Calls for a stronger mandate as critical UN-Habitat Governing Council session convenes

NAIROBI — There was no rest for the weary at the U. N. Complex in Gigiri, a neighbourhood here, during the middle week of April. Delegates were forced to stay late as heated negotiations of the second Habitat III preparatory committee ran into overtime on Thursday night, 16 April. But many then had to return first thing the next morning for the opening session of the 25th session of the UN-Habitat Governing Council, which runs 17-23 April.

Functioning like the board of a university or non-profit, the Governing Council is composed of 58 member states that oversee the budget, work programme and mandate of the U. N. agency. It convenes every two years at UN-Habitat’s Nairobi headquarters.

President Uhuru Kenyatta attended the council’s opening session, where he called for the agency’s mandate to be strengthened. He also pledged USD 1 million to that effort, earmarked for the Habitat III Secretariat that will put on next year’s urban conference.

UN-Habitat must also be empowered and encouraged to comprehensively engage the private sector, whose expectations and investments are doing more to shape the urban space than any other sector,” Kenyatta said.

The private sector was noticeably absent at the Nairobi “PrepCom 2” talks. But private interests will almost certainly play a very significant role at important negotiations in Addis Ababa in July, when the international community will try to come up with a new approach to financing international development aims. That includes many that will be discussed at next year’s Habitat III conference and finalized in its outcome document, the New Urban Agenda.

Indeed, the current Governing Council session comes amidst a year that is packed with landmark multilateral talks that will collectively redefine global development strategies for the next decade and a half or more. UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos noted that this Governing Council will be the last to meet before the Post-2015 Development Agenda is agreed upon in September, the “COP 21” talks hopefully result in a global climate change agreement in December, and Habitat III convenes next year.

“We hope Addis will be very important for structuring the financial architecture of the Post-2015 Development Agenda,” Clos said. “As for COP 21, climate change is extremely related to urbanization.”

Urbanization is certainly closely interlinked with concerns around the changing climate, both in the ways in which urban areas contribute to climate change and the ways in which extreme weather and other results of global warming impact on human communities. In Nairobi, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) placed the responsibility for environmental disasters squarely on processes of urbanization and urged the Governing Council to ensure that the Habitat III process works toward promoting low-carbon transportation.

UNEP is not just trying to create paths for bicycles to make sure those who want to move do so at lower costs but to create mobility in cities [that is] low carbon,” the agency’s head, Achim Steiner, said. “The buildings in urban centres should also not worsen the problem. We must make sure that we can move more efficiently.”

Meanwhile, UN-Habitat’s Clos said he was “pleased” by the Kenyan government’s pledge, which he called “an important sign of support”. He also highlighted the incoming Governing Council president, Jan Ilavsky, the state secretary in the Environment Ministry of the Slovak Republic. Slovakia will hold the European Union chair during Habitat III, making the country a key player in defining E. U. support for both the agency and the conference.

In its opening statement at the Governing Council, the European Union echoed Kenya’s calls for reforms within UN-Habitat.

“The European Union and its member states strongly believe that the governance structures of UN-Habitat require a fundamental change to ensure a more efficient and functioning relationship between the Secretariat and the membership,” the E. U. representative said. “Strengthened and continuous, ‘intersessional’, oversight should be a key priority while minimizing additional costs and avoiding supplementary bureaucracy layers.”

Other statements made to the current session of the Governing Council can be found here. New documents to come out of the session can be found here.

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