Landmark Governing Council session debates UN-Habitat’s role in the development agenda

NAIROBI—The 25th session of the UN-Habitat Governing Council concluded on 23 April, following a week of debate on the wide array of issues surrounding today’s global process of urbanization. Highlighting the pivotal year for a review of the agency’s budget and work programme, the session’s theme was around UN-Habitat’s role in the Post-2015 Development Agenda and broader issues of sustainability.

Particularly intense debate arose over a few core issues, including urban-rural linkages, the role of human rights in urbanization and governance reform for the agency itself. In the end, the 58-member Governing Council approved an omnibus resolution as well as a key resolution on next year’s Habitat III conference.

The Governing Council, which functions like a board for UN-Habitat, meets only every two years. This session came at a particularly important moment, given the current increasing momentum toward defining a new global development agenda for the coming decade and a half. The 25th session was also the last time the Governing Council would meet ahead of the Habitat III conference, itself an event that only takes place every two decades.

In a message delivered at the opening plenary, U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon placed the Habitat III process and broader global urban discussion directly at the heart of the push for a new development strategy that foregrounds sustainability. “Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities,” Ban said via a spokesperson.


Aromar Revi, the director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, expanded on this theme. During the session’s keynote address, Revi told the Governing Council, “Urbanization has been happening over 5,000 years. It’s a gigatrend, not a megatrend.”

To further drive home the point, Revi put the upcoming U. N. event in context. “Habitat III is an event that happens every 20 years. Urbanization is happening on a daily basis in tens of thousands of places across the world where millions of people are actually participating in this process,” he said.

Yet in order to capitalize on this potential, Revi urged, broad recognition is needed of the role that local governments will play in actually implementing any sustainable development strategies formulated at the global level.

“The elephant in the room is the localization agenda,” he said. “National governments and local and regional governments have to do this together. That hasn’t been the norm over the last 50 years, as we’ve seen the U. N. deal with this question. This to my mind is absolutely critical—this is what an urban world actually means and deals with.”

The Governing Council meetings took place in Nairobi, home to UN-Habitat’s headquarters. The previous week, the Kenyan capital had also hosted important negotiations in preparation for the Habitat III conference. Yet those talks had ended inconclusively after member states were unable to agree on baseline rules guiding the participation of local authorities and civil society in the Habitat III process.

The issue was still clearly on the minds of many at the Governing Council sessions. In response to a question about civil society participation, Revi argued that the “20th century-based” model of global decision-making does not easily accommodate civil society. And that, he said, needs to change.

Several others echoed these sentiments. For instance, Emilia Sáiz, the deputy secretary-general of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), said that greater political power-sharing was going to be needed in order to achieve the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are to be finalized in September.

At the same time, Christine Platt, the honorary vice-president of the Commonwealth Association of Planners, believes the ongoing debate around sustainable urbanization could mobilize resources at the national level, since governments will be compelled to meet the SDG targets.

“The SDGs are at this stage overarching goals. They are broad and disaggregated statements,” Platt said. “And they can only be achieved through strategic and participatory implementation processes. Sustainable urbanization is a key focus for resource mobilization of this SDG.”

Remembering “Ruralism”

UN-Habitat’s own approach to urbanization also came under some fire during the Governing Council session. The agency’s executive director, Joan Clos, explains his strategy on the issue as a “three-legged approach”, resting in equal parts on urban legislation, planning and finance. Yet in Nairobi, some criticized this formulation for not allowing enough of a balance between urban and rural areas.

“UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos was pressed on why there is no explicit goal for rural development among the SDGs. He responded that the history of international development has had a rural bias—an explicit recognition of urbanization’s transformative role in development was long overdue.”

The relationship between cities and their hinterlands assumed centre stage several times, as a panel explored strategies, challenges and approaches to strengthening links between rural and urban areas. Aisa Kirabo Kacyira, UN-Habitat’s deputy executive director, called urban and rural development “two sides of the same coin” and urged that urbanization be seen as a cycle of development rather than as a competition between city and countryside.

In light of the Governing Council’s setting in Nairobi, African delegates discussed the unique situation of their continent, which is rapidly urbanizing but still predominantly rural. As a result, many countries’ delegates argued for equilibrium between investments in urban and rural areas in order to stem the tide of rural-to-urban migration.

Going one step further, some participants even challenged the primary focus of the Governing Council and UN-Habitat’s current mandate. “Ruralism” should be viewed as a positive development philosophy, they argued, because rural areas do not contribute to the negative externalities of urbanization, such as deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and slums.

Clos was pressed, for instance, on why there is no explicit goal for rural development among the SDGs. He responded that the history of international development has had a rural bias; an explicit recognition of urbanization’s transformative role in development, he continued, was long overdue.

This debate was curtailed by more concrete discussions of successful governance models that promote a balanced relationship between urban and rural areas. Jean-Claude Mbwentchou, Cameroon’s minister of housing and urban development, highlighted how UN-Habitat assisted his country in the preparation of plans for both large cities and small communities across his country.

South Africa was also held up as a model. There, the post-apartheid consolidation of metropolitan areas into single municipalities had the unintended but, for many, welcome side effect of easing tensions in the rural-urban divide. Clos also pointed to 1979 legislation in the United Kingdom that redefined municipalities based on population rather than land area.

New Oversight

While the Governing Council provided a platform for discussion of broad issues, it was also a working session aimed at passing resolutions on UN-Habitat’s budget, work programme and other matters pertaining to the agency’s operations.

Governance reform was a key item on the agenda, as the Governing Council sought to increase oversight of the agency and implement results-based reporting. A draft resolution proposed a new system for overseeing the agency, establishing a working group that would be active between the council’s two-yearly sessions.

In addition, Iraq submitted a draft resolution on Habitat III, which was subsequently approved. Summing up the themes of the Governing Council, it encourages member states to incorporate several concepts into national preparations for the conference: “the role of sustainable urbanization as a driver of sustainable development, rural-urban linkages and the interlinkages between the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in promoting stable, prosperous and inclusive societies”.

The Habitat III resolution also calls on member states to submit their national reports while urging Executive Director Clos to provide technical assistance, as needed, to the national Habitat committees.

After reportedly extensive negotiations, member states approved a work programme and budget for 2016-17, the key period that encompasses both the post-2015 development process and Habitat III. Although a budget of USD 45.6 million was approved, member states repeatedly called for more contributions to the Habitat III Trust Fund, the monies set aside for the organization of the conference, as well as more aggressive fundraising and donor cultivation on the part of the agency.

Finally, an omnibus resolution closed the session with a rapid-fire list of the “substantive focus and scope” for UN-Habitat as it enters this crucial period. The resolution calls on both the agency and member states to incorporate the perspectives of local authorities, for instance, and to build sub-national capacity. It also explicitly acknowledges the World Urban Campaign as a partner in the Habitat process.

Reflecting some of the key discussions to take place during this session of the Governing Council, the resolution urges the agency and members to raise awareness about urban-rural linkages, establish a network of global planning and design labs, advocate for slum upgrading and adopt a “housing at the centre approach” to urbanization. Such themes will certainly be central as the Habitat III process continues to pick up momentum in the months ahead.

• Advocacy
• ESC rights
• Habitat Conferences
• Housing rights
• Human rights
• Norms and standards
• Rural planning
• UN system
• Urban planning