Ms. Wandia Seaforth, Acting Chief Best Practices & Local Leadership Programme, Wandia also worked in Gender Unit and Safer Cities Programme (1995-2013)

12 Apr 2016

1.Tell us about your work and contribution to UN-Habitat’s mandate

I joined UN-Habitat in 1995, I was recruited into the Gender Unit but at that time it was called “Women in Human Settlement Development Programme”. It was a very long name for a Programme which actually led to a change in a name to “Women and Habitat Programme”. Another reason for a change in name was that there was always some issue when translating it to Spanish, French etc. We found out that translating “Women and Habitat” was actually very easy. “Women and Habitat” name was actually suggested by some of our partners in Latin America. Later, a gender unit was introduced into UN-habitat which was part of the gender policy and the idea was to separate the focus on women and the gender-mainstreaming per se. In reality it became very difficult to distinguish in terms of operational and thematic focus between gender unit and “women and Habitat” Programme. In the end there was a remerge to become the Gender Unit which then dealt with women in human settlement with a specific focus on girls and gender mainstreaming within the work of UN-Habitat and our partners.

In 2001, I was partly assigned to Istanbul +5 Secretariat, but I was still in the gender unit as I was supposed to be working 75% with Istanbul +5 secretariat because that was quite hectic. Preparation and lead time to the Special Session which was in June 2001 was then short. In reality it was very difficult to be in two Programs, 75% on one and 25% on the other, you end up doing more like 150% because you have responsibilities in both. That said the link of working in gender unit and Istanbul +5 was quite useful because that was when we were reviewing how far governments (member states) have implemented Habitat Agenda. One of the points of focus was Social Inclusion which also included gender, so it was quite interesting with my gender background and interactions with a lot of women networks with whom I had been working with in the gender unit to have the gender perspective in the Istanbul +5 processes and also in the final outcome.

To go back to gender unit, when I joined in 1995, coming from a civil society background my first job was to mobilize the input of women networks and organizations into the Istanbul process (1996 conference) and into Habitat Agenda which was the outcome of the conference. It’s generally agreed that the Habitat Agenda is a very good document as far as gender mainstreaming is concerned. It captured focused on women, affirmative action and gender mainstreaming quite well.

Working with Istanbul +5 Secretariats entailed reviewing how far the Habitat Agenda had been implemented; it was interesting to see from the National reports, what governments had done better than others,  what concrete measures had been taken to mainstream gender issues into Human Settlements Development in countries. Some of the countries that had done very well were countries that were helpful and supportive in getting gender perspective into Habitat Agenda.  Another thing which was interesting about Istanbul +5 was to see countries that had new constitutions since 1996 and had somehow been influenced by the Habitat Agenda in the recognition of housing as a basic human right and also countries have either made new housing and urban development  policies or revised their old ones reflecting the Habitat Agenda.

In 2001, the Istanbul +5 Special Session was held in New York, and since the work was all done, I went back to full time into the gender unit until mid-2002, when there was a major re-organization in UN-Habitat that was termed as “Regularization” which stem from having had a lot of staff who were by that time in 200Series contracts and was sort of higher record staff who were either regularly and not-so regularly recruited. There were cases where staff came in as short-term staff and was somehow renewed over and over again. So, we had like a major overhaul of recruiting and in that process, I left the gender unit and joined the Best Practices Programme which by then had 4 staff members.

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

Milestone at one level, I guess it’s a subjective term because it’s a question of perspective and I have actually been thinking about this and I don’t know what milestones are…but Vancouver that established UN-Habitat is an obvious one. Incidentally, I forgot to mention that I had worked on UN-Habitat before from 1981 to 1984 when the office was at Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) and that time I was working in support category and my job was to help compile a bibliography on low-cost appropriate building materials. At that time, Habitat was doing a lot of operational work on the ground. They were actually building or helping countries to build houses. Research and Development Division was doing a lot of support to Appropriate Technology for Building and Construction (ATBC). When I was doing that bibliography, I was looking at a lot of documents which came forth in that Vancouver Conference.

Then, there Istanbul 1996 conference and the Habitat Agenda which I think is a very good document, how far it has been put to use, I don’t know but I think the principles and policies that came out of it has been used, whether partners and governments (member states). Its influence is there and there are some who have said that Habitat Agenda tried to accommodate everybody since it is a negotiated text. Since it tried to give everything to everybody therefore it ended up being just a wish list, I don’t really agree with that because I think the Human Settlements Agenda is so big that the inclusiveness of the Habitat Agenda is very important.

There were also two campaigns on Urban Governance and Security of Tenure which came out of one re-organization of UN-Habitat and the interesting part of the campaigns was trying to mobilize around a specific thematic issue. It kind of the work of UN-Habitat to a sort of two-focus blocks, soft aspects (governance) and hard core (Security of Tenure) which was about access to land rights, rights not to be evicted and women’s rights to land. It is also difficult to separate work like that because of the overlap between the two, as access to security of tenure means a lot of cases to deal with governance situation. Still, the campaigns helped to focus in a certain direction but I believe campaigns should have a timeline. I had worked in UNICEF before I came to UN-Habitat which has very big campaigns and my experience with UNICEF was that a lot of campaigns within a specific timeline, and we used the campaign to mobilize along the content of the Programme. In UN-Habitat, campaigns were not as sharply defined in terms of the timeline and also how the content of our work is organized.

