Dorothee von Brentano : Operations Manager & Coordinator, Iraq Programme O-I-C (CTA), Somalia Programme

13 Apr 2016

Dorothee von Brentano Exit Interview

  1. Tell us about your work and contribution to UN-Habitat’s mandate
  • I was hired as Iraq Coordinator in 2002 to coordinate UN-Habitat HQ and UNON support towards the largest programme in UN-Habitat’s history: The Oil-for-Food Programme (OFFP) “Settlements Rehabilitation Programme” in northern Iraq with a budget of 600 million US$.
  • After the closure of the OFFP in November 2003, and together with a High-level Advisory Panel of eminent Iraqi partners, we prepared the new Iraq Programme and formulated all six initial project documents and the publication “Rebuilding Iraq – Reconstruction Plan for Shelter and Urban Development”. This was followed by a very successful period, where the Iraq Programme grew to a high impact 100 million US$ portfolio over 9 years. I fondly recall the excellent cooperation with UN-Habitat’s Iraq CTA and Country Director, Sudipto Mukerjee, and later Fiona McCluney. The Iraq Team in Amman was also very, very special and dear to me.
  • In 2007, I was requested to take over the role of CTA for the Somalia Programme. This was meant to be an informal solution for three months, but became a six and a half years stint, though never formalized! During this period, the Somalia Programme grew to become the largest sub-Saharan programme of our agency. What makes me proud is the fact that with very few exceptions, the Somalia Team has a number of hugely capable experts, who are a real asset to the agency.
  • In addition my ‘regular’ position was that of a Senior Human Settlements Officer in the Regional Office for Africa (and formerly also Arab States). In this capacity, I have covered Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. For Kenya, we have managed to finalise and publish the Country Programme Document to serve as the basis for the formulation of a new and more substantial country portfolio.
  • Over the years, I have also contributed to numerous corporate tasks and initiatives, too many to elaborate…


2. What do you consider to be UN-HABITAT’s major milestones?

  • The elevation of the agency to become a Programme
  • The idea to create the World Urban Forum
  • The excellent way RTCD was performing until 2011
  • The excellent State of Cities reports for different regions such as Africa or the forthcoming report on Europe.
  • Some of our large and real-impact country programmes.


3. How different is the current UN-HABITAT compared to the earlier days in terms of meeting its mandate?

  • I consider the current UN-Habitat a ‘sinking ship’ in many respects and am certainly not alone with this view.
  • Presently, the agency pursues a ‘supply-oriented’ approach and almost presents itself as a mono-thematic body. The often exclusive emphasis on urban planning and the unfortunate idea of formulating ‘model projects (with price tags!)’ bears testimony to these problems. We are not a consulting firm with a fixed portfolio on offer, but succeed as long as we are demand-oriented, flexible and contextual.
  • The notion of a ‘project-based’ agency undermines the normative mandate of the organization. Together with the unfeasible attempt to run the organization on overheads earned from field programmes, this notion confuses and undermines the normative mandate. Branches are now competing with Regional Offices and Country Teams for projects as a financial lifeline. This will not work.
  • UN-Habitat is far too inward-looking and therefore a weak player in the One UN at country levels or compared to other bodies that also cover or claim our mandate. We are only well involved where we have strong Country Teams like in Iraq, Somalia and a few other countries. It has been a failure not to foster stronger Country Teams, as HPM’s cannot achieve alone what is required to build healthy country portfolios.
  • Last but not least, our agency is suffering from more and more Secretariat regulations, many of which are possibly well meant, but a huge hindrance in our delivery. In addition, the agency is presently establishing a blown-up internal monitoring and costing system, which is a shot into its own foot, consuming undue staff time and requiring an additional non-productive apparatus. Dissecting staff time to multiple budget lines may shift costs, but does not stabilize our financial position. Sometimes, ‘modern’ management approaches are not what they appear to be!


4. From your experience what are today’s challenges to UN-HABITAT and how do you think we can overcome them?

  • UN-Habitat’s biggest challenge right now and in the foreseeable future is to attract core funding for its normative mandate. Our fund-raising strategy is very weak and rather uninformed of how fund-raising should be done. To address this issue, we need new actors for this task.
  • Another challenge, in my view, is to re-think the agency’s normative mandate. The normative mandate was never enough evidence-based, rather ‘cooked up’ in-house. We have failed to draw lessons systematically from our operational work and have failed to acknowledge that much of the operational work is actually also normative and already tested.
  • Another challenge to UN-Habitat is the surge of commercial consulting firms being contracted by governments and local authorities to undertake work that falls into our urban mandate. This is happening in the Middle East and in Africa, often coupled with public-private sector partnerships to finance huge new developments. UN-Habitat will have to re-position itself vis-à-vis this reality.
  • Re-positioning of UN-Habitat should particularly focus on urban resilience building and post-disaster interventions. With major global transitions unfolding – environmental and climate change, resource scarcities and proliferation of unsustainable urban models, the vulnerabilities of urban concentrations of people, assets and functions are on the increase. UN-Habitat should attempt to fill this substantive and thematic gap, unpredictable as the occurrence of cataclysmic events (and therefore funding flows) may be.
  • Given UN-Habitat’s mandate and institutional size, but also given the increasing formation of common-interest blocs around the world, UN-Habitat should better utilize its advantages in the area of cross-boundary cooperation. UN-Habitat can call ministers around the table which is far less easy for the private consultancy firms to do. Regional approaches are our natural niche as we are too small to matter at the global level in the face of our huge UN sister organizations like UNDP, UNICEF and WHO, for instance.

