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Hon. James Macharia, Minister for Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development;
Ambassador Leonard-Emile Ognimba, Assistant Secretary-General in charge of Political Affairs and Human Development- African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States;
Mr. Lars Gronvald, Head of Cities Section, Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development, European Commission;
Mr Victor Kisob, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Habitat;
Heads of Delegation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The word “slum” may bring to mind the multi-storey, dilapidated shanties that line the streets of Brazil’s famous “favelas”, or the hundreds of thousands of precarious-looking buildings in Dharavi, Mumbai that were spotlighted by the film “Slumdog Millionaire.” But while you may not immediately think of fragile, tin-roofed pole-buildings perched by the seaside in Fiji, by any definition, this is an issue we are all too familiar with in the South Pacific.

We in this room all have our own images of what informal settlements look like in our own countries. And while a single, massive slum in one country may contain a population that outsizes entire small nations, there are universal lessons to be gleaned from how we’re dealing with the issue in Fiji that nations of any size can learn from.

While it may be a matter of mere semantics, in Fiji, we use the term “informal settlement” quite intentionally, as we found words like “slum” –– and even sometimes “squatter” –– to be both politically-charged and dehumanising. It’s an important distinction to make, because it guides how we’ve dealt with the issue in Fiji. We’re implementing a rights-based approach; one that doesn’t rely on confrontation or the forceful uprooting of communities. We recognise that we share the same goals as these informal settlers –– to mainstream them into our economy, allowing them to become bigger parts of our national life and bigger players in our national development.

In 2016, Fiji was struck by Tropical Cyclone Winston, a category-5 storm that was the strongest ever to make landfall in the southern hemisphere. The brunt of extreme weather events, which have been amplified and accelerated by a changing climate, are undoubtedly felt hardest by those settlers who, because of both a lack of resources and no real ownership or sense of long-term stability in their living situation, invest very little in the structural integrity of their homes. This temporary mindset –– and the construction that accompanies it –– leaves them particularly vulnerable to high winds, mudslides and flash flooding, as we witnessed in Fiji when Winston ravaged our shores.

That was made clear in the wake of Winston, with widespread devastation extending to our informal settlements; flimsy homes were flattened and sheet metal siding and roofs cut through the air at hundreds of kilometres per hour, becoming a major source of damage, injury, and loss of life.
This gave us perspective on the urgent need to deal with the problem, and the shared interest in creating safer, more regulated, and more sustainable communities that would better serve both our informal settlers and all Fijians.

To accomplish this, we’ve embarked on a nationwide effort to regularise our informal settlements, granting secure land tenure to their inhabitants. We’ve explored options that make more effective use of limited land while reducing development costs, such as strata titles and urban planning, with the help of targeted partners like the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise. And we’re not only creating housing, but entire ecosystems –– with amenities like markets, food stalls, town centres, and local schools readily available. By doing so, we afford the settlements with a level of dignity, while also reducing their carbon footprint –– fitting neatly into Fiji’s broader sustainable development goals.

But we, like many of you here today, know that buildings and roads alone won’t solve this issue –– this has been tried, and failed, all too often. Any plan is incomplete without considering the need for change at the cultural and social levels; we need to give our informal settlers a sense ownership over their communities. Ownership grants confidence. Confidence fuels investment, and investment builds resilience.

We’ve built on this foundation of confidence by enabling our informal settlers with the security, tools and incentives that they need to invest in their homes and communities. To permanently put an end to temporary lifestyles, these settlers need to be active participants in the upgrading of their lives, their homes and their communities.

That’s why Fiji has openly embraced partnerships with both the private sector and non-governmental organisations like the IFC, World Bank and UN-Habitat.
We’re building partnerships with those who also see the lack of climate resilience in our informal settlements as a potential source of disaster that needs to be addressed with urgency. It’s why the Adaptation Fund has outlined the need for a wholistic, four-component approach to making our informal settlements more climate-secure.

Indeed, knowing that real and sustainable change comes at the human level, we’ve introduced innovative solutions in our national budgets that provide grants for new homeowners and leaseholders, subsidise land surveying and division to drastically ease the transition from informal to formal land leases, and allocate grant funding that allow small businesses to take root, bringing much of the black-market economy that exists in these communities out of the shadows.

No matter what label we give them, the world’s informal settlements must be approached proactively, and through a lens of human dignity, to make meaningful progress.
We must think creatively, and never forget the same rights that are afforded to all of our citizens, and the same economic potential that lies within them. And we must work hand-in-hand with like-minded organisations like UN-Habitat to lay the foundation for communities that are safer, more resilient, and more sustainable, breaking the cycle of informal poverty and benefitting our economies, our people, and our nations for generations to come.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.


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