Habitat III loses proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel — for now

Following deletions at the Surabaya negotiations, is there a future for such a body without a clear reference in the New Urban Agenda? And where else might a global science panel on sustainable urbanization be located within the U.N. system?

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Member state representatives, U. N. institutions, stakeholders and others met this week in Surabaya, Indonesia, for key negotiations ahead of Habitat III, the major urbanization conference being held in October. Despite initial hopes, they failed to agree on a final version of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year vision that will come out of Habitat III, and a new draft will now be debated in New York by early September.

One of the key changes in the Surabaya draft is the deletion of a clear call to establish a Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization. This change is critical, especially as stakeholder groups, including the science community, have been campaigning for inclusion in a formal mechanism to assess the progress and implementation of the New Urban Agenda over the next two decades.

Drawing on the experiences of climate change or biodiversity, among others, supporters have repeatedly pointed out that science panels such as the proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel help advance an evidence base for global policy reform. Getting scientists to work together with policymakers to define new problems, identify priorities and establish robust evaluation of progress on implementation is essential to transformative collective action.

[See: ‘Final’ talks fail to deliver consensus on New Urban Agenda]

Moreover, an international body can assist national and local governments who lack capacity to use existing research and implement evidence-based findings. An international science panel could aggregate and summarize available evidence on urban governance and explain its implications in a way that is useful for policymakers. With stronger links between science and policy, urban planning and management would be improved.

Such a panel might have value beyond knowledge synthesis and dissemination: It also could provide an opportunity to build consensus on urban issues and foster urban leadership. This includes scientific consensus on research priorities, approaches and results, as well as political consensus on causes, consequences and policy options related to urban development.

Of course, many institutions — such as U. N. agencies, universities, city networks, non-governmental organizations and private sector entities — already produce policy-relevant reports on urban issues. However, without synthesis, the volume and diversity of available publications is difficult to assess for policymakers who have to move decisively to act on what is most relevant. The work of science panels in prioritization is often considered particularly credible and authoritative, thus streamlining the search for policy-relevant knowledge. In the fairly new and rapidly changing field of urban development, it would also be realistic to expect new evidence to shift the direction of policy over the years to come.

[See: Habitat III stakeholders offer vision of broad partnership for sustainable urbanization]

Considering the central functions that such a panel could fulfil, its deletion at Surabaya raises two important questions: Is there a future for a Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization without a clear reference in the New Urban Agenda? And where else might a global science panel on sustainable urbanization be located within the U. N. system?

‘Only innovative outcome’

In the ongoing Habitat III process, the General Assembly of Partners (GAP) — a key network of stakeholders — has been one of the most visible advocates of a role for science in the evolution of policy on urban issues. Establishing an International Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization, that includes science, has been one of the core GAP recommendations for the Habitat III process but this is not the only place where the idea of an urban science policy panel has surfaced.

“Drawing on the experiences of climate change or biodiversity, among others, supporters have repeatedly pointed out that science panels such as the proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel help advance an evidence base for global policy reform.”

Earlier this year, discussions on the relevance of a scientific panel on urban development were bolstered by a campaign for a Special Report on Cities and Climate Change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In April, the IPCC — a scientific panel working on scientific evidence relating to climate change and its impacts — decided on the topics that would receive special attention in the coming years. A campaign by urban stakeholders and city networks such as ICLEI and C40 argued that this should include a special report focusing on cities and climate change, as this would help generate much-needed consensual, policy-relevant scientific evidence on this topic.

[See: Cities to receive new, ongoing focus in official climate research]

Ultimately, the IPCC decided not to produce such a report in the immediate future. Yet it did say that it would add a cities focus in its upcoming assessments and that it would integrate urban issues more strongly throughout its entire work. Further, it may still put together such a report after 2021.

The concept of an urban science panel was picked up by Habitat III in the first three draft iterations of the New Urban Agenda. In the first two, the agenda called on member states to consider establishing a Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization. In the third and throughout most of the negotiations in Surabaya, this request (appearing as draft Paragraph 149) was even strengthened, with the text mandating UN-Habitat to establish such a panel in collaboration with the rest of the U. N. system and relevant stakeholders.

The sudden cutting out of ”the panel” was an unexpected turn of events that suggest, among other things, some understandable operational concerns. Member state comments on the “zero draft” of the agenda did not indicate particularly strong support for the establishment of such a panel in the short term. Some countries were hesitant — for example, the African Group requested more information on the objectives, financing and other dimensions of such a panel. Other countries — such as the United States — objected to the creation of a new body, with arguments pointing to the complexity of urban issues, the recent establishment of other such panels (for instance, on water) and the difficulty of coordinating action across the U. N. system vis-à-vis other issue areas such as climate change.

