So, what came out of this week’s high-level U.N. meeting on urbanization?

The representative of the Dominican Republic addresses a U.N. General Assembly high-level meeting to discuss the implementing the New Urban Agenda and reforming UN-Habitat, 5 September. (Kim Haughton/UN Photo)

UNITED NATIONS — National governments this week made clear that they are not interested in the creation of a new U. N. body to coordinate global action on sustainable urbanization. But the UN Urban” proposal was not all that was on the table at the high-level meeting here.

The focus of this week’s talks was how to reform UN-Habitat, the international body’s lead agency on urbanization — specifically, looking at recommendations offered in an August report from a panel appointed by U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres. The report aims to provide fresh energy to the New Urban Agenda, a global urbanization strategy adopted last year, and thus offers a host of new strategies for global action.

Over the course of two days this week, countries revealed their stance toward these proposals, which cover areas such as UN-Habitat’s governance and how to finance the U. N.’s urban portfolio.

“Member states are united in ensuring an effective and efficient contribution from UN-Habitat and the overall U. N. system to the advancement of sustainable urbanization,” said General Assembly President Peter Thomson as the meeting wrapped up Wednesday.

[See: Governments nearly united in scepticism toward ‘UN Urban’ proposal]

While no decisions were made at the talks, the attitudes expressed here will inform higher-stakes talks slated to start in October, when a committee of the U. N. General Assembly begins its annual session. Here are a half-dozen storylines to watch as this process goes forward.

1. Finally, a renewed city focus

Many had pinned their hopes on last year’s Habitat III conference, which approved the New Urban Agenda, to elevate the global profile of urban issues — especially at the United Nations, where cities have not traditionally been viewed as a main actor in the development sphere. Now that may finally be changing.

“This week’s meeting was the first U. N. General Assembly summit dedicated to the New Urban Agenda since it was adopted, and thus an opportunity for a more nuanced discussion. And indeed, the tone has clearly changed.”

“Today, we acknowledge that the U. N. is not delivering sufficiently in cities. And through our common effort, we will rectify this,” said Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed in her opening remarks this week.

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

“The proud history of urban work at the U. N. must be harnessed at this vital time,” she added, “and the U. N. must be seen again as the lead convener and catalyzer for partners, funders, private sector and civil society organizations to scale up their work in urban areas.”

With that kind of acknowledgment from the U. N.’s second-in-command, it seems that the role of cities in the U. N.’s portfolio has indeed received renewed emphasis.

2. Acceptance of the New Urban Agenda

For the first several months after the New Urban Agenda was adopted, the voluntary agreement appeared to languish in a kind of political limbo. Countries seemed uninterested in moving forward with the strategy, focused instead on the twin pillars of the U. N.’s agenda: the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals.

But this week’s meeting was the first U. N. General Assembly summit dedicated to the New Urban Agenda since it was adopted, and thus an opportunity for a more nuanced discussion. And indeed, the tone has clearly changed, suggesting an across-the-board belief that the New Urban Agenda is essential to delivering on the U. N.’s global plan to fight poverty and limit carbon emissions.

[See: Is there any hope of aligning the many efforts working on the SDGs?]

“The goals contained in the 2030 Agenda [the SDGs] will not be achieved without serious attention to the urban question,” said one French diplomat. The Zambian delegation echoed that sentiment, saying, “The New Urban Agenda cannot be implemented in isolation, but within a harmonized strategic framework with the Agenda 2030, the SDGs and other international protocols.”

3. A universal ‘Urban Assembly’

Currently there are 58 countries on UN-Habitat’s oversight board, which is called the Governing Council. It meets every two years at the agency’s headquarters in Nairobi. During negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, a bloc of developing countries called for all nations to have representation on the council — what they called “universal membership.” The idea here was to strengthen UN-Habitat’s political clout — and its flagging funding.

