Four storylines to watch in the Habitat III negotiations

Last week, national governments finally began debating the details of the draft New Urban Agenda. Here’s what they had to say — and what may continue to define these discussions.

European Union diplomat Isabelle Delattre takes part in preliminary Habitat III hearings at the U.N., 25 April. (Francis Dejon/IISD/

UNITED NATIONS — Since the first draft of the global urbanization strategy known as the New Urban Agenda was released in early May, those closely following these discussions have been slicing and dicing the document’s details.

After all, the scope and 20-year time frame of the New Urban Agenda mean that local leaders, NGOs, multilateral institutions, universities, grass-roots groups and many others with a stake in the urban sector have been weighing in for months with ideas and inputs on what should be in the draft document. They’re now keen to see how that input has been used.

Ultimately, however, the fate of the agenda rests with the U. N.’s 193 member states, and last week they had their first crack at imposing their will on the 21-page text. These negotiations will continue up through a major summit takes place in Quito, Ecuador, in October — the Habitat III conference.

[See: Stakeholders say they’re sidelined as New Urban Agenda negotiations begin]

This initial foray was the opening round of “informal” negotiations, with individual countries and larger political blocs outlining their positions before two more-detailed rounds of negotiations scheduled for 8-10 June and 29 June-1 July. The hope is to have most of the major kinks in the New Urban Agenda worked out before formal negotiations in Surabaya, Indonesia, take place in late July, with the eventual goal of delivering an agreed-upon document by the time Habitat III takes place in Quito.

Many of the debates in last week’s opening salvo came down to a traditional political division in the United Nations between developed and developing countries. The former coalesce behind the European Union, which is an observer state at the U. N. and speaks on behalf of its 28 members. Non-E. U. developed countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United States frequently voice support for its stance.

Developing countries, meanwhile, are represented by the Group of 77 (G77) and China, a caucus that has ballooned from its initial figure to now include some 134 members. This year, Thailand is the chair of the G77, and it has recruited Colombia, Jamaica and Kenya to assist in representing the group in the Habitat III negotiations.

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

During last week’s negotiations, the two sides did agree on a few points. Both praised the Habitat III Bureau and Secretariat for delivering the New Urban Agenda’s first draft on time and called for a concise, action-oriented agenda that focuses on implementation. They also agree on the need to integrate the New Urban Agenda with broader initiatives in the U. N. such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change, both of which were finalized last year.

Clearly, then, there’s still plenty left to be resolved. Citiscope followed the three-day negotiations and has summarized a few major storylines to watch as the action heats up during the sizzling New York summer to come.

1.     Is Habitat III only about cities?

At first glance, it might seem obvious that the New Urban Agenda is a document about cities. The conference’s secretary-general, Joan Clos, has frequently made the case that Habitat III is an opportunity for countries to invest in their cities — and that they don’t do so at their peril. The European Union certainly thinks so. “We believe that the New Urban Agenda should reflect the role of cities as drivers of economic, social and environmental change,” the E. U.’s Isabelle Delattre said in the bloc’s opening statement.

Not so fast, according to the G77/China. “The Group would like to emphasise that the New Urban Agenda is an agenda for cities and human settlements,” said Thailand’s Chulamanee Chartsuwan. “Urban and rural areas are not only interdependent and mutually supportive but are also important engines of economic growth, poverty reduction and environmental protection.”

[See: The missing link in the New Urban Agenda: Food systems]

The pointed use of “human settlements” harkens back to the first two Habitat conferences, held in 1976 and 1996. Officially these were summits on human settlements, whereas Habitat III is officially a conference about housing and urban development. Nigeria, speaking on behalf of the African Group, used similar language — repeatedly noting cities and human settlements —  suggesting that they might call for the New Urban Agenda to more explicitly incorporate both large cities and small villages.

2.     Should UN-Habitat oversee New Urban Agenda implementation?

Once the world has a New Urban Agenda, whose job will it be to keep track of its related actions? Thus far, the debate on this issue has been contentious. A logical starting place would be UN-Habitat, the agency that was birthed out of the Habitat I conference in 1976 and whose mandate was reaffirmed at Habitat II in 1996.

[See: Proposed mechanisms would coordinate post-Habitat III action on urbanization]

But in recent decades, some U. N. member states, especially the United States, have been concerned about inflated budgets at the agency and have clamped down on efforts to expand its programmes. To that end, the United States and the European Union are currently holding fast against any proposal for UN-Habitat to take on extra duties as a result of Habitat III.

