The tenth World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi brought together thousands of advocates, civil society organisations, practitioners and government officials to discuss the impacts of urbanisation, housing, land and climate change. Panel discussions, roundtables and networking sessions focused on addressing poverty, inequality and human rights. Despite the strong emphasis on accountability and transparency in the human rights literature, there prevails a reluctance to hold governments to account – both to their treaty commitments but also to their constitutional obligations. Amongst these sessions, as has often been the practice, there is seldom a debate about integrity and what it role it plays in shaping urban development for better or worse. Thus, the networking session on Cities of Integrity presented an amazing opportunity to revisit critical human rights debates through a very different lens.
The session highlighted key perspectives from different parts of the world and my takeaways as the session moderator are as follows:
- Integrity is about a holistic behaviour change: The speakers reinforced the idea that integrity is much more than the debates on corruption (and anti-corruption). It is fundamentally about behaviour and understanding the implications of our actions on equity and justice. Critical questions were raised: As practitioners in the social justice sector, do we critically examine our actions and its consequences? How do we shape our behaviour to reduce overall harm to society?
- Existing integrity systems contradict our political realities: The panel emphasised repeatedly that some common ‘integrity vulnerabilities’ were directly related to and a consequence of our neoliberal political and economic system. For instance, systems of procurement and contracting are rapidly regressing despite accessible digital technology. Secrecy and making data incomprehensible for civil society is just one such example, that led Philippines to pursue open contracting. This form of open contracting led to significant improvements in public oversight and overall accountability.
- Public-private collusion is rife: In growing cities and urbanising countries, the lines between private interests (for instance those of a private developer) and public sector approval process are very fluid. In particular, examples from Zambia reiterated how private practice and developers have used their influence over the public sector, e.g. through political party funding, kickbacks etc., to secure land and/or development rights.
- Academia needs to and can step up: While academia has developed strong systems for ethical research practices, there is little discussion on professional integrity and building core values, both as prospective public servants and as citizens. Academia remains in a strong position to foster an overall culture of integrity across various professions linked to the built environment.
- Civil society needs to take integrity seriously: a significant focus of corruption has been on the public sector and politicians. It was emphasized that the discussion of integrity is critical in the civil society sector. The last ten years have seen several instances where progressive civil society organisations have been involved in unethical practices such as sexual harassment, poor safeguarding of rights etc. Such incidents have inevitably weakened a global civil society already under duress. For instance Oxfam sacked 43 over safeguarding issues in the year to March and The UN Sex Abuse Scandal review — careful, dignified and gruelling.
- Lethargy as corruption: A theme that stood out was whether inaction or lethargy in the public sector should also be qualified as and equated to corruption. Inaction on key human rights issues – delivery of basic services, tenure and housing – has forced activists to use more aggressive tactics to force the state to meet its constitutional obligations.
- Corruption versus an environment of compliance: The panel emphasised the balance between corruption versus an environment of compliance. Often compliance leads to a sense of ‘tick-boxing’ and inordinate punitive measures can bread a culture of fear, lethargy and indefinite delay. This has also meant that the public sector is constantly second guessed, ultimately centralising power in the hands of the politicians (who are often claiming the moral high ground and general public’s interest). Striking a sensible balance is critical to allow for new practices and collaborations to emerge without compromising on accountability.
Within the fairly regulated setting of WUF and its often normative discourses, the Cities of Integrity networking session opened a new set of dialogues and debates. In asking difficult questions, it pushed the boundaries for many of the participants – as the Chief Financial Officer of an African province stated: “it [the session] was refreshing and eye-opening”.
This session, for me, reinforced that fundamentals of social change rely on strong integrity-based institutions that are accountable both inwards and to their community partners. It is imperative for DAG, as a leading social justice organisation to lead by example and demonstrate highest degree of honesty and integrity in our work. This coupled with utilising instruments and dialogues in order to hold our public administration to account.
This report was written by panel moderator, Adi Kumar, executive director of Development Action Group.