Where does the ‘UN Urban’ proposal leave the New Urban Agenda?

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With the release of a major report commissioned by U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres, the United Nations appears to be on a path to integrate its 20-year urbanization strategy, the New Urban Agenda, into the global body’s development architecture.

But until that report’s recommendations are finalized and member states line up to fund its outcomes, a concentrated diplomatic effort on behalf of the agenda, adopted last year, will remain in limbo. That makes the coming months critical, several close observers say, as the United Nations gears up for its busy work season in the final quarter of the year and also appoints a new executive director at UN-Habitat, its lead agency on urban issues.

The report, released 3 August by a Guterres-appointed panel of eight experts, suggests far-reaching changes to UN-Habitat. More controversially, it also recommends creating a new body to coordinate the global push for sustainable urbanization, under the proposed name UN Urban.

[See: Proposed ‘UN Urban’ would coordinate global approach to urbanization]

The UN Urban proposal reflects a state of flux stretching back to last year. During negotiations leading up to the New Urban Agenda’s finalization, diplomats came to a stalemate over how monitoring of the agreement’s implementation would take place and where responsibility would lie for its oversight. Some argued that UN-Habitat should take charge, while others — including some donor countries that have been increasingly skeptical of UN-Habitat — stressed that the agenda must be the collective responsibility of the entire U. N. system.

Eventually negotiators reached a compromise creating a basic structure of quadrennial reviews, the first of which is to take place next year. But they offered scant detail on the content of those reviews, even as they charged UN-Habitat with coordinating them.

At the same time, the agency was left as “a” rather than “the” focal point for global action on sustainable urbanization. This left in question whether UN-Habitat had the confidence of member states to champion the New Urban Agenda — even as few were suggesting who would take up the mantle in UN-Habitat’s absence.

Already this disconnect has slowed momentum on implementation of the agreement, as national governments and civil society await clarity on mechanisms for review and broader marching orders. Even Guterres’s own report on how to reposition the U. N. system to deliver on development goals, released earlier this year, makes only one passing reference to urbanization — and fails to mention the New Urban Agenda once.

‘Clearer mechanism’ needed

The new panel was being looked to by many as an important part of answering these lingering questions.

“Until a clearer mechanism is defined, the Panel feels that UN-Habitat is the appropriate UN entity to play an advocacy role around the importance of urban issues and the significance of the local agenda, within and outside the organisation, and to expand and refine its normative work in these regards.”

Panel of experts
From the“Report of the High Level Independent Panel to Assess and Enhance Effectiveness of UN-Habitat”.

In response, its eight experts have recommended not only rejiggering UN-Habitat’s global responsibilities but also creating the new UN Urban — seemingly in competition with the existing agency. Guterres has indicated his support for establishing a new such body, tasked with coordinating action on sustainable urbanization throughout the U. N. system.

All of this may suggest that UN-Habitat would not be the key focal point on the New Urban Agenda going forward. But the panel also does not suggest that the proposed UN Urban take on such a position. Rather, it defers the question yet again — and without providing a way forward for how it will be answered.

[See: Civil society taking strategic ‘breath’ amid pause on New Urban Agenda]

The report does directly address the subject of monitoring the New Urban Agenda. But it concludes simply that given the current lack of a defined methodology for that monitoring, UN-Habitat still has a key role to play.

“Until a clearer mechanism is defined, the Panel feels that UN-Habitat is the appropriate UN entity to play an advocacy role around the importance of urban issues and the significance of the local agenda, within and outside the organisation, and to expand and refine its normative work in these regards,” the report states.

The panel envisions that in this way, UN-Habitat would “assist and support” national governments, U. N. agencies and others in integrating the New Urban Agenda as well as the “urban aspects” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their development operations. The agency also would continue to provide “guidance and tools for strengthening urban work at the country level”.

Window of opportunity

While the panel didn’t definitively answer the question of New Urban Agenda coordination, several observers have expressed optimism over many of its recommendations — or at least the avenues for discussion that they have opened up. Indeed, multiple analysts have indicated to Citiscope that they feel a window of opportunity is now in view.

They suggest that powerful forces within the United Nations, starting with the secretary-general’s office, are now paying renewed attention to questions left dangling after last year’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities, which produced the New Urban Agenda and mandated the creation of this panel to study the future of the U. N.’s urban work.

[See: With Local 2030, the U. N. seeks to turbocharge its engagement with cities]

For one, the panel’s recommendations are now slated to be debated, negotiated and acted upon this year, starting with a key high-level meeting at U. N. Headquarters in New York in early September. That’s just two weeks before world leaders gather for their annual week of speeches to kick off the new session of the General Assembly, the U. N.’s legislative body. Soon after, diplomats will get down to work in the trenches of the U. N.’s various committees as they draft resolutions for the General Assembly, which has the authority to act on the report’s recommendations.

Second, the term of UN-Habitat’s chief is set to expire at the end of this year. That suggests the prospect of a fresh strategy under new leadership at the agency.

Together, some say, these processes could offer a watershed opening to ensure that the urban perspective is incorporated into the United Nations’ multi-decade efforts to tackle global poverty and climate change.

Eugénie Birch, president of the General Assembly of Partners, an umbrella group of civil society stakeholders who advocate for urbanization within the U. N. system, believes that the panel’s recommendations make up a strong package, including the proposed creation of a UN Urban. But, she warns, that package now needs to be given a stamp of approval by national governments.

“Assuming that they create the structure — and assuming that the member states fund and give the mandate to that structure to do its work — then this is a very good framework,” she said. But, she cautioned, “The devil is in the details.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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