un habitat mistra urban futures

Reorganising UN-Habitat

Mistra Urban Futures’ Director, David Simon, reflects on a new report on the future of UN-Habitat and urban issues within the UN system

The Report of the High Level Independent Panel to Assess and Enhance Effectiveness of UN-Habitat, has just been made public. Its remit was to undertake an evidence-based assessment and to make recommendations to enhance UN-Habitat’ accountability in its normative and operational mandates; its governance structure; its partnerships; and its financial capability.

The report was commissioned by the UN Secretary-General in the light of longstanding questions about the performance and capacity of the specialist UN human settlements programme. The issues were highlighted again during negotiations to formulate the New Urban Agenda (NUA) adopted by the UN at the Habitat III summit in Quito last October because of the step change in resourcing and capacity required across the UN system as a whole if there is to be meaningful progress in implementation of the NUA and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The report makes clear and coherent recommendations that have a logical consistency and dovetail well with what many researchers and other observers involved in the Urban SDG campaign and preparation of the NUA have been advocating. It also seeks to address the shortcomings of the current roles, governance structure and financing arrangements of UN-Habitat, while simultaneously enhancing the capacity and ability of the specialist agency and the UN system as a whole to meet the challenges of urban transitions in the context of rapid global change. Central to achieving this recommendation is the establishment of UN-Urban as a New York-based co-ordinating committee of high calibre staff within UNDESA to ensure effective integration of the Urban SDG and NUA across all UN agencies. This is envisaged to operate in a comparable way to UN Energy and UN Water.

Importantly, the valuable role of the World Urban Forum is also recognised and should become institutionalised in this broader context. These recommendations are welcome, although much will inevitably depend on how substantively they are implemented, together with adequate funding as proposed in the report.

In particular, I welcome the importance that the report attaches to retaining UN-Habitat’s dual normative and operational role, rather than separating them as some member states had been advocating, with appropriate rebalancing and reorganisation to chime with the new mission and broader UN reorganisation.

Importantly, too, and related to the previous point, the report recommends strengthening UN-Habitat’s staffing in Nairobi and regional offices as well as in New York. This will avoid relegating Nairobi into a purely operational hub as some had been advocating. The recommendation to relocate the regional offices to the cities where the respective UN Regional Economic Commissions are based will be controversial on account of vested interests and staff inertia but could well assist the task of UN-wide embedding of the NUA and SDG 11.

Naturally, too, the recommendations have cost implications and there is worry, not least within UN-Habitat itself, that there is unlikely to be increased funding from the UN member states commensurate with the expanded remit and staffing proposed, particularly if UN Urban is established too. Resources within UN-Habitat may thus be cut further in practice. UN-Habitat has actually suffered reduced funding over recent years as a result of reductions or withdrawal of contributions by key OECD donors to reflect their concerns at its past performance.

Initial reactions worldwide have been mixed – see e.g. Citiscope's article

The report can be found at the UN website in pdf format.