What should be new U.N. Secretary-General Guterres’s urban priorities?

Five views on what the former Portuguese prime minister needs to focus on as he takes over as head of the United Nations.

António Guterres arrives at U.N. Headquarters on his first day of work as secretary-general, 3 January. (Mark Garten/UN Photo)

While international attention will be on Washington next week for the inauguration of the new U. S. president, a quieter transition of power took place this month just a few hundred miles from the White House. Portugal’s former prime minister António Guterres officially became the ninth secretary-general of the United Nations at the beginning of the month, taking over from Ban Ki-moon.

The Portuguese politician, who starts a five-year term but could be in the position for the next decade, takes over the global body at a time of extraordinary challenge. The international community is continuing to figure out how to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the rising threat of the Islamic State and the mass migration that such instability has created. The world now has more displaced people than at any time since the official record-keeping on the topic began — and it’s a topic that Guterres, who for a decade headed UNHCR, the U. N.’s refugee agency, knows well.

Less clear are the new secretary-general’s views on urbanization. The issue is a hot-button topic that the U. N. took up at last year’s Habitat III conference, where member states adopted a new 20-year vision on sustainable cities called the New Urban Agenda. The future of cities is also on the U. N.’s social agenda, embedded in the new Sustainable Development Goals, and many experts view cities as key to solving the climate change challenge addressed by last year’s Paris Agreement.

[See: How will we monitor the New Urban Agenda? This U. N. process will decide]

Guterres’s transition team declined an interview on these issues in December. So, Citiscope asked five experts and opinion-makers for thoughts on what the new secretary-general should prioritize during his first term with regard to the urban question. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Ani Dasgupta

Global Director, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

From the start of his new role as U. N. secretary-general, António Guterres has reinforced his reputation of inclusion and collaboration by meeting with civil society groups. If we are to create cities where all people can live, move and thrive, this kind of leadership is exactly what the world needs.

“Mr. Guterres can make a bold start by insisting that the measurement and reporting of progress towards climate goals, the Sustainable Development Goals and New Urban Agenda are implemented in a coherent and coordinated fashion.”

Ani Dasgupta
Global Director, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

Last October the world came together in Quito, Ecuador, to adopt the New Urban Agenda, which recognizes that sustainable, livable cities for all are not only a moral imperative but also a scientific one. Secretary-General Guterres can continue this momentum that has been building by integrating the global climate, sustainability and urban agendas.

[See: The United Nations risks stifling its own progress on sustainable urbanization]

And Mr. Guterres can make a bold start by insisting that the measurement and reporting of progress towards climate goals, the Sustainable Development Goals and New Urban Agenda are implemented in a coherent and coordinated fashion.

Felix Dodds

U.N lobbyist

The new secretary-general brings a unique perspective, having been a head of state and headed a U. N. organization. I can’t imagine that he will engage too much in the first 100 days on the New Urban Agenda, and I’m not sure he should.

What he needs to do is secure ongoing funding for the U. N. from President Trump. Hopefully [the incoming U. S. president] isn’t just going to reduce funding across the board, though that must be a worry at any time, because he acts irrationally. The second priority he will need to address is ensuring that the United States stays in the Paris Agreement — and that’s a tough one, too. Finally he will need to focus on solutions in the Middle East and the rebuilding of Syria to stop the flow of refugees.

[See: In Mexico City for climate talks, U. S. mayors get advice on how to deal with Donald Trump]

The SDGs should be led by his deputy Amina Mohammed, who played such a critical role in securing the SDGs when she was special adviser to U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on post-2015 development planning. We should look to her to keep the momentum up.

Rose Molokoane

Co-Chair, World Urban Campaign

We would like to achieve effective partnerships at all levels — from partnerships with U. N. agencies to member states to local governments. We want partnerships that go down to the organized grass-roots communities. The urban poor are the ones who will be affected by the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. As a result, effective, inclusive partnerships with us are a necessity.

“We need a United Nations that belongs to the people on the ground. We need practical implementation of housing on the ground — not only as policy on paper.”

Rose Molokoane
Co-Chair, World Urban Campaign

We would like to be part of decision-making when it comes to local government policies and implementation. We want partnerships that create effective financing mechanisms to support urban poor communities. Anywhere you go, poor people are being moved away from the city. We don’t want to own big houses — we want to be recognized in governance and finance structures. This is what matters. We don’t want to own the cities, but we want to be part and parcel of planning and decision-making.

[See: After Habitat III, what’s next for the urban movement?]

The New Urban Agenda will inform the policies and resource allocation of governments, and these will be drafted to deliver services to people — to communities on the ground who are vulnerable. If the New Urban Agenda is attached to the reality on the ground, then it will work for our communities. But if it’s only on paper and the policies on the ground are contrary to this, then we won’t achieve anything meaningful. If the member states and governments accept our inputs, then we will achieve a lot.  

We need a United Nations that belongs to the people on the ground. We need practical implementation of housing on the ground — not only as policy on paper. Inclusion of the people when it comes to housing delivery, allowing the people to house themselves, and supporting them technically, financially and otherwise, will be very helpful to the grass roots. Over and above everything in the New Urban Agenda, if these issues are not adequately addressed, we will not achieve this agenda.

Josep Roig

Secretary-General, United Cities and Local Governments

Ignoring the role of cities, local and regional governments and their associations in the urbanization era would be an irreparable mistake and missed opportunity that could put the livelihoods of future generations at stake. The fulfillment of the global agendas will depend on an enhanced partnership between local and regional governments and the international community. The SDGs, Habitat III and Paris Agreement are powerful tools, which necessitate full action at the local level.

In recent decades, local and regional governments have shown the positive influence we can have on the global development agenda. The nature and scale of the challenges we are facing now demand new steps and increased room for consultation and advice from this important constituency at the global table, in particular with the United Nations.

[See: The only sustainable city is one co-created by all of us]

The concrete actions and bold commitments of local leaders around world, taking steps that will allow world commitments around governance, climate and inclusion to become a reality, need to be accompanied by adequate attention and specific mechanisms by the international community.

The U. N. has a key role to play in expanding the world governance mechanisms with structural inputs from local governments.

Joseph Schechla

Coordinator, Housing and Land Rights Network, Habitat International Coalition

Habitat III predictably has dashed expectations of progress based on lessons learnt from Habitat II implementation and the priorities looming on our horizons. While it also enshrines the “right to the city” and social and environmental functions of land, it gives woefully inadequate attention to migration, displacement, forced eviction and the current warring destruction of human habitat. Thus, the New Urban Agenda deserves deeper post-Habitat III, real-world elaboration to address these and other key issues within human settlement development.

[See: Countries made only marginal progress on urban commitments since 1996, index finds]

Toward that end, we urge integrating the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of Habitat III outcomes within the new U. N. sustainable development framework, led by the Paris Agreement and SDGs. While the institutional arrangements for that eventuality still remain the subject of deliberation, civil society organizations and social movements also are seeking greater convergence and coherence of efforts, mechanisms, communities and scarce resources.

However, the divisiveness and exceptionalism of the urban-specific Habitat III process actually has set us back, leaving us with a New Urban Agenda that is out of place and out of time. The post-Habitat III and New Urban Agenda processes also still need to be made fit for purpose within the framework of the U. N. charter, Habitat II and Habitat I commitments, and sustainable development criteria aligned with the U. N. human rights treaties and monitoring systems.

We commit to that indispensable exercise — and to filling some of the remaining gaps — through the function of our members as a human rights Habitat observatory. We look forward to cooperating in that mighty challenge before us.

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