Governments nearly united in scepticism toward ‘UN Urban’ proposal

This week's two-day meeting at U.N. Headquarters has been seen as a key marker in how the United Nations plans to tackle rapid urbanization. (Gregory Scruggs)

UNITED NATIONS — Reaching consensus is typically a long, arduous process for the international community, but on a new proposal for a fresh approach to urban issues, national governments were nearly unanimous: No thanks.

The reaction came this week at U. N. Headquarters during a high-level meeting of ministers, mayors and urban experts to discuss a recent report commissioned by U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres. The report’s purpose was to recommend reforms to UN-Habitat, the U. N.’s beleaguered lead agency on urbanization, in the wake of last year’s Habitat III conference on the future of cities.

Among the eight-member panel’s recommendations were a new structure to govern UN-Habitat and the creation of “UN Urban”, a coordinating mechanism that would serve to facilitate urban-related work across the U. N. system.

But the immediate response from member states across the spectrum — both rich and developing countries — was highly sceptical, even as top U. N. officials endorsed the proposal.

[See: Proposed ‘UN Urban’ would coordinate global approach to urbanization]

“The value added of an independent UN Urban as articulated in the report is not demonstrated,” said Ecuadorian Minister María Alejandra Vicuña, who raised concerns about the funding, structure and scope of the proposed entity. She spoke on behalf of the Group of 77 bloc of developing nations.

U. S. ambassador Kelly Currie expressed her country’s “deep concern” about the idea, calling for a more thorough assessment of costs and benefits. “U. N. reform will require a more streamlined and efficient U. N. system,” she said. “We cannot support adding additional layers, funding requirements and redundant workstreams.”

The most vocal opposition came from a negotiating bloc of African countries that have traditionally been among the strongest supporters of UN-Habitat, which is based in Nairobi. Speaking on their behalf, Djibouti ambassador Mohamed Siad Doualeh said that the case for creating UN Urban “is not only weak and unconvincing, but it is also not a viable institutional response to strengthening UN-Habitat”.

[See: A key opportunity to re-imagine the global response to an urban world]

His Kenyan colleagues concurred. Still, they did open the door to the possibility of a UN Urban by insisting that any such new entity be located at UN-Habitat’s Nairobi headquarters and not, as proposed, in New York.

Meanwhile, a Russian diplomat with 17 years of experience representing his country’s relationship to UN-Habitat likewise dismissed the proposal as antithetical to efforts to strengthen the agency.

Urbanist Peter Calthorpe, one of the eight panelists, said that criticism of the UN Urban proposal was overblown. He explained that under the panel’s recommendations, UN Urban would be one of four advisory bodies to the main governance system of UN-Habitat.

“What’s being proposed here is that UN-Habitat would become a more powerful and meaningful agency within the U. N.,” he told Citiscope. “It will integrate a lot of the activities that [the agency] does now with more funding, support and coordination. It will do nothing but enhance UN-Habitat.”

Weak attendance

This week’s two-day meeting is slated to stretch through Wednesday. As of the close of the first day, one important voice was conspicuously circumspect. The European Union, a powerful player in the negotiations leading up to the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that was adopted last year at Habitat III, reserved explicit judgement.

“The value added of an independent UN Urban as articulated in the report is not demonstrated.”

María Alejandra Vicuña
Minister, Government of Ecuador

“In particular more clarity is needed on the relationships between the proposed bodies, advantages and disadvantages of various proposed elements,” said E. U. ambassador Joanne Adamson, citing UN Urban and other components of the proposed reforms to UN-Habitat.

[See: To deal with rapid urbanization, U. N. urged to copy global climate mechanisms]

The E. U.’s equivocation underscores division within European countries on the topic, but the stakes are significant. Close observers suggested that if the E. U. is not standing up to champion the UN Urban proposal in the face of such opposition, it will wither on the vine. While Germany called the panel’s recommendations “an excellent starting point” in the run-up to this week’s meeting, the Czech Republic unleashed a tirade against UN-Habitat.

“I must express deep concern on the findings of the independent assessment,” Czech Minister of Regional Development Karla Slechtová said Tuesday. She also expressed disappointment at the weak attendance at this week’s meeting, with just five ministers at a supposedly “high-level meeting”, which in U. N. parlance generally means ministers with a mandate from their national governments to make decisions. (Slechtová said she was one of the few here with such a mandate.)

With frustration mounting among participants, the task is likely to fall to the Guterres administration to push forward some version of the proposed changes to UN-Habitat. Guterres, who took over the U. N.’s top spot in January, backed the panel’s findings when they were released in early August.

[See: With Local 2030, the U. N. seeks to turbocharge its engagement with cities]

One diplomat close to the process believes that the earliest a decision on UN Urban will come is April. That’s the rough timeline of when U. N. observers expect to see movement on Guterres’s signature reform initiative to reposition the U. N. system to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals, the international body’s overarching development framework. Only thereafter will he turn to the panel’s recommendations for UN-Habitat, which it appears he generally favours despite member state opposition.

“The secretary-general has taken note of these recommendations and will be developing a concrete strategy to ensure that UN-­Habitat is fit for purpose and that the reform of the development system, the peacekeeping system and the management of the United Nations incorporates a new approach to urban areas,” Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said Tuesday.

Still, there are other decisions that could be made by the broader U. N. General Assembly, and well before next spring. Some close observers say that at least a few tweaks to UN-Habitat could come as early as December, when the General Assembly passes its annual resolution on the agency and its work.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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