UN-Habitat reforms will hold up New Urban Agenda implementation

Participants head into the main venue at this week's UN-Habitat Governing Council session in Nairobi. (Gregory Scruggs)

NAIROBI — At the first gathering of United Nations member states since last year’s adoption of a 20-year global strategy on urbanization, a wait-and-see attitude prevails regarding next steps to coordinate implementation of the accord, known as the New Urban Agenda.

Meeting here this week at the headquarters of UN-Habitat, the 58 countries that oversee the agency are holding off on any significant decisions until the completion of a major evaluation of the agency and subsequent action by the U. N. General Assembly. Only after those processes are completed, likely by the end of the year, will they take concrete steps that will inform how UN-Habitat should move forward around the New Urban Agenda, according to multiple officials here.

This week’s meeting of the UN-Habitat Governing Council takes place every two years to approve the agency’s overall work plan and budget, as well as to pass resolutions on specific issues. Coming a little over six months after the Habitat III conference that produced the New Urban Agenda, many expected this year’s council session would hold extra import.

Specifically, the meeting could confirm the New Urban Agenda as UN-Habitat’s new mandate and offer clear signals on how the agency should act as a result. Should UN-Habitat, for example, conduct more research? Draft possible legislation for national and city governments? Prepare measurements that will allow countries to benchmark their progress?

[See: Key storylines to watch as UN-Habitat’s Governing Council meets]

But by Wednesday evening, those signals had not been forthcoming. “We are waiting to hear from member states exactly what we are supposed to start doing,” said UN-Habitat’s Diana Lopez. “There is still no clear mandate from member states.”

Instead, the agency is facing the likelihood of basic governance and management reforms before the actual work can proceed. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who referred to this Governing Council as a “milestone” during his address Monday to open the session, expressed a common sentiment in his call for changes.

“Our first task, if I may say so, is a reform of UN-Habitat. We will achieve our goals only if it can serve as a focal agency for sustainable urbanization and human settlements,” he said. “It will not do so if its capacity is not strengthened. That is why we must empower UN-Habitat with the resources it needs — and these resources must be adequate and predictable.”

Placeholder session (plus geopolitics)

There is broad consensus that UN-Habitat needs reforms, from the results of a recent independent report as well as a dismal staff survey that ranked the agency in the bottom five of places to work in the U. N. system.

“We are waiting to hear from member states exactly what we are supposed to start doing. There is still no clear mandate from member states.”

Diana Lopez
UN-Habitat

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

But this Governing Council session will not be the place where that reform happens. Instead, fundraising concerns and geopolitical bickering have consumed the conversation thus far in a meeting poorly attended by diplomats mandated to approve substantive measures. Only 17 ministers are in attendance here, and of the 58 seats on the Governing Council, five belonging to Western Europe remain vacant.

Ultimately, it was the New Urban Agenda’s inability to resolve basic questions about the future of UN-Habitat that turned this year’s Governing Council into something of a placeholder. While the next logical step after approving the New Urban Agenda should be the realignment of UN-Habitat so that it can get to work on implementing the agreement, a diplomat from a major donor country, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “Restructuring is not on the table for this Governing Council.”

The council isn’t taking up that task at the moment because of a broader work process underway. Negotiations last year nearly stalled over how to restructure the agency, resulting in a stopgap outcome that requested the U. N. secretary-general to conduct his own assessment of the agency. In April, new U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced the formation of that evaluation panel, consisting of mayors, urbanists, activists and diplomats.

[See: Panel’s formation marks turning point in confusion over New Urban Agenda monitoring]

The eight-person panel met here to query member states and civil society groups about how the agency should be reformed. It is expected to deliver a report by June. On Monday, U. N. General Assembly President Peter Thomson announced a two-day meeting at U. N. Headquarters in New York on 29-30 August that will make recommendations on how to reform UN-Habitat, for ultimate approval by the General Assembly.

The anticipated changes at UN-Habitat are part of a suite of reforms that Guterres is expected to roll out in the coming months. “Each of these will impact on your work here at UN-Habitat, and I counsel you to support the necessity of reform for the common good,” Thomson said.

With the assessment coming from the secretary-general’s office and the August meeting hosted at U. N. Headquarters, global decision-making around sustainable urbanization is increasingly concentrated in New York. The preparations for Habitat III, for example, also were based there.

But that shift has frustrated developing countries, who negotiate as a bloc known as the Group of 77 and China. That group “is concerned at the growing trend of diminishing the importance of Nairobi, which is the headquarters of UN-Habitat,” said Bashir Tarar, Pakistan’s high commissioner to Kenya, calling for the trend to be reversed.

As a result, a draft resolution on the table here focuses on next year’s World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur and specifically calls for preparations to remain in Nairobi as opposed to New York. This New York-vs.-Nairobi spat is an example of the geopolitics orbiting this week’s diplomatic negotiations in lieu of more-substantive issues. Other draft resolutions with geopolitical import call on member states to fund UN-Habitat’s work in the Palestinian territories and to support an Asian housing ministers conference hosted by Iran. (At press time, the draft resolutions under consideration in Nairobi were not publicly available.)

[See: What diplomats can learn from urbanists — and vice versa]

Some draft resolutions under the microscope this week do address the reform question. For example, one calls for transparency on management practices. Another encourages UN-Habitat’s fledgling roadmap for substantive next steps, the Action Framework for the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda. UN-Habitat’s leadership recently told Citiscope that the Action Framework, which seeks to guide national-level action around the New Urban Agenda, was likely to be approved by the Governing Council this week.

Indeed, while this year’s review of UN-Habitat has slowed meaningful progress toward the global coordination of New Urban Agenda implementation efforts, that process does not necessarily hamper individual actions by national and local governments. Latin America, for example, is expected to release an action plan in October with the help of a regional U. N. commission.

‘More with less’

The biggest issue that this week’s Governing Council will address head-on is financial. UN-Habitat relies on donor countries to support its core budget, which pays for staff and administrative work at its offices, and to earmark funds for special projects — post-war reconstruction in Afghanistan, say, or slum upgrading in Cameroon. While project funding is dealt with on an ad hoc basis, the Governing Council as a whole must agree upon the core budget.

“While UN-Habitat has been very successful in resource mobilization to earmarked projects, it has been much less successful in convincing member states to contribute to core funding,” said Victor Ronneberg, a diplomat from Norway, one of the top five donors to the agency.

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

The proposed figure for 2018-19 is roughly USD 26 million. That is a sharp decline from the current two-year cycle, which requested USD 45 million in core funding. The reduction may be in part because the agency is far from hitting its current budget’s target — just USD 2.5 million in core funding landed in UN-Habitat’s coffers last year.

In his statement on behalf of the G77 plus China, Tarar noted the bloc’s emphasis on “the importance of providing adequate financial and human resources to UN-Habitat. At the same time, we urge UN-Habitat to address its weaknesses with a clear-headed approach.”

For the agency’s part, its leader seems to recognize the handwriting on the wall. “UN-Habitat should also improve its operational model, in order to increase its efficiency and continue its delivery of ‘more with less’ and higher levels of productivity,” Executive Director Joan Clos, a key architect of the New Urban Agenda, said Monday.

But what that operational model will look like remains to be seen. Either way, it now looks set to be sorted out in the glassy high-rise confines of New York rather than the tropical breezeways of Nairobi.

NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Norwegian diplomat.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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