Who are the Habitat III major players?

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The cast of characters who made the New Urban Agenda come together in time for Habitat III in October 2016 was extensive, and they will almost certainly remain key players as local and national governments turn to the taks of implementation. Here is an overview of the key institutions to be aware of.

Who is taking care of the nuts and bolts of Habitat III, anyway?

The Habitat III Secretariat was the official coordinating body for the conference. It received and analyzed reports being prepared for the Habitat process at both the national and regional level. The Secretariat also prepared for major events like PrepComs (preparatory committees), and liaised with civil society and other U. N. agencies.

Based in New York, the Secretariat staff was largely but not exclusively drawn from the ranks of UN-Habitat, the lead U. N. agency in the Habitat process. UN-Habitat’s mandate includes housing and sustainable urbanization, and its executive director, Joan Clos, is also secretary-general of Habitat III.

It is important to note, however, that Habitat III was a U. N.-wide conference. Thus, there was a clear institutional separation between UN-Habitat and the Habitat III Secretariat for the duration of the run-up to Habitat III.

So, the Habitat III Secretariat was in charge?

Not exactly. Like all major U. N. conferences, Habitat III was driven by member states. In order to move the process forward, the U. N. General Assembly authorized a Bureau to oversee Habitat III. This Bureau, made up of a representative group of member states, facilitates negotiations and plenaries at events like PrepComs.

Selected for geographic balance, the 10 members of the Bureau were Chad, Chile, Czech Republic, Ecuador, France, Germany, Indonesia, Senegal, Slovakia, and the United Arab Emirates.

As chair, France — led by Maryse Gautier, a former World Bank urban expert now advising the French government’s General Council for the Environment and Sustainable Development — had a lead role in the run-up to Habitat III.

Ecuador, as both co-chair and host of the conference, was also an important player, and was represented by the country’s minister of housing and urban development, María Duarte.

What other member states were focusing on Habitat III?

Indonesia hosted the third PrepCom, in July 2016, a responsibility that put the country at the forefront of engaged member states. Sweden and Singapore, as co-chairs of the Friends of Cities Group within the U. N. that pushed for Sustainable Development Goal 11, the urban SDG, also had a vested interest in Habitat III. Sweden in particular financed several preparatory meetings.

Other member states of note that were not on the Bureau included Canada, Israel, Nigeria, South Africa and Spain, all of whom  hosted regional or thematic meetings ahead of the Habitat III conference. Mexico hosted both a regional and a thematic meeting, making it the leading Latin American player in addition to Ecuador.

For the privilege of hosting such a meeting, governments contributed between USD 500,000 and USD 1 million to the Habitat III Trust Fund — a definite sign that next year’s conference has gotten their attention. France, Germany, Indonesia, Kenya, Slovakia and Spain all made voluntary contributions to this fund.

What cities mobilized for Habitat III?

Urban areas are at the heart of the matter for the New Urban Agenda, and understandably they expected to play a role in the conference. Several cities stepped up to host key meetings,  including BarcelonaGuadalajara, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Montréal and Tel Aviv.

In addition, the mayor of Istanbul was the president of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a global network, and a regular spokesperson on behalf of cities and local authorities. The Turkish city is a past host of Habitat II, the conference that took place in 1996, as is Vancouver, whose current mayor has spoken publicly about the importance of Habitat III.

Other than UN-Habitat, which U. N. agencies stepped up for Habitat III?

There are nearly three dozen U. N. agencies, programmes and funds, including some whose mandates overlap with the stated Habitat III themes of housing and sustainable urbanization.

UN-Habitat’s Nairobi neighbour, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), is one. In fact, UN-Habitat was established in the late 1970s in part at the behest of UNEP, although at times the latter has been a harsh critic of urbanization’s contribution to environmental degradation.

Insofar as housing and urbanization represent a development pathway for poor countries, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) also planned to be a major presence at Habitat III. The recent migrant crisis affecting Europe has also created a renewed focus on refugees in cities, which led the International Organization of Migration (IOM) to take a keen interest in Habitat III.

Habitat III also shared 2016 with one other landmark summit, the World Humanitarian Summit, which was held in May in Istanbul. That event was meant to provide a major new framework for humanitarian thinking and operations worldwide, and organizers were clearly cognizant of the boom in urban populations and the likely effect that will have on future humanitarian needs. Thus, there was a clear effort at the highest U. N. levels to link the World Humanitarian Summit process with that of Habitat III.

A lot of groups outside the U. N. made noise about Habitat III. Who were they?

Other than member states and U. N. agencies, there is a whole universe of civil society actors and stakeholders with a strong interest in the Habitat III outcome. These include established NGOs, grass-roots organizations, universities, foundations, multilateral institutions and large companies.

Their involvement ranged from hosting side events at official U. N. proceedings to sitting on national Habitat committees in their respective countries, to hosting Urban Thinkers Campuses as part of the World Urban Campaign’s “The City We Need” process, to serving as experts for the 22 technical “policy units” that informed the New Urban Agenda.

