Key storylines to watch as UN-Habitat’s Governing Council meets

The weeklong meeting at UN-Habitat’s Nairobi headquarters comes at a critical moment for the agency, as it undergoes a high-visibility assessment by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. (UN-Habitat)

NAIROBI — Next week will mark the first official gathering of countries under the auspices of the United Nations to address the future of cities since last year’s Habitat III summit produced a 20-year urbanization strategy known as the New Urban Agenda.

The occasion is a somewhat esoteric one: a biennial meeting of the 58-country Governing Council that oversees the United Nations’ chief urban agency, UN-Habitat. This year’s gathering will be watched far more widely than in the past, however.

The weeklong meeting at UN-Habitat’s Nairobi headquarters comes at a critical moment for the agency, as it undergoes a high-visibility assessment by U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres. That evaluation will determine the future of the agency and, ultimately, how the global community will take ownership of the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Six months after Habitat III, is the New Urban Agenda gaining political traction?]

Citiscope will be on the ground in Nairobi. Here are six storylines we are watching.

1. Will the secretary-general’s assessment team give any hints?

Last month, the United Nations announced a panel of mayors, urbanists, activists and diplomats that will evaluate UN-Habitat between now and June. They will meet for the first time this weekend in Nairobi, providing an initial opportunity to understand the scope of their work and what they might ultimately recommend.

Background reading: Panel’s formation marks turning point in confusion over New Urban Agenda monitoring

2. Will the Governing Council give the New Urban Agenda its stamp of approval as UN-Habitat’s future mandate?

For the past 20 years, UN-Habitat has used a document known as the Habitat Agenda as its blueprint for action. The New Urban Agenda seemed poised to replace that 1996 document, but the text of last year’s agreement did not clearly articulate UN-Habitat’s role. That became a little clearer in December, when the U. N. General Assembly approved a resolution that “welcome[d] the adoption” of the New Urban Agenda and “reaffirm[ed] the role and expertise of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), within its mandate, as a focal point for sustainable urbanization and human settlements.”

Now, the Governing Council could settle the matter and give UN-Habitat new marching orders: namely, that the New Urban Agenda should guide the agency’s work on the ground for the next two decades. One signal might come from the approval of the so-called Action Framework for the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda, a strategy that UN-Habitat has been working on since last year.

Background reading: How will we monitor the New Urban Agenda? This U. N. process will decide

3. Will UN-Habitat’s financial situation stabilize?

This year, an independent report warned of declining core funding at UN-Habitat. One of Governing Council’s procedural items will be the approval of a new two-year budget for the agency. While budgets are little more than aspirations — countries are not legally obligated to live up to them — this process might signal whether donors are ready to put more money in the coffers. And with countries on hand to make public pronouncements about the agency, their statements may reveal where major players such as Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the European Union stand.

Background reading: UN-Habitat facing ‘considerable decline’ in core funding, assessment warns

4. Will the Governing Council get universal membership?

During last year’s negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, the future of UN-Habitat became such a sticking point that it nearly derailed talks multiple times. One of the thorny issues was whether the Governing Council would expand from the current 58 countries to the full 193 nations that make up the United Nations.

Advocates, led by the Kenyan government, believe so-called universal membership would give UN-Habitat more political legitimacy within the U. N. system and ultimately generate more donor dollars. Detractors argued that the New Urban Agenda was not the place to discuss such matters — and perhaps fear the same potential outcomes that advocates cheer.

But backers of expanded membership need to be careful what they wish for: UN-Habitat’s Nairobi neighbour, the U. N. Environmental Programme, transitioned to universal membership after the “Rio+20” conference in 2012. Last year’s U. N. Environmental Assembly, the second with a full roster of countries, ended in acrimony over a resolution on Gaza that stretched the closing session until 4 a. m. and ignited a diplomatic firestorm when an Egyptian minister was caught referring to sub-Saharan Africans as “dogs and slaves”.

Background reading: UN-Cities? Rumoured proposal gains steam

5. Who might succeed Joan Clos?

Former Barcelona mayor Joan Clos has been the executive director of UN-Habitat since 2010. He was appointed for a second four-year term in 2014, so he is likely to finish out his U. N. service next year. As such, there may be chatter in the halls this coming week about who will replace him. Already, there has been speculation online. Given that Clos is a European, the next executive director is likely to come from the developing world.

Background reading: Joan Clos: New Urban Agenda ideas ‘are now trickling down’

6. How is civil society moving forward?

Six months after Habitat III wrapped up in Quito, Ecuador, three of the key civil-society networks that coalesced around the conference are expected to be present in Nairobi. The World Urban Campaign is a longstanding advocacy effort housed within UN-Habitat. The General Assembly of Partners was an umbrella of 16 constituencies that lobbied heavily during the New Urban Agenda negotiations and ultimately was recognized in the document itself. Finally, the Global Platform for the Right to the City is an independent effort, funded by the Ford Foundation (which also supports Citiscope), to lobby for the concept of the “right to the city” in the New Urban Agenda — another contentious topic that made it into the final document, but only barely.

Where do these groups pivot in the era of implementation? How will they navigate insider and outsider status going forward? This week’s Nairobi meet is sure to offer some initial clues on evolving strategy.

Background reading: After Habitat III, what’s next for the urban movement?

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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