While the New Urban Agenda did not go so far as to grant that wish, the recent report did suggest taking such a step by rebranding the Governing Council as the “Urban Assembly” — with all 193 member states invited. This week, the idea was lauded by some. “It can potentially allow UN-Habitat to broaden and strengthen its partnerships,” said Singaporean Ambassador Burhan Gafoor. “This in turn can help UN-Habitat to improve its resource mobilization from all funding sources, both public and private.”

UN-Habitat’s neighbour at the U. N. complex in Nairobi already embarked on a similar path. The U. N. Environment Programme went to universal membership a half-decade ago, christening the biennial event as the Environment Assembly — ostensibly far more than a mere board meeting. This week, some member states drew a correlation between this move and subsequent increased funding for UNEP, although others disputed that analysis.

4. Broadening policy input

While the Governing Council meets only every other year, diplomats in Nairobi come together regularly to discuss UN-Habitat as a group called the Committee of Permanent Representatives. Unlike the Governing Council, they have no decision-making authority.

“Today, we acknowledge that the U. N. is not delivering sufficiently in cities. And through our common effort, we will rectify this.”

Amina J. Mohammed
U. N. Deputy Secretary-General

The report proposed reforming this system by creating a new body called the Policy Board, composed of 20 of the most active members in UN-Habitat’s affairs. They would both meet more frequently and have the ability to set policy for the agency. Under this proposal, the Committee of Permanent Representatives would continue to meet and advise the Policy Board, as would the proposed UN-Urban as well as other newly proposed committees of stakeholders and local authorities.

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

Panel member Peter Calthorpe, a noted urbanist, called the Policy Board the “organizing point of synthesis” for how to reform the governance of UN-Habitat, as it would be responsible for strategic planning at the agency.

However, the board proposal may have an uphill battle. Djibouti Ambassador Mohamed Siad Doualeh, speaking on behalf of a powerful bloc of African countries, said that “the proposed governance reform package is complicated, inefficient and expensive. It also [is] self-contradictory and does not in any way contribute to strengthening UN-Habitat.”

Others were more encouraging, such as South Korean Ambassador Hahn Choong-hee. “The Republic of Korea believes the report goes beyond existing proposals or assessments for reframing the organization in order to offer broad and bold recommendations,” he said.

5. A global fund for sustainable urbanization

There is no doubt that UN-Habitat’s financial situation has become precarious. To that end, the panel recommended the creation of a global trust fund “to secure a platform for alternative funding for sustainable urbanisation efforts.” The panel suggested that in addition to national governments, such a fund could mobilize the private sector, development banks and foundations to jointly fund the United Nations’ urban priorities. They compared it to the UN-Women Fund for Gender Equality.

While many rich countries expressed concern about any aspects of the recommendations that would incur further costs, only Spain explicitly nixed the idea of the trust fund. Kenya spoke up in favour. But although the idea received as much attention in the panel’s report as UN Urban, it was not addressed head-on by many member states.

6. What kind of work should UN-Habitat do, anyway?

U. N. agencies do two kinds of work, what’s often referred to as normative and operational. The normative responsibilities consist of setting global standards — “norms” — through research and policy. The operational side includes work in the field assisting countries with specific projects. According to the assessment report, UN-Habitat has been engaged heavily in operational work and not enough in normative work. The panel suggests a recalibration, which was warmly welcomed by some governments.

“We support the panel’s recommendation that UN-Habitat clearly link all operational work to normative priorities in order to achieve a tighter connection to overall strategic policy and governance oversight,” said U. S. Ambassador Kelley Currie.

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

The key, however, is to strike the right balance. If UN-Habitat entirely retreats from working on the front lines of urbanization, its global norms may be more poorly informed.

“Operational activities on the ground are also [a] vital part of carrying out UN-Habitat’s overall mandate, in the sense that thought leadership, policy guidance, effective advocacy and other normative functions can only be fulfilled with a clear understanding of realities on the ground, gained through concrete experiences and close engagement with stakeholders,” said Hahn, the South Korean ambassador.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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