WHO Checklist for Healthy Cities and Human Rights in Africa

by Oluwatomi Ajayi, Esq.


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a healthy city is one that is continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and developing to their maximum potential. In view of this definition, the recent WHO highly transforming seven characteristics of healthy cities include:

  1. A Clean, Safe and Physical Environment; 
  2. An Ecosystem that is Stable now and Sustainable in the Long Term;
  3. A Strong, Mutually Supportive and Non-Exploitative Community; 
  4. Participation and  Control over the decision affecting Residents Lives, Health and Well-Being;
  5. Meeting of Basic Needs (Food, Water, Shelter, Income, Safety and Work); 
  6. A Diverse, Vital and Innovative Economy and;
  7. An Optimum Level of Appropriate Public Health and Access to Health Care Services.

Generally, the WHO checklist seeks to create a global awareness as regards the standards that are required for healthy cities to thrive so that people can be in good health and live in sustainable environment. Here, one can rightly say the WHO checklist derives its origin from the 1946 Constitution of the WHO which provides that the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being. This right has also been affirmed by the Zagreb Declaration for Healthy Cities 2008, the Tokyo Universal Health Coverage Forum 2017 and the ‘Healthy People 2020 Environmental Health Objectives as well as the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which all UN Member States have agreed to work towards achieving by the year 2030 particularly SDG 3 and SDG 11 which directed countries to take urgent and positive action to realize the well-being of their citizens and ensure that sustainable cities and communities become a reality by the way we build and manage our urban spaces so that no one is left behind including the vulnerable and marginalized groups.  

The relevant question is how does the checklist translate into reality for many African cities which continue to deteriorate daily, largely due to uncontrolled population growth or rural to urban migration and its attendant environmental consequences such as overcrowded cities, crime and insecurity, widespread poverty, emergence of slums and unmanageable waste, pollution of all sorts and poor sanitation which is linked to diseases that affect the lives and safety of city residents. Governments’ failure to promptly respond to their cities growing demands and their inability to enforce appropriate environmental laws against offenders constitute another setback. Sadly, Africa’s urban cities have therefore been turned into unhealthy cities even more with the adverse events following the COVID 19 pandemic. 

A fundamental strategy already in existence to actualize the WHO checklist is to make cities safe resilient, inclusive and sustainable through the domestic framework of each country’s constitution, environmental policies, urban and town planning  laws  as well as the provisions laid out in Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights 1986 which provides that all peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment and Article 16 which states that every individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health. This is in line with the principles of Agenda 2063 of the African Union and the African Urban Agenda which focuses on the need for Member States to urgently address the health of cities and implement the goals of the SDGs in accordance with international human rights standards that ensures city residents are healthy while their human rights are protected irrespective of their religion, political belief, tribe, economic or social condition otherwise the cities dwellers will find it difficult to reach their full health potential.  

Despite the seemingly indifference of African governments and relevant stakeholders who lack the political will to commit themselves to take reasonable and effective measures to make the WHO healthy cities checklist a reality, Africa’s leading academic scientists and research scholars will join the rest of the world at the International Conference on Healthy Cities holding in Amsterdam, Netherlands on 16 September 2021 to share their experiences and research results on how African governments can attain the goal of achieving healthy and sustainable cities bearing in mind that the basic features of healthy cities include high political commitment, intersectoral collaboration, community participation and integration of activities in basic settings. 

Surely no two cities are exactly the same in Africa; however the WHO checklist has been able to show that a nexus between healthy cities, productivity, healthy people and their human rights to life and health. 

Oluwatomi Ajayi Esq. is the Secretary, Continuing Legal Education & Practice Development Committee of NBA Ikeja Branch

 Further Reading              

  1. Olanrewaju Fagbohun PhD & Oluwatomi Ajayi. ‘Human Rights Law and Protection of the Environment in Nigeria’ (2015)
  2. Oluwatomi Ajayi. ‘Ensuring a Healthy and Sustainable Environment for the Nigerian Child’ (AWLA /Day of the African Child Booklet (2017)
  3. Oluwatomi Ajayi. ‘Addressing the Role of Law in Environmental Sustainability and Healthy Cities in Nigeria’- Lokoja Bar Journal of Law and Practice. Vol 2. No. 1 (2018)
  4. COVID-19 in African Cities: Impacts, Responses and Policies Recommendations <unhabitat.org> 
  5. Kaci Racelma. Towards African Cities Without Slums. <https://www.un.org/en/africarenewal/vol26no1/cities-without-slums>
  6. African Renewal. ‘For Sustainable Cities, Africa needs Planning’<https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/>
  7. Guidelines for Healthy Cities. <alliance-healthycities.com> 

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2 thoughts on “WHO Checklist for Healthy Cities and Human Rights in Africa

  1. Thank you Tomi for this educational write up. There is a nexus between our environment, human development and life expectancy.

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