‘Frustration’ over governments’ inconsistent participation in Habitat III consultations
Final sessions ahead of the release of the New Urban Agenda draft were a master class in urbanization — but did enough countries come to school?
UNITED NATIONS — For anyone needing a crash course in sustainable urbanization, last week offered a semester’s worth of material, as global experts in urban development gathered here to take part in technical consultations ahead of this year’s Habitat III conference. The sessions took place just as U. N. member states are getting ready to begin negotiating the text of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy expected to come out of the conference.
The five-day cram session summarized the intense amount of research that has gone into the preparations for Habitat III, which will take place in October in Quito, Ecuador. The exhaustive brain dump was designed to teach a particular kind of student — the diplomats who will soon start to debate the details of the New Urban Agenda.
For the past eight months, the Habitat III Secretariat, the U. N. body in charge of the conference, has overseen a rigorous process of input. It has worked with cities and countries across the world to host 11 mini-conferences on themes related to urban development — such as intermediate cities or civic engagement — as well as regional meetings that have taken stock of the state of urbanization around the world.
It also drafted 200 experts drawn from the ranks of academia, grass-roots organizations, NGOs and multilateral institutions to prepare research papers with policy recommendations on 10 key topics that will serve as the basis of the New Urban Agenda. These bodies were known as policy units.
Diplomats posted to U. N. missions must be generalists by nature, able to pivot from a meeting on drug policy to a discussion of maritime law. When it comes to urbanization — which was not on the agenda at U. N. Headquarters in any significant way until last week — the topic is understandably a bit new. Hence the cram session.
But many countries had clearly done their homework. They came with prepared statements that showed they had read over the experts’ research and followed along from the breakneck schedule of mini-conferences.
They also had the help of some tutors from back home. Most national delegations were staffed by urban experts plucked from the capitals and sent to New York to help guide diplomats through the finer points of municipal bonds or metropolitan governance. Singapore, for example, was assisted by three staff from the Centre for Liveable Cities, and Brazil relied on the expertise of its Ministry of Cities.
The problem was that not enough countries came to class. “We’re all frustrated and disappointed, because there are not enough member states here in the room,” said Katia Araújo of the Huairou Commission, a network of grass-roots women’s organizations that supplied dozens of experts for the policy units.
“We’re all frustrated and disappointed, because there are not enough member states here in the room.”
Indeed, while the conference room was fairly full the first day, attendance waned as the week wore on. Some may have been taking advantage of the latest trend for students too lazy to trek to the lecture hall — the week’s proceedings were livestreamed — or were relying on the Habitat III Secretariat’s summaries. But many tables, each adorned with a country’s name, were never staffed at all, suggesting that Habitat III isn’t yet a priority for them.
There were nevertheless some star pupils. These included Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Singapore, South Africa and Zambia, who engaged in nearly every session of the week. These delegations sparred over issues like the right to the city, balanced territorial development and municipal financing strategies, though several observers said they felt the conversation was characterized more by talking at one another than engaging in meaningful debate.
Thailand and the European Union were not particularly vocal, but their comments will carry extra weight in the coming negotiations. The former is this year’s spokesperson for the G77/China, a major negotiating bloc of developing countries, while the European Union’s members will fall behind a common position expected next week after a meeting in Brussels. But with a class of 193 U. N. member states, this hardly constitutes a quorum.
“The experience of this week has shown us that we have a group of countries with solid knowledge and keen interest in this intergovernmental process,” said Maruxa Cardama of Communitas Coalition, an advocacy group close to the process. “What is somewhat concerning is the small size of that group, particularly when one bears in mind that this week constituted the knowledge bases to support the political negotiations that will start as soon as we have the zero draft.”
The first, or “zero”, draft of the New Urban Agenda is expected by the end of this week.
Policy unit post-mortem
Although the capacity of last week’s U. N. conference room numbered only in the hundreds, the Habitat process thus far can claim to have reached many times that. “We can proudly say thousands of people have been involved in the preparation for Habitat III,” said Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos said. He said that 9,000 people attended the four regional meetings and 4,000 people attended the seven thematic meetings.
