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A BRIEF ANALYSIS OF PREPCOM III

With his opening observation that Habitat II—the culminating global conference of the century—would motivate the world to make sustainable human settlements the rule and not the exception in the 21st century, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali signaled a rhetorical tone that was to inform many of the interventions from the podium at PrepCom III. Habitat II Secretary-General Dr. Wally N'Dow followed up with a warning that the rapidly urbanizing world stands at the crossroads between unequaled promise and unparalleled disaster. The tone perhaps best served to heighten awareness of the gaps that opened up between the rhetoric and reality in the days that followed, notably the gap between organizational capacity and the aspirations of the organizers. One observer suggested that the PrepCom had been struck by a condition recently described as P.M.T. (Pre-Millennial Tension).

Delegations confronted two sets of challenges at the PrepCom: 1) to begin the delayed review of the draft statement of Principles and Global Plan of Action, an agenda intended to chart a course to the creation of conditions for achieving improvements in the living environment of all people on a sustainable basis; and 2) to deal with organizational/political issues, including the modalities of realizing the Secretariat's commitment to enhanced participation by NGOs and local authorities, questions of financial transparency, and weaknesses in PrepCom management, which resulted in lost negotiating time and a subsequent failure to review the entire draft. The latter challenges seemed destined to taint delegates' consideration of institutional follow-up and implementation of the Habitat Agenda, including the question of the future of the UN Centre for Human Settlements and the Commission on Human Settlements. While most questions regarding a US$1.4 million loan from the Habitat Foundation and other funding for Habitat II were dealt with at PrepCom, there are continuing demands for an audit to clarify the standing of the Conference budget. Over 90% of the Habitat budget has come from "non-traditional sources," and US$347,000 is still needed to cover the projected costs of supporting the participation of developing countries.

In the end, while delegations, notably the G-77/China at close of Plenary, were forced to appeal for improved organization and accountability by the Bureau in Istanbul, there was an emerging consensus that significant improvements to the draft text had been introduced. "We may not win a Nobel prize for literature, but on reading the translated texts it is clear we have succeeded in improving the original drafts," said one delegate. Once the pace of negotiations picked up, delegates found the atmosphere with their colleagues "productive and constructive." Some, however, said they were a "little confused" about both content and quality. One delegate reported progress in a number of sections of the draft, including the environment and the role of local authorities. This provided an essential link between the Habitat Agenda and the on-going processes toward sustainable development. There was no shortage of views and explanations among delegates regarding the issue of organization.

ORGANIZATION: When delegates were asked to comment on the Habitat Secretariat's organization and management of the PrepCom they inevitably requested to speak "off the record." Many familiar with other UN conferences noted certain weaknesses in the Habitat process. One described the situation as a "great mess," another a "great disappointment." Translating their views into "diplo-speak," the same delegates pronounced that there had been a lack of resources—partly related to the lack of financial resources. Additional explanations included the fact that the Secretariat had come from outside New York, needed time to settle in, and demonstrated a lack of the technical competence required to run a PrepCom. Providing examples of these shortcomings, several delegates described how proper records of decisions had not been kept at negotiating sessions. Some felt that the Secretariat had also resisted advice proffered by experienced personnel in national delegations. Echoing the problems with accurate note taking, an NGO representative pointed out that technology for instantaneous word processing and overhead projection of text agreed upon during meetings was available at UN headquarters and could have saved days of work for both the Secretariat and Working Groups.

An adviser to Dr. N'Dow explained that some of the problems at PrepCom III dated back to earlier stages in the preparatory process. Time had been wasted early in the process and delegates did not get into the "negotiating mode" as early as they should have, due to uncertainty about leadership. A decision was made at the outset to have both the UNCHS and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) come under the leadership of one Secretary-General. That decision was reversed a year later, resulting in the late appointment of Dr. N'Dow, who had to put the Conference together in only two years. The delay meant that even after preparatory meetings in Geneva and Nairobi, only a "Secretariat owned" text emerged, instead of one forged by the PrepCom.

