At the opening of the of the seventh annual Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights on 21 January 2010, the Vice President of Sustainable Development for the World Bank Kathy Sierra delivered the keynote address “Empowering Hope: Cities, Slums and Human Rights”.
The three-day conference, “Urban Slums: The Shadow of the Humanitarian Generation,” brought together about 200 college students from 27 universities across the country with non-profit workers, policy makers and academics.
Sierra began her address by underscoring the vulnerability of the poor to catastrophic events. Presenting the audience with an image of Port-au-Prince after the recent earthquake, Sierra said that “we’re going to see more of that, not less.”
She reminded the audience that while there were environmental and safety concerns present in slums, there were also “hardworking and entrepreneurial” individuals living there. As an example of that spirit, she showed a video clip featuring the ingenuity of Bangkok’s urban poor in the face of hardship. The city residents created a market that unfolds over the train track when cars are not passing because no other affordable space was available for their small businesses.
Throughout the presentation, Sierra used other images and statistics to drive home the message that slum dwellers are “assets” who lack basic identity. According to Sierra, the World Bank interviewed 60,000 impoverished people to see what they wanted most. Although they desired clean water, food, electricity and other basic necessities, Sierra said the one thing they wanted more was for people to listen to them.
In conclusion, she asked the audience to “look at people as an asset, not as a problem. If you go after this as a problem, you’re not going to be contributing very much.” Jockin Arputham, President of Slum Dwellers International agreed with Sierra in a videotaped message and said, “As long as you think we are the problem, nothing will occur. We are the real change agent.”