Will the New Urban Agenda define the future of UN-Habitat?

Argument over the role of the U.N. agency has overtaken the broader Habitat III negotiations, particularly on the critical issues of how to track progress on the agenda’s implementation.

The constellation of organisations here is often referred to euphemistically as the U. N.“family.” And as in any large family, there are darlings and runts. The U. N. Human Settlements Programme, the agency known as UN-Habitat, is one of the youngest, founded in 1978, and it has struggled to cement its place in the litter.

On the one hand, its Nairobi headquarters and broad mandate to address land and housing issues puts it at the forefront of hot-button issues in the developing world. On the other hand, its location has isolated it from the U. N. halls of power in New York, Geneva and Vienna. Further, the political minefield of its topic area has discouraged the countries on its Governing Council from empowering the agency to do much beyond technical assistance, research and advocacy, even as urbanization proves to be a defining trend of the 21st century.

The existential questions about UN-Habitat have come to a head, meanwhile, in the negotiations over the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanisation strategy currently being debated here. That document is set to be adopted at the Habitat III conference this October in Quito, Ecuador — a looming prospect that has prompted significant soul-searching on the future of the agency.

At last week’s third and final round of informal negotiations before delegates head to formal talks at the end of the month in Surabaya, Indonesia, the issue of UN-Habitat’s role was a central sticking point. Indeed, it has swallowed much of the oxygen in the debate over what’s being called “follow-up and review,” or how countries will track progress on the New Urban Agenda.

Kenya, home to UN-Habitat’s headquarters, has been a staunch proponent of strengthening the agency’s mandate via the New Urban Agenda.The European Union and United States, however, have repeatedly demurred, stating that discussions on the global urbanisation strategy are not the appropriate venue to debate this topic.

‘Scary’ proposal

On Friday, a reportedly tense closed-door session —  the second thus far on the issue — resulted in an impassioned speech from a Kenyan diplomat at the closing plenary.

Calling a joint proposal last week from several countries “scary”, Kenya’s representative to UN-Habitat, Samson Ongeri, said, “Our fears are now being confirmed that a group of states are determined to dismember and eventually fold up the UN-Habitat by denying it any meaningful role in the implementation and follow-up of the urban and other human settlements dimensions of the recently agreed international outcomes.” By international outcomes, he was referring to the U. N.’s recent agreements on sustainable development, climate change, disaster risk reduction and development financing.

It is unclear to which specific proposal Ongeri was referring. However, the European Union and its members have led the charge to stress that all sustainable development initiatives — whether on urbanisation or any other topic — must feed into the post-2015 architecture at the U. N. established by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), whose annual review meets next week.

Meanwhile, the current draft of the New Urban Agenda — set to be revised by mid-July, with a compilation of written comments from member states reportedly to be circulated internally this week — proposes that UN-Habitat and its biennial conference, the World Urban Forum, assume more prominence to take on this task.

“We emphasise the importance of strengthening the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) in Nairobi and invite the General Assembly to recognise the role of UN-Habitat in implementing the New Urban Agenda — as well as the urban and human settlements component of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” the draft agenda states in one of several paragraphs on the issue.

Our fears are now being confirmed that a group of states are determined to dismember and eventually fold up the UN-Habitat by denying it any meaningful role in the implementation and follow-up of the urban and other human settlements dimensions of the recently agreed international outcomes.

Samson Ongeri, Kenyan representative, UN-Habitat

Kenyan defense

There is historical precedent to the push to address UN-Habitat’s mandate in some way in the context of the Habitat III process.

The recommendation to establish UN-Habitat in the first place emerged from the Habitat I conference, held in 1976 in Vancouver. That event elevated what was then the Center for Human Settlements, a small office in New York, into a full-fledged operation in the newly chartered U. N. Office in Nairobi, built to accommodate the U. N. Environmental Programme. (UN-Habitat and UNEP remain the only tenants with headquarters in the Nairobi complex, although it has become an important regional hub for a host of other U. N. agencies.)

Twenty years later, the Habitat II conference in Istanbul resulted in the Habitat Agenda, a 109-page document that set out the agency’s mandate for the next two decades. Theoretically, that mandate is now up for review. UN-Habitat currently reports annually to the U. N. General Assembly on progress toward achieving the Habitat Agenda’s objectives.

Yet this precedent has set the stage for an entrenched institutional turf war. Is Habitat III a referendum on UN-Habitat? Ongeri, who has also been Kenya’s spokesperson at the Habitat III talks, thinks so.

“Habitat III is a new urban agenda,” he told Citiscope last month on the sidelines of the second round of talks. “This is in line with what happened in Vancouver 40 years ago, followed with what happened in Istanbul in 1996, when a new nomenclature and mandate was given to the human settlements agenda.”

