This first session of the PrepCom provided the context and set the tone for the preparatory process. Delegates stated their initial positions and identified areas of convergence and divergence. The negotiations were in their early phase and the focus of the PrepCom was on identifying and defining the issues and exchanging statements of initial positions. In large measure this PrepCom dealt with process. Key substantive issues, such as the focus of the Conference and participation, have been raised but not resolved.
At the beginning of the PrepCom, many States were unclear as to what the goals and objectives would be, who would participate and what would be the major outcomes. Consequently, the PrepCom was characterized by a lack of focus. Many interventions did not relate to the topic under discussion but, rather, reflected concerns and hopes that delegates had brought with them from their capitals.
While a substantial portion of the substance of Habitat II focuses on environmental issues, the Conference does not have the conflicts that characterize other environmental negotiations. Whereas climate, biodiversity, ozone and acid rain negotiations focus on international issues that must be addressed collectively and States must agree on a single strategy, Habitat II is about national issues that can only be addressed at the national level. Because all governments share these problems, this PrepCom was less like a negotiation and more like a collaborative effort to develop appropriate strategies to deal with a common problem. The cooperation and communication between developing and developed countries was in marked contrast to that witnessed at other environmental negotiations. However, there are some nascent conflicts, notably North-South, that have appeared in the discussion over indicators and, predictably, on funding. However, since this was the first PrepCom, where agreement is needed mostly on broad issues and directions rather than on specific commitments these conflicts were not divisive.
Since there is a lack of awareness and understanding of how these national problems can be addressed at the global level the turn out was disappointing. Most States did not send delegations from their Capitals, but relied on their Permanent Representatives in Geneva. Many States were not represented at all or provided token representation with delegates attending very few sessions. While the issues related to human settlements have broadened considerably since Habitat I to encompass social, environmental and human rights agendas, many governments still perceive these issues as being focused broadly on housing and shelter. (Most of the government delegates from the capitals were from housing departments.) In part, this is because Habitat I and the work of UNCHS has traditionally focused on housing. The issue is not a priority for many governments at the international level, as reflected in their commitment to this process.
Perhaps governments were not in attendance because they were nervous of the political ramifications of focusing attention on human settlement issues. Providing settlements is a key function of modern governance, and blame for inadequate settlements could possibly be politically damaging, despite the fact that this Conference has shown that supplying the myriad of urban functions and qualities is no easy task. The adoption of indicators is also seen by some as a threat because transparent and accurate indicators intrinsically highlight the human settlement failures of governments. Most governments already address many of the broader human settlements issues across a range of departments and ministries. With little extra effort governments could probably fully participate in Habitat II.
Many participants, including government delegates, the Secretariat and NGOs, lamented the lack of non-profit NGO representation. Only a handful of non-profit NGOs participated in the proceedings, but none of the major environmental groups were represented. For-profit NGOs, such as architect and building suppliers organizations, had a far greater attendance. The low turn-out of non-profit NGOs mirrored the attendance of the delegates. In part this is because most non-profit NGOs working on human settlements issues are grassroots groups whose agendas do not span international conferences. There was only one network NGO in attendance that represented some 300 grassroots NGOs and community-based organizations -- Habitat International Coalition. The coalition's goal is to ensure that national plans of action are implemented and to act as watchdogs in the process.
It was felt by some that the lack of understanding of the linkages between this Conference and other environmental conferences was the main reason for low attendance on the part of those traditionally involved in environmental matters. One-half of the world's population live in cities and are affected daily by the degradation of urban environments. 600 million people already live in "health and life" threatening situations due to sub-standard housing, unclean water and poor sanitation. Rapid urban population growth is exacerbating the often mutually reinforcing effects of poverty and environmental damage in human settlements. NGOs have a lot to contribute to this process both by providing technical expertise and raising awareness. For example, groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth have already formed large coalitions that include grassroots groups that focus on clean air and clean water. These larger groups have a lot to contribute to Habitat II. Yet, any speculation on the role of NGOs in future sessions of the PrepCom is dependent on decisions to be made by governments on their participation.
The role of NGOs was unlike the traditional role they play in environmental conferences. This PrepCom was extremely open to NGOs, industry groups and local government representatives. Whereas in some of the post-UNCED conferences NGOs have been excluded from closed meetings, at this session NGOs were given the same rights as other delegates throughout the PrepCom and most States welcomed their participation. Their interventions were not limited to a short period at the end of each session, but rather they took the floor in turn with the State representatives and some of their interventions were supported by other delegates and reflected in final documents. Each Drafting Group consisted not only of one representative from each of the five UN geographical groups but also included one non-profit NGO representative. Many delegations also included NGO representatives. However, in drafting the final text, a small group of countries (India, Brazil, Poland, Mexico and Cuba) fought to limit the future participation of NGOs. The compromise reached allows States freedom to choose their own rules of access for NGO participation at the national level. Dr. N'Dow attended several NGO meetings to seek support and advice and to encourage them to remain involved in the process.
