Once every 20 years the UN focuses on cities, but the wrong people will be there

September 28, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Urbanization guru David Satterthwaite raises the curtain on next month’s big Habitat III conference.

Sadiq Khan, I presume?

Sadiq Khan, I presume?


Surprising though it may seem, I once got mistaken for the mayor of London. I was at a conference for mayors in Latin America and not realising the mistake, for half a day I had all the most prominent mayors greeting me like a brother and asking my advice.

It was perhaps the only time in my 40 years of working on urban issues that I could have had some influence.

At least urban issues are now being more widely recognised. As Habitat III approaches (the once-every-20-years UN event that focuses on cities, 17-20 October in Quito, Ecuador), I see fewer claims that almost all poverty is in rural areas or that cities are parasitic, for example.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) even include a goal for cities (and a very ambitious goal too – making them inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable). On climate too, the Paris Agreement acknowledges their importance for climate change adaptation and mitigation, and the latest IPCC Assessment recognises that cities can combine good quality of life with low greenhouse gas emissions, backed by evidence of what innovative cities have achieved.

The international network of ‘disaster’ agencies got the importance of risk reduction in urban areas some years ago – see the Sendai framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The international networks of humanitarian agencies now realize that many refugees and displaced people go to urban areas and that policies to support them need to change.  And the key role of cities and urban systems in economic growth and in innovation are now recognised.


Washing in Dharavi, an informal settlement in India's financial capital Mumbai. Around the world more than 800 million urban dwellers live without water piped to their premises and an even larger number cope with poor sanitation. (Photo: Lecercle, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Washing in Dharavi, an informal settlement in India’s financial capital Mumbai. Around the world more than 800 million urban dwellers live without water piped to their premises and an even larger number cope with poor sanitation.
(Photo: Lecercle, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The key actors in all this – urban governments, urban voters, and local civil society organisations (including those formed by the people whose needs are not met) – have very little say. If they had more influence, then 880 million urban dwellers would not still live without water piped to their premises and an even larger number would not have to cope with lousy (or no) sanitation.

Jockin Arputham, the head of India’s National Slum Dwellers Federation, remarked that when he first came to Mumbai, he had to use “air conditioned toilets” i.e. defecating in the open. Hundreds of millions still do.

Who sets the goals?

Of course international goals and commitments are made by national government representatives, even when most of the action needed (at least in urban areas) fall within the responsibilities of urban governments.  But local governments never get to be part of this goal-setting.

A twitter poll set up by Accenture asked readers to vote on who was the biggest actor in delivering the SDGs (@AccentureStrat). Local government, local voters or community organisations were not even included as options. According to the poll, business is the biggest actor.

The United Nations processes that generate these goals and commitments have tried to allow civil society groups to make their recommendations. So a vast range of groups and alliances have formed to push their chosen priority, each with different needs that have to be addressed (infants, young children, migrants, refugees…) or different issues (water, sanitation, air pollution, particular diseases, urban agriculture…).  They end up competing with each other for attention to their chosen priority in the commitments and goals.

What is needed is support for the local processes driven by local needs, local groups and local capabilities with the needs of those with the unmet needs the SDGs are meant to address being centre stage.

A new urban agenda?

So now we have Habitat III in October 2016. It is meant to agree on “The New Urban Agenda” to support urban governments to meet the SDGs.  But the focus so far has been on repeating all the same commitments made before with very little attention on how they will be implemented.

There is a lack of focus on local government capacity and accountability (central to delivering most SDGs) and at best ‘the poor’ are seen as passive recipients. At worst they and their needs are invisible.

Yet again, national governments will make long lists of solemn commitments that they will not or even cannot meet without local government and local civil society.  And this is the case even though local governments have become better organised in networks that seek to get more attention to local agendas – for instance through United Cities and Local Governments, ICLEI and C-40.

Many local governments have made their own commitments to climate change mitigation.  Wouldn’t the SDGs have a lot more validity if local governments made their own commitments to addressing them, with their performance monitored by their population?

Avoiding tokenism

At least in Latin America, there are many strong examples of elected mayors and city governments showing what is possible and being accountable to their populations. Perhaps their role might one day be recognised.

And sometimes a little space is given in UN meetings for representatives from slum/shack/homeless people’s federations that have developed in over 30 nations. Once they have spoken, a box gets ticked. But this is using urban poor groups to legitimate the international agenda rather than an international agenda that legitimates the urban poor’s agenda.

David Satterthwaite is a senior fellow in IIED’s Human Settlements Group.

September 28, 2016
Duncan Green