THE PARTNERSHIP AND PARALLEL ACTIVITIES: In his statements to the PrepCom, Dr. N'Dow repeatedly underlined his commitment to the partnership principle, and the considerable challenge faced by Habitat in mobilizing a constituency for Habitat II. This challenge was compounded by the maturity and development of the Habitat Agenda since the Vancouver Conference in 1976. In the initial preparations stage for Habitat II, the Secretariat targeted a limited range of NGOs who reflected the narrower agenda. Environment and development NGOs were drawn into the process at a later stage. Nevertheless, a number of key players from a range of effective NGOs turned up at PrepCom III, while the vast majority were attending their first UN meeting. As one seasoned NGO lobbyist commented, "there was a lot of floating around in the corridors," something that often happens at PrepComs but a phenomenon that was heightened by the circumstances leading up to PrepCom III.

NGOs have organized themselves through the International Facilitating Group (IFG), a process that received mixed reviews. Through the IFG, NGOs used "floor managers" to centralize interventions on the floor. Some suggested that better coordination and lobbying efforts to ensure that a State delegation would support an NGO position would have increased NGO impact on the text.

The Habitat commitment to the partnership with civil society was realized in the Secretariat's decision to facilitate the compilation of NGO and local authority amendments in a document distributed to the Working Groups. Through this text, NGO floor interventions and traditional lobbying, NGO proposals were presented to delegates. NGOs reported some success in having their ideas included in the draft document. Language on gender issues, for example, was introduced in sections throughout the text, including an early paragraph in the Preamble. References to the "polluter pays principle" and financial instruments to regulate the use of the automobile originated in amendments drafted by the United Nations Environment and Development Committee of the UK. The Women's Caucus and others introduced language on the "health principle" which was taken up by the US delegation. This was particularly significant because NGOs had been warned that no new principles would be allowed into the text. On the downside, the Women's Caucus reported their failure to introduce language from the FWCW on the need for a system of accountability to check the activities of transnational corporations. Previous debates on the "feminization of poverty," "desegregated" data, and "equal" and "equity" were reopened.

The stress on the partnership, in particular with local authorities, was one of the themes advanced at a conference organized by the World Institute for Development Economics Research as part of the Habitat preparatory process. Any inherent or potential weakness in the Habitat process derived from the need to create a new constituency for the Agenda (in contrast to the ready-made constituencies for recent conferences in Rio, Copenhagen and Beijing) is likely to be overcome by the integration of Habitat outcomes into Local Agenda 21 programmes and their implementation by local authorities, with local partners including the NGOs, CBOs and the private sector. "A ready constituency exists here among NGOs and local authorities; they will be the key to extending the local agendas to incorporate the outcomes and objectives of Habitat II," said one participant.

There were persistent questions at the PrepCom about the "parallel activities" being planned to enhance partnership input to the Conference at Istanbul. One delegate noted a lack of clarity about the modalities for facilitating input into the official Conference from the series of forums and dialogues planned for Istanbul. The key innovation for facilitating the input from the forums (e.g. on Cities and Local Authorities) and the dialogues on themes for the 21st Century will be Committee No. 2, which will receive reports and hold hearings before transferring summaries from the parallel meetings to the Plenary in Istanbul.

DEFINING ISSUES AND DEBATES: A number of issues, notably "the right to housing" debate, will define the Conference and provide indicators of real political will and momentum behind the Habitat Agenda.

1. Right to Housing: The EU welcomed "important progress" in this debate in which they were seeking to underline recognition of housing rights within the existing international instruments. They felt that such recognition was essential given the special mandate of the Habitat II Conference. The US approach to negotiations on this question was within the framework of expanding human empowerment in the context of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and their application to the housing sector. This approach reflected a desire to ensure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set the standards and provided the basis for a consensus. Some have said that remaining questions for delegates at Istanbul will be linguistic rather than substantive.

2. Sustainable Development in the Urban Context: A special drafting group was formed to deal with language on sustainable development, which is viewed as an important framework concept for the work of Habitat II. One delegate echoed a common complaint when she expressed disappointment at the lack of progress in the early debates that sounded too familiar. The group made progress in "grounding the concept" and linking the overall process to the UNCED Agenda. There was agreement on areas including the "action oriented" approach and references to clear targets and schedules, local authorities and Local Agenda 21s. In Istanbul there will be further discussion on incorporating the "precautionary principle," the ecosystem approach, carrying capacity and ecological footprints into national sustainable development plans.

