Analysis – Rumour has it: Innovation lurks in the shadows of the #NewUrbanAgenda

This post has been in the making for a long time… in my head at least, if not on paper. I first thought I would write it after the civil society hearings for Habitat III in NY in early June, then postponed it until after the last round of inter-sessionals and informal negotiations at the end of June. But time was at a premium, and there was enough coverage, analysis and reflection from the Earth News Bulletin, Citiscope, Cities Today and Next City, so I didn’t feel I had much to add. Sure, it was an interesting process and one in which stakeholders felt included and heard and empowered… especially as several of our proposals, including a call to establish an International Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanisation, and the acknowledgement of the General Assembly of Partners, made it into the draft NUA released on 18 July, which formed the basis for negotiations in Surabaya.

Going in to PrepCom3, 25-27 July, we were offered a sense of hope by the co-facilitators, and key groupings of Member States, that an agreement would be reached on large sections of the NUA, if not the entire document, in Surabaya. This turned out to be a false aspiration, as we now know, as talks progressed in fits and starts, and ultimately stalled after almost 48 hours of nearly uninterrupted, exhausting negotiations. A new draft was issued on the 27th of July, setting off disgruntled murmurs among Member States about not being given adequate time to review it, and then yet another one on the 28th, at the end of the PrepCom, for them to take home, review and consult (look at all the different iterations here). It was agreed that they would reassemble in New York at unspecified dates, three to four weeks hence, to resume the discussions, so that, hopefully, an agreement can be achieved before Quito, and deliberations at the Conference can begin to focus on implementation (see Citiscope’s despairing article on the fragility of the process, also noting comments on why it is not as bad as it appears to be.)

The statements from Member States in the Main Committee and the revised versions of the document issued in the course of the Surabaya meeting had little to offer to stakeholders. Most of our proposals fell victim to a mass cull of elements that appeared to threaten status quo. Politics makes for strange bedfellows indeed. The US, EU and G-77 seemed to be in perfect harmony, for a change, for instance when they all called for deleting references to the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), ostensibly for different reasons, but obviously with the same result – a rejection of any attempts to expand stakeholder engagement in international processes, as well as the implementation of international agreements, beyond the usual suspects, whether a handful of New York-based major groups for the former (international process), or a few handpicked favourite NGOs and CBOs, for the latter (implementation). Several individual states expressed their support in private, but only offered ‘lukewarm defence’ of the proposition in the Main Committee, where it mattered.

This, and other developments, and a scan of the 28 July draft, set me thinking, and hence the title of this post – where is innovation in the New Urban Agenda? She does seem to be around, lurking in the shadows, occasionally making an appearance, desparate for recognition, but not making much headway in the absence of so much as a welcoming glance. Where will she find a home?

Let us begin with the process. Most people agree that the Habitat III process as it was conceived was fairly innovative – coming as it did at the heels of the generally satisfactory process of stakeholder engagement in the SDGs, it had to at least match that, if not go further. The 22 issue papers were led by UN agencies. The 10 Policy Units brought in the collective wisdom of 200 experts. Systematic stakeholder engagement was encouraged, which led to support for the Global Task Force (GTF), invited to lead the hearings of Member States with local authorities, and the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), facilitating the same for civil society stakeholders, in New York in June. This was remarkably different from the Major Groups system, not only in that it included many groups that didn’t find a voice, or at least, an equally loud voice, through the nine major groups, but also that it allowed a range of non-New York-based organisations and individuals to participate in the process, by offering them travel support. GAP is a self-organised platform of (now) 16 Partner Constituent Groups, with two co-chairs from different organisations, usually from different regions, and often gender-balanced. Overall, the 32 member GAP Executive Committee (about to be expanded to 34 as we have just welcomed our 16th Partner Constituent Group – Persons With Disabilities) includes 18 women and 14 men, from across all continents. Many of them have never engaged in high-level UN processes before. But they have all had an equal chance to articulate issues and priorities important to them and their constituencies, comprising at least 58000 organisations and networks, adding up to an outreach of nearly 1 billion people. They did this through stakeholder statements in the plenary sessions of all preparatory and intersessional meetings, written submissions, meetings with the Bureau, meetings with co-facilitators, interviews with media covering the process (see Rose Molokoane’s impassioned, articulate statement on grassroots’ inclusion here), language suggestions on successive drafts, and of course corridor chats and conversations over coffee and lunch. Limited time to make statements before Member States meant that very often, groups had to caucus and collaborate on joint statements. Shared google documents meant that people could comment on each other’s statements and reinforce key messages. A final, consolidated GAP statement was always offered, which highlighted common messages and exhorted Member States to remember why they had gathered in the room – to agree on how to realize sustainable, inclusive urbanisation for all urban and rural inhabitants, especially the most marginalized and vulnerable. Proposals from the GAP Partnerships document were offered, elaborated, rephrased, adjusted and debated inside and on the margins of the main meetings.

Many Member State representatives expressed their pleasant surprise at the level of organisation and coordination among stakeholders, one that is not often seen in the major groups system. The result, as I said before, was the inclusion of 3 of our 6 key propositions, and several key phrases and concepts critical to the various constituencies – right to the city, empowerment of local and sub-national governments, gender equality, youth empowerment, recognition of the contribution of grassroots groups and the informal economy, a clear emphasis on decent work, focus on essential public services, land, mobility, disasters and humanitarian crises, children in vulnerable situations, etc. – in the initial drafts of the New Urban Agenda. Process innovation, thus, also resulted in the inclusion of progressive content in the document.

The challenge, however, was to do this systematically – to identify the most progressive propositions from the Policy Unit reports, the declarations of regional and thematic meetings, and various submissions articulating positions of Member States and stakeholders – cluster and include them in the early drafts, or use them as a checklist for later versions once these had pulled apart, threadbare, by the negotiators. This systematization seems to have been a weak link, possibly hampered by the delayed appointment of the co-facilitators, multiple agendas being pursued within the 12-member Bureau, or an overstretched Secretariat. The absence of a clear justification for inclusion of key themes and proposals could also have been a contributing factor towards their exclusion.

Some of the most transformative propositions on implementation, follow-up, monitoring and review, also came from stakeholders. The one that received most attention, and survived the longest in the document, was to establish the multi-stakeholder panel on sustainable urbanization, as mentioned earlier in this post. It created discussion, member states asked fundamental questions, forcing GAP, which had made the proposal, to think deeper and refine its own proposition, look for precedence and examples, and explore the institutional and administrative implications of the panel. Yet, they failed to be convinced. G-77 felt, perhaps unknowingly encouraged by UN-Habitat itself, that setting up and independent knowledge platform would weaken the normative agenda of the organization that they were trying to strengthen. The US ruled it out on account of potential resource requirements. Most surprisingly, the European Union also failed to agree within its own coordination to support it, in the belief that it might actually strengthen UN-Habitat… or perhaps they have another agenda (rumour has it that a proposal for setting up a new UN cities agency, an alternative to UN-Habitat located somewhere in western Europe, is ready, and an announcement imminent). Anyway, after a tough fight, in the 28 July edition of the New Urban Agenda, the Panel was eliminated from the document.

The panel, however, was not the only creative proposal put forth by stakeholders. One of the criticisms of the implementation of the Habitat Agenda of 1996 was that it wasn’t systematically monitored or reviewed. To address this, stakeholders presented two ideas. First, that all monitoring and reporting on the NUA involves stakeholders, and uses disaggregated, quantitative and qualitative data and evidence, including case studies and good practices, collected from the bottom-up, to complement official national statistics. And second, that the World Urban Forum, which meets biennially and is arguably the most important and inclusive global gathering of urban thinkers, practitioners and advocates, is strengthened and transformed into an arena for multi-stakeholder reporting on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Stakeholders have advocated that WUF, which usually spans five days, be split into two parts – one where there is a freewheeling exchange of ideas and innovations, and one where a broad range of actors including national, sub-national and local governments, and the entire spectrum of stakeholders – for an illustration look at the 16 PCGs of GAP here – voluntarily report on the progress made in the implementation of the NUA. These proposals, too, made their way into the initial drafts, but have been significantly diluted since – the first one because it challenges national governments’ vice-like grip on data and statistics, and the second because it is (once again) conflated with the issue of strengthening UN-Habitat and its initiatives (including the World Urban Forum).

In addition to the above, GAP also suggested that realizing a sustainable urban future needed a break from business as usual, and that innovative ideas coming from all possible sources – local governments, grassroots, civil society, professionals, research and academia, business and industry, among others – must be harnessed. Nothing new or dramatic there. But its proposal of setting up a Partners’ Lab (or Labs) for Urban Sustainability, to test ideas and approaches and prototypes before scaling them up, didn’t make much headway, possibly because of perceived resource implications. The New Urban Agenda thus does not offer any mechanisms to encourage, support or mainstream innovative practices for sustainable or inclusive urbanization.

So here we are, back from Surabaya, en route to Quito, via New York. Most of those who read the Surabaya draft of the New Urban Agenda will agree that it is not a bad document. The structure is acceptable, the declaration has significantly improved over time, the vision could be bolder but it is not entirely uninspiring. It has all the key ingredients for sustainable urbanization, sprinkled across the document. It is concise and though the language is often a bit loose, especially in the view of academics and professionals, it is not incoherent. So, it’s a “good enough” document, once that will allow all of us to align whatever we do with “provisions of the New Urban Agenda.”

But, it is also important to recognize that the language of the New Urban Agenda is not progressive, failing to raise the bar on process, themes, implementation arrangements, or monitoring, leaving that task to yet-to-be agreed processes to emerge organically sometime in the undetermined future. This is a particularly important missed opportunity for a non-binding document, which offers the unique possibility of moving beyond the norm, pushing the boundaries of the envelope beyond “agreed language”. In our case, recognizing the inclusion of sixteen different constituencies in the process of development of the NUA, and more importantly, potentially in the urbanization process over the next twenty years, would be a quantum leap over focusing on the “HABITAT Agenda Partners” (a legacy of Habitat II, 1996) and equally, over the established major group system which offers limited accessibility and engagement opportunities to diverse stakeholders based in different corners of the globe. Setting up an international panel on sustainable urbanization, an IPCC-type body but one that involves not just scientists but all stakeholders, which elevates urbanization to the highest level of political priority while at the same time making it a household concern, would help move the discourse forward by leaps and bounds. Multi-stakeholder monitoring systems would for the first time ensure that the power of data, information, evidence, is shared by all, not manipulated by a few. And the Declaration of a Decade of Sustainable Urbanisation would help bring many many initiatives together under a common umbrella, helping to maintain the focus on this mega-trend with its associated mega-challenges over the next ten years.

But alas, as I said, innovation has no friends this particular room, among Member States negotiating the most important global agreement on sustainable urbanization, with implications for the next two decades and beyond.

Thankfully, however, she continues to flourish on the ground, away from the noise in the Main Committee, often driven by stakeholders, local authorities and UN-Habitat’s staff who go quietly about their business. The agency’s work on rolling out the International Guidelines on Urban and Territorial Planning is supplemented by field-based planning labs in several cities across the world. Housing and land continue to be strong areas of focus. National Urban Policies are in great demand. Public space and protection of the commons is an important priority. The City Prosperity Initiative shows the way in monitoring SDG 11. Field-based deployments are expand and strengthened – think Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (not for the faint-hearted), or Nepal and Ecuador (not for those looking for a standard, cookie-cutter approach to post-crisis (??) recovery and reconstruction), or India and South Africa (not for those who cannot manage an incredibly challenging political environment). Diverse requests from various international bodies, cities, regions and countries, on policy and operational matters related to planning, housing, governance, economic development, legislation, etc., are addressed and managed on a regular basis. Old partnerships are deepened, new ones readily explored. Indeed, UN-Habitat’s normative strength is reinforced by its extensive work in the field, in collaboration with a wide range of stakekeholders, across 60+ countries. No other organization – so far – has demonstrated the same combination of expertise, skill sets, experience or reach, required to coordinate and drive the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Not supporting the UN agency which has the most extensive and long-standing experience in urban development, the confidence of stakeholders, the support of local authorities, and one that has regularly reinvented itself to meet the challenges of the times, grappling with a broad mandate, growing demand and declining resources, is in my view yet another missed opportunity in the HABITAT III process and the New Urban Agenda. No doubt that UN-Habitat needs change, and in some ways a fresh approach, but recent appointments in its senior management indicate that it may have turned a corner, and should send a positive signal to donors and partners. Like a phoenix, it may yet rise again to assume its legitimate role and responsibility in driving and coordinating the global effort towards sustainable urbanization, even with a “good enough” New Urban Agenda. The stakeholders are certainly keeping their fingers crossed.

/Shipra Narang Suri
Vice-President at General Assembly of Partners/ Habitat III

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