PCDForum Article #12r.   Revised for Release Date July 10, 1995

by David C. Korten

There is a long world-wide tradition of observing the coming of each new year as
a time of reflection and resolution. The year 2001 will be a very special
anniversary as it will mark our entry not only into the 21st century, but also
into the 3rd millennium. It seems a propitious time for the world’s people to
engage in a collective process of reflecting on the meaning of the human
experience, envisioning a desired future, and committing to new beginnings in
the most profound sense. The UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II),
which will convene in Istanbul from June 3-14, 1996, provides a special
opportunity to launch such a process.

Habitat II has been officially billed as the last United Nations global summit
planned for the 20th century–the final event in a series of UN summits held
over the period of two decades. These conferences–on subjects ranging from
environmental stress, human rights violations, food and nutrition security,
runaway population growth, homelessness, poverty, and joblessness to social
disintegration–have focused global attention on some of the most serious global
crises of our time.

Reluctant to challenge the 20th century ideas and institutions that are the
foundations of their own power, official delegations to these conferences have
avoided serious examination of the causes of our collective crisis and produced
little more than a patchwork of toothless commitments to adjustments at the
margins of a failing system. It is surely time not simply to mark an ending to
this series of less than consequential conferences, but to move beyond it. It is
the potential to move beyond–to envision and embrace the possibilities of a new
millennium–that makes Habitat II an event of major potential significance.

The human project that brings us to the threshold of the new millennium presents
a record of both triumph and tragedy. We have achieved the technological and
organizational capacity to assure every person on the planet the opportunity for
a full and secure life in harmony with our planet’s richly diverse living
systems. Yet we seem to be moving ever further from the realization of this

As a few among us grow fabulously wealthy, the majority suffer a growing sense
of loss and frustration as their lives, their families, their communities, and
their hopes for the future disintegrate. More than a billion people lack secure
and adequate shelter and basic sustenance–and their numbers are growing–not
only because of population growth, but as well because of war, physical
displacement, technological displacement, and the growing pressures of global
competition. People of all classes find violence and fear of violence a constant
companion. Day by passing day, we are adding more pollutants to the air,
poisoning our ground waters, paving over our agricultural lands, depleting our
soils and fisheries, stripping away our forests, and killing off ever more
species of plant and animal life as the competition for resources intensifies.

Our current circumstance might be characterized as a period of adolescent
passage in which we have acquired powers beyond our imagination without the
maturity to use them the wisely. The new millennium calls on us to move beyond
our adolescent recklessness–beyond the ideas and institutions of the 20th
century that threaten to carry us ever further into a deep abyss of deprivation
and anarchy. It calls on us to set a new direction–to accept responsibility for
the consequences of how we chose to use the power at our command–to take the
step to a new era of adult maturity.

Given the speed with which our current ways are destroying both the ecosystems
and the social fabric on which our well-being depend the transition to this new
era must be negotiated with a speed and conscious intention unprecedented in
human history. It must involve profound transformational changes in the ways in
which we define human progress, our relation to the environment, and the
relationships between people, governments, and the global corporations and
financial institutions that have become the most powerful institutions of

It is appropriate that we approach the millennium as marking our passage to the
new era. This will require that we engage the process of creating a new global
consciousness through a far reaching and broadly participatory public dialogue
that is also without historical precedent. That dialogue must embrace the
lessons of our past, yet move beyond its flawed assumptions to focus on the task
of using our technical and organizational abilities to create just and
sustainable societies suited to meeting the challenges and opportunities of a
new era.

The foundations of such a dialogue are already being put into place through
spontaneous initiatives of people everywhere who are gathering together with
their neighbors to define and create the kinds of communities and societies in
which they want to live. This dialogue has been a dynamic central theme of the
civil society fora that have been organized in parallel to the official UN
summits. Indeed, one of the few consequential outcomes of these conferences has
been to bring diverse elements of civil society together in the dialogue that
official fora have avoided and to facilitate the formation of a dense and
growing fabric of alliances among civil society organizations all around the

Habitat II will be a significant historical event to the extent that it brings
this discussion into the mainstream. To do so it must encourage a form of
dialogue very different than that which characterized previous UN global
conferences. It must engage civil society–in its full breadth and depth–and
recognize civil society’s essential leadership role in shaping a
transformational vision. It must be grounded in the experience and aspirations
of those who have borne the major consequences of the failure of twentieth
century institutions–those who have the least to lose and the most to gain from
the creation of a new world order of just, democratic, and sustainable
societies. It must embrace the leadership of those who remain in contact with
the living systems of the planet on which our survival depends and have
knowledge and experience essential to the success of this collective enterprise.
Its preparatory processes must build on the grassroots agenda building
initiatives of people all around the world. It must encourage every locality and
nation to join in similar reflection, visioning, and action-taking processes as
part of the follow-on to Habitat II.

The guiding principles of Habitat II–civic engagement, sustainability, and
equity–align with the principles emerging from the global civic dialogue. Thus,
Habitat II offers a natural venue for sharing and celebrating the visions and
action programs being created by ordinary people the world over. From these many
individual visions a shared citizen vision and action plan may be crafted for
creating a transformed global system that roots power in people and place within
a framework of mutual respect, sharing, and cooperation.

These citizen agenda-building processes are already giving reality to the
Habitat II principle of civic engagement and are essential to fulfilling the
vision of the organizers of Habitat II that this global gathering should:

  • Provide a holistic perspective on the issues addressed by the preceding UN
    conferences and engage the discussion of difficult crosscutting issues that the
    previous conferences have neglected.
  • Support the efforts of people working to address their needs within the
    context of local communities and ecosystems.
  • Model the processes of participatory problem solving and decision making in
    which civil society, local and national governments, and progressive local
    businesses engage in creative partnership to address human needs.

Previous UN conferences have focused on producing official negotiated documents
and global plans of action. The resulting agreements are filled with noble
language and largely vacuous commitments. While Habitat II will produce a
statement of principles and a global plan of action, its organizers recognize
the need for new approaches to dealing with the realities of a new century and
want to advance an open process in which new ideas and issues can get on the
table for public discussion.

This creates potentials for Habitat II well beyond those of previous UN
conferences. It creates an opening for the organizations of civil society to
come forward with their visions and agendas in a spirit of open dialogue to move
beyond the institutional and conceptual limits of a century now drawing to a
troubled close. Rather than an ending, we must look to Habitat II as a new
beginning, as initiating a preparatory process toward creating the new era of
the 3rd millennium.

David C. Korten is president and fellow of the People- Centered Development
Forum and author of When Corporations Rule the World, to be released in
September 1995 by Kumarian Press, 630 Oakwood Ave., Suite 119, West Hartford, CT
06110-1529, U.S.A. phone (1-203) 953-0214 or fax (1-203) 953-8589 and
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 155 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA 94104-4109,
U.S.A., phone (1-415) 288-0260 or fax (1-415) 362-2512 in September 1995.
Additional information on Habitat II is available from Bob Naiker, UN Centre
for Human Settlements, P. O. Box 30300, Nairobi, Kenya (25-42) 621-234; Fax
(25-42) 624-266.

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