An interesting aspect of this Conference is that the groups whose interests conform most closely to those of the conveners and organizers of the Conference are the NGOs. Thus, this will be an interesting process to watch because of the potential extensive involvement of NGOs in formal and informal capacities and the resonance of NGO interests with others who are promoting Habitat concerns. This is in some contrast to many other international sustainable development negotiations where NGOs play extensive roles, but are only involved peripherally in the negotiation process. The visibility and constructive contributions of NGOs here may be additionally important as support for the broad reforms now debated throughout the UN system, notably the expansion of ECOSOC rules of NGO access.
The key issue that must be resolved soon is the central focus of the Conference. This is essential both because the Conference needs a focal point around which its efforts can revolve, and because the Conference needs an inspirational salience that can promote its message from the local to the international levels. As it stands, the Conference has remarkably similar structure to the Habitat I Conference, the 1972 Stockholm Conference and 1992 UNCED Conference and many others. Namely, delegates are preparing to adopt a set of principles and an agenda for action. The effectiveness of principles by themselves is mixed, and previous conferences have clearly shown that agendas for action become Christmas trees upon which every symbolic and real concern is hung. The system of national reports has appropriately received much attention in this first PrepCom, and if UNCED is a guide, then the process of national reporting could prove to be an effective part of the Habitat II preparations because it forces governments to take stock of where they stand, where policies might be reformed, and generally to increase awareness of these issues. However, moving to more concrete outcomes will require greater convergence of focus. "Cities" is the most logical candidate for the Conference's focus, and clearly the problems of urban development merit this kind of systematic attention. But at this early stage, there is unfortunately not yet full convergence on the idea that this is a Conference about cities.
While human settlements issues do not enjoy the same attention given to other sustainable development issues, several participants noted their cross-sectoral nature and the many other agencies and organizations that have overlapping agendas. The paradox is that while limited resources have been devoted to Habitat II, these issues have been and will be addressed in many other events. The Netherlands asked the Secretariat to produce a list of overlapping activities and to indicate how the input and results from these activities could be used in this Conference. This is likely to assist the work of the next PrepCom, and will give delegates a better sense of other inter-related activities at the national level. Many of the UNCED-related activities have had, and will have, a direct impact on this process. Agenda 21, the major output of UNCED and a blueprint of action for the implementation of sustainable development, comprises an "programme area" dedicated to human settlements. The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) is charged with monitoring the implementation of Agenda 21. One of the major themes of the CSD this year is a review of Chapter 7 of Agenda 21 on Human Settlements. Based upon contributions from a wide range of UN agencies and organizations, the Habitat Centre has prepared the report on Human Settlements for the CSD. Additionally, national governments are required to submit national reports on their implementation of Agenda 21 to the CSD this year. These reports will have considerable overlap with the national reports being prepared for Habitat II. As highlighted by Barbados, the UN Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States also addresses the issue of human settlements. The Conference of the Status of Women to be held in Beijing next year will have human settlement concerns on their agenda. The women's groups attending this PrepCom hoped that the measures taken in Beijing will have an impact on the Habitat II process. In addition, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the World Summit for Social Development have obvious overlap. Notably, increasing population pressure and migration between rural and urban areas lie at the center of human settlement problems. There are many other forthcoming Conferences and Meetings (both within and outside the UN system) that have substantially overlapping agendas.
The leadership has offered very helpful guidance and inspiration. The fact that UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali opened the PrepCom demonstrated high level attention to these issues and, thus, offered a boost from the UN system to a Conference that has been concerned about whether it could garner enough support and attention. Delegates also expressed confidence in the leadership of Ms. Elizabeth Dowdswell and Dr. Wally N'Dow who have given detailed attention and priority to the Conference. The Secretariat receives broad praise for working with very limited resources and providing helpful background papers, logistics, and organizing frameworks.
Nevertheless, financial support is severely lacking for this process. The Conference currently has donor commitments for approximately one-tenth of the financing needed for the preparatory process to be carried out to its full extent. On one hand the Conference comes at the end of a long stream of international activities on sustainable development and thus offers an opportunity to meld the many cross-cutting sectors that affect the quality of the human urban environment. But, unfortunately, this opportunity also accompanies a pervasive conference fatigue, leading to reluctance by many to participate in, and fund, the preparation of another major international event. Yet, sustainable development of the urban environment clearly offers an opportunity to put sustainable development into practice in a setting that affects much of the world's population and which offers among the greatest challenges to a livable environment.
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