UN-Habitat facing ‘considerable decline’ in core funding, assessment warns

UN-Habitat's Nairobi headquarters. A new report commends the agency for shifting to a more holistic emphasis on urban planning and management, but warns that funding levels won't allow it to deliver on its mandate. (UN-Habitat)

Donor countries are applauding UN-Habitat’s pivot toward urban issues but have raised concerns regarding fundraising efforts, according to a report released this week.

The external evaluation, which has been unusually widely watched, comes as the United Nations agency is angling to take the lead on implementation of the U. N.’s new 20-year urbanization strategy, the New Urban Agenda.

The report also comes amidst internal wrangling and as key broader assessments of the agency are moving forward. UN-Habitat will host its biennial board meeting in May, where several long-simmering issues are expected to come to the fore. In addition, the U. N. secretary-general is preparing to conduct his own assessment of the agency, although the details of that review have yet to be announced.

Released on 15 March alongside reviews of 11 other multilateral organizations, the assessment was prepared by the Multilateral Organisation Performance Assessment Network (MOPAN). The network works at the behest of 18 donor countries, including major UN-Habitat contributors such as Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United States.

UN-Habitat largely meets the requirements of an effective multilateral organisation and is fit for purpose, although performance can be strengthened and improved in some areas,” the report’s executive summary concludes. “Fit for purpose” means that the agency is, in theory, well-positioned to deliver on its mandate.

The analysis covers 2014 to mid-2016, during which time UN-Habitat prepared for last year’s Habitat III summit. The conference resulted in the New Urban Agenda, a voluntary, non-binding agreement on how to plan and manage urbanization.

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

The report commends the agency for its shift from a traditional focus on human settlements, especially slum upgrading, to a more holistic emphasis on urban planning and management.

The assessment also applauds how the agency has pursued that focus, including management reforms by UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos. Clos, who also headed Habitat III, has emphasized a decentralized “matrix” approach to projects more akin to a strategic consultancy. He also has implemented results-based accountability.

Further, the agency’s “powerful new partnerships” with local governments “have the potential to be transformative,” the evaluation states. Clos, the former mayor of Barcelona, has forged alliances with key networks of city leaders around the world during his tenure at the Nairobi-based agency.

[See: UN-Habitat’s vision of sustainable urbanization is good — but not enough]

In a written statement, a UN-Habitat spokesperson said the agency welcomed the assessment, “in particular the recognition of the organization’s understanding of, and strong leadership in the field of sustainable urbanization.”

Core funding ‘inadequate’

The report notes room for improvement, however. For one, it encourages the agency to work more collaboratively with other U. N. offices, especially on “cross-cutting” issues such as climate change and human rights. MOPAN’s analysts highlight a similar recommendation from the U. N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, which audited UN-Habitat last year.

“[Core funding] has suffered a considerable decline in recent years and is inadequate to respond to core functions and other organisation priorities.”

Assessment of UN-Habitat

In the evaluation released this week, however, the main issue is core funding. While overall funding for UN-Habitat, which spent USD 167 million in 2015, has gone up, most of those resources are earmarked for specific projects. Core funding, which pays for permanent staff, “has suffered a considerable decline in recent years and is inadequate to respond to core functions and other organisation priorities,” the report concludes.

[See: UN-Cities? Rumoured proposal gains steam]

This funding challenge has caused some full-time positions to become part-time or short-term consultant jobs. The resulting staff turnover may be responsible for the agency’s poor marks in this year U. N. Global Staff Survey, which ranked UN-Habitat among the bottom five U. N. agencies for overall satisfaction, leadership and ethics.

Now, that low morale could have direct implications for the agency’s involvement in overseeing the new global urbanization strategy. James Ohayo, the president of the UN-Habitat Staff Union, recently warned that the situation could “shackle” implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Outside observers likewise question UN-Habitat’s management despite the most recent assessment’s overall positive conclusions. “The agency may be fit for purpose, but the management is not,” U. N. lobbyist Felix Dodds told Citiscope.

As for the agency’s financial woes, that is not necessarily unique to Habitat, Dodds cautioned. “There’s been a movement toward that with many agencies, where core funding has gone down and project funding has gone up,” he said. “But at Habitat, it’s been a more extreme level.”

Secretary-general’s panel

Meanwhile, the Habitat III outcome called for U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres to conduct an independent assessment of the agency with an eye toward determining how the U. N. system will follow up on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Following the December adoption a U. N. General Assembly resolution approving the New Urban Agenda, a spokesperson for the secretary-general said that Guterres’s office will appoint a high-level panel to conduct the independent review and will complete its work by June, followed by a two-day public review by the U. N. General Assembly. In January, the spokesperson said that the panel’s composition would be announced “in the coming weeks,” but as of press time, no further information was available.

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

All of these issues and recommendations are likely to come into play in mid-May, when the 58 countries on the UN-Habitat Governing Council will convene at the agency’s headquarters in the Kenyan capital. That meeting will be the next significant milestone this year as the United Nations seeks to resolve the question of who will take the lead on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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