In addition, a key umbrella of stakeholder groups for the Habitat III process was the General Assembly of Partners, also a special initiative of the World Urban Campaign. The GAP, made up of 16 constituent groups, was formally recognized in the Habitat III rules of procedure and and the New Urban Agenda, and is continuing operation post-Quito.

Were there any NGOs in particular that Habitat III watchers should pay attention to?

The NGO world is vast, encompassing multinational groups with legions of professional staff to small, grass-roots organizations operating in a single city. Inevitably, the bigger ones have more presence than the small NGOs, though some umbrella organizations and networks do hope to aggregate the efforts of atomized groups into a larger, more effective whole.

Two such examples are Slum/Shack Dwellers International, which represents the informal sector, and the Huairou Commission, which advocates on behalf of women. Both have a history with these issues that goes back at least as far as Habitat II and encompasses several World Urban Forums in between. Each hosted at least one Urban Thinkers Campus.

United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) is another key player, insofar as it was born out of Habitat II in 1996 as the amplified voice of mayors. Ahead of Habitat III, UCLG spearheaded the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments, which pushed for cities to have a seat at the table when it came time to negotiate the New Urban Agenda. The group also hosted the Second World Assembly of Local Leaders on the sidelines of Habitat III.

Among the Global Taskforce’s many partners, ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability and the Network for Regional Governments for Sustainable Development (NRG4SD) are worth noting, as they were active on multiple Habitat III fronts.

The first Habitat conference, in 1976, focused much of its attention on housing and gave birth to Habitat International Coalition (HIC), which continues to serve as an independent advocate for the Habitat Agenda. More recently, Habitat for Humanity International pushed for housing to factor prominently in the New Urban Agenda.

Finally, Habitat III took place a year after the U. N.’s adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the landmark cities-focused Goal 11. In this, it is important to note the work of the Communitas Coalition, a key player in the adoption of the urban SDG that remained a major voice in the transition toward Habitat III. Communitas is made up of several members, particularly UN-Habitat, ICLEI, NRG4SD and the Tellus Institute.

Urbanization is a hot topic in the academy. Were universities and research centres at Habitat III?

Yes. Research centres, institutes and faculty departments, especially in areas such as urban planning and design, were reliable sources of side events, exhibits and projects for major gatherings like World Urban Forums. Habitat III was no different.

Of particular note were the universities and research centres that sought special accreditation for Habitat III, as normally such accreditation is afforded only to NGOs. They include U. S. institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

In addition, Réseau d’Echanges Strategiques pour une Afrique Urbaine Durable was accredited. That network, supported by UN-Habitat and managed by the Université de Montréal, engaged several francophone African universities in the Habitat III process, including Université Felix Houphouet Boigny in the Ivory Coast and Université de Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.                         

Both the New School for Public Engagement in the United States and the Colegio Nacional de Jurisprudencia Urbanística in Mexico sought special accreditation and, in turn, hosted Urban Thinkers Campuses in New York City and Mexico City, respectively. Universidade Federal de Pernambuco also hosted a UTC in Recife, Brazil.

The Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) at Erasmus University Rotterdam also conducted a thorough analysis of the Habitat III issue papers.

Were there financial backers for Habitat III activities besides member states?

This is where foundations, multilateral institutions and large companies come in. Chief among them was the Ford Foundation in the United States, which hosted the Habitat III Secretariat in its office building. Ford was among the partners that launched a philanthropy portal for the SDGs in September, a platform that could lead to increased support for Habitat III, given their strong commit to urban issues.

In addition, the 100 Resilient Cities initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation has a long-term partnership with UN-Habitat that dovetailed with Habitat III. (Both Rockefeller and Ford support Citiscope.)

The Ax:son Johnson Foundation in Sweden hosted the first Urban Thinkers Campus in Stockholm, while Mistra Urban Futures, also based in Sweden, was heavily involved in the push for an urban SDG. (Citiscope receives support from Mistra Urban Futures.) In addition, the Avina Foundation of Brazilsupported UN-Habitat research on urban inequality.

In addition to philanthropy, multilaterals such as development banks became increasingly involved in this process. The Inter-American Development Bank actively coordinated Latin American and Caribbean members of the policy units and was a regular presence at Habitat III preparatory meetings in the region. The World Bank also has a long history of engagement with urban issues and made a public appeal for the New Urban Agenda during its most recent annual meeting.

Where is the private sector in all of this?

While the private sector’s participation is widely anticipated in the Habitat process, for the most part significant corporate involvement was limited to networks and lobby groups and the momentum generated by the SDGs.

For instance, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, based in Geneva, has been heavily involved in the SDGs and in urban issues, and was a major player at Habitat III. The International Chamber of Commerce, too, was involved in the SDGs process and expressed some interest in an urban focus and the Habitat process.

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