More than window dressing? Stakeholders and partnerships in the New Urban Agenda and other UN global agreements on sustainable development

By Eugenie L. Birch

Over the course of seventy years, stakeholders have become increasingly involved in UN processes. Non-state players have taken on advocacy or advisory roles for their specific issues, and have helped shape norms and debates about global concerns. Eugénie L. Birch traces the path that has led to increasing stakeholder engagement and explores its effect on the New Urban Agenda.

Since its founding in 1947 the United Nations Organisation has experienced substantial changes, especially in how it has advanced its dual aim of pursuing peace and promoting the economic and social well-being of the world’s population. In particular, the trajectory of this change has coloured the member state-stakeholder relationships as they have moved through time. They ranged from the member states’ early engagement of non-member state players as consultants needed for specialised advice on topics of their choosing, to member states’ slow acquiescence of stakeholders defining, advising and helping set norms on global issues, to member states’ acknowledgment that they cannot solve the world’s pressing social, environmental and economic problems without stakeholder involvement.

This transformation, far from complete, has taken place over nearly seventy years. The UN began with devising a structure, the NGO Committee to vet experts. Later, through UN conferences of the 1970s and 1990s, primarily those related to the environment and secondarily to those concerned with such related issues as human settlements, new arrangements emerged. As stakeholders made their views known at the conferences through the sheer numbers of attendees, their alternative conference declarations, publications, reports, demonstrations, and lobbying, member states began to incorporate some of their ideas in their conference declarations. Starting with the 1970s conferences and continuing to the present, UN conference organisers expected parallel convenings to the official meetings.

Recognising stakeholders in UN proceedings
Over time, the member states began to recognise the interests of specific stakeholders in their official proceedings . In 1992, they named major groups – nine types of stakeholders and afforded them important access to UN matters, a significant breakthrough for non-state parties. Ten years later, the member states created a sustainable development monitoring entity that involved stakeholders. They also assented to and encouraged formal multi-stakeholder partnerships for implementation. After the member states’ consolidation of dozens of conference proceedings into the Millennium Development Goals and the convening of the third environmental summit, stakeholder contributions took on another form – registered voluntary commitments – and the monitoring structure was elevated.

By the time Habitat III preparations began, the organisers built on this heritage adding innovative features that would contribute to the evolving form of pluralistic governance in the United Nations. They added a systemized and broad-based approach to collecting inputs for the outcome document, supported the creation of a more inclusive stakeholder platform beyond the major groups, instituted stakeholder hearings on the draft outcome document as official modalities, and incorporated stakeholders in the plenary sessions of the conference itself. Further, the member states and the Secretary General responded with formal briefings. These items would contribute to enhancing effective stakeholder participation within the context of the UN.

Significance of non-state members and partners in recent global agreements
This positive trajectory would be institutionalised in the New Urban Agenda, and less directly but collectively, in the other 21st century global agreements (Sendai Framework, Addis Ababa Action Agreement, Agenda 2030, and Paris Agreement). In these agreements, the member states show heavy reliance on stakeholders (they are mentioned 94 times) and partnerships (mentioned 169 times) in various roles related to the agreements’ implementation and monitoring. In particular, paragraphs 66 and 67 of the New Urban Agenda mandate quadrennial progress reports and call for inputs from civil society and use of the World Urban Forum (WUF) to contribute to the report.

To this end, the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), the Global Task Force of Local and Regional Governments and other stakeholder groups will be sponsoring a number of assemblies, side events and networking meetings, each of which will develop outputs to contribute to the first progress report of the New Urban Agenda (NUA). Substantively, the content and interests will be varied as would be expected from groups with different foci.

For example, each of GAPs 16 Partner Constituent Groups (who represent collectively some 1,200 organisations, encompassing 58,000 networks and several hundred individuals), has developed a strategic framework outlining its approaches to contributing to NUA implementation. Some groups have formed partnerships around specific projects, two examples are being developed by the Business and Industries/ Professionals and the Older Persons/ Persons with Disabilities groups.

Other groups, such as the Farmers are working with the Rome-based UN agencies to form productive and complimentary activities especially around land while the Older Persons group is linking with WHO’s Age-Friendly Cities efforts in some cities. Still other groups are developing regional sub-groups composed of several PCGs at the local level. GAP will document this information in its soon-to-be-launched newsletter and on its website.

Effects on New Urban Agenda progress reporting
Within this environment, GAP, in particular, and other stakeholders are aware of several contextual features that will affect NUA reporting. First, UN Habitat is designated as “a focal point within its mandate for sustainable urbanisation with other UN agencies. Second, the New Urban Agenda is aligned as a road map, with the other global agreements. Third, anticipated UN-wide reforms will have some effects on the implementation and reporting of global agreements. Fourth, UN Habitat’s Governing Council mandated it to craft a new stakeholder policy. In all of these efforts, stakeholders can and will serve as important interlocutors with other UN agencies , with member states and their governments from the national to local levels and among themselves in promoting, executing and sharing urban-focused work.

Two channels, WUF9 and the 2018 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) which will be reviewing Goal 11, the “cities” goal, will be testing grounds for the new forms of stakeholder engagement as developed for Habitat III. A strong foundation exists, as do the energy and inspiration. What is less clear, at this point, is how to channel the contributions into the reporting systems. Most likely, however, is that the soon to be announced WUF arrangements will provide direction. Stay tuned.

Eugénie L. Birch

Eugénie L. Birch

Professor of Urban Research at University of Pennsylvania
Eugénie L. Birch is founding Co-Director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, co-editor of Penn Press’s The City in the 21st Century series and co-editor of the SSRN Urban ejournal. Ms. Birch’s recent publications include: Slums: How the Informal Real Estate Markets Work (2016), Global Urbanization (2011), Women’s Health and the World’s Cities (2011), all of which were co-edited with Susan Wachter and others. She has served as a member of the New York City Planning Commission and on the jury to select the designers for the World Trade Center site. She is currently President of the General Assembly of Partners. Ms. Birch, who lives in New York City, holds a Ph.D. and a Masters in Urban Planning from Columbia University.
Eugénie L. Birch