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Geneva conference tackles urban poverty

Officials from cities around the world have converged on Geneva for a major conference on how to tackle poverty in urban areas.

Officials from cities around the world have converged on Geneva for a major conference on how to tackle poverty in urban areas.

The second global forum of the World Alliance of Cities Against Poverty (WACAP), is being jointly organised by the City of Geneva and the United Nations Development Programme, and brings together representatives from cities as diverse as Bangkok and Bogota, Lagos and Lisbon.

WACAP was set up by the UNDP in 1997 as a follow-up to the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995. The findings of the forum will be presented to the special social conference of the UN General Assembly to be held in Geneva in June. The session will assess what progress has been made in the five years since the Copenhagen meeting.

The aim of the three-day WACAP gathering is to help municipal authorities from around the world to forge partnerships and share their experiences in tackling poverty.

"I see the forum as an intensive training course for municipal leaders, " Jean Fabre of the UN Development Programme told Swissinfo. "With the growing poverty in the world, most municipalities have been improvising, but they've been extremely creative. "

Among the innovative solutions being discussed at the forum are a literacy scheme in the Brazilian city of Mauà, a neighbourhood watch programme in New Delhi to ensure that public services are efficient, and a tax on water use in the French city of Besançon, used to fund wells in Burkina Faso.

Fabre says that the forum gives cities in the developing world - often starved of resources by over-centralised governments - a platform to voice their concerns. It also allows them to lobby for aid from western countries, which has been dramatically reduced in recent years.

It's easy to be daunted by the scale of the problem: in 20 years no less than a billion people in the developing world will live in poverty. Already two thirds of the population of cities such as Calcutta and Guatemala City live below the poverty threshold, and 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day.

Jean Fabre says that poverty breeds other problems - unemployment, public health crises, increased migration and financial instability. Recent natural disasters like the floods in Mozambique, the earthquake in north-western Turkey and Hurricane Mitch have shown that it is poor people who are hardest hit by such calamities.

He says it is in the interests of the West to get the developing world on its feet and contributing to the global economy. "If you have a chain in which one of the links is missing, you do not have a chain," he said.

Nevertheless, having heard at first hand from city leaders about their experiences, he is upbeat about the chances of beating poverty.

"We shouldn't be daunted by the magnitude of the problem. The solution is the addition of millions of acts, " Fabre says. "We are the first generation in the history of humankind that has the capacity and means to end poverty. The question is to leapfrog from a situation like the 17th Century in Europe straight to the 21st Century - and that is possible. "

One of the UNDP's most ambitious plans is to turn every town hall into a cyber café for development. This will not only allow cities to pool their experiences, it will also permit ordinary people to access information.

An important backer of the forum is the Swiss Development Agency. It's keen to see how projects to tackle social problems can be used in its own programmes. But Francoise Lieberherr of the agency stresses that poverty is not just a Third World problem.

"Swiss poverty exists. In the last century Swiss people became economic refugees in other countries. And the most recent statistics show that there is a new poverty and the real poor are young families," Lieberherr said.

By Roy Probert

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