UN-Cities? Rumoured proposal gains steam

Amidst debate over the future of UN-Habitat comes an idea — which observers call an 'open secret' — for a new entity that would oversee implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

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SURABAYA, Indonesia — The perennial tug-of-war between rich and developing countries at the United Nations has found another flashpoint: the debate over the future of UN-Habitat.

The Nairobi-based agency deals with housing as well as towns and cities big and small — collectively, “human settlements” — with the bulk of its work concentrated in Africa and Asia. However, under the leadership of its current executive director, Joan Clos, UN-Habitat has pivoted to take a larger focus on the issue of “sustainable urbanization”, with a focus on the growth of cities on a majority-urban planet.

Meanwhile, the world is now preparing for only the third global conference on issues of housing and urbanization — Habitat III, taking place in October in Quito. As such, it’s an important time to remember that UN-Habitat has always been intimately intertwined with the 20-yearly summit.

The agency was conceived following the 1976 Habitat I conference and originally was called the Center for Human Settlements. It was given its current mandate 20 years later, via the 1996 Habitat Agenda agreed upon at the Habitat II conference in Istanbul. In 2002, it was officially elevated to the status of “programme” and given an oversight body known as a Governing Council composed of 65 U. N. member states.

Now, the future of UN-Habitat has been dragged into the ongoing negotiations ahead of Habitat III — and the broader role of human settlements issues within the U. N.’s body of work. At issue is the matter of “follow-up and review” for the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that U. N. members are expected to adopt at Habitat III.

Specifically, countries are debating how the U. N. will track progress on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. One bloc is calling for UN-Habitat to have primary responsibility in this process over the next two decades, while others prefer that a group of U. N. agencies collectively take up this mandate.

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

To many, this may seem like an esoteric spat. But at key negotiations on the New Urban Agenda that took place here in late July, the question of UN-Habitat’s future consumed nearly all of the oxygen in the room. Indeed, as has been seen in recent weeks, the issue ended up excluding important debates on the policy questions at hand.

Meanwhile, a rumour floated around Surabaya from multiple sources that one proposed solution to the impasse on follow-up and review would decouple UN-Habitat from the New Urban Agenda entirely.

Under this approach, UN-Habitat would continue its technical work on delivering sites and services in informal settlements. The New Urban Agenda — which has a more holistic focus on urban planning, municipal financing and public policy — would be overseen by a new body called UN-Cities, akin to the inter-agency coordinating bodies UN-Energy and UN-Water, according to a German diplomat who said he had discussed the idea with Clos but spoke on the condition of anonymity. (UPDATE: The official subsequently clarified that the Clos conversation took place years ago and reiterated that the rumour in no way reflects current planning on the part of the German government.)

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

Such an initiative would meet longstanding calls from European countries that the New Urban Agenda engage more holistically with the rest of the U. N. system, especially the new framework adopted in last year’s historic agreements on development and climate change.

The rumoured proposal appears to include more details on such a new entity. UN-Cities would be comprised of a skeletal secretariat rather than a full staff, and it would be housed in the burgeoning U. N. complex in Bonn, currently home to the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

[See: Habitat III loses proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel — for now]

When asked about such a proposal, the German official denied the specifics. However, multiple close observers have indicated that such discussions, at least in principle, have been taking place for some time, calling the idea an “open secret”.

Universal membership

The current and ongoing existential debate about UN-Habitat was sparked by a proposal spearheaded by a negotiating bloc of African countries, a vision that has now been endorsed by the entire Group of 77 (G77) developing countries. This was a weighty endorsement, as the G77 constitutes the U. N.’s largest negotiating bloc.

“One proposed solution to the impasse on follow-up and review would decouple UN-Habitat from the New Urban Agenda entirely.”

The African Group’s plan calls for a strengthened UN-Habitat with more regular funding. It would also see universal membership on its Governing Council, rather than the 65 members that currently make up that body. Backers believe this latter element would give UN-Habitat more legitimacy and cement its place in the U. N. family — particularly at a time of global austerity, which has led to calls for budget cuts and downsizing within the international body.

[See: Landmark Governing Council session debates UN-Habitat’s role in the development agenda]

The debate took on a more pointed turn during three days of formal negotiations over the New Urban Agenda here in Surabaya, where the African Group and G77 repeated the main tenets of their proposal. Despite protests from the European Union that Habitat III is not the venue to discuss the future of the agency, the United States took the bait.

The U. S. delegation waded into the fray by arguing that UN-Habitat would benefit from an executive board structure — a contraction, rather than expansion, of the number of countries overseeing the agency’s work. The country has supported not having the agency oversee implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

The U. S. delegation also suggested that the experience of UN-Habitat’s neighbour at the U. N.’s Nairobi campus, the U. N. Environmental Programme (UNEP), is not one to emulate. UNEP received universal membership four years ago.

U. S. negotiator Ian Klaus claimed that UNEP’s experience illustrates the pitfalls of universal membership. He pointed to a drain on resources and staff time, with the need to report back to a larger body of overseers. He also warned that there were no guarantees that such an administrative change would generate more funding for the agency, which is financed by contributions from member states. “Donors’ confidence in [UN-Habitat] has struggled in recent years and resulted in reduced core voluntary contributions,” Klaus said.

UN-Habitat’s finances operate on bienniums, and for 2014-15, its budget was estimated at USD 394.5 million. Its 2016-17 budget, as adopted at last year’s Governing Council, requests USD 482.3 million, an increase of 22.2 percent.

The Japanese delegation concurred with the U. S. stance but not necessarily its line of argument that universal membership would not turn on the financial tap. “If we enlarge membership, we have to pay more money, because the bureaucracy grows,” said Satomi Okagaki of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a conversation with Citiscope.

Japan is one of the biggest annual donors to UN-Habitat, and its contributions have remained steady in recent years. Pointing out that five seats on the Governing Council are currently vacant, Okagaki said she views the proposal as political rather than substantive. “Enlarging membership is going backwards,” she concluded.

[See: Two models for tracking implementation of the New Urban Agenda]

Another major donor, Norway, has cut core support to the agency in recent years in light of the need to support newly arrived refugees at home. A 2014 report from the U. N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, which concluded that UN-Habitat’s change in mission from human settlements to sustainable urbanization “has not yet cascaded throughout the agency”, also didn’t encourage the Norwegian government to keep up its contribution at a challenging time for European economies.

Still, Marit Viktoria Pettersen, senior adviser on climate and environment at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, defended the agency’s work. “We are impressed by what they do on the ground,” she said, citing efforts in challenging places such as Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria. “We are strong supporters of them.”

Leadership questions

As the Habitat III process wrestles over the future of UN-Habitat, some observers see destructive forces at work. In a recent blog post entitled “Is Clos killing UN-Habitat?”, Felix Dodds, a longtime U. N. lobbyist, levied a strong charge against Joan Clos, who is not only the agency’s executive director but also Habitat III’s secretary-general.

“Donors’ confidence in [UN-Habitat] has struggled in recent years and resulted in reduced core voluntary contributions.”

Ian Klaus
U. S. delegation

Last month’s Surabaya talks failed to deliver agreement on how to monitor progress on the New Urban Agenda, and thus on the document as a whole. That has now forced an emergency round of informal negotiations in New York, likely to take place early next month.

[See: Are the Habitat III talks on the brink of collapse?]

Against that backdrop, Dodds accused the Habitat III Secretariat of “lack[ing] both substantive focus and political acumen”. To his mind, the New Urban Agenda should have acknowledged much earlier on proposals that would sync up the question of follow-up and review with the U. N.’s broader objectives around development and climate change — including two notable new international accords finalized last year.

“Many of us saw Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda … as complementary to as well as an implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement at the local and sub-national level,” Dodds wrote. So far, he noted, the agenda “has failed to do that.”

And this is a relatively widely held view. The European Union and several European countries have insisted from the beginning of talks in May that the New Urban Agenda does not have sufficient links with those agreements, which form the backbone of what’s called the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

However, it was only in the 28 July version of the New Urban Agenda, issued the day after the conclusion of talks, that the E. U.’s counterproposal to the G77’s call to strengthen UN-Habitat was finally included as a side-by-side alternative.

That new proposal speaks in more general terms, calling on the U. N. General Assembly to “recommend measures to enhance the accountability, effectiveness, efficiency and oversight of the UN-Habitat Programme; review UN-Habitat’s normative and operational mandate in the light of commitments and actions linked to the New Urban Agenda; [and] assess UN-Habitat’s work with the local and subnational authorities and with stakeholders, in order to tap the full potential of partnerships in implementing the New Urban Agenda.”

[See: The E. U. is a major voice in the Habitat III process. What is it saying?]

This language does not propose the establishment of a body called UN-Cities. However, sources familiar with the rumour suggest that such an outcome could be the eventual result if the General Assembly is given the task of reviewing UN-Habitat’s mandate in light of the New Urban Agenda.

Such an outcome, meanwhile, could make sense in light of the direction that the Habitat III process has taken. “At exactly the time we need a strong UN family working together on these challenges, we have one that is becoming more and more irrelevant to them and one that has lost the confidence of many stakeholders and governments,” Dodds wrote. “That comes down to leadership. Could the leadership of Dr. Clos result in the closing down of UN Habitat? Only time will tell.”

To Dodds’s eye, it is a lack of leadership that has led to a siloed New Urban Agenda, unengaged with the broader U. N., resulting in a document that is not, he wrote, “fit for purpose.” Dodds elaborated, “We need in the future a UN-Habitat that is a team player that is working with all the intergovernmental organizations and recognizes the role they play and can play.”

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