Mariam Lady Yunusa, Abuja-based urban planner and erstwhile Director of Partnerships and Manager, African Urban Agenda at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) in Nairobi, revisits the recently-held Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador, saying in this treatise that though Africa’s road to Quito has been challenging, it has also been rewarding
The mail came in from one of the two African Members of the Habitat 3 Bureau who was coordinating Africa’s position at the negotiations on the New Urban Agenda. “We have a document on which we are all agreed.” The relief that followed was palpable among all the African diplomats, professionals, experts, government focal points, and partner networks who have toiled for over two years to build up Africa’s position on Habitat III. Their joy was infectious even across the airwaves. Africa is ready for Quito – not in 54 disparate entities, but as one block, with a common position, with one voice. It is indeed cause for celebration and expectant jubilation.
Why is this such a milestone? Although a new mandate for the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS) was derived to support and monitor the implementation of the Habitat Agenda adopted at the Istanbul Conference, and approved by all regions of the world, both the Vancouver and Istanbul conferences had no regional or sectoral focus but they set the stage for global awareness and regional policy debates. The urbanisation phenomenon was not associated with Africa and some parts of Asia, which were considered rural.
During the Habitat I and Habitat II Conferences, Africa’s participation was hardly relevant. The continent was still basically rural and participated as a continent that neither accepted that it neither needed to worry about human settlements nor understood the implications of the urbanisation dynamics to its predominantly rural-based primary exports as the backbones of their economies.
The Building Blocks
The first signs of continental consciousness of the challenges and potentials of urbanisation for Africa was marked by African Union’s (AU) Decision 29 of 2003 in Maputo, in which Heads of State pronounced their determination to “reap the potential benefits of cities and towns as centres of economic growth and places of opportunity and prosperity for all African people in the course of economic development and structural transformation.” The AU called upon UN-Habitat to continue providing support to the Commission of the AU to implement this decision. This marked the opening of space for attention to urbanisation at the highest level.
The last two decades have seen a marked increase in Africa’s economic growth and productivity and with it a rise in the multiple challenges of rapid urbanisation and the growth of cities and human settlements. The consequent growing appreciation that it is impossible to deal with Africa’s growth and poverty challenges without managing urbanisation has provoked the establishment of the African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development (AMCHUD). Over a period of 10 years (2005-2015) they met in different cities of Africa bi-annually, discussing a wide range of themes on urbanisation. At its 4th meeting in Nairobi in 2012, the Ministers took a decision to “maximise the urban advantage”. This decision stood on four pillars: develop a transformative national urban policy; create a more compact city at human scale; undertake institutional and legal reforms and learning to do things together.
At its session in Ndjamena, the AMCHUD took a decision to advance partnership (learning to do things together) as the mechanism for preparing Africa for the upcoming Habitat III. In appreciation of the daunting challenge of building a consensus on urbanisation to reach a broad understanding of the common issues that confront the African continent, and as a response to the need for an early preparation and to have a unified voice for Africa at Habitat III, a group of African Member States took up the challenge and provided financial and technical support to facilitate country level preparations as well as support consultations required for forging a common position that has been achieved as a product of the national reports.
At its 5th Session, African Ministers decided to further adopt the UN Habitat-led African Urban Agenda (AUA) as its main input into the ambitious and visionary Agenda 2063. The AUA was born as a partnership between government and non-state actors out of the need to raise the profile of urbanisation as a force for structural transformation of Africa, as well as a vehicle to prepare Africa for the Habitat III Conference. Subsequently, the transition of the AMCHUD into the AU’s Specialised Technical Committee No 8: Public Service, Local Government Decentralisation Urbanisation and Local Government (STC No.8).
The AUA ‘s top-down and bottom-up approach, which emphasises partnership between government, civil society and the private sector, was integrated in the work plan of the STC No.8 and the programme of work of the 10-year implementation plan of the Agenda 2063, was subsequently endorsed by the Heads of State in Johannesburg in 2015. In forging consensus to achieve a common position and frame of work, various strategies were adopted:
- Technical and financial support to multi-level and multi-sectorally comprised National Habitat Committees to prepare their national reports;
- Sponsoring civil society members to accompany government partners to regional and global conferences at which they participated in various events alongside their counterparts from other regions;
- Close support to UCLG-A by providing strategic inputs into all its regional seminars designed to prepare associations of local governments to understand their roles in the AUA, the New Urban Agenda (NUA), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2063.
