Habitat III is ‘third act’ for growing philanthropic focus on cities

Bridging the GAP | Foundations are increasingly looking at cities to leverage the impact of their grants, and have been major forces in stakeholder participation around the New Urban Agenda.

Blue Island/Shutterstock

This story is part of an occasional series on the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), the main vehicle for civil society to organize and advocate ahead of Habitat III, the U. N. urbanization summit in October in Quito. The GAP represents a wide range of interests, which have coalesced into 16 constituent groups. Citiscope is profiling these groups and their preparations on the road to Quito with a focus on why sustainable urban development matters to their constituents.

In 1889, the Scottish-born industrial Andrew Carnegie, who made a vast fortune in the United States as a steel manufacturer, wrote “The Gospel of Wealth”. In the article, he said, “Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” Carnegie led by example, giving away 90 percent of his fortune, some USD 350 million — the equivalent of nearly USD 80 billion in today’s value.

Among the many fruits of Carnegie’s generosity, his endowment constructed more than 2,500 libraries from 1893 to 1919 in cities and towns across the United States, United Kingdom and British Commonwealth — in Suva, Fiji; San Fernando, Trinidad; and many more places. With their elegant architecture, Carnegie libraries remain a historic landmark in many communities and oftentimes planted the seed of a more robust public library system.

This effort was an early indication of how philanthropy can invest in civic infrastructure to supplement the efforts of a municipal government. Carnegie sparked a wave of philanthropy among the titans of industry in the United States. In 1913, for instance, John D. Rockefeller dedicated a portion of his oil fortune to an endowed foundation. Two decades later, carmaker Henry Ford established the Ford Foundation.

[See: How do we ensure broad buy-in to the New Urban Agenda?]

A century later but still with broad missions to improve livelihoods across the globe, foundations are increasingly finding themselves looking at cities in order to leverage the impact of their grants. In preparations for next week’s Habitat III conference on urbanization, the Ford Foundation has co-chaired the General Assembly of Partners’ philanthropy constituency group.

“Cities are where people live, work and play. Cities are not silos — they are complicated interlinked systems, which is why they need our sustained attention,” said Ford’s Ana Marie Argilagos. “Many philanthropies are place-based and as so naturally work on cities.”

Creating engagement

To that end, Habitat III is a major opportunity to continue the global work that foundations began last year in the run-up to two major agreements struck last year — the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Agreement on climate change.

Ahead of the SDGs, a 15-year plan to end global poverty, philanthropies formed the SDG Funders Platform, and have already prepared deep dive reports on how their grantmaking ability can help achieve the SDGs. This month, Bill Gates of the Gates Foundation outlined renewable energy to reduce climate change as a major priority, while Silicon Valley billionaire Tom Steyer has made the issue into the signature effort of his philanthropic investments.

“Habitat III makes sense because it’s like the third act,” said Argilagos.

[See: Habitat III must institutionalize participatory urban development]

But first, foundations needed to make it known that there was a third act to be had in the aftermath of last year’s landmark agreements. “Our job is to create awareness and engagement,” said Oscar Fergutz, the other co-chair of the GAP philanthropies group, with the Latin America-based Avina Foundation.

The pair drew on global networks of foundations such as Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support, as well as regional networks from Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the United States. Then, they sought to generate interest in the New Urban Agenda — the 20-year vision that will be adopted at Habitat III — from a range of foundations, including Indonesia’s Danamon Peduli Foundation, Kenya’s Community Foundation and Brazil’s Fundação Roberto Marinho.

When Habitat III convenes next week in Quito, Ecuador, the group will host a philanthropy roundtable. One of the sector’s main goals at the summit will be to remind the public that foundations are more than just their endowments. “Foundations can play a variety of roles — seldom do they like to see themselves as merely ATMs,” Argilagos said.

Ford has led by example, supporting Habitat III in several ways outside of grantmaking. Its main contribution was to host the conference’s secretariat, the staff who administered the two-year preparatory process that produced the New Urban Agenda, in its Manhattan headquarters, just across the street from the U. N. building.

The decision to offer coveted New York real estate is part of a new sense at Ford about how to use all of the tools at its disposal, not just its financial ones.

“We don’t want to use just our grants for making change; we want to use all of our resources,” Argilagos said. “Our building should be a centre for dialogue and conversation.”

As a result, Ford became a nerve center for the Habitat III process that helped facilitate access, as compared to the high-security U. N. building. In addition to the everyday flow by U. N. staff, the building was a revolving door of civil society activists, think tank and university researchers, national government delegations and city leaders.

[See: Global mayors pledge collective action on inequality, sustainability]

Ford hosted monthly civil society meetings, a half-dozen breakfast sessions bringing together U. N. diplomats and urban experts, and numerous panel discussions on the sidelines of major events such as the annual meeting of the U. N. General Assembly.

“The U. N. is like a big fortress, and getting in and out is quite tedious, which is not conducive to engagement and transparency,” said Argilagos. “Having the Habitat III Secretariat in a building that represents civil society, you are really incentivizing for communication to be flowing.”

Leading and convening

As a convener, Ford preferred to stay out of the nitty-gritty debates on the New Urban Agenda and did not participate in the technical “policy unit” process, which generated a series of expert reports that provided much of the document’s content. (The final draft of the New Urban Agenda was agreed in September and can be found here.) Avina and the Rockefeller Foundation, which has a major urban focus with its 100 Resilient Cities initiative, did participate in the policy units.

Overall, though, Argilagos said that the diverse goals of the philanthropic sector means it doesn’t have singular demands in the Habitat process. “Philanthropy — you can’t put them into a bucket,” she said. “Most of them would agree with the concept of inclusive and sustainable cities: leave no one behind.”

Ford also used its traditional grantmaking capacity to support Habitat III, for example by funding the Global Platform on the Right to the City, an advocacy effort that succeeded in its lobbying for the concept of the “right to the city” to appear for the first time in an internationally agreed U. N. document. (Ford also supports Citiscope’s coverage of Habitat III.)

[See: Historic consensus reached on ‘right to the city’ in New Urban Agenda]

The Avina Foundation also has put money behind its emphasis on sustainable cities in an effort to lead by example. On the ground, it works in 80 cities across 15 countries in Latin America to improve the lives of recycling workers and waste pickers — some of the most marginalized of informal labourers.

Avina also funded UN-Habitat research that resulted in a groundbreaking 2014 study, “Construction of More Equitable Cities,” that analyzes Latin American inequality at the more granular city level rather than at the broad-brush national level. The report illustrates, for example, that although a measure of Brazil’s inequality (a metric known as Gini coefficient) has gone down in recent years, inequality has actually gotten worse in some cities, even as gains in other cities have improved the overall national ranking.

Such research can help guide policymaking in the most urbanized but most unequal region in the world. Ironically, that dual claim to fame has made Avina’s job harder as it has pushed the relevance of Habitat III, which by dint of its location in Quito has even more incentive to encourage Latin American participation.

[See: Habitat III host region takes stock of its urbanization process — warts and all]

“Because Latin America is the most urbanized region on the planet, it’s so obvious that we’re in cities so we don’t feel the need to talk about ‘urban’ issues,” said Fergutz. He related an example from his conversations with Brazilian social-impact investment network GIFE. “They’ll say, ‘We don’t work directly with cities.’ Then what do you work with? ‘Education, gender, health, worker inclusion, youth,’” he said.

But, he continued: “Where is this work happening? In cities.”

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up here for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter. Citiscope is a member of the Habitat III Journalism Project; read more here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary