Who pays for what? Habitat III ‘finally’ turns to financing New Urban Agenda

‘Financing is consistently at the heart of challenges local governments face,’ said Montréal Mayor Denis Coderre at this week’s thematic meeting in Mexico City, urging delegates to be ‘creative’.

MEXICO CITY — As the United Nations prepares for debate on a 20-year urbanization strategy, there has been one overarching question: How to pay for it?

Financing, after all, has been the crux of recent efforts by the U. N. on sustainable development and climate change. Advocates for sustainable urbanization must also wrestle with this trillion-dollar question on the road to Habitat III, the October conference in Quito that will finalize the new strategy, known as the New Urban Agenda.

Organizers of the conference have set aside three days this week for that issue in Mexico City. On Wednesday, several hundred delegates, most representing city governments, convened here for a set of deliberations with an ambitious title: “Financing Urban Development: The Millennium Challenge.”

[See: New solutions to close the gap on municipal finance]

The meeting, which runs 9-11 March, could not have come soon enough for many. “Finally”, intoned Montréal Mayor Denis Coderre, who could not contain his insistence on the importance of the topic. “Financing is consistently at the heart of challenges local governments face.” He called the meeting “a historic opportunity” to be “creative” and “imaginative”.

In a conversation with Citiscope, Maryse Gautier, the French diplomat co-chairing the Habitat III Bureau, underscored the word “key” several times. “Financing of development at the local level is key,” she later told the opening plenary.

Coderre, for his part, said, “We can assure ourselves that Habitat III will have an impact on the U. N. We are part of the solution, not the problem.”

Yet cities have struggled to make that case on the global stage.

“At Addis Ababa we did not have a seat at the roundtable,” said Johannesburg Mayor Mpho Franklyn Parks Tau, referring to last year’s major Financing for Development conference in the Ethiopian capital. “We used the platform of business to represent our views as leaders of local government.”

“At the heart of this conference are commitments from national governments. This is an opportunity to find innovative solutions, mobilize national governments to help enable local governments and create the right environment.”

Maryse Gautier
Co-chair, Habitat III Bureau

The Financing For Development conference resulted in an “action agenda” to help implement the new Sustainable Development Goals, which were agreed to in September. Despite not having the same stature as national government negotiators, local governments did score an important victory in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, which calls for “devolution of resources to the subnational level.”

[See here for all of Citiscope’s coverage of the Financing for Development process]

Advocates for local autonomy, meanwhile, are taking this pledge and running with it as they urge national governments to take bolder steps on their behalf.

“At the heart of this conference [the Mexico City meeting] are commitments from national governments,” Gautier said. “This is an opportunity to find innovative solutions, mobilize national governments to help enable local governments and create the right environment.”

But the show stealer during the conference’s first two days was Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos, who made some of his most emphatic remarks yet on the Habitat III campaign trail. Speaking in Spanish, the former Barcelona mayor jabbed at the air, gesticulated broadly and punctuated his points forcefully in a speech that resembled a keynote lecture.

“Taking care of the city is an investment,” he said, nearly shouting. “Taking care of the city is good business for a country. Not investing in the city is a bad investment.”

[See: Habitat III online discussion focuses on financing urban development]

With seven months to go until Habitat III, the chief cheerleader for the global cause of sustainable urbanization is either excited as the calendar nears October or frustrated that his argument has not yet penetrated the diplomatic mainstream.

“Either governments get that cities are an instrument of development, or they don’t,” he deadpanned, before making his main point of the night: “¿Quién paga qué? Who pays for what?”

That, Clos said, was the task of the discussions in Mexico City.

[Have a question on Habitat III? Ask Citiscope!]

As if to underscore the drama of the moment, unusually strong winds coursed through the city as the meetings convened, creating a constant whistle echoing through the halls of the Centro Cultural Tlatelolco.

Hopefully the gale outside will not distract the drafting committee. Its will be finalizing the Mexico City Resolution, the outcome of the conference that will serve as a formal input to the drafters of the New Urban Agenda. An initial version was posted online this week, outlining seven “crosscutting fundamentals” and 11 “drivers of action”: (UPDATE: The final declaration is available here.)

Draft Declaration HABITAT III Thematic Meeting Mexico City

“Localizing finance for inclusive change”

9-11 March 2016


With 85% of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050 how will the world pay for the increasing demand of quality urban services? In most developed countries, local governments have been the main contributors in terms of public investment for local infrastructures. In developing and least developed countries, the fast-paced urbanization process has led to an increasing demand for basic services that is most often not matched by adequate financing.

Massive investments are expected in the coming years not only to renew old urban infrastructures, but to build and install new ones that shall match with low-carbon emissions objectives of the global fight against climate change. Cities most optimize urban services, substitute existing infrastructures while widening coverage in equipments and public transport. For several decades, urban development has been suffering from chronic under-investment. Various studies suggest that the global amounts for the finance of infrastructure and urban services should be doubled, if not tripled over the next 20 years to cope with urbanization. As local governments deal with a large part of these investments, it is urgent to re-think financing systems for a sustainable urbanization that integrates local problems to generate, mobilize, access and manage such amounts of financing. The successful implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular, but not only, SDG #11, related to sustainable urbanization, as well as the over-reaching climate change roadmap and the New Urban Agenda will depend on the empowerment, means and capabilities of local and regional governments to generate, mobilize, access and manage appropriate financing.

However, despite advantageous conditions for long-term investments as well as the recognition of the stakes of urban sustainability by many international institutions, local government finance systems are not up to the challenge. To date, local infrastructure and local basic services investments through public financing has considerably slowed down in recent years, partly due to fiscal austerity measures, leading to under-investments in the necessary infrastructure for urban development.

Institutional and private investments are also scarce, partly due to the far-off expected return on investments in public infrastructure, coupled with risks, misconception, uncertainty and lack of incentives. Finding ways to unlock public and private savings for urban development represents a necessity to reach the SDGs and implement the New Urban Agenda. However from a macro-economic point of view, the long-term sustainability of our economic model is being threatened by a growing gap between financing needs and investments priorities. The new reality of urban infrastructure financing requires that we understand this complexity, in order to be able to bring not only “technical” responses but also macro, meso and micro-economic ones aimed at raising collective consciousness and developing new case-specific solutions.

In many cases, local governments in developing and least developed countries have depended excessively on central transfers, with weak or even inexistent capacities and/or supportive regulations, to raise significant local taxes. Furthermore, local governments in most of these contexts are confronted with the impossibility to engage with domestic commercial banks.

Although the majority of finances will have to be mobilized at the national and local levels, the development of international financing, both public and private, must be promoted as a lever to mobilize the necessary funds, either through financial markets or through the creation of mechanisms that are more adapted to cities and regions’ financing needs and conditions.

The magnitude of the needs to be satisfied implies rethinking financing systems and finding the levers from which global savings, public and private, will be channeled to help local actors face the urban challenge.

The Millennium Challenge

As one of the most important challenges that humanity will face in the years to come, financing sustainable urbanization implies empowering local, metropolitan and regional governments and their private and social sector partners, to address the growing needs of the population for quality basic services.

The New Urban Agenda should enable the appropriate rules and regulations, qualified human resources, strategies and tools to plan and act, to ensure the adequate access to funding at regional, national and international level. This challenge is framed by the following crosscutting fundamentals:

i. Local economy shall primarily be financed by local development: this is a major concern that should drive financing for development policies in general. Strengthening a development model based on the mobilization of a territory’s own resources is the best case for engaging local stakeholders in strong, long-lasting and resilient partnerships. Without a local economy that produces employment, equity, innovation, commercial fluxes and grids of dynamic entrepreneurs, there is no option for maintaining development policies and pay for basic services provision, operation and maintenance in the long run.

ii. Cities, small or big, are reliable partners: vulnerable or impoverished cities are defined as such, not because they have no wealth to build on, but because local savings are not invested locally and/or no investment is provided for local development because of lack of confidence from financiers and track record of successful transactions. This is why a strong emphasis on de-risking options to help raise their profile should be fostered. Local governments are not less reliable than central governments; there is an understanding gap that needs to be filled to deconstruct misconceptions and beliefs.

iii. Innovation is to be found at local level: many local and regional governments have successfully implemented alternative solutions to finance local investments, proving that they are key actors in setting up innovative models, based on their endogenous human, environmental and economic resources. Many of these innovations have been tested and replicated, and need to be better recognized by financing experts, advisory firms and international development finance institutions in order to be part of the basket of solutions that are provided in times of counseling for financing urban development.

iv. The right to the city, partnerships and governance: Local governments cannot address all alone the multiple needs and constraints in times of diminished resources. A successful governance scheme implies inclusiveness, participation, convergence, co-elaboration and co-implementation of public policies through transparent and democratic institutions and processes. This is essential to gain more appropriation and empowerment by local stakeholders and civil society, including women and the youth.

v. Better articulate macro, meso and microeconomic scales: these dimensions have to be better articulated in the financing models in order to match with “global-local” realities and impacts. When dealing with solutions to plan the financing of formal and informal settlements, there is stronger need to propose a hybrid and blended basket of financing solutions to cope with inequalities and cater for the specific nature of each.

vi. Tailor-made and holistic approach of the New Urban Agenda: the New Urban Agenda will need to be understood and applied taking into account a range of different realities, cultures and contexts, avoiding a one-size fits-all approach. It must be implemented through differentiated strategies depending on the reality and situation of each settlement with a region specific approach. The Agenda should encourage a holistic focus that avoids partial, sectoral or segmented financing policies.

vii. Habitat III should be an action-oriented agenda: beyond just technical solutions and sectoral approaches, the New Urban Agenda should deliver a concrete hands-on road map for all types of urban stakeholders. This is the only way to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs. Financing urban development is not only about urban services; the challenge aims to contribute substantially to the eradication of poverty and the reduction of the dramatic inequalities that characterize our world today.

Drivers for Action

We, the participants to this Habitat III thematic meeting, representing a wide range of stakeholders including local, regional and national governments, representatives of civil society, intergovernmental organizations, academy and research institutions, business and private sector, social and solidarity enterprises, community based organizations, philanthropies, women and youth, propose that this Declaration, and in particular the following Drivers for Action, be considered and included as an essential part of the New Urban Agenda to be adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, to be held in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016:

1. Fiscal and financial decentralization

• Recognize that “bottom-up” national development implies adequate intergovernmental allocation of resources and sound sub-national fiscal policies that include a greater ability of local, metropolitan and regional governments to raise their own revenues and have access to predictable transfers, coupled with transparent equalization mechanisms or funds. A stronger agenda is to be promoted on implementing a more articulated cooperation between central government’s bodies present locally and decentralized governments.

• Allow local governments to piggyback on selected national or regional revenues that are productive but best administered at a higher level, e. g. income-related taxes or Value Added Tax.

• Recognize the importance of engaging in adequate fiscal reforms that continue fiscal decentralization benefitting local governments to ensure they have the ability to manage both urban development projects and the necessary funding. This fiscal autonomy will allow for securing revenue streams for better planning, borrowing and investment.

• Encourage a shift in behaviors and management culture to start a transition from a financial logic based too exclusively on grants and subsidies from the central government to a logic based on a financing mix including performance-based grants and incentives.

• Consider that the structure of national and local taxation is not properly adapted to changes in the economic structure (service economy, dematerialization of production, relocation, tax optimization of large companies). While the production of wealth is concentrated in cities, few tax systems allow cities to be funded on even a portion of the value added produced within them. The current distribution of resources should be modified to decrease inequalities between regions within a country.

2. Endogenous resources and land-based financing

• Consider that local resources can finance local development and encourage the emergence of virtuous cycles of investment at the local scale, creation of local value chains for financing through the hybridization of funding sources (financial short-circuits engaging local savings in local financing).

• Enhance the capture of the increment in land value generated by infrastructure projects (local roads, sewerage, transit water, etc.) but with a strong monitoring on land speculation by land owners, through better planning and balanced incentives and constraints, in order to avoid uncontrolled or inequitable gentrification of neighborhoods, with a special attention to social housing provision and social diversity, actively promoting a right to the city.

• Better orient property development and the capturing of land value, by developing tools that allow for a simplified and more effective tax-collection process. Increase knowledge and use of land-based financing tools and real estate market functioning, especially considering foreign investors impact in local land management.

• Develop a comprehensive public strategy on land management and use regulatory mechanisms to avoid that added value be entirely captured by the private sector, that did not necessarily contribute to its increment, thus avoiding pervasive land speculation.