“We … oppose the expansion of the mandates of UN-Habitat as the lead for follow-up and review of the New Urban Agenda,” said U. S. diplomat Ian Klaus at the conclusion of his speech on the opening day. Instead, these players are calling for other U. N. agencies with significant urban programmes — for instance, those mandated around the environment, development, refugees and cultural heritage — to share the burden of monitoring the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Calls for a stronger mandate as critical UN-Habitat Governing Council session convenes]

By contrast, the G77 has endorsed placing responsibility for the New Urban Agenda squarely with UN-Habitat. “The issue of human settlements and strengthening UN-Habitat are intrinsically linked to the core interests of the Group of 77 and China,” said Chartsuwan.

Several countries, led by Kenya, are calling for Habitat III to create universal membership on UN-Habitat’s Governing Council, which would give them a greater say in the agency’s budget and how it spends its money. Both the U. S. and the E. U. announced their opposition to this, on the grounds that Habitat III is not the appropriate forum in which to discuss the topic. They warned that doing so would distract from the substantive issues of the New Urban Agenda.

3.     Who else is going to defend the right to the city?

One of the expected controversies of the New Urban Agenda debates has not yet played out as expected. The most strident advocates for social justice and inclusion in urban policy have leveraged Habitat III as the venue to enshrine the “right to the city”, a concept popular in some parts of Europe and Latin America as an umbrella take on the human rights that cities can offer their residents. The concept was picked apart by several countries during April consultations with outside experts but defended by Brazil and Ecuador, where the concept is enshrined into law.

[See: Tension points emerging on details of the New Urban Agenda]

The term is included in the New Urban Agenda’s first draft, though in somewhat watered-down language. Currently, the draft calls for a commitment to “cities for all” and notes that in some countries, this idea is defined as “Right to the City.”

Perhaps as a result of this formulation, the issue ended up being less contentious at last week’s negotiations than some had anticipated. Canada cautioned against using the term because it is not agreed-upon language within the U. N. system; the E. U.’s Delattre explained, “in the absence of a common understanding of such a notion, we have a strong preference for emphasizing a human rights-based approach.” The United States, which first singled out the term as unacceptable in January, referred only obliquely to terms that are “not clear”, without specifying them.

In turn, Brazil made a short defense of a broader application. “[W]e believe that it is important to have a more direct reference and affirm not only the commitment to the realization of the concept of cities for all but also to the realization of the right to the city,” said diplomat Lucianara Fonseca. Ecuador too has stated that the New Urban Agenda “should be inspired by the right to the city”.

[See: A needed cornerstone for Habitat III: The Right to the City]

But these have been lone voices. Argentina called for a more nuanced definition so that countries can figure out how to implement such a concept in a way consistent with their own laws. Thailand, on behalf of the G77, made no mention of the right to the city in its statements, instead reaffirming that its members have a “right to development” while mentioning the obligations to adequate shelter and sanitation from Habitat II. Ultimately, one of the potentially fiercest debates of Habitat III, at least at the intergovernmental level, has thus far been more of a whimper.

4.     Who should pay for it all?

Financing is an ever-present tango at the United Nations between rich and poor countries, with the latter requesting more of the former, who are reluctant to further open their pockets. Paying for the New Urban Agenda has found itself in that traditional tug of war. Right off the bat, for instance, the Nigerian delegate called for “a well-resourced operational fund for facilitation the implementation of the Agenda.”

In turn, Thailand’s Chartsuwan mentioned “common but differentiated responsibilities,” a concept enshrined in the 1992 Earth Summit that acknowledges the socioeconomic gap between developed and developing countries — underscoring that both have a common responsibility to ensuring global sustainability but also different means of getting there. The reference was also an implicit call for more bilateral aid from rich to poor countries and the multilateral institutions that serve them.

[See: The New Urban Agenda will pay for itself]

The G77 also continued arguments from last year’s debate over the new Sustainable Development Goals. “International cooperation should focus on how to enhance the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, in particular in developing countries,” Chartsuwan said. “Acknowledging the existing gaps in capacities between developed and developing countries, the international community should provide means of implementation regarding finance, technology, and capacity building, knowledge sharing and technical assistance to developing countries.”

The European Union deflected most of the G77’s calls to last year’s Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development, which dealt with these thorny issues head-on. Both the E. U. and the U. S. called for more-explicit recognition of the private sector’s role in financing the New Urban Agenda and highlighted that aid is not the only answer. Bilateral aid “is only one part of the international public finance and cooperation spectrum,” the E. U.’s Delattre noted.

[See: 5 big ideas from the Habitat III meeting on financing urban development]

While acknowledging that local governments should have a stronger say in their fiscal affairs —  including generating their own sources of revenue, one of Clos’s signature initiatives — the European Union did not endorse the New Urban Agenda draft’s call that 20 percent of national resources be transferred to the local level.

This story has been updated to reflect Ecuador’s stance on the right to the city.

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