By Franz Marré
Fifth and sixth September 2017 will mark an important milestone in the final phase of setting the framework for sustainable and inclusive urban development: UN member states will convene at UN headquarters in New York for a two-day high-level meeting. There they will discuss the results and recommendations produced by an independent panel installed by the UN Secretary General in response to a decision taken at the Habitat III conference in Quito. The panel’s task in short has been to undertake an independent and evidence-based review and assessment of UN-Habitat, and to make recommendations on how to enhance the programme’s effectiveness and accountability in the realisation of its mandate, including in its governance structure, partnerships and financing.
Panel presents audacious recommendations
Given the brief time available (the panel was only installed in late April 2017), member states agreed to extend the deadline for presentation of the report by a month until the beginning of August 2017. The result, a 25-page report with as many recommendations, touches upon all relevant aspects and provides a set of clear findings and recommendations – with some parts, however, needing further elaboration. The panel itself describes some of the recommendations as “blunt”, stressing that they possibly would have to be adapted to UN regulations and practice. But one could also characterise them as audacious or even visionary.
UN-Habitat’s role as focal point for urban development
Central is the recommendation to establish – under the name of UN-Urban – an independent coordinating mechanism to convene all UN agencies and partners on urban sustainability. This will certainly induce controversial discussion, also in the framework of the broader UN reform: inter-agency coordination mechanisms are a major challenge in all areas, no matter what the topic, and must correspond to the integral nature of the 2030 Agenda. There are both pros and cons to the proposed solution, and these require an in-depth and frank discussion. Two central points should be borne in mind: the integrity of UN-Habitat as the focal point for urban development as determined in the New Urban Agenda should be maintained; at the same time, a system-wide approach to sustainable urban development must be established. In any case, a stronger presence and visibility of urban development at UN headquarters in New York will be needed.
Mandate, Governance, Stakeholders and Financing
The panel has presented a number of other proposals of at least equal importance, which also will require intense discussion among member states and stakeholders in order to achieve a line acceptable to all. Here are a few which I consider essential:
- Definition and scope of the so-called normative mandate of UN-Habitat. In the past years, concerns have been growing about too strong a focus on highly competent, but rather isolated, operational activities at the expense of the normative function and a more strategic and norm-setting approach to the urbanisation challenge. In this context, I consider a meaningful and consistent follow-up and review (FuR) of the urban dimension of the 2030 Agenda as well as the New Urban Agenda to be an additional element of the normative mandate.
- Governance structure including the issue of membership (whether universal or not). There is no doubt room for improvement regarding the business model of the organisation, its oversight by member states, its transparency and accountability, and so on. This goes hand in hand with the question of to what extent member states are willing and prepared to assume an active role in their involvement with UN-Habitat (and possibly UN-Urban).
- During the Habitat III process, Germany consistently stressed the crucial importance of meaningful stakeholder involvement and participation. To some extent, this relates to the major groups as defined by the UN. But beyond that, local and regional governments must be seen as responsible parts of state authority and not just as stakeholders.
- Financing: In this respect, the panel presents a variety of recommendations, which in part will need further clarification and refinement. For example, they raise the following questions: Could a fixed proportion of earmarked funding dedicated to the linkage to the normative mission (recommendation 22) lead to reduced competitiveness of UN-Habitat, since their projects would be more expensive? How does a dedicated Global Trust Fund (recommendation 25) relate to a stronger focus on the normative mandate? It will not only be about investing in cities but, rather, about how cities can access finance!
Three conditions for success
Over and above these issues, three main conditions must be met if the global urban reform agenda is to achieve the expected success:
- Full integration of the urban dimension of development into the UN system and acceptance by the whole of the UN family. This in particular includes SDG-FuR and harmonisation with the reform of the UN development system
- Full political and technical support by member states. Cities and regions in essence are “internal affairs”. However, without their responsible action, progress cannot be achieved.
- Full participation of all stakeholders at all levels – from the international agenda setting right up to concrete implementation at the local/community level.
The recommendations of the independent panel present an excellent starting point from which to seek an agreement on the international structures needed to channel global urbanisation into an inclusive and broad-based path towards sustainability. However, UN and member states should not treat the difficult and controversial matter in a ‘business as usual’ approach. Experience shows that this will only yield ‘the same results as usual’.