The 200 “policy unit” experts, meanwhile, relied largely on virtual communication to span the global distance between them, as well as some hastily scheduled in-person meetings, to complete their work. As a result, the opportunity to present their findings and hear from the other experts was appreciated by some.
“I think it was a very interesting process,” said Martin Bryant, a professor at the Victoria University of Wellington. “We’re all predicting into the future. Across the board, we’re all committed to the idea of the complexity of the city.”
“We have a group of countries with solid knowledge and keen interest in this intergovernmental process. What is somewhat concerning is the small size of that group, particularly [as] this week constituted the knowledge bases to support the political negotiations that will start as soon as we have the zero draft.”
That revelation nevertheless left him wishing for the chance to more fully show the overlaps between the policy units. “The potential for those interlinkages would be really good, and I don’t think it’s really come out fully this week,” Bryant said.
For Araújo, there was inherent value in the mere fact of national governments listening to what citizens have to say. “I did think that this exercise was valuable because we’re at a moment with so much backlash to democratic processes for civic participation, especially in the Latin American region,” she said, in part a reference to the current impeachment crisis her home country, Brazil. “Any space that is opened for civil society participation, it’s important to maintain.”
Others were more circumspect about whether the concept of the policy units was worthwhile. “In general I think the policy-unit process was a very expensive effort to elicit ‘expert opinion.’,” said Michael Cohen, a professor at the New School in New York. The Habitat III Trust Fund, made up of donations from different U. N. member states, has supported the policy units’ work by paying for their travel to two in-person meetings for each unit and the attendance of some policy-unit experts at regional and thematic meetings.
On the content side, Cohen was also critical. “I think the results were quite uneven, with a fair summary of some relevant topics, but nothing groundbreaking or particularly innovative as far as I could see,” he said. “The quantity of material produced is too much for anyone to fully absorb, and that certainly applied to the member states, as well.”
Finally, he noted that some of the larger organizations represented may have had an undue impact on the results. “In some cases the institutional co-leaders imposed their own agendas on the policy unit final outputs,” he said. Information on all co-lead organizations can be found here.
Ultimately, the goal of last week’s consultations was to provide last-minute inputs on the zero draft of the New Urban Agenda, outlines of which have been circulating since the end of March.
“It was valuable for everyone in the room to be sharing and listening to each other. In my view some of [the recommendations] were extremely valuable, because they raised some red flags,” Araújo said. In particular, she pointed to the need for the New Urban Agenda to engage more directly with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a major U. N. effort that is already being implemented and will largely overlap with the Habitat III strategy. The 2030 framework, which was finalized last year, also has far more political traction than the New Urban Agenda
“What is the urgent lobbying that we have to do to approach the missions, to understand who is coming from the capitals, and as a civil society, to get our act together in terms of capitalizing more on what the countries pay attention to?” Araújo asked. Answering her own question, she said, “They pay attention to the 2030 Agenda.”
Ultimately, observers say, it’s a question of quality and quantity. Do high-level diplomats, like ambassadors, take over the political process once the more serious negotiations begin in May? But first, success is inherently a numbers game.
“The immediate lesson one is tempted to extract is what degree of attendance and intellectual engagement from member states can we expect during the public hearings,” Communitas’s Cardama said. “If we are serious and true to the spirit of involving civil society and local governments from the early stages of the conceptualization of the agenda, then we really need to find a way to have a critical number of member states in the room in May and June.”
Meanwhile, new working versions of the New Urban Agenda were prepared as late as the middle of last week, with revisions surely taking place almost daily this week. But many observers are skeptical that the public presentations had much bearing on the closed-door preparation of the zero draft by the 10-member state Habitat III Bureau, the Habitat III Secretariat and other insiders.
“The zero-draft exercise seems to be parallel to this process, with not much linkage or crossover,” Cohen said. “I do not have high hopes for the zero draft.”