United Nations

NGOs gear up for Habitat II

Prepcom for UN Conference on Human Settlements allows greater participation than in the past

NEW YORK -- Non-governmental organizations around the world are gearing up for the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, the last scheduled major UN conference of the decade, hoping it will further establish civil society as a key player in the creation of a peaceful and sustainable world civilization.

The Conference, known as Habitat II, is scheduled to be held in Istanbul, Turkey, from 3-14 June. Like previous UN conferences, specially accredited NGOs will be allowed to participate in the actual governmental conference and a parallel NGO Forum will be held to facilitate a wide variety of NGO activities.

The Conference has two main themes: "sustainable human settlements in an urbanizing world" and "adequate shelter for all." Yet, despite the seemingly narrow focus, many expect that one important outcome of Habitat II will be a further acceptance of NGOs as real partners in the process of global development fostered by recent UN conferences in Rio de Janeiro, Vienna, Cairo, Copenhagen and Beijing on the the issues of environment, human rights, population, social development and women's empowerment.

Certainly the Conference organizers are giving encourgament to this idea of partnership. The Conference's Secretariat has billed Habitat II as a "partner's conference," issuing a series of guidelines that call for non-governmental, community-based and international organizations, as well as local authorities, the private sector, and others, to initiate activities that will contribute both to the understanding of human settlements issues and to national and global plans of action.

And at the Third Preparatory Committee Meeting (Precom III) held February 5-16 in New York, NGOs were given more access to the government negotiating process than at any similar previous UN conference. NGO representatives were granted easy access to all major working sessions of government negotiators and allowed to make comments, paragraph by paragraph, as the Prepcom's documents were forged. Suggestions for amendments by NGOs were also printed up and distributed alongside official UN documents.

"From the many comments I received, I felt that this Prepcom offered NGOs far better opportunities than ever before to feel a part of the process," said Farouk Mawlawi, NGO Liaison Coordinator for Habitat II. "They are, of course, very keen on building on this, that there should be no retreat from these heights of NGO involvement and acceptance.

"We expect that this openness to NGO involvement will continue in Istanbul," said Mr. Mawlawi. "We have no reason not to believe that."

Indeed, the draft documents which emerged from the Prepcom, collectively known as the Habitat Agenda, repeatedly emphasize this spirit of partnership, making clear that governments realize that they cannot alone implement that kinds of changes in cities, towns and villages that are required to improve living conditions and create long term sustainability.

"The sooner communities, local governments, partnerships among the public, and private and community sectors join efforts to create comprehensive, bold and innovative strategies for shelter and human settlements," states the Preamble to the draft Agenday, "the better the prospects will be for the safety, health and well-being of people and the brighter the outlook for solutions to global environment and social problems."

The draft Agenda also reflects NGO concerns regarding women, protecting the environment and health.

"The Habitat II process is innovative in the sense that in the UN system, it is entering a new era of repositioning in with respect to NGOs and the civil society in general," said Malick Gaye, coordinator of the Environnement et Developpemont du Tiers-Monde, an NGO based in Dakar, Senegal. "What interests me especially in the Habitat II process is the partnership dimension on an international level between governments, local authorities, the private sector and NGOs."