- The outline of the processes for the Habitat III were discussed with all National Associations of Local Governments and this buttressed a strong buy-in to Agenda 2063;
- UN-Habitat took advantage of all major conferences to hold side events to which cross-section of African experts, professional, diplomats and civil society partners participated, and the concepts of the AUA and its drive for a common position was explained;
- An applied research was commissioned, and the report served as an expert and intellectual compliment to the Africa Regional Report, which was produced as a synthesis of the national reports;
- Several expert group meetings were held, under the leadership of the AU Department of Political Affairs, at which concepts, processes and regional position on issues were defined;
- The sub-regional economic commissions were also contacted, consulted and a some of them invited to the regional meetings to participate in shaping the Common Africa Position;
- Of special note is a side event that was organised in New York in Sept 2015 at the SGD Summit, which was attended by UNSG, Chairperson of the AU, President of the AfDB, Executive Secretary of the UNECA and the Executive Director of the UNFPA. At this event the world witnessed an Africa that had found its voice, and was decisively preparing to engage the world as a continent with the most challenges in urbanisation;
- Key messages on the role of urbanisation in Africa’s structural transformation were articulated and disseminated at all global conferences and Heads of State summits.
All the strategies outlined served to raise the awareness of Africa at all levels to the challenges of urbanisation as well as its potential as a force for structural transformation of African economies. The buy-in and build-up to the Common Africa Position on Habitat III (CAPH3) that culminated with the endorsement by African Ministers at the Africa Regional Conference on Habitat III in Abuja in Feb 2016, was indeed gratifying. The CAPH3 which stands on eight pillars and the Abuja Declaration was endorsed by African Heads of State at its Summit in Kigali in June 2016, served as the main premise for Africa’s engagement and negotiation for the NUA.
From New York to Nairobi to Abuja to Kigali to Surabaya and back to New York, Africa’s main concerns, which it pushed to see reflected in the NUA, were mainly woven around: finishing the business of the MDGs on slum rehabilitation and prevention; adequate shelter and affordable housing; basic services and effective environmental management; retaining the concept of cities and human settlement as a continuum; strengthening of institutions and systems for transformative change; enhancing environmental sustainability and effective response to climate change in human settlements; enhancing Africa’s global competitiveness; addressing attendant consequences of massive movement of populations due to insurgency and terrorism; urbanisation as a force for economic growth and structural transformation; and as a catalyst for job creation for women and youth.
Most of the issues of concern to Africa were captured in the draft NUA but a point of critical importance to the continent, which proved tough, was the strengthening of UN-Habitat based in Nairobi as the focal point for human settlements and sustainable urbanisation. The negotiations were held off for four months and a couple of points revolving around the implementation and review of the NUA. After 38 long hours of negotiation, the final draft that has been agreed to is testimony to the commitment of the parties involved, and the willingness to give and take. Africa has stood up to be heard.
The Driving Force
Africa’s road to Quito is marked by early preparation championed by Member States that committed resources to support national governments to prepare reports in an inclusive, representative, consultative and integrated manner. These reports formed the inputs for the African Regional Report on Habitat III, and inspired the Common African Position on Habitat III.
Africa’s road to Quito has been framed by strong partnerships, alliances and unflinching resolve. Member States have been faithful to their resolve to do things together and with cooperation and collaboration. UN-Habitat, the Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the AfDB and the UCLG-A gave the requisite support to the AU to formulate the CAPH3 that was built on all of Africa’s previous commitments as already highlighted. Backed by a team of dogged and firmly resolved diplomats, experts, professionals and technocrats who spared no night nor day in keeping the momentum going, they kept in tow with emerging positions at the negotiation table and consulted one another for redlines, amber lines and green lines. Unlike its fragmented posture in previous conferences, Africa on this road is sure-footed as a committed member of the global community. Africa negotiated hard while making its voice clear on its interest and issues germane to the development and attainment of its Agenda 2063.
Africa is going to Quito’s Habitat III with a stronger voice than hitherto, yet as a continent that is keenly aware of its challenges and, more than ever, the need for building trust and alliance within itself and the people as well as the need to cooperate with international partners in a mutually respectful and beneficial manner.
Africa is pleased to have overcome its traditional weakness of fragmentation and has learned value in sharing views and pooling resources on its way to Quito. The continent is glad to have contributed to shaping a new strategic global urban agenda with a human face. A global vision of the 20th century urbanism, which addresses the specifics of compact cities, polycentric growth, mixed land uses and city skylines, prevention of unplanned growth and sprawl and transit oriented development, is not only refreshing but a welcome development to Africa. The generality of Africans can relate with and find meaning in the New Urban Agenda – a thought without which the world could not be said to be truly advancing.
Needless to state that post-Quito will be critical as all eyes, so to speak will be on Africa as the last global frontier of urbanisation to uphold its loud and articulated voice into concrete sustainable programmes – programmes which will give hope and confidence to the youth of Africa and equip them to own their future … programmes that will stimulate economic transformation and promote regional integration in Africa.
Africa’s road to Quito has been tough, exerting, challenging and engaging but absolutely rewarding and I believe, worth it all.