The opening line of the U. N. Charter reads “We the peoples”, but historically, multilateral decision-making in the rarefied halls of New York, Geneva and Vienna has been the purview of just a select few: diplomats, heads of state and U. N. officials.
Over the past 25 years, however, outsiders — everyone from well-heeled NGOs to women’s rights activists — have slowly made inroads into this global institution. Increasingly in U. N. negotiations, those with a stake in the matter at hand have been consulted and invited to participate.
That opportunity arrived this week for the collection of stakeholders interested in the future of the world’s cities ahead of this year’s Habitat III conference. The summit, which takes place in October in Quito, Ecuador, seeks to result in the New Urban Agenda, a 20-year guide to urbanization at the global level. The first draft of that agenda was released in early May, leading to the start of ongoing political negotiations on its details.
Over the past 14 months, a diverse coalition including academics, farmers, parliamentarians and indigenous people have come together under the umbrella of the General Assembly of Partners (GAP). They have organized constituencies across the world, sat in on the drafting committees of declarations emerging from the preparatory meetings of the Habitat III process, served on a services of “policy units” of experts contributing ideas to the New Urban Agenda and lobbied national governments for their cause.
With last month’s delivery of the New Urban Agenda’s “zero draft”, the GAP and its 15 constituencies were offered the chance to take the floor at the U. N. for two days of hearings with member states before diplomats turned to the matter of revising and negotiating the document. A similar set of hearings was held three weeks ago with local authorities.
Like at the previous set of hearings, civil society members this week were treated as equals with governments, given front-row seating in half of the room rather than being confined to the back rows as is customary. For two days, they covered the bread-and-butter issues of the New Urban Agenda — housing, land, planning, the informal economy — from a variety of perspectives. Scholars presented the latest research on urbanization while grass-roots women offered their lived experience of life in some of the world’s most difficult urban conditions.
Also as with the last set of hearings, attendance by member states was thin. Only about 20 out of 193 U. N. members showed up, and many of those sent sent junior staff in a notetaking capacity rather than engaging in dialogue with civil society.
However, that did not deter GAP President Eugénie Birch from seeing the benefits of the event. “We had a well-thought-out, balanced set of presentations representing all the partners who made substantive comments orally and in written form, which are now part of the record of contributions to the second draft of the New Urban Agenda,” she said.
Indeed, the new co-facilitator of the Habitat III process, Lourdes Yparraguirre of the Philippines, noted Wednesday that these contributions will be taken into consideration in the next revision of the draft text.
“You represent the diversity of the city,” said Maryse Gautier, the French co-chair of the Habitat II preparatory process. “Your requests, your demands are as diverse as you are.”
That diversity, however, narrowed into a specific message. The aim was to convince member states that a vocal constituency cares passionately about the future of urbanization and believes that the New Urban Agenda will be an effective tool to change the future of cities.
Moreover, groups argued during the hearings, the coalition that they have assembled under the GAP umbrella can serve as a partner going forward. For instance, they can help inform the New Urban Agenda’s provisions and implement them on the ground after Habitat III.
They got the chance to make that case when German diplomat Inga Beie asked, “What is your vision for partnerships at the global level in a post-Quito architecture?”
Shipra Narang Suri, the GAP’s vice-president, was ready to offer her wish list. “Whatever governance architecture is devised after Habitat III for the U. N., we would like that to incorporate or be mirrored by a multi-stakeholder panel or platform that allows stakeholders a seat at the table which is institutionalized — it is not a gift,” she said.
This call for a “seat at the table” echoed the demands of local authorities three weeks ago . In their case, they hoped for some kind of ‘special status’ in the U. N. system.
In civil society’s case, the GAP has laid out a specific proposal. “Partnerships for the new urban Agenda”, a report released earlier this year, calls for a U. N. international decade of sustainable urbanization, a knowledge platform, an advocacy arm, an innovation laboratory, a monitoring mechanism and an investment advisory committee.
“The word partnership is all over the zero draft,” Narang Suri noted. However, the devil is in the details. That key word, she said, is nowhere to be found in the section on data collection and analysis. “This is a shocking anomaly,” she said. “Data collection has to be participatory, bottom-up, shared data, everybody’s data, open data — because data defines what kinds of policies are set.”
As of now, however, the future of these proposals is in the hands of the few, rather than the many. Diplomats are currently negotiating the New Urban Agenda in a format known as informal intergovernmental negotiations, and initial comments from member states suggested lack of interest with regard to several key GAP proposals for post-Quito implementation mechanisms.
Further, those negotiations allow for only limited comments from outsiders — in this case, 30 minutes at the end of the second day of talks. Narang Suri again took the stage to make the GAP’s case.
“We urge you to seize on this historic moment to move the discourse forward; we urge you to not shy away from establishing precedents; we urge you to rely on GAP,” she said. “The world is not the same place as it was 20 years ago. New challenges have emerged, but so have new ideas, proposals and solutions.”