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Hubs of peace: UN-Habitat, and a unique look at urbanization's impact on Afghanistan

Afghan men construct a new park (UN Habitat)
Men constructing a park (UN-Habitat)

An interview with Koussay Boulaich about why urbanization matters so much in Afghanistan today


Koussay Boulaich previously worked in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Brussels and Mexico with the EU External Action Service. Then he joined the UN to work as speechwriter of Dr. Joan Clos, UN Under Secretary General/Executive Director of UN-Habitat (who used to be the Former Mayor of Barcelona), and was based in Nairobi, the HQ of UN-Habitat. Boulaich joined UN Habitat when Dr. Clos was the Secretary General of Habitat III, the largest UN Conference in Housing and Sustainable Urban Development which took place in Ecuador in October 2016. The outcome of that meeting, the New Urban Agenda, is the UN roadmap for achieving sustainable development and the urban related part of Agenda 2030. He is currently working on its implementation in Afghanistan as Head of Communication of UN-Habitat’s Office.

Tell me what brought you to Afghanistan?

I went from working for the EU to the UN and started working for UN Agency that focuses on cities and urban development I joined the team in Afghanistan in January 2018 to work in one of the most interesting urbanization’ cases in a country severely affected by a longstanding war and a severe humanitarian crisis

Afghanistan is certainly in the news a lot, but primarily for conflict?

Indeed, it has been in the news for a long standing conflict that has marked the daily lives of Afghan people for almost four decades. However there is also a story of hope and positive transformation. In terms of Afghanistan, I’m working for a specific agency with the UN that deals with cities and urban development and we do fascinating work impacting people’s lives. In terms of peace process or issues with the Taliban it’s not something I deal with. We limit support to technical assistance to ministries and municipalities, because urbanization is a booming issue, that is driver for sustainable development and job creation. It is a transformative tool for cities to become hubs of peace. I travel to Afghan cities and I meet with Afghan urban stakeholders regularly, and can give you views on that but not on the political process.

Great, so why is urban development such a key issue?

Afghanistan is going through rapid urbanization, and that is a global trend where half of population of world lives in cities. Afghanistan is going through that transition. Only one third live in urban areas, so two thirds live in rural areas. But the curious issue is that despite being a rural based economy, the contribution of cities represents more than 50% of GDP, which is important news and that explains the correlation of urbanization and development.

So what is interesting in Afghanistan compared to other processes, is that the process is driven by the conflict. The conflict with anti-government forces, such as the Taliban or eruption of ISIS, has contributed to a massive flux of people, such as IDPs moving to cities for peace and shelter. Also the war in Afghanistan led so many people to leave the country and they went to Pakistan and Iran. By 2015 we have 2.3 million people who returned and they are going to cities. They move to the city and grab land and establish themselves. National and local governments don’t have the capacity to control and steer the rapid urbanization originated by this flux. So we assist the local government to do this in a sustainable manner.

Tell us about the one third of the country in these urban areas and why this urbanization is so important

So in Afghanistan one third lives in urban areas, that’s 8 million people, but 80% live in informal and unplanned areas. They have come and come and grabbed land and live without provision of basic services. Their areas face terrible exclusion, poverty and what we are doing in Afghanistan is a voice of hope. With funding from EU and USAID, we are surveying all properties in urban areas within the municipal boundaries of Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Bamiyan, Nili and Farah. Our preliminary work is based on GIS and satellite images covering all these properties. We have 1,200 people in the field who go to the places and they go and work with the municipalities and enter house by house and survey the properties and take note of who is living there. We create the first official registry and this will help these people get land tenure security. This includes occupancy certificates. So the government will give them that certificate and right to stay and stop threats of eviction. And they will have safety and security over land and create an economy of agglomeration. Once you have these people gathered with official occupancy and right to stay they will start to pay taxes, municipal taxes I mean, which is normal in Western countries. But in Afghanistan where we have a gap of regulatory frameworks, this is one of the most important steps.

According to the new Presidential Decree on registration of informal properties, women will have the right to have an Occupancy Certificate under their names of the land they occupy. This is a huge step for women who for the first time will have access to land.

And how does this work day to day?

Afghan municipalities are doing an impressive effort in building basics of urban governance. So when I was in Kandahar last week I went with our people and the municipalities to deliver the first invoices of a municipal fee revenue called safaiye. Through the registration of the property and the invoicing of this fee, you integrate these people into the life of the municipality and these people will start receiving water and sanitation and a roads for instance. This is important work for building a city and improving living conditions. My job impacts daily life of people. So you have a registry of properties and municipal tax and then you need to know how to spend that money.

In Kabul we supported the municipality and they already collected 1 million dollars. Out of nothing they started collecting that amount of money. Then you need to reinvest it. We support the municipality in participatory urban planning. We organize workshops at district level. We gather workshops where women are represented, which is historic. We also bring vendors and civil society. We bring all these people who represent that district and ask them what they want for their neighborhood and they present a plan for their ideas. And that plan is then technically studied and analyzed in order to see from those projects which ones are feasible and will be implemented. And this is unique in urbanization. If this process continues this will contribute to the creation of thousands of jobs, especially for youth, in a country where 79% is under 30 years old. Imagine the importance of job creation for youth, and they were in war for decades, and in this it will help citizens gain trust with the state.

This has a larger context relating to urbanization in general?

Before working in Afghanistan I worked very closely with Dr. Clos in the preparatory process of the largest UN conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. As part of the preparatory process of the UN conference, all urban stakeholders of the world contributed to their vision to the final Declaration of Habitat III, the New Urban Agenda, with their analysis of challenges and opportunities of urbanization in their regions. For instance, Tel Aviv was one of the cities of the world that hosted an international meeting on Civic Engagement as part of the process. We went to Israel for this successful meeting organized by the Mayor of Tel Aviv in September 2015. On that occasion we also visited Palestine to discuss their urbanization challenges and opportunities and we met with Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and other officials. For the first time in UN agenda the role of cities as catalyzers of growth, development and prosperity was introduced in the agenda 2030. That is a guided framework for national and local governments for sustainable development. They organized a conference also about the main challenges of urbanization. My previous boss Joan Clos at Un HABITAT was the former mayor of Barcelona. He transformed Barcelona to one of the most prosperous cities in the world. He was a practitioner of urbanization who served as a mayor and a minister. When I began working with him as a speechwriter, I realized how important is good urbanization.

In the west most countries are urbanized and they went through industrial revolution linked to an urbanization process. But in the rest of the world its astonishing. In Africa 30% live in urban areas. But these people are moving very fast to urban areas looking for better conditions, you must address informal settlements and infrastructure and job creation. So this largest UN conference in 2016 Habitat 3 established this road map for achieving prosperity in cities. Local and national governments need to work together because a mayor can’t solve the problem, you need national state to contribute. So this vision is one that I’m working on in a country and a conflict area.

Let’s return to Afghanistan, how do you see this working there?

This is unique. The stories we get form Afghanistan is about war and conflict but there is a story of hope. For the majority of youth people who live in or want to live in urban areas. Despite being a rural economy and informal settlements, the contribution of the one third of the population is contributing 50% to the economy. This means the situation can improve if we put in a good system of financial collection and increase revenue and improve provision of services, including women and local people into his process of participatory processes. This is also unique. We have different programs in our portfolio. We have a program for gender empowerment. For instance one program is for people who are vulnerable sections of population who left urban area due to eruption of ISIS or Taliban, so we help to provide jobs for them. We work with municipalities to provide jobs, for instance cleaning and greening the city.

In Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar and other major cities, we have 13,000 people working in cleaning the city, planting trees, painting curbs, and that improves image of city and cleanliness and gives them a job. Imagine how difficult it is for a woman to survive moving, but if you give her a job it changes her life for good. She will not have prospect for success. I wrote a story about this.

A CFA surveying team (UN-Habitat)

What’s day to day life like though?

Working in this environment was a big change from accompanying Dr. Clos to meeting with presidents and senior officials to move into the field and see how these principles are being fulfilled. Life is not easy in Afghanistan. I’m trying to give the good and positive stories. We have explosions now and then. I live in a container. I live in 6 square foot container and we have generators and electricity and access to water that many don’t have outside, I have limited access to street, and I go out when I have meetings. We hear shootings sometimes at night.

But I am happy to be supporting this new vision. The President of Afghanistan is committed to this tool as a driver for changing the lives of the people. You have to invest in the lives of people in cities, you have to tackle the root of the problem, and if you don’t then cities will be problematic. Because it is a country with an ongoing war, people are escaping war to cities, so let’s invest in cities.

When I was in Kandahar, I didn’t see women in the streets. You don’t see women. Kandahar was the capital of the Taliban regime. Mullah Omar was there in the past. So women didn’t have any social role. And now thanks to our participatory urban process, people said they wanted public spaces for them. We created 35 parks in Afghanistan and you can’t imagine how nice it is to see women in the parks and create spaces for them where they are not harassed and can talk normally. This is a unique revolution. When I was in Kandahar I visited those parks; beautiful, small interventions with a huge impact.

But how do you ensure that this contribution continues, it has to be maintained and invested in?

They have to maintain it, it is an investment, it’s a long term investment. When people visit that park, they will ask the municipality to create more spaces for them. You need to make sure to create the conditions for the park to be sustainable, education, cleaning, security. Three weeks agoin Kabul a suicide bomber blew himself up in the entrance of a public park. So you need security to check people.

In one park in Kandahar we put in place a solar system. You wouldn’t believe a park is being powered by the solar system. So it helps for the lighting of the park. In Afghanistan there is no constant service of electricity, they only have access for a few hours a day, but now in the summer the park has lights at night, due to the solar panels. Due to high temperatures you also need a water system and thanks to the solar it powers the water system. So when we do this we also think about sustainability. We accompany mayors on these processes but it has to do the political will of the mayor. Mayors are happy about this intervention because their popularity will increase. So we hope they will continue to invest in these interventions.

Public validation processes in Jalalabad (UN-Habitat)

In a conservative society where people might be suspicious of outsiders or government, aren’t people suspicious of surveyors?

We have 1,200 people in the field. Including social organizers, revenue mobilizers. In places where municipalities have no served people for a number of years due to lack of capacity and the conflict, we have relationships with the elders and mullahs. In each district we have a team leader and social and revenue mobilizers and they do their jobs with the community first. They go to the mosque and explain to the mullah the scope of the program. They explain the government is leading this and the municipality and being technically assisted by UN Habitat. They know UN Habitat is an independent actor, we have been there for 20 years and they know and trust us. The government is happy to have us in the field. They know we have that trust. This will help create a better relationship of trust. So it’s an important network of work.

Something unique that we do is that we assist a government program called Citizens Charter. One objective is to create local municipal government structures. What they are doing is creating small councils in the neighborhood level where the neighborhood decides on public affairs. These community development councils (CDCs), is something we are working on and it is an impressive tool of community participating, so you create this structures through this World Bank funded program. The structures are composed of half men, half women and include civil society. This is very important. And they decide on community projects. So we go to these people and explain to them “you are the democratically elected members of the community, we are working with the government and we are coming to surveying your houses.” We have surveyed 50% of the properties of Afghanistan.

People are committed. They see we were there and surveyed and the resident gave certificates of occupancy, and so after 20 years they have seen someone come and survey the house and then they are asked to come to go to the mosque or a public place and see that the property is on a map, and make sure the house corresponds to the owner. They see that there is a map of the neighborhood and see it is serious. And then a few months later they receive an occupancy certificate. It’s not a title deed. It confers the right to stay, not the right to sell the title.

