Questions raised over composition, timeline of UN-Habitat assessment

UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos at the start of a meeting of the agency's Governing Council last month in Nairobi. (UN-Habitat)

UPDATE: According to the secretary-general’s office, the deadline for the assessment panel looking at UN-Habitat to submit its report has been pushed back to 30 July. Further, the high-level meeting at U. N. Headquarters is now set for 5-6 September.

As the deadline nears for a widely watched assessment on the future of the United Nations’ lead agency on urbanization, some observers are expressing concern about the evaluation committee and its process.

In April, U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced the composition of an eight-member panel of urbanists, mayors, housing activists and diplomats to study UN-Habitat, the Nairobi-based agency focused on urban issues. The panel’s task is to consider how UN-Habitat should best be repositioned in the wake of adoption of the New Urban Agenda, the global 20-year urbanization strategy that was finalized last year.

The panel’s report, expected by the end of this month, will inform a two-day meeting at U. N. Headquarters in New York in late August. That meeting is expected to digest the report and allow UN-Habitat to put its best foot forward before an audience of housing and urban development ministers, government officials and diplomats. Thereafter, the U. N. General Assembly is likely to make a final decision by the end of the year.

[See: Panel’s formation marks turning point in confusion over New Urban Agenda monitoring]

Since it was named, the assessment panel’s work has been conducted entirely behind closed doors, and all eight members of the panel declined to comment for this story. Nonetheless, some close watchers of the process have expressed concern about the panel’s makeup and how its work is being conducted.

For some, that has included questioning the panel’s independence. Others say its timeline, from April to June, is extremely compressed for a job as comprehensive as the overhaul of an agency with a USD 250 million annual budget, roughly 400 core staff and up to 2,000 personnel in the field in dozens of countries around the world.

Independence and baseline

Concerns about the assessment panel circulated last month in Nairobi during the biennial meeting of UN-Habitat’s Governing Council, the 58-country board that oversees the organization.

“There should have been a baseline. If we say there is something wrong with an institution, the questions we should ask ourselves [include]: When did these problems begin?”

Anthony Andanje
Kenyan Permanent Representative to UN-Habitat

An anonymous memo, shared with Citiscope, called into question the independence of the panel’s membership by noting several relationships between the panelists and UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos. For example, the memo cites recent official missions that Clos has made to Mexico, where he has met privately with María del Rosario Robles, the cabinet-level secretary of urban development. Robles is a member of the assessment panel.

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

Queried about whether his ties to the panelists compromised the independence of the panel, Clos called the allegations “inappropriate and unconstructive”. He told Citiscope last month: “The panel has been selected by the secretary-general without my intervention in the process. I find these accusations totally unjustified and offensive.”

A spokesperson for Guterres’s office did not answer whether it is normal for assessment panels to have close ties to the head of an organization under evaluation. But the spokesperson did tell Citiscope via e-mail, “The Secretary-General has full confidence in the independence of the Panel.” The spokesperson also did not comment on the timeline for the report, other than to confirm that 30 June remains the expected delivery date.

Others are taking issue not with the panel’s independence but with its background. “With the exception of the permanent representative of Indonesia, many of them don’t have a background on the institutional workings of the U. N. system,” Kenyan Permanent Representative to UN-Habitat Anthony Andanje told Citiscope last month. “You have to understand how the U. N. system operates. The lack of this experience may undermine what comes out of the report.”

In Andanje’s estimation, the terms of reference that delineated the parameters of the panel members and their eventual work, which were prepared by the United Nations late last year, set the assessment off on the wrong foot.

“There should have been a baseline. If we say there is something wrong with an institution, the questions we should ask ourselves [include]: When did these problems begin?” he said. Andanje suggested the panel should be expected to analyze changes in the organization dating back at least 10 years, in order to observe trends such as changing funding patterns and organizational restructuring.

[See: The U. N.’s urban agency is seeing record demand — even as its funding plummets]

Andanje and the Kenyan mission met twice with the panel last month when its members were in Nairobi on the sidelines of the Governing Council, including a one-on-one chat for nearly half an hour. “They listened to us keenly,” he said, “but we remain concerned.”

Joseph Schechla, who has followed the workings of UN-Habitat closely throughout his career with the Housing and Land Rights Network and has served on similar, if smaller in scope, U. N. assessment panels, agreed with Andanje’s impression.

“What is so unclear also in the known evaluation criteria is the review period or baseline date for the review,” he said. “That matters, in the sense that the normative framework for the past 20 years was the [1996] Habitat Agenda, never applied. If the baseline is October 2016, for example, only the New Urban Agenda applies, throwing out so many precious babies with the evaluation bathwater.”

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

Still, Schechla praised the panel’s terms of reference for taking on the “normative framework” of the agency — that is, its core functions such as research and advocacy from within the Nairobi headquarters and its regional offices, as opposed to its operational work in the field. He suggested that other recent assessments of the agency failed to look into that critical aspect of UN-Habitat.

“This time,” he said, “it seems that this evaluation calls for filling that yawning gap.”

Work scope

So what, exactly, is the assessment panel looking into? Although few details have been made public, some aspects of the panelists’ work are known.

For one, ahead of one-on-one meetings with diplomats at the Governing Council, country representatives were asked to consider a six-question survey, according to a document shared with Citiscope and confirmed by multiple sources. That survey in full asks:

1. What is the members’ assessment on the current state of UN-Habitat?

2. Is the mandate sufficient to address the New Urban Agenda?

  • Is the mandate still relevant or not?
  • Are the agency’s strategic areas responsive enough to the New Urban Agenda?
  • How normative and / or operational should UN-Habitat’s mandate be?

3. What is working well and what needs to be improved?

  • How should UN-Habitat governance and management be structured (to increase its effectiveness, accountability, transparent decision-making)? — for example, universal membership.

4. How does UN-Habitat work with other actors / stakeholders? (national, subnational and local governments; UN agencies; and non-government organisations)

5. What is UN-Habitat’s role within the UN system and what should it be?

6. Are the resources and financial capability of UN-Habitat sufficient enough to address the New Urban Agenda? What could be the way forward?

Panel member Sheela Patel of Slum/Shack Dwellers International underscored the fifth question in a meeting she held with civil society stakeholders last week at U. N. Headquarters. “How does UN-Habitat fit into the U. N. family?” she asked the group, which responded with a two-page prepared statement.

Civil society advocates have been providing feedback on the agency via a public survey. Those who support the agency are calling for, among other changes, an increased core budget, a smaller board that meets more frequently, and a balance between “normative” and operational work.

Shipra Narang Suri, vice-president of the General Assembly of Partners, a coalition of stakeholders, elaborated on this last point. “For me, UN-Habitat’s strength lies in its unique combination of normative and operational work in a diverse range of urban situations, and on a wide array of themes and urban issues,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Normative and operational go hand in hand — one without the other will leave its work shallow and incomplete.”

She said stakeholders are particularly advocating for more un-earmarked funding for UN-Habitat. Recent years have seen the agency’s earmarked funding rise while its core funding has dropped precipitously.

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

More un-earmarked funding, Suri said, would enable the agency “to work in some core areas such as planning, urban service delivery, post-conflict reconstruction, as well as urban land, legislation and governance, where it is a thought and practice leader, in those areas of the world that need its help the most.

She continued: “In addition, it needs a new approach to working with stakeholders and partners, who bring not only advocacy capacities but also grassroots knowledge and professional expertise. How can they be engaged better, both in the governance of UN-Habitat, as well as its activities?”

Civil society support

As one example of civil society support, the International Real Estate Federation (known as FIABCI) is currently working with UN-Habitat on its City Prosperity Index, a measurement tool for cities that the agency has deployed in hundreds of cities worldwide. The Dubai-based organization, which advocates on behalf of the real estate industry in global policy circles, is developing a survey about perceptions of prosperity that UN-Habitat can add to its existing index.

[See: U. N. increasingly looking to its urban agency on crisis response]

“Rarely has a tool developed by the U. N. engaged civil society in such a way,” former FIABCI president Danielle Grossenbacher said. “The sheer number of cities who have adopted the City Prosperity Index is proof that it is truly needed.”

The assessment panel had the chance to see UN-Habitat’s work firsthand during its visit to Nairobi last month. Panelists took a field trip to Kiambu County, just outside the capital, where UN-Habitat has been assisting the relatively newly formed county government with revenue collection and waste management. Whether that visit — and the conversations the panel has been having over the past two months — left a lasting impression will become clearer at the end of the month.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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