3. "The Enabling Paradigm": A key concept at Habitat II will be "the enabling paradigm" first adopted by the UN Shelter Strategy in 1988. Currently unique in its application to the shelter sector, some believe it may need broader application. It stresses that governments deploy their resources to remove constraints in the supply of resources and take full responsibility for the indirect actions required to facilitate the efforts of other actors, namely the private sector and the social sector. Habitat II has therefore encouraged governments to involve all relevant actors, including NGOs, CBOs and local authorities. At the WIDER conference in Helsinki, problems were identified when the enabling paradigm was linked to the normative concept of adequate housing where it can imply a redistribution of resources. It was observed that there may be strong vested interests working against measures aimed at improving the land delivery system and making it more equitable. Enabling actions and empowerment will lack credibility without strong political commitment. Members of the Women's Caucus voiced suspicion about the concept, observing that while there was a positive dimension to the recognition of CBO and NGO participation, it was also apparent that a transfer of resources was not accompanying the transfer of responsibilities to the base. There was also a lack of clarity regarding the nature of local authorities, i.e., does this mean elected or non-elected levels of local administration. "There is a gap between the assignation of roles, responsibilities, and the transfer of resources," according to one NGO delegate.

INNOVATIONS — BEST PRACTICES AND COMMITMENTS: An NGO representative at PrepCom III offered the observation that the United Nations is essentially in the communications business and does not know it. One initiative undertaken by Habitat II seems to confirm this view. The Best Practices initiative will produce an electronic data base of assessed best practices from around the world in time for the Conference. There will be an accompanying tour of major cities with an exhibition based on the accumulated information. The Best Practices initiative is in stark contrast to the document-centered dimension that inevitably loses intellectual focus by the nature of a process that must accommodate actors coming from very different circumstances and different ends of the flows and exchanges between the cities of the world.

The Australian initiative, that participating States and intergovernmental organizations commit to action on the Habitat Agenda, will also expose interested parties to attempts to concretize the objectives of the Conference. This initiative is similar to an Australian initiative at the Fourth World Conference on Women. Australia hopes that all conferences will begin to set immediate, realizable goals and show constituents and each other an immediate outcome. The EU may invite the OECD to take up consideration of the "commitments" proposal at its meeting this year in Berlin.

FINANCE QUESTIONS AND INSTITUTIONAL FOLLOW-UP: Regarded by some as one of the most important themes of the PrepCom, institutional follow-up generated views ranging from the proprietorial perspective of those close to the Secretariat who conceded an "institutional interest" to those who viewed the PrepCom as evidence that the question should be put on hold. Some delegations felt that the question of coordinating the outcome of Habitat II as it affects the future of UNHCS and the Commission on Human Settlements should be dealt with by ECOSOC and the General Assembly because of the "essentially system-wide nature" of the Habitat Agenda. NGOs supported an innovative governance approach focusing on the Administrative Committee on Coordination, which has overseen other inter-agency agendas at the UN. The NGOs also suggested a "quadpartite" system of governance for the Commission on Human Settlements, which would involve the participation of local authorities, NGOs, and the private sector and mirror a system currently used to draw trade unions and business into the running of the International Labor Organization. Some expect that there will be no definitive decision at Habitat II, and ultimately, the significant negotiations and decisions will take place elsewhere.

On the financial provisions for follow-up, some concessions were made (albeit in brackets) to allow new and additional resources in certain contexts and from various sources. The emphasis, however, has been on the mobilizing of local resources through micro-credit initiatives, financial intermediation, and savings mobilization. International cooperation can be an element, however, less than 5% of ODA currently goes to the sector in all forms of assistance. Micro-credit facilitation is viewed as a powerful generator with multiplier effects in income enhancement, the production of building products and the use of local materials.

CONCLUSIONS AND GAPS: The gap between rhetoric and experience at PrepCom III was only one in a series of gaps that define and inform the Habitat Agenda and process leading to the "City Summit." At the heart of the process is a paradox: in the processes of globalization, some cities are emerging as powerful competitors for economic and political power in their own right, and represent yet another challenge to the ability of nation-states to frame questions and solutions in terms that take national sovereignty for granted. States no longer monopolize or fully control many of the relationships of exchange and production within and across borders. Assumptions may no longer be sustainable that there is a "center stage" (whether the United Nations or a Nation State) or pinnacle of power from which most if not all relationships can be defined and governed by those who continue to view the world through the lens of state sovereignty. A brief, but telling, example of this unstated background to the Habitat Agenda appeared in the anxious intervention of a delegate who raised concerns about the "privatization of diplomacy" when an NGO representative transgressed the boundaries of the UN stage.

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