After the call for a Multi-Stakeholder Panel was removed from the draft New Urban Agenda during the Surabaya talks, non-state actors quickly criticized the cut. For example, ICLEI lamented that “the only innovative outcome” of Habitat III has been deleted. Knowledge innovations that led to the zero draft and the themes of Habitat III flowed from the intertwining of the scientific community (via expert-level “policy units” and “issue papers”) and showcased how balance between input from the Global North and South might be achieved in a common agenda.

[See: Science has a key part to play in planning the future of cities]

Another round of informal negotiations will take place in New York in late August or early September, which are likely to result in a final draft of the New Urban Agenda prior to Habitat III. Sadly it now seems unlikely that a scientific panel on urban issues will make it into the final document. At the same time, stakeholders will continue discussing different options for the structure, financing and operation of a global sustainable urban development panel irrespective of its inclusion in the New Urban Agenda or under the aegis of UN-Habitat.

Other models

A future Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization (or similar body) would undoubtedly need to suit the specific needs of the urban development field, making it useful to consider the experiences that other fields have had in establishing such scientific panels.

“If member states object to an urban science panel on the grounds of costs, an alternative approach would be a stakeholder-led initiative. This may be less costly, easier to establish and could also consider more controversial issues. But it would lack formal endorsement of its results by member states.”

Critically, negotiations on such bodies can take many years. For example, discussions on the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) started in 2008, and it wasn’t established until 2012. If member states, the U. N. system and stakeholders consider establishing a Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization in the future, they need to be aware that many years may pass until such a panel publishes its first report.

[See: How will we know if the New Urban Agenda has been successful?]

The work of panels such as the IPCC and IBPES costs several million dollars annually, drawing directly on contributions from member states, U. N. institutions, the private sector and other actors. Science panels can be much cheaper, depending on issues such as the complexity of their institutional structure and the frequency of their reports. Nonetheless, an influential urban science panel would need to find sufficient supporters that also are willing to back it financially.

A further crucial question for such a panel is how inclusive its assessments are. For example, IPBES considers both academic science and traditional knowledge, which also was a key factor for several member states to support its establishment. Likewise, consultations on an urban science panel would have to consider to what extent quantitative and qualitative data, stakeholder-generated data (e. g. community-based monitoring) and other knowledge sources would be reflected in its work.

Science panels can be constituted in many ways. The IPCC and IPBES are both intergovernmental panels, meaning that their reports are negotiated outcomes that are endorsed by member states. This approach makes their work quite time- and cost-intensive, but it also affords these bodies a high level of legitimacy – and ensures access to policymakers.

Thus, despite the high costs, this approach has also been popular in other fields. For example, in April, the establishment of an Intergovernmental Panel on Water was approved. However, the consultations on this panel highlighted how contentious the establishment of new science panels can be among member states. While 59 percent of member states voted in favour of such a panel, 41 percent objected, with clear no’s from key players including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Indonesia.

If member states object to an urban science panel on the grounds of costs, an alternative approach would be a stakeholder-led initiative. This may be less costly, easier to establish and could also consider more controversial issues. But it would lack formal endorsement of its results by member states.

[See: Will the New Urban Agenda define the future of UN-Habitat?]

The New Urban Agenda’s institutional home will affect how a future urban science panel could be anchored in the U. N. system. The current draft of the agenda contains two alternative paragraphs on the future of UN-Habitat, indicating profound disagreement among member states on issues such as the financing and governance of this institution. The outcome of these discussions also could affect to what extent UN-Habitat can take on new responsibilities — such as facilitating the establishment of a new science panel.

Better this way?

While the draft New Urban Agenda has dropped the call for a Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization, agreement on the need for a stronger science-policy interface on urban issues is growing.

[See: UN-Habitat’s vision of sustainable urbanization is good — but not enough]

In the context of the Habitat process, such a panel could make a crucial contribution to the follow-up and review of the New Urban Agenda and to the integration of the urban agenda across the U. N. system. While the current draft of the agenda calls for Habitat IV to take place in 2036, a science panel that produces reports every few years could highlight new and emerging urban issues in a timelier manner.

If stakeholders and scientists continue discussing options for a Multi-Stakeholder Panel after Habitat III, not involving member states at the beginning may actually have advantages, too. After all, this would mean that discussions are not politicized from the start and could include local government. Thus they could develop a more concrete set of suggestions for such a panel and do crucial work to highlight its added value.

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Eleni Dellas

Eleni Dellas is a project manager at adelphi in Berlin, where she works on projects around climate change, the global development agenda and urban governance.

Michele Acuto

Michele Acuto is director of the City Leadership Initiative and a professor of diplomacy and urban theory in the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy at University College London.

Sue Parnell

Sue Parnell is an urban geographer in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Cape Town, where she is involved in the African Centre for Cities.