UN Urban: The Politics of language in Human Settlements Financing


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 organisations. UN Habitat is 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 form 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 UN Habitat as it work 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 institution, where the second conference strengthened and now the third is guiding the institution’s reform.

Habitat Conferences: The Transformation Lever of UN-Habitat

The flagship United Nations Conferences guides the establishment and transformation of UN Habitat on Human Settlements, which are 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, which incites instant solutions by governments to get rid of slums. Nevertheless, the UN introduced the “Cities Without Slums” initiative to particularly publicize the seriousness of informal settlements in developing countries to development financiers in efforts to attract more funding for slum upgrading. Thus, the matter of language became critical in raising the sense of urgency for financial support to the slum upgrading cause.

Scope Versus Strength in UN-Habitat Mandates Reforms

When reforming a poorly performing organisation, there is always a tendency to adopt reforms that reduces the scope of the organisation to make best use of resource. However, risks exist of subsequent weakening of the organisation’s strength if it relies on resources from its broader scope. One of the key influences 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 as operational portfolio are efforts to expand the relevance of the organisation under declining core funding.  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 normative budget, UN Habitat has been regarded as a consulting agency given the way it solicit funding outside the UN for operational work. This has been a result of 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 of UN Habitat and the need to strengthen its normative role. Nevertheless, the funding trends also show 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 however, 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 event of decline in interest generated by establishment of UN Urban, UN Habitat remain the guardian agency of urban issues in the UN system.

Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda is a senior research associate at the African Urban Institute. His research and technical advisory work covers the transformation of cities across Africa focusing on land use planning, urban renewal and municipal reform. His most recent book, Dystopia, discusses the fragmentation caused by specialist approaches to the development of African cities.


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