Nairobi, 20 May 2021 - UN-Habitat’s Policy, Legislation and Governance Section (PLGS) recently  organized an Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on Urban Governance. The  objective of the EGM was to share global, regional and country perspectives and insights on governance challenges and opportunities, with a view of capturing the key trends and defining some niche areas of intervention for UN-Habitat, as well as finding synergies and areas of collaboration with external partners. The event gathered more than 200 participants over the two days from diverse professional backgrounds, all regions and representing a wide array of countries with different socio-economic development levels, governance arrangements, policy/legal traditions, all facing different challenges but also devising unique solutions.

Mr. Raf Tuts, Director, Global Solutions Division of UN-Habitat opened the meeting calling on the importance of governance in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda. The four UN-Habitat Regional directors  then highlighted their regional perspectives of the key challenges, trends and opportunities from Africa, Arab States, Asia Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Participants acknowledged that  urban governance can be a vehicle for sustainable development. The role of public service delivery and strengthening SDG localization were also emphasized. It transpired that  innovations can increase efficiency and productivity while operating in constrained staffing and fiscal environments, especially for local governments. It came out strongly that multi-level coordination among tiers of government matters and we need to think about tailoring the principles that underpin multi-level governance to contexts where the hierarchical system of governments is not as clear cut.

 Mr. Tuts noted, “it is only through shared responsibility and collective action that  governmental and non-governmental actors can come together to ensure all people realize their potential as members of an interconnected, fragile planetary ecosystem.” Participants emphasized the importance of  digital inclusivity to ensure access to technological services, infrastructure and literacy skills; digital rights, privacy and public procurement implications. Clearly the need for people to be co-creators of digital solutions was underscored. Prof. Edgar Pieterse, University of Cape Town and the Director of the African Centre for Cities (ACC) called for UN-Habitat to to find common ground on enabling regulatory framework for digital governance.

The EGM affirmed the role of urban governance in sustainable and inclusive urbanization, particularly for socio-economic equity, COVID-19 recovery, climate change action and peace-building. The event revealed that UN-Habitat was already on the right track in terms of its priority action areas as most recommendations focused on aspects that the Agency is already actively involved in including functional and fiscal decentralization; enhancement of local revenue generation; promotion of public participation; and facilitation of multi-level governance through tools and methodologies. Lara Kinneir, the Leader of Design Cities, The London School of Architecture, highlighted the “need for the Agency to be adaptive to changing dynamics, players and processes in the urban governance sphere and the significance of co-creation and partnerships - while maintaining the centrality of the public sector in service delivery “  as a key take away of the session. Another key take-away highlighted was the relevance of supportive policy and legislative frameworks in governance discourses and interventions.  

As the EGM came to a close, the theme that stood out was the importance of putting people and communities at the centre. Participants converged on the need for “people-centred approaches” in urban governance embodied by public engagement in decision-making; co-creation of solutions; equitable access to digital technologies; promotion of human rights; and multi-stakeholder partnerships that are driven by and focused on real needs of urban populations. The recognition that cities need to work for people and the necessity of urban governance to reflect this reality, mirrored sentiments by the UN Secretary General and in the urban context, were echoed by UN-Habitat’s Chief of staff, Mr Neil Khor, who called for a new social contract between governments, the public, civil society, and private sector to ensure that indeed, no one and no place is left behind.

The EGM proved extremely valuable in not only confirming the relevance of UN-Habitat’s current initiatives on urban governance, but also in providing guidance on core areas and the principles that should underpin the future of urban governance at UN-Habitat. These include developing common principles; offering networking platforms for partners; acting as a repository for urban governance tools; and leveraging the Agency’s soft power to facilitate effective inter-governmental coordination and inclusive multilateralism among urban stakeholders.