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

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres this week tasked an eight-member panel with offering a key assessment of UN-Habitat by June. (Frederic Legrand - COMEO/Shutterstock)

Almost six months after the United Nations adopted a new 20-year urbanization strategy, U. N. Secretary General António Guterres this week made his first official pronouncement on cities.

As part of the ongoing effort to reshape how urban issues are addressed within the international body, Guterres announced Wednesday the composition of a highly-anticipated eight-member panel that will assess the future of the lead agency on urbanization, UN-Habitat. The result of the panel’s assessment will have a significant impact on oversight of that 20-year strategy, the New Urban Agenda.

While the agenda, a non-binding document approved by 167 countries at last year’s Habitat III summit, was formally adopted by the U. N. General Assembly in December, that process left up in the air two key issues: the fate of the Nairobi-based UN-Habitat and, relatedly, formal responsibility for overseeing implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Potential reforms to UN-Habitat had become increasingly contentious during the New Urban Agenda political discussions — threatening even to scuttle the entire process.

So, in approving adoption of the New Urban Agenda in December, the General Assembly simultaneously called on Guterres to conduct “an evidence-based and independent assessment” of the agency and its work, which ranges from slum upgrading to comprehensive planning, municipal finance strategies to national legislation for cities. (The December resolution is available here.)

[See: How will we monitor the New Urban Agenda? This U. N. process will decide]

“We live in the century of unprecedented urban growth. For the first time in history, over half of world’s population is living in cities,” Guterres, who took over as secretary-general at the beginning of the year, said Wednesday in a statement. “[At Habitat III], participating states adopted the New Urban Agenda as a collective vision and political commitment to promote and realize sustainable urban development, and a paradigm change, rethinking how cities are planned, managed and inhabited.”

Missing expertise

That “paradigm change” is likely to require further repositioning of UN-Habitat. Making recommendations on the details of that new mandate will be the task for the eight-member panel.

“A member with stronger economics and public policy credentials would have been useful.”

Aromar Revi
Director, Indian Institute for Human Settlements

The panel includes several key global figures in urbanism, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Indian slum activist Sheela Patel, United Cities and Local Governments President Mpho Parks Tau, and Peter Calthorpe, founding member of the Congress for New Urbanism.

The new body is rounded out by national-level ministers and diplomats from Indonesia, Lesotho, Mexico and Slovakia. Of those four, Lesotho sent its head of state to Quito — one of only three at Habitat III — and the other countries played key roles in the preparatory process for the conference.

[See: UN-Habitat facing ‘considerable decline’ in core funding, assessment warns]

Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, praised the geographic and gender balance of the panel but expressed concern about the lack of economic expertise among the eight.

“There is a yawning gap in the global and national governance, implementation and financing architecture to address the multi-trillion-dollar sustainable cities opportunity,” he told Citiscope via e-mail.

That omission may suggest a significant oversight, Revi suggested.

“The Secretary-General’s office has apparently missed the point that cities represent an immense emergent economic opportunity, and are the largest site of incremental employment globally,” he said. “They also have huge financing needs, that will be tied to the reform of the global and national/regional financial architectures. A member with stronger economics and public policy credentials would have been useful.”

[See: What should be new U. N. Secretary-General Guterres’s urban priorities?]

June deadline

Either way, the panel now has its work cut out for it. According to the secretary-general’s spokesperson, it is expected to deliver a report to Guterres by June. That assessment will inform a two-day meeting of housing and urban development ministers at U. N. Headquarters, which will probably take place in August or September. That key meeting will publicly address what form UN-Habitat should take for the next 20 years — especially its role with regard to the New Urban Agenda.

What’s at stake in the panel’s deliberations? Among other issues, Revi points out that any restructuring of UN-Habitat offers an opportunity for the United Nations and its secretary-general to demonstrate a commitment to implementation of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the U.N’s overarching anti-poverty framework. The New Urban Agenda was seen by many as offering a roadmap for the implementation of those goals in cities.

Any UN-Habitat restructuring could send a message regarding “implementation of the SDGs and a transformative new partnership between member-states and local and regional governments to share powers, capacities, resources and hence, the responsibility for implementation of [the SDGs],” Revi said. “It could also start filling gaps in the political process that an inconclusive Habitat III and New Urban Agenda left in its wake.”

[See: How the New Urban Agenda fits — and doesn’t — with global climate and anti-poverty agreements]

The panel will now be gearing up for its first major commitment — a visit to the UN-Habitat Governing Council next month in Nairobi.

Meanwhile, Revi dangled the idea of a radical opportunity in the panel’s eventual recommendations. “Could a re-imagined [agency], with adequate political leadership, wisdom, convening power and resources help shape the imagination of sustainable development in action; expand employment and inclusive economic and social development; and living within planetary boundaries?”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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