I was overwhelmed with emotion yesterday listening to Afghanistan’s Minister of Urban Development, Mr. Mohammad Yusuf Pashtun, describe conditions in the wartime ruins of his country. After 25 years of war, Afghanistan’s cities have been destroyed, many literally flattened on a scale unimaginable to people outside the country. More than 70 percent of all urban infrastructure is gone, and the remaining 30 percent is in poor condition.
In addition to the devastated physical landscape, Afghanistan’s health, education and basic governance structures also are in ruins. At the same time, the country’s urban population has grown almost five fold and a further 5 million refugees displaced by war have returned to towns and cities unable to accommodate them. Slums and informal urban settlements are growing five percent per annum, he noted.
He described his country’s plight as an urban crisis where average life expectancy is only 43 years; where women are still prevented from achieving their full potential; where warlords and drug traders remain a threat; and where the country's democratic structures are desperately weak.
What moved me was his call for Afghanistan's political and business partners to view this urban crisis as an opportunity for national and international investment; where a huge reservoir of cheap skilled and unskilled labour exists; where cheap local construction materials are everywhere; and where new partnerships can generate job opportunities for millions of people.
He concluded by saying Afghanistan is not afraid, because Afghanistan is not alone.
Nothing could better describe the purpose of the World Urban Forum than his simple message of hope, that despite unimaginable pressures and problems, countries like Afghanistan could view the future with optimism, because the rest of the world is there to help.
The thread that links Kabul and Vancouver is the message that we are all in this together, and Minster Pashtun’s optimism shows how powerful this message can be in creating hope.
Many great things will emerge from WUF3, but none will be as important as this.