poor and vulnerable communities. He underscored that the steps and policies that address inclusive urbanization efforts are in line with the priorities stated in the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan which includes “develop and effectively implement a national housing strategy, including low-cost housing and housing for vulnerable groups, and implement affordable housing projects” as a key priority and also in line with priorities identified by the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda and the central promise of ‘leaving no one behind’.
In a video message relayed on World Cities Day, UN Secretary General António Guterres commended the extraordinary contribution made by grass‑roots communities in cities and towns. He noted that the value of communities was brought into sharp focus during the response to COVID‑19, and urban communities are engaged in policy and decision‑making, and empowered with financial resources, the results are more inclusive and durable.
Remarks by Bijay Karmarcharya, UN-Habitat Country Programme Manager
Bijay Karmacharya, in his opening remarks, recalled that World Cities Day is celebrated annually to promote the international community’s interest in global urbanization, contributing to sustainable urban development around the world. The Country Programme Manager recalled the dramatic change of city life during the year as a consequence of the COVID-19 where urban areas are the epicenter of the pandemic globally. He highlighted that in Myanmar, the city of Yangon accounted for 70 percent of all recorded cases of COVID-19. He noted that the theme of the event- “Reflecting on Informal Settlements”- is central to the work of UN-Habitat. He said that UN-Habitat had identified 423 high density pockets of informal settlements in peri urban Yangon which house more than 400,000 people. UN-Habitat’s survey at the onset of the pandemic showed deep poverty, high indebtedness, food insufficiency among the residents of informal settlements. The denseness of settlements, insecure security of tenure, and risk of evictions placed residents at greater risk.
He mentioned that the informal settlements are high density settlements devoid of basic urban services. For those people, practicing basic prevention measures of hand washing, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, self- isolation or home-quarantine are far-fetched reality. Therefore, they are at a high risk of potential spread of Covid-19. Preparedness, prevention, protection measures of the authorities alone are limited in these areas. Therefore, the authorities are in need of support of everyone who could help to protect the poor and vulnerable from this pandemic.
Following the opening remarks and messages, four urban practitioners and researchers made presentations on topics, strategies, and possible solutions of urban issues.
The following presentations were made:
Housing for All & the New Urban Agenda (Vishnu Prasad, Field Programme Manager, UN-Habitat Myanmar)
The presentation focused on the theme of World Habitat Day “Housing for all” and the enduring relevance of the New Urban Agenda in finding solutions to the pandemic. Specifically, the presentation highlighted the global nature of tenure insecurity, exacerbated by COVID-19. Finding solutions in the New Urban Agenda, the presentation offered ways to prevent evictions and strengthen security of tenure for all urban residents and residents of informal settlements, in particular.
Informal Settlements in Myanmar: Current dynamics and new strategies (Thibaut Bara, Country Director, Green Lotus)
The presentation underscored the dynamics of urban migration to cities in Myanmar, specifically highlighting the role of disasters and climate change as a key driver of migration to cities. Thibaut Bara remarked that the dominant narrative around informal settlements were tied to ideas of criminality and illegality. In finding solutions to informal settlements, the presentation pointed to the need to counter prevailing stereotypes about residents of informal settlements through positive representation in the media and efforts to recognize their economic contribution to the city.
Informal Settlements and Migrant Challenges in Yangon (Helene Maria Kyed, Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies)
The presentation highlighted the growing phenomenon of securitization of informal residents and migrants in Yangon. The presentation showed that informal migrants are left in a precarious position, often at the mercy of local power brokers. The increased securitization of informal migrants could have detrimental short- and long-term effects including increased in gang-related violence, crime, and the creation of underlying conditions for conflict.
Housing Lessons from the Past: Urban Planning, Evictions, and Alternatives in Yangon (Elizabeth Rhoads, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Lund University/University College London)
The presentation focused on the history of housing policy interventions in Myanmar, specifically highlighting the salience accorded to housing in the Pyidawtha Plan, an economic development plan established by the Union Government in 1952. Pointing to the specific post-independence housing experiments in Myanmar including cooperative housing, joint housing scheme loans, and creation of public housing, the presentation made the case for revisiting past experiences to solve the housing problems of today.
Concluding Remarks by U Min Htein, Director General of the Department of Urban and Housing Development (DUHD)
The presentations were followed by Q&A session and concluding remarks by Director General U Min Htein of the Department of Urban and Housing Development of the Ministry. The Director General said that World Cities Day 2020 had given an opportunity to reflect on the state of cities in Myanmar, especially amidst the effects of the COVID 19 pandemic on cities in Myanmar. He considered this year’s theme to be timely and pertinent as the efforts to deal with the pandemic, whilst moving forward to a more sustainable future was complemented by the exertions of the urban poor and their community ties of resilience, creativity, and resolve, thus leading to the awareness that the cooperation of these communities is essential for building the aspired urban future. On behalf of the Ministry and Department, the Director General thanked the UN System and UN-Habitat in particular for the long standing cooperation, and expressed confidence that the joint efforts will make significant strides towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 11 and the objectives of the New Urban Agenda.