UN Urban: The Politics of Language in Human Settlements Financing

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In the international development, the emergence of new ideas and policy issues as well as scarce funding for development have led to the notion of transform or perish among development organisation. UN Habitat has been one organisation on the periphery of the UN system facing relevance and funding challenges as urban issues evolve and proliferate in language and scope.

The assessment on the effectiveness of UN Habitat by a High Level Independent Panel appointed by the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres concluded with a flagship recommendation, establishment of UN Urban. Proposed as a coordinating agency, UN Urban will bring together UN agencies on urban issues that forms the current operational work of UN Habitat. Thus, it will pool funding, expertise, interest and knowledge on implementation of the New Urban Agenda across the UN system. This came after three major findings by the panel. The findings include (i) tensions between normative and operational roles of the organisation thus working at both policy and technical levels, (ii) bureaucratic governance structures and (iii) financial incapacity. Normative work implies the norms, policies, standards and framework that govern human settlements while operational work is the tangible, technical projects in the field.

Established in 1978, UN-Habitat is a non-resident agency of the United Nations headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. It has four regional offices (Africa in Nairobi; the Arab States in Cairo; Asia and the Pacific in Fukuoka; Latin America and the Caribbean in Rio de Janeiro). It also has five Liaison and information offices in developed countries and 55 country offices. In its existence, the Habitat Conferences are a turnaround and pivotal to the transformation of UN Habitat. The first conference led to the formation of the organisation, where the second conference strengthened and now the third is guiding the institution’s reform.

Habitat Conference: The Transformational Lever of UN-Habitat

The establishment and transformation of UN Habitat is guided by the flagship United Nations Conferences on Human Settlements (Habitat I II III) held every 20 years. In these conferences, the UN Habitat has been using transformation language and expansion of mandates to survive the funding challenges that development organisations face in an ever-increasing competitive world of development financing. Formed from Habitat I Conference by amalgamation of the Commission on Human Settlements and United Nation Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS Habitat) it became UN-Habitat in 1978. In the late 1990s the organisation faced an identity crisis and funding difficulties. The Habitat II in 1996 with the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements and the Habitat Agenda incorporated some trending issues into the urban agenda. These include poverty eradication, sustainability, environmental protection, respect of human rights and freedom restoring the relevance of the organisation. The increased portfolio was strengthened by UN Habitat turned into a programme in 2002, the UN Human Settlements Programme and appointment of a new director, Anna Tibaijuka who changed the face of the organisation. The Habitat III conference held in Quito in 2016 placed cities at the centre of achieving sustainable development though the New Urban Agenda. The recommendations from the Habitat conferences have been to increase the relevance of urban development as an “idea in good currency” for funding competitiveness.

The Decline of Funding for Urban Development

The intensity of funding decline for human settlements programmes was recognised as early as 2005. Major partners of Cities Alliance (such as UN Habitat, USAID, SIDA, World Bank, CIDA, GTZ, DFID) iterated the increasing competition for funding from other development issues. These issues washed away the public support for urban development compared to other issues such as conflicts, HIV/AIDS pandemics, and post-conflict reconstruction. The notion of funding availability for urban development in the age of competing funding needs relies on whether urban development is still an “idea in good currency” or not. As powerful for public policy formulation, Donald Schön characterised “an idea in good currency” as an idea that “…change over time; obey a law of limited numbers; and lag behind changing events”. Resilience of ideas against being driven out by new ideas is pertinent. This is particularly so for urban development which began in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the now UN Habitat was formed at the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I).

Several ideas have become of good currency ranking higher in international policy agenda partly attributed to a matter of language and paradigm shift. Sustainable development, good governance (relating to wider set of environmentalism and democratisation) which are more appealing to Western publics are encompassing the concept of urban. A good example is the World Bank that moved from the ‘Site and Services’ projects it offered in the 1970s particularly housing to address challenges up the chain of housing delivery, corruption. Thus, it now mainly focuses on good governance of institutions that provide urban services. Struggling informal settlements upgrading in a world of rights, conflicts, environmental crisis has led to UN reintroduce the controversial term ‘slum’ into the habitat vocabulary, through the Cities Alliance initiative, “Cities Without Slums”. This is a dangerous term as Alan Gilbert warned on the negative connotation associated with it and the incite instant solutions by government so get rid of slums. Nevertheless, the UN introduced the initiative to particularly publicise the seriousness of informal settlements in developing countries to development financiers in efforts to attract more funding for slum upgrading.

Scope versus Strength in UN-Habitat Mandates Reform

One of the key influence to the proposal for establishment of UN Urban is the tensions between normative and operational work of UN Habitat. Financial incapacity is a major influence behind operational work overshadowing normative work. It is critical to consider that reducing UN Habitat’s scope (from operational and normative to just normative) will not reduce its strength as an ‘urban champion’. UN Habitat’s normative work is supported by non-earmarked core funding while operational work receives support through field projects, technical cooperation funds and special purpose funds. As operational budget, is greater than the critical normative, the organisation has been regarded as a consulting agency given the way to explore funding outside the UN for operational work. This has been attributed to decreasing core funding that left UN Habitat with no choice but to solicit operational work beyond the UN.

The Panel found that member states are worried about the declining normative work by the UN Habitat and the need to strengthen its normative role. Also, the funding trends also shows worrying figures regarding the future of normative work. In the SG’s report on reform of the development system, decline of funding over the past 10 years is noted as funding continue to decrease. UN Habitat’s budget comprise of UN regular budget allocations, UN Habitat and Human Settlements Foundation contributions and technical cooperation contributions. The decline of regular budget funding and the foundation’s general purpose funding for UN Habitat’s normative work (about 7 percent budget in 2016 or 11.5 percent if overhead are included) has led to increased reliance on technical cooperation funding and the foundation’s special purpose funding amounting to 88 percent of the overall funding in 2016. The panel highlighted the straying of UN Habitat from its mandate has led to loss of trust by its funding sources. It is critical to explore how the tighter focus on normative work will ensure adequate funding to sustain UN Habitat throughout the next twenty years given the ever-declining UN system funds. By reducing its scope, the proposal should make sure they do not weaken UN Habitat’s strength as the ‘urban champion’ in implementation of the NUA. Thus, research should be highlighted and play a critical role in bridging the normative work and operational work to be coordinated by the UN Urban. Elevation of the role of research will also strengthen the synergy between normative work and the operational work that will be coordinated by the newly established agency, UN Urban.

The successful establishment of UN Urban will be pivotal in placing urban agenda at the core of the UN system as various agencies contribute their share and collaborate. In the smoothening of normative and operational mandates of UN Habitat it is critical to ensure the strength of UN Habitat is enhanced for in events of the interest generated by establishment of UN Urban declines, UN Habitat remain the guardian agency of urban issues in the UN system.


Schön, Donald A (1971), Beyond the Stable State, Temple Smith, London, pages 123–124.

United Nations, (2017) Report of the High Level Independent Panel to Assess and Enhance Effectiveness of UN-Habitat. Advance Unedited Version 01 August 2017

Gilbert Alan (2008) The Return of the Slum: Does Language Matter? International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 31(4) 697–713


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Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda is a senior researcher and director of policy advisory at the African Urban Institute. His latest book, Transpolitical Cities delves into the evolution of cities under the new forms of capitalism and socialism.

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