As a result, Kenya views the ongoing preparations for Habitat III as a prime opportunity to discuss the agency’s future and recommend some changes. For example, the Kenyan government has repeatedly called for universal membership on the agency’s Governing Council — currently comprised of 58 countries — as a “critical factor” that would give the overseeing body “political legitimacy”.

“The decisions that are made within the global body are binding to member states, rather than becoming a talk shop,” Ongeri said, distinguishing between the current structure of the Governing Council and what it could be if all member states were represented. “We pass resolutions that will not be implemented because the wider body of governments are not involved.”

As for UN-Habitat’s mandate, Ongeri believes that the agency has suffered from a “paucity of resources” and that the agency deserves “a solid mandate in working out the urbanisation agenda”. While countries in the developed world have raised concerns about the increased costs of an expanded mandate for the agency, Ongeri dismisses those notions with the same line of argument employed by the agency’s executive director, Joan Clos, who also oversees the Habitat III process.

“If we handle [urbanisation] carefully as a planet, the benefits outweigh the challenges that may arise and therefore in itself will be self-perpetuating in financing,” Ongeri said, echoing Clos’s claims that the New Urban Agenda can pay for itself.

“If the global community considers urbanisation as a transformative tool for development, within the normal regular budget of the U. N. system, they should be able to rearrange their priorities,” Ongeri explained.

In his speech Friday, he also pointed out that with economic growth shifting to the Global South, developing countries are taking on a greater financial burden within the United Nations.

To his mind, an expanded mandate and more resources would allow for UN-Habitat to engage in more substantive, on-the-ground work in areas like land-use planning, slum upgrading and governance.

Finally, he believes that having a strong agency headquartered in Nairobi has symbolic implications. UN-Habitat is “one of the only organisations in a developing country”, he said. “It would be a powerful message from the developed nations to support the strengthening and expanded mandate of this organisation.”


Kenya’s bold pronouncements in the chamber last week did not immediately make waves. The E. U.’s chief negotiator, Isabelle Delattre, declined to respond to Ongeri’s statements, pointing instead to the E. U.’s proposal that the U. N. General Assembly — not Habitat III — address the question of universal membership.

In her own statement before Ongeri’s speech, she struck a more conciliatory note. “We know we have difficult issues to settle and hope that we will do so in Surabaya,” she said, referring to the negotiations at the end of the month. “If we keep a constructive spirit — this is not mission impossible.” (The U. S. negotiating team was unable to offer comment on this issue by deadline.)

So far, however, there appears to be little progress on this fundamental disagreement. The question at hand is not whether UN-Habitat should be strengthened but whether the New Urban Agenda is even the place to have that conversation. Without an agreement on the appropriateness of the topic, there is minimal common ground to move forward.

The European Union, with its allies in the United States, Canada and Japan, is steadfast on this point. No E. U. member gave an individual country statement, which suggests discipline and agreement as negotiations proceed. By contrast, sources indicate that there is mounting frustration within the Group of 77 (G77), a negotiating bloc of developing countries, over Kenya’s outspoken stance on this single issue.

Mandate roadblock

There are, after all, critical other aspects of the discussion on follow-up and review besides UN-Habitat’s role.

For example, the current draft of the New Urban Agenda calls for evidence-based guidance on implementation of the agenda as well as the urban dimension of the SDGs. It also hints at a future life for the General Assembly of Partners stakeholder umbrella group and other Habitat III preparatory processes, such as the “policy unit” experts, and floats the idea of an International Multi-stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanisation. The call for an International Decade of Sustainable Urbanisation, which appeared in the agenda’s first draft, was dropped in the more recent iteration.

At the same time, references to UN-Habitat’s role are all over the current section on follow-up and review, as a “coordinating body”. Ultimately, then, at issue is a question of institutional ownership — and the resources that come with such a responsibility.

Officially, Habitat III is a U. N.-wide conference coordinated by a secretariat with an institutional firewall separating it from UN-Habitat — even if many of the secretariat’s employees are drawn from the ranks of the agency, starting with Clos. Thus, on the one hand it is clear that UN-Habitat has a larger stake than most in the outcome of the New Urban Agenda; on the other hand, given that this document is supposed to be “universal”, it doesn’t belong to any one agency.

Indeed, here there is precedent in some of the other “universal” accords that have been struck recently. The SDGs, for example, do not define the mandate of the U. N. Development Programme, despite a similar confluence of nomenclature. Rather, the SDGs are the responsibility of the entire U. N. system — or, if you will, the whole family.

And like any family, its children are learning that sharing isn’t easy.

This story is published with permission from Citiscope.org

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