Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda: What Role Will Civil Society Play?

Photo By: Kerry Lannert

As our world grows and global migration increases, humanitarian and development organizations are increasingly acknowledging the challenges associated with rapid and unplanned urbanization.

Today, after 20 years, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) begins in Quito, Ecuador. By the time it ends on Oct. 21, most participating states will have agreed to the New Urban Agenda (NUA) – a guide for a range of actors for the next 20 years. The question remains, however, what role civil society will play in the implementation of the Agenda.

It is worth noting that 33 NGOs were granted special accreditation to the conference, and InterAction, in partnership with some of its members, was selected to host two of its events. Though this is an exciting achievement for NGOs, the question of civil society engagement as a whole cannot be addressed without first recognizing the historical context.

Habitat Conferences over the Years

The challenge of rapid urbanization was recognized at the first UN conference on Human settlements (Habitat-I) in 1976. The conference resulted in the Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements and eventually in the formation of UN-Habitat. The declaration primarily focused on housing and its environments at the national level, but left out those who understand, advocate, and deal with these issues on a day to day basis: the local governments and the civil societies.

During Habitat II in Istanbul, 1996, civil society and the local governments were better organized and better engaged in the negotiations, partly due to the inroads made by the civil activists during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Habitat II resulted in the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements, as well as the Habitat Agenda, both of which shaped the global strategy for the next 20 years. Both, however, lacked targets and evaluations.

Now, after two-year consultations and negotiations by governments, we meet again for Habitat III to agree on a New Urban Agenda. While many NGOs and civil society groups are attending the conference in Quito, there was minimal engagement during the past two years of consultations and negotiations. This often comes down to limited resources and existing commitments due to significant increase in global crises. However many humanitarian, development, and other civil society organizations must bear the reality of opportunity costs – dealing with unfavorable regulations, a lack of inclusiveness, and top-down goal setting.

But it’s not too late. Civil society organizations must engage in ensuring their voices are heard and contribute to the development of targets and indicators for the implementation of the NUA. As urban environments are becoming more prone to crises and draw more resources from humanitarian and development assistance, shaping the Agenda and its implementation during the next two decades is more important than ever.

Civil Society Space at Habitat III

With this in mind, InterAction and six of its members will host a networking event on Oct. 18, highlighting new approaches, challenges, and lessons learned in responding to humanitarian crises in some of the most complex urban environments. We will provide practical examples on how stakeholders are addressing some of the most pressing issues that cities face, with links to the NUA. Representatives of municipalities of Athens, Greece, Gaziantep, Turkey, and Portoviejo, Ecuador will also share their experience in addressing ongoing crises and their partnerships with humanitarian actors.

A second session will explore new partnerships between city governments, the private sector, donors, and civil society and the need for effective and cohesive strategies between them. This session will be held as a “market place” and is open to other participating organizations and coalitions to showcase their expertise.

Finally, InterAction members and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will facilitate a three-hour training session, focusing on best practices in post-disaster shelter and settlements assistance and advancing Housing Land and Property (HLP) issues.

Opportunities for Humanitarian and Civil Groups

New and existing challenges in urban environments require integrated interventions that address the underlying causes of vulnerability, and link to long-term development. While traditional approaches to humanitarian crises were siloed, civil society organizations have been discussing new and integrated approaches that cut across several sectors, including housing, health, and livelihoods. Local stakeholders are key partners in improving risk analysis and awareness, and sustaining prevention and risk reduction practices. As civil society looks to implement the NUA, organizations must continue to engage and collectively shape strategies for integrated humanitarian responses in urban areas, with an emphasis on multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder collaboration at the local level.