Daniel Biau Director, RTCD Deputy Executive Director a.i, Part II

16 Mar 2016

10. USG Anna Tibaijuka

Anna Tibaijuka started in September 2000. She soon became a good fund raiser but remained too focused on her pet projects (East Africa and later ERSO). She was able to twist the arms of some donors, but sometimes without a clear substantive agenda. She was known for micro-managing human resources. In my view (I was her deputy for 5 years) she tried hard to be a sort of CEO, i.e. to preside over the CPR and the GC, and did not delegate enough to her Directors. In her last years she intensified bureaucratic controls that made our work at country level more complicated. But she increased the global visibility of the agency, particularly thanks to the WUF sessions.

11. Difficult years?

Only 1997 was a very difficult year, because of the financial deficit caused by the success of Habitat II and due to our lack of transparency.  Indeed the 90s might have been the most innovative decade of the organization, marked by the launch of excellent global programmes (see 5 above), the beginning of our cooperation with local authorities associations, the establishment of our network of Regional Offices and the rapid expansion of our country activities. Major reconstruction programmes (still on going today) took off at that time in several countries in crisis.

12. Meeting our mandate

Our fundamental mandate is to help governments (central and local) in designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating housing and urban policies, and to do so from a normative perspective (we are the UN, therefore we must know what is good for the world!). This mandate is not negotiable. This implies that we work at different levels, from global to local. This is a specificity of UN-HABITAT: to combine global norms, messages and principles with regional adaptations, national politics and local commitments; and to focus on sustainable and equitable development, guided by the poor’ needs and dynamics. We are driven by poverty eradication, not only by environmental protection. But there is of course a dialectical relation between these pillars of sustainable development. This focus has not changed in the last 30 years.

Our comparative advantage is not our size (small) or our expertise (insufficient), it is the blue flag, which means objectivity, neutrality and accountability. We cannot be compared to a university or a technical centre. We must know what is going on around the world (language barriers are an obstacle) and promote cross-fertilization. This requires good monitoring, good training, good discussions, good testing, either to build houses or to design a policy. This requires very qualified professionals, more and more difficult to attract to Nairobi and to recruit rapidly. I suggested recently to create a Human Resource Mobilization Unit, to coordinate our constant head-hunting.

13. GC sessions

I was responsible for the organization of four successive sessions of the GC (from 1999 to 2005) and coordinated the substantive part of the Special Session of 2001. These sessions are of course very important because they allow Member states to interact with the secretariat, to approve our programme of work and to be briefed on the latest thinking on urban issues. I particularly enjoyed the sessions of the Drafting Committees where I represented the secretariat on many occasions. The night sessions on Thursday evenings were usually exciting; you had to be on top of everything to reach a meaningful consensus. Many resolutions were rather symbolic but some were useful and helped strengthen our position, both politically and operationally. We have been able to concentrate the work of the GC on UN-Habitat itself as a UN institution while we brought the substantive discussions and dialogues to the wider WUF audience. Now we have to try and revitalize the CPR, maybe by establishing an Executive Board.

14. Highlights

I already mentioned several highlights of my career at UN-Habitat. Probably the most enjoyable part of my job has been the possibility to go on mission to more than 70 countries in all regions of the world and to advise governments on how to improve the living conditions, how to better manage their cities, how to set up urban institutions, etc. And to work with many colleagues for that purpose, to share ideas and opinions, to agree and disagree, and move forward.  Another good experience has been to organize complex conferences requiring numbers of staff members and to deliver what was planned and sometimes more than we initially expected though an impressive collective effort. The most difficult part or the least enjoyable part was to deal with the UN bureaucracy that prefers no action at all than any action which could involve the most limited risk. This has worsened in recent years, after the Oil-for-Food investigation.

15. Current challenges

The main challenge is to transform UN-Habitat into the premier centre of excellence on urban development policies, able to advise any interested government (central or local) and to develop the national capacities required to implement policy reforms. This means strengthening our expertise, focussing on key issues, building strong interdivisional teams, and probably defining a new organigram. At present the structure of UN-Habitat is too fragmented, subdivided in micro-units who don’t have the critical mass. We need to revisit this structure and to increase our productivity across the boards. We also need to reform completely our administration and evolve from a culture of suspicion and redundant controls to a culture of trust and delegation of authority.  This is very possible as demonstrated when we revitalized the agency a decade ago.

16. Miss and forget

What I will miss most are my friends, particularly all staff of my Division – I know that their team spirit cannot be matched – but also many colleagues in other parts of UN-Habitat, in Nairobi and all over the world, with whom I had the opportunity to work, interact, discuss and socialize. I will miss the warm and cordial relations with hundreds of people in dozens of countries, experts, officials, activists, ministers, mayors, builders, managers, women and men, from different cultural backgrounds but united by a common commitment to work for their peoples.  What I wish to forget are the hours wasted in fixing administrative problems, getting proper and fast recruitments, attending boring meetings, listening to sycophants, editing terrible reports … I guess this was unavoidable, the painful part of my job description. But I would try to forget it as soon as possible.

17. My vision for 2020

I hope UN-Habitat will reform itself soon and expand its policy advisory activities for the benefit of the developing world. I wish a new generation of experts will mature and help the countries of Africa and Asia to advance and accelerate their urban transition.  I think that our thematic focus should not change and that we should avoid to follow the latest fashions. Hopefully we will adopt “the City Agency” as our official nickname and work out a good “Urban Agenda” in 2016. I am convinced that cities have been and remain the engines of social and cultural development. They can be better planned and better managed if only there is political will and appropriate expertise. We have a lot to contribute.

18. My final messages

I intend to remain an informal Ambassador of UN-Habitat and its cause. Keep me on your mailing lists, invite me to seminars and farewell parties and have a look at my “Urban Guru” website at danielbiau.webnode.com if you need more information to consolidate the institutional memory of UN-Habitat.
And above all be proud of working for the United Nations!

Posted on: 16 Mar 2016