HIC Clarity in New UN Habitat Civic Engagement
Habitat International Coalition has issued an open letter to UN Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohammed Sharif, calling for clarity in the intended—and indispensable—cooperation of civil society and other stakeholders with the reforming agency.
Since the UN Members States’ adoption of the “New Urban Agenda” as UN Habitat’s normative framework in 2016 and the appointment of new leadership in 2017, the UN General Assembly has called for a new system of governance for the relatively small and shrinking agency. This included a promise of a new Stakeholder Engagement Policy (SEP) to be delivered by February 2019, in order to allow for its review and consideration in advance of the first convening of the new, all-state UN Habitat Assembly in 27–31 May 2019, where the policy is to be adopted.
However, UN Habitat has produced no such policy document to date.
The HIC open letter urged clarity from the Executive Director toward a rational and consultative approach to stakeholder engagement. A more-specific HIC proposal calls for a civil society mechanism that is distinct from the platforms of the past, instead allowing each constituency group to organize itself to have more-representative and substantive input into the partnership. That proposal draws on more-successful models already operating within the UN system, but not yet tried in the UN Habitat sphere, in order to achieve a synergy that is also fit for purpose.
That is not to say that UN Habitat and the Habitat Agenda processes have not been innovative and progressive in the past. The agency used to claim UN leadership in organizing civic engagement in the processes toward Habitat II (1996). HIC also acknowledged that history in a graphic and narrative, presenting milestones of civic participation in cooperation with UN Habitat. Projected on the graphic is a “ladder of participation,” applying social science criteria to measure the degrees and quality of civic engagement in policy decision making and implementation. The history reveals notable ups and downs, but none like the present ambiguity.
HIC Members, officers, Board representatives and Wisdom Keepers took these reflections and proposals the first UNHA at Nairobi in May 2019. There, HIC participated in the “Global Stakeholder Forum,” which issued a collective declaration “Toward a New Stakeholder Compact for the New Urban Agenda.”
HIC also organized a special inter-active event, entitled“Visions of People-centered Partnership,” in collaboration with UN Habitat’s stakeholder Youth Caucus, to collect participants’ perspectives and recommendations for the new relationship.
HIC Board Member Ify Ofong (Women in Development and Environment, Nigeria) opened the session, and HIC former president and Wisdom Keeper (Davinder Lamba (Mazingira Institute, Kenya) welcomed the participants. Davinder shared the HICstory of advocating strong and effective partnership of diverse civil society organizations and municipalities since UN Habitat’s inception 43 years ago.
Nairobi’s former Mayor Joe Aketch (2003–04) reflected on the trends in civic engagement over the years. He noted the increasing commercialization of local public administration over time that has made many municipalities more responsive to business interests than to citizens, and made a case for greater civic engagement.
Joseph Schechla, coordinator of HIC-HLRN in the MENA region, presented the methodology and outcome of UN Habitat stakeholder-engagement review, then opened the floor for the participants to express their visions of people-centered participation to be channeled to the Concept Committee that has emerged from the previous weekend’s Global Stakeholders Forum, and through the UN Habitat Executive Director’s newly appointed Stakeholder Advisory Group.
The comments and questions from the participants were critical of existing structures and aligned with the UN General Assembly’s call for UN Habitat to rationalize its stakeholder engagement. The participants reflected the UN Habitat suggestion for a self-organized mechanism and coincided with HIC’s proposal for a self-organized civil society mechanism for UN Habitat. More specifically, the participant observations and recommendations called for:
- A thorough review and re-assessment of civil society’s role in cooperation with UN Habitat, considering the interactivity within UN Habitat policy spaces against evaluation criteria to focus on creating and developing alternative civic-engagement structures and processes.
- Re-thinking civil strategy to ensure the regular engagement of grassroots groups and communities affected by housing and habitat development projects, including the small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples among the Habitat Agenda Partners that have been left behind by the narrowing of the previous Habitat Agenda into a “New Urban Agenda.”
- Taking advantage of the historic lessons learnt and experiences from the “wisdom keepers” and human rights defenders in civil society and their struggles over the past decades.
- Advocating alternatives to the trend of commercialization/commodification of basic human needs and services in the local and national spheres that have become a detriment to people’s right to an adequate standard of living and livelihood even greater than classic corruption.
- Expanding opportunities to collaborate and engage with local government and municipalities, which—like civil society—have been intermittently excluded from the global policy-making processes, notably in UN Habitat.
- Recalling the UN Charter in order to hold UN Habitat and its offices to their policy-coherence duty of integrating and simultaneously operationalizing the Charter’s three purposeful pillars: human rights, sustainable development and peace and security.
- Orienting the new self-organized stakeholder mechanism(s) accordingly to build capacity and to distribute efforts in a complementary manner, building on lessons learnt over the past decades, while continuing and reinforcing engagement with UN Habitat in the future.
- Ensuring that any new stakeholder-engagement mechanism(s) enable free and critical thinking to be expressed to UN Habitat without forcing consensus and, thus, homogenizing messages to their lowest common denominator by mixing self-interested stakeholders with publicly interested and plural-interest serving civil society organizations.
- Applying the repeatedly learnt lesson that top-down appointed stakeholder bodies of self-representing individuals invariably fail to achieve legitimacy, credibility or relevance among constituents.
- Reviewing and comparatively analyzing current stakeholder mechanisms across the UN System to arrive at one, or a hybrid model that best suits the diverse civil society among the multiple stakeholders and purposes of UN Habitat and the NUA. This recommendation coincides with the expectation that the Stakeholder Engagement Forum’s Concept Committee produce a proposal for the engagement mechanism(s) to be presented at World Urban Forum 10 (2020).
HIC-HLRN “Charting UN Habitat-Stakeholder Engagement” (chart)
HIC Open Letter to UN Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohammad Sharif
Extended version of “Milestones of UN Habitat Cooperation with Stakeholders: Forward and Backward” (chronology)
HIC proposed civil society mechanism for UN Habitat
Global Stakeholder Forum declaration “Toward a New Stakeholder Compact for the New Urban Agenda