Daniel Biau : Director, RTCD, Deputy Executive Director a.i

16 Mar 2016

1: History of UN-Habitat

We were born in 1978 at KICC as the (very small) UN Centre for Human Settlements, to be known as Habitat. The phases of Habitat history could be in my view summarized as follows:

  1. The foundation during 1978-1985,
  2. The shelter agency from 1986 to 1992, (ii) the Habitat II euphoria during 1993-1996,
  3. The 1997 crisis,
  4. The revitalisation and upgrading during 1998-2002,
  5. The expansion in 2003-2005,
  6. The loss of focus and bureaucratization during 2006-2010 and
  7. The future, towards Habitat III, starting now.

2. The milestones

In 1978 creation of UNCHS (with a wrong name in my view), 1987 was the IYSH (an advocacy must) followed by GSS in 1988. In 1992 change of ED, in 1996 Istanbul City Summit (the peak), 1997 confidence crisis, 1998-2002 revitalisation, 2002-05 growth (UN-Habitat + creation of WUF), 2006-2010 bureaucratization. Between 1992 and 2000 there was no stable continuous ED, no full-time USG. This was the second period of UN-Habitat, maybe the most innovative. This is when we introduced poverty, urban governance and disasters as key topics and move beyond shelter per se. UMP, SCP, UEF, IFUP, DMP, indicators, State ofCities: many major initiatives were taken by managers who had the freedom to innovate. The Habitat Agenda was a superb outcome of that period.

3. Three important meetings (76, 96, 2001)

The first Conference on HS was held in 1976 in Vancouver. It brought the slums on the international agenda and created UNCHS. Twenty years later 20.000 people met at the City Summit in Istanbul for two weeks of intense discussions. This Habitat II Conference invented the partnership approach and adopted the Habitat Agenda, focusing on urban development, governance and the role of local authorities. I managed the negotiation of the international cooperation and monitoring chapters and appreciated the constructive spirit of the debates.

In June 2001 the GA held a special session in New York to review the implementation of the Habitat Agenda after 5 years. It was not a big meeting but it adopted an important Declaration on Cities in the New Millennium (see 7 below) and facilitated the elevation of UNCHS to programme status (see 9 below). Six months later UN-Habitat was born as the UN Programme on Human Settlements. The next big inter-governmental meeting (Habitat III) will take place in 2016. I hope that it will adopt an Urban Agenda as I think that the word “Habitat” is becoming obsolete and is used by too many companies and environmental groups. The word “human settlements” is even more obsolete and should be abandoned if we understand that our present challenge is to promote sustainable urban development for the citizens (not the settlers) or our planet.

After the 2001 Special Session, I established (with several colleagues) the World Urban Forum to keep the spirit of Istanbul alive. The first meeting was held in Nairobi (2002), followed by Barcelona (2004), Vancouver (2006), Nanjing (2008) and Rio (2010). In my view WUF sessions, which bring together 10.000 people from governments, local authorities and other partner groups, are as important in term of substantive progress as the intergovernmental meetings which are centred on the negotiation of resolutions and official declarations.

4. The structure of UNCHS

The initial structure of UNCHS was based on two pillars, the Research Division (RDD) and the Technical Cooperation Division (TCD), the first one funded by the Regular Budget, the second one by overheads derived from country projects. In fact the current structure of UN-Habitat also includes a Research (and Monitoring) Division and RTCD. We have added a Global Division in 1999 to take care of various global programmes, mostly initiated by TCD in the 90s.

It is important to note that RDD before and MRD now are not really undertaking research work, they synthesize research from outside academic partners, for instance for the biennial State of Cities Reports (that I initiated in 1999). UNCHS also had an information division, a bit disconnected from the rest of the Centre, and an administration division. In 1995 I chaired a joint UNEP-Habitat Task Force that merged our administrative division with its UNEP counterpart and created UNON as the sole administration in Nairobi. This was a positive step towards “One UN” and we realized some economy of scale.

5. Successes

In the 80s Habitat was perceived as a shelter agency. It organized well the IYSH and promoted new national shelter strategies in many countries. Unfortunately a number of strategies were only partly implemented, particularly in LDCs. I believe that our Shelter Branch can learn a lot from that time and work out new guidelines.

In the late 80s TCD developed with the World Bank and UNDP an inter-regional programme on urban management (UMP), which remains the flagship global programme in the history of Habitat. UMP lasted 17 years and produced excellent policy papers. It built strong networks in the developing world and invented, together with the Sustainable Cities Programme, a new type of urban planning, based on city profiles, participatory consultations and City Development Strategies. What we do today on sustainable urban development is essentially a continuation and deepening of that excellent initiative.


In 1994 we created the (inter-divisional) Disaster Management Unit which defined our post-disaster strategy and contributed to make our Technical Cooperation extremely relevant to countries in crisis and countries affected by natural disasters. Another success story of the late 90s was the establishment of our Regional Offices in Latin America (Rio, 1996), Asia (Fukuoka, 1997) and Africa (Nairobi, 1999). They are now the backbone of UN-Habitat.

6. What about your former EDs?

Dr. Arcot Ramachandran recruited me in February 1988. He was meticulous but a bit conservative (focused on shelter, community participation and building techniques). He is the founding father of Habitat. E. Dodeswell (1993) was friendly but had other priorities (UNEP). Wally N’Dow, Secretary General of Habitat II during 94-97, was visionary and excellent in public relations but not an administrator. He (and his team, i.e. ourselves) delivered a fantastic conference in Istanbul. Darshan Johal (97-98) was knowledgeable but temporary. Klaus Toepfer (1998-2000) was an excellent politician who rebuilt the confidence of donors in only 10 months. He started the revitalization with a team of external advisers, and myself as his deputy, and simplified our organigram. We created the Cities Alliance at that time with the World Bank.

7. The Declaration on Cities

I submitted the first draft of the Istanbul+5 Declaration to an EGM held in Vasteras (Sweden) in November 2000, a few weeks after the adoption of the Millennium Declaration which included the “Cities without Slums” target. Then it went through a Prepcom discussion in February 2001 and was finally negotiated and adopted by the GA in June 2001. I think that it was a forward-looking normative document, still entirely valid, which summarizes what needs to be done at all levels to ensure that urbanization is equitable and sustainable.  UN-Habitat should monitor it more actively and challenge all governments to keep their promises. The preparation of Habitat III must give us the opportunity of an in-depth review of the implementation of the Habitat Agenda and of the Declaration on Cities in the New Millennium.

8. The revitalization (July 1998-December 2002)

The “revitalization” started in July 1998 when K. Toepfer was appointed Ag. ED of UNCHS(Habitat). He took me as DED, “OIC of the Centre in his absence”. The revitalisation process went in two steps. The fist one lasted two years and was a confidence-building exercise. The second step was led by Anna Tibaijuka. It focused on Istanbul+5 (the Special Session of the GA) and on the regularisation of staff contracts, a difficult undertaking which went smoothly. As a result we became a Programme, had a new structure, launched the WUF and increased the voluntary contributions to UN-Habitat. Both Klaus Toepfer and Anna Tibaijuka should be remembered for leading efficiently the agency during that crucial period.

9. UN-Habitat as a Programme

UN-Habitat became a programme in 2002 as a follow-up to the GA Special Session of June 2001. This elevation in status required a lot of lobbying from the Executive Director. As it had no financial implications, the WEOG finally agreed and the post of ED was subsequently upgraded to USG (as it should have remained since 1992).

The practical impact of this new status was very limited. Maybe the new name (UN-Habitat) attracted more attention and helped in fund-raising. The main advantage was in my opinion to get more respect within the UN family and to be invited to increasing numbers of inter-agency meetings. But there was little impact at country level. RTCD had to continue to raise its own funds.


Posted on: 16 Mar 2016