• Improve land management methods and engage in the necessary reforms to create a land and property register (if non-existent) for land and properties, thus improving the effectiveness of taxation by maintaining the registers up-dated and recording land transactions.

3. Access to banking, capital markets and innovative financial intermediation

• Recognize that local governments’ access to sources of credit under suitable conditions remains a bottleneck in many countries, especially in those where sovereign guarantee to obtain favorable financing from international organizations is required. International financial organizations could play a strategic role to create guarantee mechanisms securing initial working capital and equity.

• Provide local governments with an adequate range of debt finance possibilities, including grants and subsidized loans and other types of credit for self-financing projects; promote and facilitate access to capital markets when they are already able to borrow and finance their investments, through dedicated rules and regulations, incentives for investors, technical assistance, credit enhancement procedures, foreign-exchange liquidity and de-risking facilities, and partial and first loss guarantees.

• Support local governments that are not in capacity to access the credit market directly or alone in developing their creditworthiness over time through incentives and technical assistance, for example through:

o The setting-up of special credit institutions such as municipal development banks, and sub-national pooled financing mechanisms.

o Risk mitigation strategies.

o Implementation of financial vehicles that can bring institutional investors, development finance and the public sector to collaborate and co-finance local infrastructure.

4. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) and new alliances

• Set-up an enabling environment to encourage the private sector to invest in local infrastructure and work in partnership with local governments, including a local public procurement system to prioritize economic development and creation of qualified jobs.

• Develop a strong legal framework that will allow PPPs to be implemented and monitored, like national PPPs units or similar coordination schemes in order to secure private involvement and investment, and allow for fruitful cooperation in delivering quality public services.

• Provide financial support and strengthen the capacity of local governments to promote, manage and monitor PPPs, including follow-up of the annuity plans from private sector to ensure constant focus on efficient use of resources.

• Encourage PPP’s management models based on semi-public companies to ensure local governments are involved in and committed to the administration and management of the public services they provide, including in consideration of cross-subsidization of public services to ensure bankable balance between different ranges of service delivery which funding models are impacted by socio-economic constraints and contexts.

5. Financial empowerment, capacity building, transparency and accountability

• Ensure that local civil servants and administrations are empowered with adequate knowledge and skills to tackle financial issues in the whole project design, development and implementation cycle; and guarantee regular training to local teams on issues related to strategic planning, project management and financial innovation.

• Build investors trust by encouraging local governments to improve their accountability, through supporting the modernization of the local public sector with new information and communication technologies allowing for better transparency, accountability, efficiency and effectiveness in public services provision and in use of financial resources.

• Recognize that for the efficient use of resources, better management of city assets and effective delivery of public services is required (“do more with less”); this includes a project portfolio in the medium and long term to attract private sector investments in a transparent and planned manner.

• Recognize that if the logics of private and public finance may share common references, they yet remain with their core specificities, especially considering that public finance must include social objectives, equity, justice and redistribution duties and promotion of the commons; this implies, for the latter, differentiated financial balances and models that cannot be submitted to the rules of free market and private accounting. In particular, new indicators of wealth shall be promoted, in addition to GDP measurements, as well as integration of externalities (especially social and environmental) in the definition of local public budgets and the calculation of prices.

6. Metropolitan finance and inter-municipality

• Recognize the specific weight of sub-national -especially metropolitan- economies characterized by the “urban complexity”, referring to the intertwining institutional network that goes beyond the traditional municipal focus, where multi-level and different administrative structures overlap in the same territory.

• Distinguish metropolitan areas as functional areas, as they do not coincide with the administrative structure, boundaries and sectoral vision of traditional politics. This can promote the harmonious development and prosperity of the various territories and regions, balancing urban and rural areas, centers and peripheries, as a means to reduce inequities and provide more development opportunities to the neediest populations.

• Consider that financing metropolitan areas requires specific responses and especially specific institutions granted with professional skilled technical teams, in topics like debt management, planning agencies or metropolitan development funds.

• Allow and promote at national level the legal and institutional framework that enables inter-municipal cooperation. Encourage inter-municipality cooperation when setting-up, running and investing in public services, for example in relation to water and waste management and treatment, public transportation, energy production and distribution, when applicable.