The next milestone would be Istanbul +5, the review on how Habitat Agenda had been implemented by member states. Immediately after that we changed from United Nations Center for Human Settlement to United Nation Human Settlement Programme and that was a big thing.

Another milestone would be the  MDGs and our assignment to Target 11 on reducing the number of slum dwellers by a certain  period and although there have been a debate around that target, how useful is it as a target; whether is not being ambitious enough, well defined enough and what exactly do you measure. But I was important for our data collections to show how member states are meeting that target, how we define data collection and how we help in monitoring globally. How we engaged with the countries Vis a Vis how data collections and doing evidence-based policies

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

Any organization that needs survive has to be always re-evaluating, restructuring and re-inventing. There was a time that our niche was that building houses and that was overtaken by themes. Another milestone was in the year 2000, when we published Global Strategy for Human Settlement. One of the policy shifts in that Global Strategy was that governments were seen as an enabler and the role of UN-Habitat was to enable governments. So, we were moving more and more into helping with the monitoring of the global trends, policy formulations, setting global norms and principles as well as helping governments to interpret that. So, I can’t say that Habitat of that time was or was not effective compared to Habitat of today, I think it’s just changing times where probably building houses on the ground is not the best thing we can be doing, maybe doing something more at another level.

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

One of the biggest challenges right now is off course economic crisis that affects financing of UN-Habitat operations and also affects what member states are also doing on the ground. We give policies and set up programmes but then, member states have problem of implementing them. Another challenge is world politics at the moment, insecurity is one thing, natural and man-made disaster is another. Human-made disaster can be very devastating in a very short time and in wide scale i.e. earthquakes, tsunamis etc. some Kind of disasters that is caused by bad politics, Syria and DRC Congo for examples. In term of long term challenges to human settlements developments, those are potentially more difficult to deal with, which again bring out this point of separating the interrelatedness of the governance and hardcore human settlements issues.  I don’t know how that can be overcome. But to one solution since I have been working in the best practices is to look at what others have done in other parts of the world.

5. You worked as the Coordinator of the Best Practice Programme. Tell us about the challenges of implementing best practices and how you managed to make UN-Habitat relevant to Human Settlements?

It has been very interesting since 2002 because it is like a window to the world. The purpose of the program is to help identify, collect, document, disseminate and publicize best practices that are happening around the world in the areas of UN-Habitat mandate. Best practices is a controversial terminology by itself as people are always asking why best practice and better than what?  

The controversy itself was also useful as it helps to publicize the idea. We had a very simple criteria i.e.

  • Does it have an impact?
  • Has it involve partnership in more than one sector? 
  • How sustainable is it?
  • Has it introduce innovation, social inclusion including gender mainstreaming?

We collect best practices through awards. We have several awards; Dubai International Award for Best Practice that has been ongoing since 1995. The first award was given in Istanbul Conference in 1996. Every two years we send out a call for these best practices and the award is sponsored by the Dubai Municipality. For every award cycle we can get anything from 300 to 600 submissions. Awards are motivation for organizations, government and local governments to submit what they are doing.

We have a standard format so that they are easy to review and to put in a database. As long as submission meets the minimum criteria and its related to the work of UN-Habitat whether it ends up winning or not it’s put in a database because it has a learning value. Currently we have a database of more 4000 initiatives from around the world. 40% of them come from Latin America, 20% from Europe and the rest divided among other regions. We receive quite few from North America over the years and when we did get, it was more likely to come from Canada than the USA, which is probably an interesting research follow-up. Vast majority of submissions are from Local Authorities and Civil Society actors or a combination of both. National governments submit at a very low percentage. Submissions are put on a database subjected to judging process where between 10 and 12 receive awards. Award is good for advocacy because it helps in publicizing initiatives. Winners always tell you what winning mean to them, how it help to validate and publish what they are doing, some of them have been working under a difficult conditions and winning the award helps them with the local politics and general learning and lesson learnt. We have also Rafik Hariri Memorial award named after the late Rafik Hariri who got UN-Habitat Scroll of Honor in 2004; unfortunately he was assassinated 5 months later. So, his family approached UN-Habitat and said that, they would like to start an award in his honor.

