New details approved on monitoring of New Urban Agenda

U.N. General Assembly President Peter Thomson addresses the 58 countries that make up UN-Habitat's Governing Council, 8 May in Nairobi. (UN-Habitat)

NAIROBI — The group of countries that oversees the U. N.’s lead agency on cities have given it a preliminary green light to begin coordinating implementation of a global 20-year urbanization strategy — although that approval won’t go into effect until a highly anticipated assessment process concludes later this year.

Meeting last week at the Nairobi headquarters of UN-Habitat, the national governments that serve on the agency’s Governing Council agreed on a two-year, USD 500 million budget for the global body, as well as a work plan to guide its urban efforts through 2019.

The Governing Council, which functions as a board, also outlined a new monitoring framework for the 20-year strategy, called the New Urban Agenda. In adopting multiple resolutions, national governments laid groundwork that will enable UN-Habitat to advise countries and cities on how to plan, finance and regulate urban development, as well as track global progress toward the New Urban Agenda.

“This Governing Council has been a step forward in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda,” said UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos, who was the agreement’s chief architect.

Calling the meeting, which drew 900 people to the Kenyan capital, “the beginning of a new period for UN-Habitat as a more efficient, effective and accountable organization”, E. U. diplomat Sebastian Gil said the agency will soon be “fit for its role in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda”.

However, such moves will not enter into effect until the agency receives marching orders regarding reforms by the U. N. General Assembly, the full slate of countries that meets annually in New York. UN-Habitat is currently under evaluation by a team appointed by U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres, with a report expected in June and related public meeting in late August.

[See: UN-Habitat reforms will hold up New Urban Agenda implementation]

As such, the decisions taken last week were, in the words of Kenyan diplomat Anthony Andanje, “signaling”. He told Citiscope, “At the moment there won’t be any impact until after we have had the assessment.”

Nevertheless, the steps taken in Nairobi are the first significant progress made since October to address how the United Nations will act on the voluntary, non-binding agreement reached at the Habitat III summit in Quito.

Negotiations last year to produce the New Urban Agenda nearly broke down multiple times over the role of UN-Habitat in the new agreement. Those talks finally settled on terminology describing the agency as “a focal point” but not clearly defining its new responsibilities. Last week’s meeting was the first step toward fleshing out that role.

Focal point among many

The core of the weeklong meeting concerned UN-Habitat’s budget and strategy in the wake of adoption of the New Urban Agenda. Donor countries, led principally by Norway and the United States, insisted early on that last year’s agreement in Quito does not mean that the agency should take on a larger scope of work necessitating more core funding.

“The decisions taken last week were, in the words of Kenyan diplomat Anthony Andanje, ‘signaling’. He told Citiscope, ‘At the moment there won’t be any impact until after we have had the assessment.’”

Last week, they got their wish. The Governing Council reduced the agency’s core budget of non-earmarked funding from USD 45.6 million in the current two-year cycle to USD 26.1 million for 2018-19. While the projection of earmarked funding for special projects will increase by about 10 percent to USD 454 million, this comes either directly from countries and cities seeking technical assistance or from donor countries who have a specific recipient in mind.

[See: UN-Habitat facing ‘considerable decline’ in core funding, assessment warns]

As for how the agency will move forward with the New Urban Agenda, countries continued to stress that UN-Habitat is “a focal point” in the U. N.’s mission to ensure sustainable cities over the next 20 years — but hardly the only one. Consequently, countries insisted that the agency work with other U. N. entities rather than adopt a go-it-alone approach. They also went so far as to “require” a report every six-month on such collaboration — the only time the Governing Council was so strict in its wording, as nearly every other mandate to UN-Habitat came as a “request.”

These requests in turn started to flesh out the part that UN-Habitat will play in the international body’s work on urbanization. As prescribed in the New Urban Agenda, the agency will prepare a report every four years on global progress toward the agreement, with the first such report coming next year.

To facilitate that effort, the Governing Council also tasked the agency with developing “a unified global monitoring framework that will facilitate the tracking of progress towards achieving the New Urban Agenda, as well as the urban dimension of the 2030 Agenda including the Sustainable Development Goals”. Such a monitoring effort is new and was not delineated in the New Urban Agenda.

At the same time, echoing calls for reform made by developed and developing countries at the beginning of the Nairobi meet, the resolutions requested stronger oversight of UN-Habitat. In an implicit rebuke to Clos’s management style during his seven-year tenure, member states called on the executive director to implement “results-based management” and “qualitative performance indicators of management practices” at the agency. The agency is now expected to report annually on “managerial issues and internal controls” in compliance with U. N. ethics guidelines and every six months on the agency’s finances.

