The drafters: Meet the two women leading the Habitat III Bureau

More than anyone else, the process of drafting the New Urban Agenda will fall to María Duarte and Maryse Gautier.

María Duarte, Ecuador's minister of housing and urban development (top), and Maryse Gautier, adviser to the French government, lead the Habitat III Bureau. (Dirección de Comunicación Social; courtesy of Maryse Gautier)

Over the past 15 months, high-profile mayors and grass-roots activists alike have been making more and more noise about Habitat III, the once-every-20-years United Nations conference on housing and urban development set to take place this October in Quito. At international gatherings on every continent, they have made their case for specific issues to work their way into the New Urban Agenda, the urbanization strategy that will come out of the conference.

Late last month, the U. N. General Assembly approved a resolution giving local leaders and civil society advocates a chance to be heard in the halls of power at the United Nations and the opportunity to influence the final Habitat III negotiations. Supporters say the rules now make the Habitat III process the U. N.’s most inclusive ever.

[Para leer este artículo en español, haz click aquí]

But ultimately, the United Nations remains a club of countries — which is to say, national governments and their diplomatic missions rule the roost. The preparation for Habitat III is no different, with a 10-member Bureau of U. N. member states working as a kind of operating committee to keep the ship afloat. The Bureau is co-chaired by Ecuador, the Habitat III host country, and France.

[See: U. N. General Assembly approves Habitat III rules, ending eight months of limbo]

Citiscope met with Ecuador’s minister of housing and urban development, María Duarte, in November at her office in Quito. And on the sidelines of the Paris climate in December, Citiscope sat down with Maryse Gautier, a former World Bank urban expert now advising the French government’s General Council for the Environment and Sustainable Development.

Together, these two women are co-presidents of the Bureau and play a powerful role in shepherding the Habitat III process and shaping the New Urban Agenda. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Citiscope: From the Bureau’s perspective, how would you evaluate the interest of U. N. member states in Habitat III up to this point?

Maryse Gautier: My response will be biased because a lot of things are going to happen between now and October. But even so, in the Bureau, we’ve proposed that the city be at the heart of the preparations — to put it another way, the possibility of understanding the city and letting it express itself in a way so that we can benefit from it. And up to now, the Group of 77 [of developing countries] agrees with that hypothesis.

So in my opinion, that’s very positive, because in the United Nations, it’s the member states that decide and negotiate about it. That’s fine; we don’t want to change that. But the fact of wanting to further integrate the city into all the preparations, and to give it sufficient room in the contributions, even to be heard during the negotiations — that’s a step forward we’ve made, which is satisfying. And which shows that the majority of countries are in favor of positive preparations and listening to the city.

María Duarte: The countries in the region have had the most interest up to now, in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ministers from Latin America have come and we have met with them, like Uruguay. They sent delegates to Cuenca [the thematic meeting in November in Ecuador]. So we have things in common and close ties with Central America. Jamaica was represented [in Cuenca], El Salvador as well — there were delegations from the region, much more than from other regions. But [at the thematic meeting in October] in Montréal there was also a strong presence of Latin America and the Caribbean, of Latin American mayors. And with respect to the rest of the world, Africa is always present. We can’t deny that.

[See: Who are the Habitat III major players?]

Citiscope: Where is there room for improvement in the global process of preparations for Habitat III?

MD: I think in the Bureau they’re much less worried, because at the start they thought [Ecuador] wasn’t paying enough attention or something, or that we didn’t have the capacity. And obviously they realized that Ecuador is a country with a completely responsible government. We are completely involved in the issue; we are taking all the necessary steps to meet the time frames — we’re even pressing to make sure things get done. No, I don’t think they’re worried. Obviously there will always be questions that generate debate, because Ecuador, in the region and in the world, is known as a country that has its own ideas and its own ways of looking at things.

“Wanting to further integrate the city into all the preparations, and to give it sufficient room in the contributions, even to be heard during the negotiations — that’s a step forward we’ve made, which is satisfying. And it shows that the majority of countries are in favor of positive preparations and listening to the city.”

Maryse Gautier
French co-president, Habitat III Bureau

Citiscope: Given that only a few Habitat national reports have been made available by the Habitat III Secretariat, what is the Bureau doing to motivate member states to turn in their reports?

MD: This is an issue that sometimes it is hard to get governments to understand — that they have to turn in a report. Even us, the host country, we are still putting the finishing touches on our report. And if this is the case with us, who are very interested, I suppose it can happen to the rest of the world. For me, it’s not a concern. I think that when it comes down to it, they will all submit their reports. The deadlines have expired. But look, sometimes we have to admit that the U. N. itself doesn’t apply pressure about these issues, which is why we are going to put the pressure on.

MG: This summer there were around 40 reports that were in draft form — provisional documents. So we still have hope that we will be far beyond 10. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that there’s a part of the United Nations budget for Habitat III that’s earmarked to help developing countries produce this report, which is a complicated thing for a certain number of countries. And France, in particular, has proposed a budget for a trust fund specifically to help African countries complete the report. It’s a problem for us, really, because we want the reports very quickly — we want to consolidate them on a regional level, and right now the regional reports are done by regional United Nations agencies. But they’re not made based on national reports, so it’s true that that’s a problem.