5. You worked as the Coordinator of the Iraq Programme. Tell us about the challenges of working with countries in conflict and how you managed to make UN-Habitat relevant to post conflict management?

  • I have covered Iraq and Somalia intensely and also contributed to the thinking and concepts for other post-conflict/disaster countries. Our cutting edge is to link humanitarian interventions and early recovery to solid rehabilitation and future development. I believe we have been very successful in this. However, it has and always will be a struggle to defend this concept against the overwhelming short-term humanitarian approaches.


6. The World Urban Forum is a great success in bringing together different partners to discuss urban issues.  How can the networks and knowledge gained from the Forums be exploited more effectively to further UN-Habitat’s Mandate?

  • This would first and foremost require reshaping UN-Habitat’s normative work, which cannot be achieved by simply re-naming mere (old) themes! In my view, the agency is too small - and shrinking - to generate genuine normative products. If we are honest, we have not very often been able to really ‘shine’ at this level. If I could contribute, my proposal would be to make UN-Habitat a ‘Clearing House’ and ‘Testing Ground’ for research findings, concepts and experiences from a world-wide network of urban actors, both corporate and individual. Such an approach would of course also benefit from the vast networks and knowledge coming to the WUF. The real benefit would be to ‘harvest’ a much wider range of knowledge from all corners of the world and get access to brand-new ideas and discussions. Many of us read about these privately, but do not encounter them within UN-Habitat!
  • In this context we are our own worst enemy. Our website is, well, ‘stone-age’ in character, difficult to access in a focused manner and cluttered with information that is not really ‘hot’. Our better publications should be more vigorously propagated and nursed on our website.


7. In your opinion what do you think has been the major achievements and challenges of UN-Habitat’s restructure and governance review?

  • I have already stated quite clearly that I believe that UN-Habitat’s restructuring was, to a large extent, a disaster. Ironically, the latest organogram reflects much of the old structure (maybe under new names).One can shift people and play with structures, but this does – and did - not have any substantive impact.
  • This unfortunate scenario becomes even worse when we look at the various Secretariat (INSPIRA, UMOJA) reforms, which are without fail designed to complicate processes, burden substantive officers with what used to belong to administrative support staff, discourage certain activities (travel and recruitment, for instance), and transform us more and more into a self-serving juggernaut.  UN-Habitat’s internal online and paper bureaucracy is no better and absorbing more and more staff time and resources at the cost of actual delivery.

8. UN-Habitat is gearing for Habitat III in 2016. What in your view are the critical issues to be focused on?

  • Habitat III in 2016 may well be a turning point, either to once more revive the Agency, or to wind it down and make it part of a larger existing organization (UNEP, or even UNDP, which is forcefully appropriating our mandate).
  • If we walk into Habitat III with our weak Strategic Plan 2014 – 2019, we will look ridiculous. We need a few people of real intellect, courage, and out-of-the box thinking, to propose a re-positioned agency. Some of these can be found within the Agency, but have never been spotted or listened to; others should be independent and new faces. A reform that deserves this title cannot be achieved by making an entire agency predict or count future activities and apportion its project activities to focus areas and squeeze them into RBM frameworks.
  • UN-Habitat has to shed its ‘greengrocer’ and ‘bean-counting’ mentality that has recently slipped in. Sure, there are financial problems to address but not replacing retiring staff is clearly starting to hollow-out the few competencies that the agency has. Unless we can prove our global relevance, the post-Habitat III may either not have a place for us as an independent institution or we will return to be a department somewhere, going back in history.

9. What are the low lights and highlights of your career with UN-Habitat?

  • Being an economist and social scientist by training (and having worked all over the African continent with UNDP, FAO, a Political Foundation, and as consultant before), I have benefitted enormously from UN-Habitat being exposed to, and learning through self-study about UN-Habitat’s mandate and related technical fields.
  • I was also very lucky working with many wonderful colleagues, and encountering only a few nasty ones.
  • If you want a low light from me: UN-Habitat is not a merit-based organization where one can make a career, or where performance receives regular and appropriate recognition. At times, I have felt exploited in view of the fact that the agency often does not act performance-based. But I did not feel it worthwhile to raise such issues.


10. What will you miss in UN-HABITAT and what would you wish to forget?

  • I love working, and creative and strategic thinking. My work for Iraq and Somalia had space for all of this. I will miss many good colleagues of the Somalia Team and in Headquarters.
  • There are always things one would like to forget, but I do not spend time on these.


11. What is your vision for UN-HABITAT operational activities in the future?

  • A strong country team-based approach would position the agency much better in a highly competitive environment and also attract more solid portfolios. Iraq and Somalia attest to that. I could say much more about the strategic nitty-gritty, but this would require undue space.
  • It is noteworthy that UN-Habitat has always been successful when able to meet the demand of towns, cities and governments. However, UN-Habitat has and continues to be at pains with this principle.


12. What is your message for the Agency?

  • I love the Agency, nevertheless, and hope it stops counting peanuts and begins to think, develop visions that deserve the title, and strategize in the true sense of these words.
  • And I do hope the day will come where my colleagues do not have to struggle for delivery utterly hindered by the awkward internal administrative conditions and spending far too much energy finding alternative solutions to make things happen.
Posted on: 13 Apr 2016