There are three main challenges of the best practices; we have never had enough resources to do documentation ourselves so what is submitted is essentially self-documented. So, there is disparity between the very well documented and the not so well documented ones. I usually say that submissions fall into three categories, there are people who are so good at packaging and selling them, there are other practices that are very good but difficulty in documenting them and then there are good content and reasonably good practices which are the vast majority. I have had experience of visiting good initiatives and I encourage them to submit to the award and then when the award documentation arrives, I look at it and wonder why they have not documented every aspect of that practice. Sometimes, I have taken the initiative to actually help submitters improve their submissions but there is a limit on how much we can do that. We have a network of best practice partners but not by any means represented in our countries and regions. The reason why we have a large number of good submissions from Latin America in our database is because we have a very good network of best practice partners in that region.  So that is challenge having the capacity for documentation and validation of submissions because you want to make sure that what people put on the papers are actually what’s on the ground. Over the years, I must say, we’ve had few challenges; in every cycle the maximum complaints we have ever gotten is three nonetheless that’s a challenge.

Third challenge is that making maximum use of that knowledge that is gathered in those awards. We have the database where colleagues use them for various reports like “state of the world cities” and case books but again we have not exploited enough the knowledge gathered which is partly a resource issue.

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?

I have been in all World Urban Forums, first one was in Nairobi in 2002, and then we went to Barcelona, Vancouver, Nanjing, Rio de Janeiro and Naples. For me there are two things that I like about the World Urban Forum. First the Equality of partners; yes the governments will always be governments and will always give them the reverence that they expect but in the WUF you really have the feeling of equality amongst the partners. The Governing Council is for the governments while the WUF is for everybody and that level of exchange is very important. At one level it’s quite structured but at another level it’s unstructured, a combination which is good. Some of my favorite forums were in Barcelona, and I think why I like Barcelona is because it’s a very nice city but also it was a forum of cultures that was going on at the same time so getting the two crowds and having a cultural focus to an extent was interesting; Vancouver so far is my favorite WUF because it was very well organized and it had very large numbers more importantly it was happening in a country that respects civil society.

One of the major challenges is to distil on what is coming out of WUFs in order to feed it back to the work of the UN-Habitat. That’s something we need to be working on, we really need a different kind of reporting. I have been in the Reporting team of every World Urban Forum so you really don’t get to interact with the WUFs as much as possible which is something I think the organization need to consider because we need to rotate staff not the same people stuck with reporting. I think in Nanjing, there was an attempt to see some of the highlights, trends, and controversial as well as consensual issues. The problem is how to capture the essential conversation and how to reflect it in the work of UN-Habitat. On the other hand the WUF just by its nature (being able to provide platform for partners) I think have some values that we can never explicitly capture its value on the ground. But I am convinced that the global market place of ideas on human settlement and urban development is very important.

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

Structuring and governance is always a very political question, I will  like to say two things; I have been in very major restructuring before and for me the essential things about restructuring, it must be very clear why restructuring is happening, in some of the restructuring that has happened in UN-Habitat it has been clearer than others. We don’t just do restructuring just for the sake of restructuring.

Restructuring has to be participatory, the three major restructuring (Revitalization, regularization and the current one) in all the restructuring that I had experience in UN-Habitat have had varying degree of level of participation.  A reorganization process cannot take too long, its energy dissipating, people are in limbo and I think it’s very bad for the productivity and vision. In my honest opinion, I think the current one has taken too long which is not good, in terms of staff morale, productivity and level of confidence from our partners and donors.

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

The process should be participatory internally as well as externally; my experience from Habitat II, Istanbul and Istanbul +5 is that external participation is very important. Habitat II was hailed globally as having very important in terms of incorporating partners and respect of their input and perspectives. Habitat II, our interaction with partners was very important for the debates on rights-based approach to housing and its imperative that we have sort of level of partners participation or even better. There should not only be in terms of numbers but also in terms of respect for diversity. We need also to be mindful of the sort of niche we want to create for UN-Habitat because we have many organizations even in the UN system that are interested in Urban Agenda which I don’t think is a problem but we have to be mindful of what’s going to be our relevance and our competitive edge in the arena.

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

Some of the low moments in UN-Habitat has been finance-related, there were times when our finances were so bad that people were on 3 months contract and longest would be 6 months contract. That has a lot of implication for staff morale, productivity and even for planning. Doing a two year Programme is difficult when you don’t know about the staff.

There have been several scares of being merged with UNEP and being moved to Europe and one occasion it was quite serious. The restructuring processes have at times had their problems but we have gone through them, so generally truly speaking, I have had reasonably good experience working in UN-Habitat.

10. What are highlights of your career with UN-HABITAT? 

I have really some great colleagues not only socially but professionally too. I have opportunity to work with people; we have been on flex team discussing a specific issue or a specific document and gone on missions with colleagues. I have work very well in the Gender Unit and Safer Cities Programme where I had really valuable interactions professionally and personally with colleagues throughout my career with UN-Habitat. 

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

We need to develop, produce and highlight more cutting-edge specific data that on urban scenes and human settlements which can only come from UN-habitat. What’s our niche or cutting-edge area? Human settlements are an important area and we need to remember that all the time.  UN-Habitat needs to be mindful of possible threats to our mandate and relevance in that mandate.

12. Retirement Plan

I am doing completely different things now, I am writing, doing family things and catching up with personal things that I was unable to do for a long time.









Posted on: 12 Apr 2016