Citiscope: Given that the general public cannot attend meetings of the Bureau, what message would you like to convey on its behalf?

MG: The organization is very open, and I want to say that very clearly — very receptive to associations and NGOs. We are well acquainted with the General Assembly of Partners and the Global Taskforce [of Local and Regional Governments], which works to facilitate communication between the Bureau and all the associations. We have met with both in our organization many times. We’re listening to them. And I really want to be very clear on that: The Bureau is listening to the associations.

In terms of preparation, the Bureau meets every month. Up to April there’s a lot of work, especially for the two co-presidents but also the Bureau, to prepare the first version of the final declaration. It is very clear that all of the data that comes from the parties who are involved in this have an important message, and the Bureau is ready to listen to them. And that this declaration will reflect the position of the member states but will also reflect all the discussions that the associations have led, and the associations of local authorities in particular. That’s very important.

[See: Got an urban solution? Submit it to the Habitat III process]

MD: The message is that obviously all participation will be heard, and that is why we are — and the United Nations itself recommends — organizing conferences on urban issues where the views, the opinions, the messages of the citizens in general will be gathered. But you know countries have governments, and the government is the majority. I wish the election of the president were democratic in all countries, but whatever the case, it is the president, the government, that generates public policies. So civil society must be heard, and citizens participate in different ways. We in Ecuador have one way of doing it, as an extremely participative country. Other countries will have their own ways — and who are we to criticize or have an opinion?

Citiscope: Should mayors have the right to take part in the negotiations at Habitat III?

“All participation will be heard, and that is why we are organizing conferences on urban issues where the views, the opinions, the messages of the citizens in general will be gathered.”

María Duarte
Ecuadorean co-president, Habitat III Bureau

MD: No, that would be impossible, because our countries have hundreds of mayors. They should reach agreements among themselves in their groups or associations, which should participate with a single voice. But they obviously have a right to take part, and their voice is important. But if they were all given a voice, within each association of mayors, from each country, each nation, there would be many different views. That would be impossible.

[See: Cities must be part of defining the New Urban Agenda]

Citiscope: Once the ‘zero draft’ of the New Urban Agenda comes out, do you believe there are sufficient hearings and negotiating days?

MG: It’s well organized. We already have something that allows us to listen to the member states, to all of the associations. You’re talking about a moment that’s all the way at the end of the preparation of the final declaration. Those five days [of open-ended consultative meetings added to the schedule in December] — it’s a way of making a cohesive presentation, but what you need to know is that the declaration itself will be inspired by everything that happens before it — the thematic meetings, the regional meetings, the policy units, all the Urban Dialogues that are happening throughout the world. We have a lot of experts and a lot of representation from the associations.

All those elements will be integrated by the drafting team for the final declaration. And so the document we’re hoping to produce in April will already reflect in part the points of view of local authorities and civil society. So we’ll have something that won’t just start [to be discussed] with the negotiations — it will have already been dense in terms of discussion, in terms of contributions beforehand. That’s what’s important.

[See: Key drafts of Habitat III policy papers open for public comment]

Citiscope: How will the drafting committee consider the relative weight of the declarations and other inputs to the New Urban Agenda?

MG: I’m not sure — it’s an excellent question. It’s not going to be done in a couple days, in the five days. That’s much too short. It’s going to be worked on at all times, which will start in January, and there are already a lot of elements, which will be accumulated as we go. The work will be done between the two co-presidents, Ecuador and France, who really want to work very closely together with the drafting committee and the Secretariat for Habitat III. And the analysis will be a permanent analysis, that will allow a way to see, to compare, to weigh the relative merits of each kind of problem in each region in the world. And it will be up to us to identify the strongest elements, that have to be in the documents.

A lot of the work, I will note, is going to be highlighting — because there are a lot of documents, a lot of basic elements. It’s absolutely a considerable effort. It’s up to us to judge what’s essential and what’s secondary. It will be a matter of reflection, which will be for all of the team between January and March.

Citiscope: Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos maintains that the conference is the first opportunity for the United Nations system to focus on implementation following the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and a climate agreement at COP 21. With what you have seen so far in Paris, do you agree?

MG: The city is really at the heart of all the concerns. It’s the city that produces a large part of the carbon emissions. It’s the city that’s going to have to adapt, because it will be suffering all the effects of climate change. It must adapt, it must become resilient. But it’s the city that’s the source of the solutions.

[At the Climate Summit for Local Leaders] I was completely reassured about the idea that the city is what’s going to bring forth solutions, ideas, and that it can maybe bring the nation states along. As we’re going to work on the city with Habitat III, because it’s at the heart of the events, we have the cities’ engagement behind us on the SDGs, on COP 21. And I’m convinced now that we understand enough to fill in, develop and implement Habitat III in these cities that will be the actors, the promoters of all of these actions for sustainable cities.

Spanish-language translation for the interview with María Duarte by Stephanie Wildes.

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