Africa rejects UN-Habitat reform, new agency to tackle global urbanisation

U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres (left) greets UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos at a community space in the Nairobi informal settlement of Mathare, in March. PHOTO: Julius Mwelu/UN-Habitat

As the plight of the world’s urban poor occupies an irrevocable priority of the global development agenda, fresh steps being proposed by a panel of experts on how to reform the United Nation’s current lead agency on urban issues, UN-Habitat are ruffling some feathers among the international community.

The eight member High Level Independent Panel to Assess and Enhance the Effectiveness of UN-Habitat consisting of mayors, urbanists, diplomats and activists, was set up by U. N. Secretary-General António Guterres as part of efforts to integrate its 20-year urbanization strategy, the New Urban Agenda, into the global body’s development architecture.

Among the panel’s recommendations, which are now slated to be debated, negotiated and acted upon by diplomats at U. N. Headquarters in New York this week ahead of national governments approval under the General Assembly, include the creation of a new entity – UN Urban, as a coordinating mechanism similar to UN-Water or UN-Energy, to stimulate an interest in cities across the U. N. system.

It further recommends two priority areas for UN-Habitat – attention to equity, vulnerability and exclusion in urban development; and a focus on the urban planning, legislation, norms and standards that will best support equitable development priorities, along with environmental sustainability and economic robustness.

Consequently, the panel agrees that the current governance model suffers from systemic problems that affect its accountability, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness and it recommends some fundamental changes, focused on the need for involvement by all Member States and by a capacity to reflect the the complexity of the urban development landscape with its multiple actors.

“It recommends a new governance structure that includes universal membership of all 193 Member States in an overarching Urban Assembly, and the addition of a small, focused Policy Board to provide policy and strategic advice as well as oversight on projects. The Policy Board would integrate input from the CPR, the Secretariat and the Executive Director, but also from a committee of local authorities and subnational governments and a committee of urban stakeholders, both having the capacity to evaluate and review resolutions and to offer coordinated guidance to the Policy Board.”).

UN-Habitat should also have a stronger staff presence in New York, especially of senior level staff for better coordination, and closer relationships to UN entities in New York. UN-Habitat should be more generally re-staffed in Nairobi, New York and regional offices, with gender-parity to meet its mission and mandate to support Member States, sub-national governments and UN Country teams.

In order to explore new and innovative sources of funding, and to increase the available resources for inclusive and sustainable urbanisation, the panel recommends that UN-Habitat develop a strategy for cooperation with multilateral banks, financial institutions, and private sources of finance. It recommends the creation of a dedicated Global Trust Fund as a platform to secure alternative funding for sustainable urbanisation efforts.

A lot of groups and many urbanists have been skeptical on the vision offered by the panel of experts, especially, how the new body would sit alongside UN-Habitat while others are wondering whether the new organ will serve as a vehicle exclusively for UN-Habitat’s work.

For instance, the African Group is of the view that the package of recommendations will not necessarily serve to strengthen UN-Habitat and enhance its effectiveness, efficiency, accountability and oversight, as envisioned in the New Urban Agenda.

They advised caution in taking decisions based on the assessment report until their implications are fully digested and understood, with full participation and concurrence of member states.

“Africa remains optimistic that this reform process, launched at the Habitat III conference, will eventually provide practical recommendations on how to enhance UN- Habitat, including its management and leadership model.

“As one of the fastest urbanizing regions of the world, Africa is of the view that there is an increasing need for a UN-Habitat that is fit for purpose to facilitate the effective implementation of the New Urban Agenda.”

Specifically, the group said that the creation of UN Urban is not viable. “There would be more value in strengthening existing mechanisms, including the New York office of UN-Habitat, as a liaison office with other UN entities with converging mandates, resulting in increased efficiency and enhanced policy integration while avoiding duplication.”

They argued,“UN Urban would create an additional layer of unnecessary bureaucracy and will have financial implications that contradict the general trend of zero budget growth within the UN. It would also complicate and duplicate operations rather than simplify them, in a manner that is counter productive and contributes to weakening UN-Habitat rather than strengthening it.”

According to them, the proposed governance reform package is complicated, inefficient and expensive; it is also self-contradictory and does not in any way contribute to strengthening UN-Habitat.

While the proposal to replace the current Governing Council of UN-Habitat with a universal membership body entitled “Urban Assembly” does fall within the general views of the African Group, the package under which it is proposed is difficult to accept in its current formulation.

“The suggested ‘Policy Board’ goes against the very spirit of opening up the Governing Council to the participation and decision-making by all member states and it also contradicts the principle of democratization of the UN system. It would also further complicate the governance of UN-Habitat, weaken the oversight of member states on its workings and create further bureaucratic constraints that will result in unnecessary expenses.”

The group submits that in order to “save, stabilize, and rapidly strengthen UN-Habitat”, an urgent financial rescue package from the UN regular budget is necessary. In addition, member states need to work on ensuring the sustainability and predictability of their voluntary contributions to the General Purpose Fund of UN- Habitat as well as on increasing allocations to UN-Habitat from the UN general budget.

“The report also does not address the issue of leadership of UN- Habitat. The decline of trust in UN-Habitat among Member States and the associated decline in non-earmarked income have been attributed to ineffective leadership that has failed to mobilize financial resources and that has not been transparent and accountable.”

Meanwhile, the Spokesman for the U. N.secretary-general, Stéphane Dujarric said: “The Secretary-General finds many of the recommendations in line with his own proposals for the reform of the U. N. development system, particularly the establishment of ‘UN Urban, aimed at fostering more collaborative work by UN agencies in the revamped UN Country Teams.”

He said that the agency must be equipped with a flexible, efficient structure that delivers for the most vulnerable residents of the world’s cities.



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