How to advocate within the Habitat III process
From activism to effective advocacy: A step-by-step guide for stakeholders.
Effective advocacy requires the shedding of sweat and tears by dedicated activists who brave the front lines in the struggle for justice. These struggles can take place in a number of settings, from the grass roots to the halls of power where policymakers do their work.
Nevertheless, even the most seasoned activists may balk at the notion of taking their advocacy to the United Nations, a place where it is difficult to quickly understand the ins and outs of diplomacy and decorum. While the U. N. system may seem like a labyrinth where even the best activists can become lost in the fray, the reality is that with knowledge and some lobbying skills, good advocacy in U. N. intergovernmental processes is very possible.
The Habitat III process, which will culminate in a New Urban Agenda, is now ripe for some good, strong lobbying by stakeholders. Even though this process has been ongoing for almost two years, it is never too late to become engaged in the important work of ensuring a transformative, just and inclusive New Urban Agenda.
This framework will do the important work of “localizing” the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — taking them from the realm of global discussion to local implementation — and ensuring coherence among the multiple U. N. development and resilience frameworks adopted in 2015.
As a result, the New Urban Agenda could be the make-or-break framework for the international community’s concerted efforts around sustainable development and climate change. Those activists who have usually avoided doing advocacy inside political institutions may have the most to offer as intergovernmental negotiations begin in earnest in May.
The following is a step-by-step guide to effective advocacy for activists and stakeholders interested in having an impact on the Habitat III process — or, for that matter, on any other U. N. intergovernmental process.
Step 1: Understand the relevance of the New Urban Agenda
What separates the New Urban Agenda of Habitat III from, say, the COP 21 Paris Agreement on climate change? It is important that stakeholders understand the nuances of different processes. Not all intergovernmental processes are alike, and each one has different legal implications and possible outcomes.
“The Habitat III process, which will culminate in a New Urban Agenda, is now ripe for some good, strong lobbying by stakeholders.”
One key difference is that the New Urban Agenda is not a legally binding convention. Rather, it will be an aspirational framework that will seek to guide U. N. member states on how best to ensure that urbanization is sustainable, inclusive and operationalized for the benefit of people everywhere.
Moreover, there is important precedent here: Habitat conferences take place every 20 years, starting with Habitat I in Vancouver in 1976 and followed by Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996. Habitat III is thus a continuation of a long-term process that recognizes the need of every generation to assess global urbanization trends and how the international community can work together to solve problems associated with how humans settle the planet.
Awareness of these realities and basic history can help guide activists in their pursuit of meaningful yet tangible policy outcomes.
Step 2: Read, read, read!
An intergovernmental process is often a crossroads of history, geopolitics, policy and individual egos. As a result, an activist who wishes to participate must do her homework.
There are documents being produced en masse at the United Nations, but each one presents key ideas and potential steps forward in any given process. It is essential to be able to recognize the 67/290s from the Agenda 21s.
Therefore, there is nothing more critical than keeping on top of relevant reading material that comes from the United Nations and elsewhere. Those who wish to engage in Habitat III specifically should become familiar with the main policy documents, namely the papers of the expert “policy units” and the zero draft of the New Urban Agenda, as well as the timeline of the process.
They should also read the outcomes of allied and related policy processes. These include the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda.
Finally, it is critical to pay attention to current discussions in order to begin to recognize patterns, trends and how U. N. member states are reacting to the process. Of course, there can be a seemingly impossible number of documents to read. Nevertheless, through a balance of essential (but not overwhelming) reading and on-the-ground participation (as outlined next), things will begin to make sense for the U. N. advocacy novice.
Step 3: Mind the GAP
It is absolutely crucial that those wishing to engage in Habitat III understand the stakeholder coordination and engagement mechanism that is being operationalized in the process. By participating as part of a team of constituencies that are coordinated and manned by those with considerable intergovernmental experience, these various pieces of the puzzle will far more quickly fall into place — the seemingly endless “blah, blah” of the documents mentioned above and the statements of U. N. member states will suddenly make much more sense.
First of all, the foundation of stakeholder engagement in Habitat III is what’s known as “major groups and other stakeholders”, a mechanism that was born out of the sustainable development process in the early 1990s. These platforms give key sectors of society — for instance, women, children and youth, indigenous people and many others — a formal place in the intergovernmental processes. They also allow organizations who identify with these major groups to self-organize and work together to influence the process, both formally and informally.
Second, Habitat III further operationalizes this system of major groups through a coordination mechanism called the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), an amalgam of the nine major groups plus the Habitat Agenda Partners. Each group is coordinated by co-chairs who must ensure transparency and openness in order to ensure that organizations everywhere have access to this platform and therefore to the Habitat III process.
Finally, the 15 partner constituent groups of the GAP can provide organizations and individuals eager to do advocacy in the process with a space through which mutual growth, understanding, cooperation and action can be fostered. In the end, when stakeholder engagement is strong, intergovernmental processes benefit. Surely, the outcome of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG), the intergovernmental and stakeholder body that produced the SDGs, is a testament to this.
4. Know who’s who
Each U. N. member state in an intergovernmental process has different hopes and interests for the outcome. Stakeholders must learn what these hopes and interests are in order to find allies from among the many negotiators who are representing these national delegations.
This does not mean that each and every individual advocate should approach a negotiator and make requests or demands, or even try to schmooze. This type of individual lobbying can be precarious, as it can create chaos if too many stakeholder or civil-society representatives try to lobby at once. The best solution is to work within the specific GAP partner constituent group to which an advocate may belong and liaise internally in order to figure out how best to approach and lobby governments.
This advice is not meant to discourage advocates from forming relationships or talking directly with negotiators. Rather, the purpose is to help new U. N. advocates recognize that member-state representatives are human and that there is only so much they can handle during a long-term process such as Habitat III.
As a result, in order to focus advocacy and make sure lobbying is coherent and effective, stakeholder representatives must work together and be strategic when it comes to outreach to negotiators. With time, personal relationships will form and lobbying will become a matter of sharing a coffee with national representatives.
Finally, it is also important to know who’s who among the representatives of U. N. entities, especially the Habitat III Secretariat. There are a number of people from the U. N. working to deliver this conference and the New Urban Agenda. With time, an advocate who participates in this process will learn the names and faces of the members of the secretariat (don’t worry, they are friendly!) and will feel comfortable working with them through the months ahead to the Habitat III conference.
5. Whatever you do, don’t make a scene!
The United Nations is a wonderful forum for advocacy and expression. After years of working and doing advocacy there, many of the representatives of NGOs and stakeholder groups active in Habitat III feel quite comfortable navigating its halls.
Still, the U. N. is not a venue for protest. It is important that advocates and activists understand that once they enter the U. N., their advocacy and activism must take on a very different tone. Any disruption of proceedings, protest, insult to member states or pretending to represent a member state can lead to expulsion and even disqualification from future meetings. It also casts a bad light on all other advocates who are working hard to have an impact on the process.
So do not feel constrained by the U. N., and feel free to express yourself in appropriate ways. But also keep in mind that certain types of behaviour will not be tolerated.
Hopefully, this primer on the U. N. system and the Habitat III process is helpful! For more information on advocacy and lobbying, please see the presentation delivered by Communitas Coalition senior adviser Felix Dodds on the topic. Also, keep your eyes open for announcements about upcoming advocacy trainings hosted by Communitas. Finally, feel free to contact the Communitas Secretariat at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are happy to answer your advocacy questions!
This explainer was written by Christopher Dekki, policy advocacy and communications officer at the Communitas Coalition.
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