Commentary

Civil society must ensure equitable inclusion in Habitat III

Paul Aitchison

The road is looking a bit rockier than once thought to get to the New Urban Agenda, the outcome document for next year’s Habitat III conference on cities and the intended blueprint for a new global strategy around urbanization. Nonetheless, there was considerable optimism and civil society engagement at recent preparatory meetings in Nairobi for the conference.

The Nairobi negotiations, held in mid-April, were important ones. They were the second of just three formal meetings of the Habitat III preparatory committee (PrepCom) before the summit itself, being held in October 2016 in Quito. As has been previously reported, however, the events in Nairobi fell short of expectations, with the formal mechanism to include local governments, civil society and other stakeholders left undecided.

While it is widely recognized that substantive input from these major groups is essential if Habitat III is to have any real impact, the “how” of their participation remains under debate. Decisions on this accreditation process have now been pushed off to the U. N. General Assembly in September at the earliest.

Despite these procedural impediments, PrepCom II underscored the outpouring of valuable contributions for the New Urban Agenda from civil society organizations, local government, gender and grass-roots groups, academia and numerous Habitat Agenda partners.

Habitat for Humanity was one of these contributors at PrepCom II, with representatives from the United States, Europe and Africa participating. At the first such preparatory meeting, held in New York last September, we were invited to deliver a statement because of our consultative status with the U. N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Other organizations with similar ECOSOC status are now allowed to participate in the Habitat III process.

Likewise, the United Nations took the positive decision to allow civil society organizations that attended the last Habitat conference — Habitat II, held in 1996 in Istanbul — to participate in the recent PrepCom II. As such, additional constituencies were able to make statements during the plenary sessions in Nairobi.

“This is a pivotal moment for urban development and local communities — which are growing and urbanizing — to have a say in defining their future.”

Yet organizations looking for new accreditation to participate in this process are currently left stranded. While Habitat for Humanity was honoured to have the opportunity to present our views, we want to ensure that civil society organizations from all relevant sectors have a similar opportunity to shape the New Urban Agenda.

Certainly there is clear interest in strong engagement in the Habitat III process. Outside of the formal events in Nairobi last month, both accredited and unaccredited civil society groups sponsored side events on a variety of urban issues — rural-to-urban linkages, financing for development, disaster resilience, climate change, affordable housing, partnerships, youths, data collection and others. Broader caucuses, such as the Huairou Commission and grass-roots women’s networks, also met daily to develop strategies and promote positions with member states and stakeholders.

The Nairobi sessions also brought together stakeholders to create an innovative new platform known as the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), a special initiative of the World Urban Campaign organized in 14 broad constituent groups. Prior to the PrepCom II meetings, a full day was devoted to developing the new GAP platform, adopting a constitution and bringing together over 100 partner organizations to discuss how to provide input into the Habitat III process.

At an inaugural meeting on 13 April, Habitat for Humanity was elected to chair the GAP’s constituent group for civil society organizations. The broader aim here is to support stakeholders’ engagement with and contributions to the Habitat III conference and, in particular, to the New Urban Agenda. As part of our responsibilities as chair, we are now reaching out to other stakeholders, inviting all organizations interested in ensuring the fullest possible involvement in the preparatory process toward Habitat III to join us.

In particular, civil society organizations around the world wanting to engage with and shape the New Urban Agenda are invited to join the open dialogue venues known as Urban Thinkers Campuses. These events will bring partners and others together on a variety of themes from different regional areas. Nearly 20 such campuses are already planned over the next year, and the World Urban Campaign is still accepting additional proposals.

Eventually, results and recommendations from the Urban Thinkers Campuses will be fed into the New Urban Agenda.

Pivotal moment

Habitat for Humanity’s vision is a world where everyone has a decent place to live. During the recent Nairobi talks, we built upon momentum from the strong housing theme at Habitat II to reiterate that next year’s conference must continue to prioritize housing and basic services. In addition, we are urging that Habitat III prioritize security of tenure and that the entire process be informed by local communities. Finally, the conference’s outcome must offer clear, measurable and actionable recommendations.

The need for adequate housing has never been greater, and only through smart, coordinated and sustainable policies will the world address that need. By 2030, 6 in 10 people will live in cities, and the number of slum dwellers — and the requirement for adequate housing — is expected to rise to nearly two billion in the next two decades.

To meet that need, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must include the new cities goal. Currently, this is draft Goal 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”

With the planned finalization of the SDGs in September and as the Habitat III preparations continue to gain momentum, this is a pivotal moment for urban development and local communities — which are growing and urbanizing — to have a say in defining their future.

It is incumbent upon civil society organizations and other Habitat Agenda partners to continue to push for the inclusion and engagement of local communities with both national governments and the United Nations. Those living in cities must be a part of the solution to growth.

As civil society, as advocates and as cohabitants of this planet, we cannot forget that only by working together — with each other and with partners, including nation states, local governments and communities — can we meet the extreme need in our communities and plan for inclusive, sustainable and resilient cities in the future.

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Jane Katz

Editor’s note: Jane Katz, Habitat for Humanity’s director of international affairs and programmes, has made a mark as an original thinker and clear communicator in the area of housing finance and innovative housing collaborations across global boundaries. Based in Habitat’s Government Relations and Advocacy Office in Washington, D. C., she travels widely, representing the organization at major international events and meetings. To her work she brings more than 30 years of public and private sector achievements in housing finance, policy, marketing, and business and programme development. Prior to coming to Habitat, she spent 14 years at the housing-finance agency Fannie Mae. She was active in the U. S. public sector for another 15 years, working in mortgage finance, regulatory oversight and housing policy at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Congressional Research Service at the U. S. Library of Congress.