Habitat III: The best chance to make the SDGs count?

With the release of the draft New Urban Agenda in sight, diplomats at the highest levels are starting to link the Habitat III process and the Sustainable Development Goals.

A film introducing the Sustainable Development Goals is projected onto the outside of U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 2015. Many are increasingly looking to the local level as key to implementing the new goals. (Cia Pak/UN Photo)

UNITED NATIONS — After last year’s landmark achievements on sustainable development and climate change, the obvious question was: What next? How can the world implement two global agreements, applying to rich and poor countries alike, on everything from eradicating poverty to reducing carbon emissions? For those who believe in the power of cities, the answer was equally obvious: Go local.

While national governments are ultimately on the hook to report their progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and meeting their obligations on climate change under the Paris Agreement, many argue that cities will be the protagonists in the actual implementation of policies. It is only when cities and local governments roll up their sleeves that countries will earn positive report cards when they submit their annual review at the United Nations.

[See: SDGs review needs to go local, advocates say]

Conveniently, this is the year that the entire U. N. system is supposed to turn its attention to the local level. In October, the Habitat III conference will take up the issue of housing and urban development. Local governments — cities, states, provinces and regions — will take centre stage, having been approved by the U. N. General Assembly to have a say in the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will result from the conference.

“Habitat III will serve as a rallying point for local and regional governments to prepare for the implementation of all the interconnected 17 goals, in particular Goal 11,” Berry Vrbanovic, mayor of Kitchener, Canada, said at the U. N. last month on the sidelines of a ministerial debate about the goals. Vrbanovic was referring to SDG 11, the landmark standalone goal on cities that was agreed to last year.

“All the SDGs have a local dimension that is essential to their achievement,” he said. “We, as political leaders, with a direct mandate from citizens, have a responsibility to contribute to the achievement of all of the SDGs.”

This past week saw the first hearings on the subject of Habitat III at U. N. Headquarters. While hardly a packed room, a handful of member states were vocal on the subject of the New Urban Agenda’s relationship to the much broader SDGs.

[See: ‘Frustration’ over governments’ inconsistent participation in Habitat III consultations]

Echoing the comments of many, the Swiss delegate called Habitat III “a tangible opportunity to pave the way toward implementation of the urban dimension of the 2030 Agenda,” referring to the SDGs.

“The New Urban Agenda shall flesh out the 2030 Agenda, by putting the urban dimension of the SDGs into practice — and by being complementary to the 2030 Agenda,” she said. As a result, she continued, the new agenda should serve as “an action framework for the implementation of SDG 11.”

[See: The SDGs don’t adequately spell out cities’ role in implementation]

Thailand, speaking on behalf of an important bloc of developing countries, likewise noted that Habitat III is the first intergovernmental conference after the heady year of 2015.

Same breath

These may seem like minor points. But the mere mention of Habitat III and the SDGs in the same breath has been sorely lacking in U. N. rhetoric.

“We’ve worked together for so many years to make the SDGs amazing — do you want to see that go to waste when we have this key opportunity to make them really translate to the municipal and regional level.”

Christopher Dekki
Communitas Coalition

On 21 April, U. N. Headquarters hosted a high-level debate on the SDGs. It was the first major convening on the topic since the goals were finalized in September. Then, on 22 April, the U. N. hosted a star-studded signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement.

At both events, which featured heads of state and government as well as ministers pledging their support to SDG implementation and climate-change action, there was little to no mention of Habitat III or even sustainable urbanization more generally. Ecuador, which is hosting the Habitat III conference, did not deliver a statement at the SDGs debate due to the earthquake that had affected the country just a few days earlier.

[See: With Paris Agreement signed, can cities become climate solution at Habitat III?]

Joan Clos, however, did speak to Habitat III in his role as executive director of UN-Habitat. “The enthusiasm witnessed in the preparatory process towards a New Urban Agenda … creates momentum to implement SDG 11 and other targets related to sustainable urbanization,” he said. (Clos is also the secretary-general of Habitat III.)

A recent report of U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on follow-up and review of the SDGs does acknowledge a role for local governments in implementation plans. But a definitive consensus on how to monitor the goals will not come until at least July at an annual review called the High-Level Political Forum. Meanwhile, several groups are already working with individual cities on SDGs implementation.

[Are we ready to implement the SDGs?]

“Not enough member states are really excited about the Habitat III process,” conceded Chris Dekki, a policy analyst with the Communitas Coalition who has been closely following the U. N.’s development agenda. But he thinks they should be. “The ultimate goal of the New Urban Agenda should be to localize the SDGs, to bring it to the grass roots, to empower local authorities and regional governments to take this global agenda and make it their own,” he said.

It may be the curse of coming on the heels of such an intense year for diplomats, who sat through long hours of tedious, word-by-word negotiations over the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. “There is a little bit of conference fatigue, a little bit of development-agenda fatigue,” said Shipra Narang Suri, vice-president of the General Assembly of Partners, an umbrella group for civil society in the Habitat process.

Observers noted the same dilemma during the last Habitat conference — Habitat II, which took place in 1996 in Istanbul. That event was billed as the last major summit of the millennium, but by then efforts such as the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio and the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995 had sapped significant diplomatic energy.

Multiple sources have confirmed that a high-level ambassador overseeing the SDGs process, when queried about the Quito conference, said something to the effect of “Why should I care about Habitat III?”

To this sentiment, Dekki argued, “We’ve worked together for so many years to make the SDGs amazing — do you want to see that go to waste when we have this key opportunity to make them really translate to the municipal and regional level?”

[See: The only sustainable city is one co-created by all of us]

To Dekki’s thinking, Habitat III should be an obvious “final stage” after last year’s efforts, though he recognizes there is no hard-and-fast rule that it be so. “Habitat III is that link that could make the international come to the local, the city and regional level,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be Habitat III — it could be any other effort to localize the process — but Habitat III is the best way to bring the international together with the local.”

The blasé attitude toward Habitat III hopefully will start to change in coming days, with the much-awaited first (or “zero”) draft of the New Urban Agenda slated for release this week. That, at least, will give diplomats something to sink their teeth into as they haggle over the document that will go to Quito. “They’re negotiators,” Dekki said. “Maybe once they get a zero draft, they’ll take more ownership.”

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