United Nations

In Turkey, Habitat II forges a new partnership

NGOs, along with business groups, local authorities, academics, youth and others, enjoy the highest level of participation yet at a UN conference; some say a new era for civil society has been entered

ISTANBUL, Turkey - Like previous UN world conferences in recent years, the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), which ran 3-14 June here, produced a global plan of action for dealing with a specific set of world problems - in this case the lack of adequate housing and the steady deterioration of modern urban life.

The Conference's final document, the Habitat Agenda, fortifies international principles on such issues as the right to adequate housing, the need for long-term sustainability in human settlements, and the importance of international cooperation in addressing problems like urban in-migration and finance. The Habitat Agenda also addresses nitty-gritty topics like traffic congestion, safety in the workplace, and land tenure.

At the same time, however, many observers here say that one of Habitat II's most lasting achievements may well be in the greater sense of partnership that has been forged between the governments that compose the United Nations and the various sectors of civil society - non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses, academics, trade unions, and youth organizations - as well as local authorities and others that came together here. To a greater degree than at any previous UN conference, these groups were brought into the discussions and negotiations.

"There is a sense of great opportunity and hope that a new world can be built, in which economic development, social development and environmental protection as interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development can be realized through solidarity and cooperation within and between countries and through effective partnerships at all levels," states the Habitat Agenda in its first paragraph. "International cooperation and universal solidarity, guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and in a spirit of partnership, are crucial in order to improve the quality of life of the peoples of the world."

Significantly, this theme of partnership also emerged in the processes by which the Habitat Agenda was created.

"Habitat II has revolutionized how the UN will conduct future conferences. The United Nations and its conferences have grown beyond being a forum just for countries, and will from here on better reflect the dynamic of cities and local organizations." 

-- Wally N'Dow, secretary-general of Habitat II

"Habitat II has revolutionized how the UN will conduct future conferences," said Wally N'Dow, secretary-general of Habitat II, according to a press release. "The United Nations and its conferences have grown beyond being a forum just for countries, and will from here on better reflect the dynamic of cities and local organizations."

At recent UN Conferences, NGO representatives have been allowed increasing access to government negotiations, and UN officials at Habitat II gave impetus to this trend to a greater degree than ever before. Most significantly, NGOs and local authorities were allowed to offer text suggestions as each paragraph was being negotiated - an unprecedented level of access.

As well, the involvement of civil society at Habitat II was advanced by an innovation in the process by which governments received subsidiary information about the issues under discussion. That innovation was known as the Partners' Committee (also called Committee II), a special committee-of-the-whole, representing all of the 148 nations who officially sent delegations to the Conference.

In the Partners' Committee, representatives of civil society were allowed to enter into an official dialogue with governments. This dialogue went beyond the usual practice of merely allowing specially accredited NGOs to make oral statements. At Habitat II, a more diverse range of speakers, including representatives from the business community, academia and youth, engaged in actual question-and-answer sessions with government delegations.

"Some of the rules of procedure of the UN were adapted to allow this to happen," said Ayman M. El-Amir, the media spokesman for Habitat II. "But this was an innovation of necessity. There has been a recognition that the fate of cities depends on a process, in the 21st century, involving not just central governments: there are other partners who must play a significant role."

Much of what was said at the Conference reinforced the idea that the problems facing humanity have become too interconnected and too complicated to be left to the domain of governments alone.

"If we are to effectively meet the objectives of the twin themes of the Conference, the collaboration of all levels of the government, the private sector and the civil society is imperative," said Akbar Tandjung, Indonesia's Minister of Housing.

Some say this notion - and its reflection in the Habitat II process - is the harbinger of a new mode of participation in the processes of governance by the world's peoples, especially at the local level.

"We need partnership with local authorities, women's organizations, the NGOs, trade unions and the private sector," said D.K.J. Tommel, state-secretary of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment in the Netherlands. "But even more: we must involve all citizens, without discrimination, in our efforts."

The Conference Process

Called for by the UN General Assembly in 1992 as a follow-up to the first UN Conference on Human Settlements, which was held in Vancouver, Canada, in 1976, Habitat II set out to address two main themes: "sustainable human settlements in an urbanizing world" and "adequate shelter for all."

faced with facts and figures showing that some 500 million people worldwide are homeless or without adequate shelter, that 50 percent of the world's population will live in urban areas by the year 2000, and that current modes of urban development are largely unsustainable, UN officials saw that the plans initiated by the Vancouver conference, which focused largely on technical issues related to urban planning and development, had in many respects failed.