• Allow the implementation of pooled financing mechanisms that permit local governments to access the capital markets jointly. This can help include peripheral, intermediate or secondary cities to avoid leaving them behind from the mainstream of development.

7. Social and solidarity economy and finance

• Consider that social and solidarity economy and finance constitute a source of resilience to the recurrent crises capable of catalyzing the redistribution of wealth and financial innovation, and are conducive to partnerships that will bring about transformational changes in urban development patterns.

• Underline that by organizing economically in cooperatives, and politically in associations that can engage in policy dialogue and advocacy as well as act with social inclusion purpose, social economy organizations and enterprises can address market failures.

• Advocate for the creation of enabling environments (especially in terms of regulations and knowledge sharing) through further research, promotion, systematization and scaling-up of strategies and mechanisms such as cooperative and community development banks, solidarity savings, local savings-based retail bonds, energy production citizen cooperatives, local, complementary and thematic currencies, social stock exchanges, crowd-funding, participatory planning and budgeting, territorial poles for economic cooperation, impact investment, financial and economic short circuits, community supported agriculture or community land trusts.

8. Informal economy and new patterns of consumption and production

• Foster strong policies and institutions for local economic development and cultural initiatives for more innovative and creative cities.

• Engage in the quest to transform current patterns of production and consumption that have proved unsustainable for society and the environment. Promote a culture of efficient and smart consumption that allows for savings and rational spending in public service provision.

• Recognize informal economic activities, which characterize urban development in most cities in development countries, as a legitimate and historical means of urban production.

• Address the consequences of the crisis and awareness by various public and private stakeholders and citizens about the importance of “rethinking and redesigning” traditional frameworks of action of economics and finances towards more sustainable, equitable and supportive objectives. These strategies and mechanisms for relocation of the economy and finance will allow better control and management of resources and the re-valuation of the local wealth.

9. Climate finance

• Consider the economic impact at the urban scale of the transition to a low carbon economy and its financing. Investments will create new markets, address the long-term opportunities and risks from climate change, and promote wider socio-economic benefits, minimizing social and environmental harm.

• Recognize the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance as a major step forward in better connecting demand and supply in resilient and low-carbon local infrastructure financing.

• Ensure that local governments have access to global, regional, and national climate finance mechanisms, directly or through domestic financing institutions.

• Call for scaling up investments in sustainable, low-carbon and climate-resilient development at sub-national levels through strengthening innovation labs on sub-national infrastructure financing models; multiplying project preparation facilities to support the emergence of project pipelines to attract and secure institutional and private investments.

• Allow for the creation of green taxes, local carbon markets and innovations to explore renewed sources of financing for sustainable and resilient development.

10. Social production of habitat and the right to dignified housing

• Recognize that an inclusive city is not only the one that provides universal access to basic services, but the one guaranteeing dignified, fully-serviced housing to vulnerable populations. Dignified housing also means convenient location, proper connectivity to employment areas and access to urban facilities.

• Recognize that a very important part of urban growth has been developed and financed by the communities themselves, through a process known as “Social production of habitat and housing”. These processes need to be reinforced, organized and professionalized in order for them to be attractive for private and public funding.

• Consider that urban development is not only about governments financing urban infrastructure, a large part of the funds can be channeled and administered through local populations, via cooperatives and specialized organizations in the social production of habitat, with clear rules and in the context of transparency and accountability.

11. Local and regional governments as world actors

• Allow and promote at country level a legal and institutional framework that enables the international relations of cities and local governments, in those subjects that are of their legal competence.

• Recognize and support city-to-city cooperation and local governments’ networks as a mean to strengthen capacities and facilitate exchanges of knowledge and good practice on city financial management.

• Better articulate cooperation initiatives at national, regional and international levels for a better allocation of scarce resources, especially considering fostering cooperation in issues related to financial engineering transfer, especially in low-income countries.

• Strengthen cooperation among multilateral agencies, national governments and local actors in the construction of an the New Urban Agenda, working together for the implementation of the SDGs, as well as the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, particularly paragraph 34.

• Recognize that financing the New Urban Agenda requires that local governments take a seat at the global table, with a different type of partnership with the United Nations and the international community, not only sharing information but participating actively in strategy and decision making.

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary