You know, if the world's problems could be solved through catch phrases and impressive slogans, we'd be living in a veritable paradise. In some instances you'd swear that the folks behind a "concept", and maybe even a "framework", come up with a catchy phrase or title before they even know what they're going to do.
In fact when it comes to describing what it is they are actually attempting to accomplish they string together a slew of modifying phrases that don't actually say anything. They take impressive sounding words like "cultural integrity", "a framework of networks", "community based initiatives", or "sustainable development" but don't ever say exactly what it is that they plan on doing.
It's enough to make George Orwell spin in his grave and language manipulators like former press secretary to Richard Nixon, Ron Ziegler, smile in appreciation. It's like the people behind the new age religions or pop psychologies who make a lot of noise without saying anything, but sound impressive nonetheless.
Once in a while you come across an organization that actually takes the time to not only spell out the issues they think need addressing to make the world a better place, but also define the programs they think will help. If they use any catch phrases it's within the proper context and they explain what they mean in terms of their programs.
By the sheerest of chances I came across a program yesterday on the Internet that not only meets the above criteria, but goes so far beyond it as to set a target for others to shoot at — Best Practices and Local Leadership Programme (BLP). I entered their site through a database listing a selection of projects from approximately 2000 implemented throughout the world.
BLP is one of the programmes run by the United Nations, UN-Habitat, the UN's Human Settlement Programme. Its mandate is to promote socially and environmentally sustainable cities and towns, with the ultimate goal of providing adequate shelter for everyone. The BLP is only one of at least eight programmes operating on a global scale.
How global is global? Well the BLP has programmes operating from Bangladesh to Los Angeles, dealing with everything from issues of women's safety, housing policy and practices, environmental planning and management, and children and youth. Unlike so many other organizations of this nature, they help communities develop programmes based on the needs and cultural requirements of the people involved. What might work in Southern India will not work in the Canadian arctic, after all.
Within a community various levels of government, business, and non-governmental agencies learn how to work together in order to benefit both the populations and the partners doing the developing. Giving everyone a stake in the final result is one way of ensuring a project's final success.
As an example of the types of projects they encourage, the one that appealed to me most is one involving the transit system of the city of Bangkok in Thailand. Women were reluctant to ride on the city buses because of harassment by male passengers and genuine threats of violence as well. To circumvent this problem, they came up with idea of "The Ladies' Bus".
On regular paydays in Bangkok, between the hours of 4:00 pm and 9:00 pm, every third bus of the ten buses in the shopping district is reserved for women only, except for the crew who are there to protect them. If the program is successful it will be expanded on.
This is just one of the many simple but elegant projects that are listed in the database that's linked in this article. The database is also a key element of the program as it allows other communities to search for ideas on how to deal with their specific problems. You'll notice that the database is also supported by the City of Dubai, the United Kingdom, the Together Foundation, as well as the UN-Habitat group.
In fact Dubai and Un-Habitat have taken the unique step of running a contest every two years for the most unique sustainable development idea in each of the categories. The Dubai awards received 713 submissions from around the world in 2006 showing how well this programme is working.
The fact that this programme is not just geared toward one segment of the world's population, but understands that there are problems with urban living throughout the world, is enough to make it unique. Combined with the fact that it encourages the development of ideas from within the community, allowing them to create something that fits their needs, not what someone in another country thinks are their needs, makes this one of the smartest tools I've ever seen for assisting people in need.
A lot of people seem to always be able to find disparaging things to say about the United Nations, but I've yet to see any other group who can coordinate such a vast array of projects that genuinely helps people. The next time you hear someone spewing off a bunch of nonsense about sustainable development and you start feeling angry and depressed, a trip to UN-Habitat Best Practices and Local Leadership Programmes will make you feel a whole lot better.