In the lead-up to the Conference, officials charged with organizing Habitat II sought to take from theory to practice the new international norms and principles that were established at recent UN Conferences, such as the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the 1995 Social Summit in Copenhagen, and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Accordingly, the promotion of sustainable development, the necessity of social integration, and the importance of women's equality were seen as key concepts in devising a new global plan of action to make cities, towns and settlements of the 21st century just, healthy, secure and prosperous places for all.

In this regard, the Habitat Agenda - which was approved by consensus with only minor reservations on the part of some states early in the morning on June 15 - focuses as much on social issues and political processes as it does on the technical issues usually associated with urban planning and the construction of housing.

"Human settlements problems are of a multidimensional nature," states the Agenda. "It is recognized that adequate shelter for all and sustainable human settlements development are not isolated from the broader social and economic development of countries and that they cannot be set apart from the need for favorable national and international frameworks for economic development, social development and environmental protectionÖ."

Not only is the concept of partnership promoted throughout the Agenda (the word appears more than 80 times in the document), there is also a general call for greater participation, democracy and civic involvement - issues of governance. An entire section is devoted to "Enablement and Participation." The section calls for the decentralization of authority, the establishment of community-based organizations, and the institutionalization of a "participatory approach to sustainable human settlements developmentÖ."

These ideas, of course, are not entirely new. In the previous world conferences on social issues and sustainable development, from Rio to Beijing, NGOs were increasingly acknowledged by governments.

Yet by nearly all accounts, this process of inclusion was brought to its highest level yet here. In addition to the traditional NGO Forum, a "World Business Forum," which sought to bring private enterprise into the UN's distinctive process of dialogue, was held.

"What has been established here is a 'win-win' combination," said Marcello Palazzi, chair of the Business Forum. He said that businesses can profit by helping build a sustainable world while people and governments can profit when businesses act with social responsibility. Held from 30 May to 3 June, the World Business Forum was attended by representatives of more than 300 major corporations and business networks, who issued a joint statement on "responsible corporate citizenship."

Many NGO representatives present in Istanbul hailed both the process and the results, saying that the partnerships forged here will create new opportunities for the promotion of change - and perhaps a new era of civil involvement.

"When we go back home, the governments won't be able to ignore us anymore," said Johnson Mwaura, director of Shelter 2000, a Nairobi-based NGO. "We are going to be able to say to our governments: 'The UN said it and you agreed - you should invite us into a partnership when you make plans and programs.' "

New Challenges

At the same time, however, there were signs that a higher profile for NGOs and civil society as a whole would also lead to new challenges. Although governments almost uniformly spoke about the importance of partnership in official statements and in the Habitat Agenda, some of the exchanges on the floor in the Partnership Committee indicated that many governments will want to carefully scrutinize NGOs before offering them a real say in how things are done.

"We support partnership with the NGOs, but we have some questions," said a member of the Nigerian delegation. "Are the NGOs really true representatives of the people they propose to represent? Secondly, I'd like to know, on the basis of tax laws, whether they are service-oriented or self-interested?"

Several government representatives acknowledged that the partnership concept will not be welcomed everywhere.

"Some governments see NGOs as subversive organizations within their countries," said Ishmael Mkhabela, a member of the South African delegation. Mr. Mkhabela said NGOs played a key role in the abolition of apartheid and in the establishment of a new government there - one which is now composed of many former NGO representatives and which genuinely supports the partnership concept.

Even where opposition to government policies is not a threat, Mr. Mkhabela said, it is a concern to some governments "when they feel they cannot prescribe the behavior and actions of community development organizations."

Some NGO representatives also voiced concerns. One NGO representative, who asked not to be named, said that the partnership concept actually represented a "devolution of responsibility" and is "not real because there is no money to make it happen."

Despite such concerns, the NGO community as a whole appeared pleased with the processes at Habitat - expressing eagerness to join as partners.

In a remarkable display of consensus-building, several hundred NGOs from around the world wrote a major statement for the Partners' Committee in less than a week. The document, which reads like a shortened but somewhat more urgently phrased version of the Habitat Agenda, touched on topics such as "shelter for all people," "families," and the "right to sustainable societies and communities." It also proclaimed the willingness of NGOs around the world to carry forward the Habitat Agenda.

The statement's final paragraph said much about the NGO perspective: "We do not know how to solve all of these problems. What we do know is the value of this process, which we feel must continue. That the process itself is part of the solution. We have faith that the collective wisdom of humanity will provide answers. The wisdom that emerges provides a vision of hope and justice. The problems we face are largely derived from fear, avarice, and ignorance. Without fora in which serious, reflective communication can take place, there is little hope of viable solutions emerging. The NGOs and CBOs [Community-based Organizations] who have gathered here want to work in partnership, and to continue this process."