“The institution has had its problems with individual leadership and therefore transparency and decision-making,” Andanje explained to Citiscope. Citing Clos by name, he said that Kenya believes UN-Habitat does not adequately consult with member states before taking action.

Vague endorsement

Still, Clos welcomed the suite of resolutions. He had sought approval for a document that UN-Habitat has prepared in the last few months — an Action Framework for the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda, which breaks the agreement down into 35 points outlining how countries can act on implementing national urban policies, other enabling legislation, urban planning, municipal finance and local-level efforts.

UN-Habitat has been tasked with developing ‘a unified global monitoring framework that will facilitate the tracking of progress towards achieving the New Urban Agenda, as well as the urban dimension of the 2030 Agenda including the Sustainable Development Goals’. Such a monitoring effort is new.”

Consequently, last week’s meeting, he said, “allows us to advance on” the framework “and therefore advance on the mandate of Habitat III in order that we deliver an actionable work programme as guidance on implementation.”

[See: Joan Clos: New Urban Agenda ideas ‘are now trickling down’]

However, it is unclear if the Governing Council gave its imprimatur to the framework proposal. While a draft resolution referred to a proper noun by the acronym AFINUA, the final resolution discussed only “the further development of the action framework for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.”

This language could mean that member states feel there is more work to be done on the strategy that UN-Habitat has prepared thus far. Or it could mean simply that the board will not approve any formal outputs on New Urban Agenda implementation until the restructuring of UN-Habitat is complete.

Such mixed signals are creating challenges for UN-Habitat workers on the ground. While the U. N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, working with UN-Habitat’s regional office in Rio de Janeiro, is poised to release an action plan in October that hopefully will trickle down to national governments, the way forward in Africa is not as clear, despite urgency.

“We need to move very fast,” UN-Habitat’s Africa director, Naison Mutizwa-Mangiza, told Citiscope last week. Mutizwa-Mangiza argued that the agency must deliver its framework for national implementation within a year in order to get African countries on the right track.

His office could support that effort by, for example, organizing regional implementation conferences for different parts of the continent. But he said there is currently no money for such activities given the agency’s limited financial situation, because they are not specific projects with earmarked funding.

“It’s an issue fundamentally of resources, because most of our donors are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” Mutizwa-Mangiza said. Until the U. N. secretary-general’s evaluation makes recommendations, he said, “They are hesitant to put anything into UN-Habitat.”

[See: Six months after Habitat III, is the New Urban Agenda gaining political traction?]

While it seems likely the wait-and-see approach will persist, civil society advocates who followed the Habitat III process closely and lobbied for specific provisions in the New Urban Agenda are urging member states to act quickly on the agency’s behalf.

At the close of last week’s meeting, Shipra Narang Suri, vice-president of the General Assembly of Partners, a civil society umbrella group, said: “UN-Habitat has been a thought leader in the area of sustainable and inclusive urbanization for several decades. Both its normative and operational roles must be strengthened if our shared vision of inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements is to be realized.”

Broader actions

The nine resolutions approved last week came at the behest of 48 of the 58 seats on the Governing Council. In addition to the widely watched issues surrounding UN-Habitat, the resolutions covered both procedural and substantive topics.

Of the former, countries approved the participation of stakeholders accredited to Habitat III in future Governing Councils, and set the dates for the next board meeting in 2019. They also approved next year’s World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, while attempting to keep preparations for the event at UN-Habitat’s Nairobi headquarters instead of its satellite office in New York.

On a more substantive note, governments reaffirmed the importance of UN-Habitat’s Safer Cities Programme and agreed that the agency should respond rapidly to humanitarian situations such as natural disasters and armed conflict in order to assist in orderly rebuilding. Such recognition comes a year after the formation of the Global Alliance on Urban Crises, which includes UN-Habitat. While the Governing Council does not have the power to increase funding to these programmes, such resolutions are a possible indication of areas where countries agree the agency does good work and for which it deserves further resources.

[See: 2018 reporting period will prove critical for New Urban Agenda, advocates say]

Such funding requests may have gotten a boost from a meeting that ended in what Pakistani High Commissioner to Kenya Raza Bashir Tarar, speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 bloc of developing countries, called a spirit of “cordiality and compromise”. Such compromise included agreement on a resolution on UN-Habitat’s technical work in the Palestinian Territories without venturing into broader political issues about the Israeli occupation, and the dropping of Iran’s insistence on a resolution encouraging more funding for a forum of housing ministers in the Asia-Pacific region.

On the other side of the aisle, the E. U.’s Gil called last week’s meeting “eminently improved” over the one two years ago. “A consensual agreement on all nine resolutions”, he said, “seeds a Nairobi spirit which we would like to build on for future meetings of UN-Habitat and other conferences taking place in this location.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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