UN-HABITAT's State of the World's Cities reports, like the World Bank's World Development Reports, do not so much document how the world has progressed from year to year as they do portray the evolving research interests of the two institutions.
In the World Bank's case the reports are often products of the intense ideological debates that take place in Washington. UN-HABITAT's core team is more stable, with each report simply trying to reframe a similar statistical project within a new policy discourse. Thus 2008's Harmonious Cities becomes this year's Inclusive Cities.
The drawback with this approach is that the policy recommendations are derived from the structure of the research project, not the structure of the facts discovered.
Perhaps the most important fact published in this year's report, and the one most widely repeated by the general media, is that the lives of 227 million slum dwellers had been improved between 2000 and 2010, and that the number of slum dwellers as a proportion of the world's total population is shrinking, despite a rise in the absolute number. This is the first piece of really good news at the global urban level in several years.
China and India account for over half the 227 million lives improved, with 65 and 60 million respectively; from another angle, Indonesia, Morocco and Argentina all lifted over 40% of their entire population out of slums, with Colombia and Egypt very close behind.
But having identified this fact, the report spends far too little time explaining how this was achieved. Some explanations are given in passing: in China, sheer economic growth has made possible a range of housing subsidies and grants; in India the focus was on supporting grassroots initiatives such as micro-finance, slum upgrading and participatory governance.
Sadly though, the report does not treat either of these success stories seriously enough; both explanations were gleaned only from the "personal communications" — that is, the informal observations — of a single contact in each case. The chance to lay out in detail in a flagship report how 227 million inhabitants were lifted out of slums has been missed.
Instead, the report structures its policy recommendations according to a self-imposed human rights framework, a rather abstract approach, based on laws that are notoriously difficult to enforce, that has found concrete application only in Brazil and Ecuador, and produced quantitative successes in Brazil alone.
To be fair, explaining these successes is not strictly the mandate of this report. The report is above all a statistical survey of all cities, whether improving or not, and to assess the range of policies employed by cities throughout the world, not simply those policies which have borne fruit. The rights-based approach is thus an organising principle through which to critique this range of policies systematically, and to structure its recommendations in response.
Yet when an untested policy framework sits alongside such clear empirical successes within the same document, one must wonder whether the recommendations will make a real difference to the number of people living in slums, or simply reorganise the same flawed policies of the past.
If these reports really wish to contribute policy recommendations alongside a statistical survey of the world's cities, its recommendations must be as much based on empirical successes as on this year's research interest on rights-based policies. As a flagship report, detailed policy case studies should be provided for the six countries that have significantly reduced slum numbers in both proportional and absolute terms over the last twenty years: Egypt, Morocco, India, Turkey, Colombia and Peru.
Two further questions arise in this review. Why on earth are the Pacific island nations entirely missing from the report? And what happened to the eight countries celebrated in the 2006-7 report's slum scorecard as "on track"? With the exception of Egypt, why are all of these countries — Puerto Rico, Uruguay, Cuba, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Georgia and the stand-out success, Thailand — absent from this year's statistical tables? There are clearly statistical and empirical divides alongside the economic, spatial and social divides presented in this report.