By doing it that way, you don’t create incentive for capital gain or incentive for corruption because people don’t get title to the land to sell and buy it?

Exactly. If the mayor changes rural land to urban land then the price will increase. Investors will come for instance. Because you can’t sell the property therefore you don’t create an economic crises. Urbanization is a strategic issue.

Let me ask you now, because it is in the news a lot, what’s happening with this latest wave of attacks?

I’m not working on the peace process and I am not the right person to comment on this issue. I am part of the development pillar of the UN. The UN Secretary-General has an important team led by the Special Representative for Afghanistan who serves as Head of the UN Assistance Mission of Afghanistan (UNAMA).

This wave of attacks is largely due to the upcoming elections. The country is organizing parliament and district elections in October. ,It is very unfortunate to see the number of casualties. This is how war happens when a political process is happening, you have anti-government forces trying to destroy the process. So we saw a high number of attacks in election places with hundreds of casualties.

The UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) mission has released data. It says armed conflict is destroying the lives of civilians. Since January 5,122 civilian casualties. 1692 deaths. The war between official government backed by US against the Taliban regime, but you have the eruption of ISIS. Taliban has its target which is government. But ISIS has started bombing and killing NGOs.

And traveling around?

We have armored cars to the field and I indeed try to talk to people when I get a chance, the beneficiaries of our programs, but don’t stay more than 15-20 minutes. I dress up as an Afghan, with a beard you can pass as one. If you walk by yourself, you can be kidnapped after 2 minutes in the street, that’s the problem. Organized crime will try to pick you up and sell you to ISIS and terrorist cells and we had cases of UN local people being abducted. I live in a prison. I live in my compound, I go from my car to the meeting. When I go to the field I can escape from the traditional meetings with officials in Kabul to the real work on the ground, with communities, the ordinary people We have very strict security regulations and instructions by a very professional team. You need to follow the rules. The security policy is if you leave the car and are kidnapped [that’s your problem]. When I go to the field I trust the criteria of the elders and UN-Habitat senior local staff. I walk with them in the streets, I conduct field visits, I go to collect taxes for instance, like in Kandahar.I go dressed up, with a low profile, respecting the culture and traditions of our hosts.

There must be places that are more safe?

There must be places that are safer. The situation is not safe at all. During the US intervention 2001-2004 my colleagues used to walk in Afghanistan. But the conflict has worsened. After 2001 Afghanistan was fine and there was a wave of hope, but the situation has gotten worse since 2005.

But ISIS is a new threat?

ISIS is indeed a new threat. Difficult to know is what ISIS is doing in the field, I haven’t read one paper about how they are organized in the field. The fact of living in a closed compound without much access to the street does not actually help. The reality is that they are present in some Afghan cities. What I know from the field is that they are definitely present.I met someone in Jalalabad who was an IDP, a beneficiary of one of our programmes working for an upgrading of a park, who told me that he had to leave his village because ISIS came into his village and either you follow them or they chop off your head. So it’s a serious threat.

The 1,200 people who work for you are not targets?

For the moment they have not been a target, but we know anyone who works with foreigners such as US or NATO countries, they are a target. But we work in controlled government areas. Taliban know what the role of the UN is and they know how neutral we are. We have served Afghanistan for more than 20 years. I am not sure if ISIS is aware of our work with the communities for the last two decades. ISIS is indeed a threat not only for us as foreigners but mainly for our local colleagues who are in the field on a daily basis. It is heartbreaking from my national colleagues that they don't know if they will come back after work to see their families. A colleague lost his brother during a recent attack by ISIS. There is an imminent threat but our work is very fulfilling and will hopefully contribute to a new, peaceful chapter in the history of Afghanistan.

Great, thank you for your time.

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