Nicholas You : Special Advisor for Strategic Planning, Office of the Executive Director, Best Practices & Policies Section Coordinator Best Practices & Local Leadership Programme

04 May 2016

Give us a brief history of UN-HABITAT.

I have been with UN-Habitat for 29 Years and at that time we were located at the KICC in Nairobi. The location was good because we were at the center of the city as we were not detached from reality as we are completely detached and got nothing to do with the Kenyan reality.  We were facing the Kenyan reality every single day albeit in the city center. We were an executing agency basically for UNDP in those days because our work was primarily project oriented and that still very much forms part of our DNA today. A lot of the thinking that goes around in Habitat is project oriented which is a good thing in many ways because we are results oriented, but I also thing we need to change that DNA a little bit.

What were the challenges in those days?

The challenges had to do with the physical location of being in Nairobi and being in Kenya at that time. We didn’t have a direct international dialing in order to make a long distance phone, In order to make an international phone call you  had to sign a piece of paper that went to the post office, you had basically plan2-4 hours ahead in order to make an international phone call.  We didn’t have international banking; it wasn’t that easy. It was tough to work in those conditions. Trying to be a global international organization working with local constraints was a big challenge. We met that challenge quite bravely and that is what made us quite proud to have worked for UN-Habitat.

What in your view were the challenges then that shaped up UN-Habitat to what is it today.

The longest felt impact I can say is that Habitat is a project oriented agency. One of the ways forward is to show despite the fact that we are a normative agency we are there to promote policy and strategies and one of the more effective ways to do that is to do demonstrative projects. This is still one of the major ways that we still do our projects.

Tell us what the structure of UN-Habitat was during those days

It was UNHCS at that time. We had an executive director just like we have today. The big difference was that we had our own administration that did human resources and accounting, contracts and procurement we did not have UNON. The biggest advantage of having our own administration was we were in control of our own performance and fate. Right now we are not in full control in terms of delivery to our own clients.

What is the impact of the three big meetings? Habitat I, Habitat II and Istanbul +5

Habitat I was a major follow-up of the conference on environment and development held back in 1972. That conference created UNEP and called for a conference on UN-Habitat. It was instrumental that it led to the creation of UN-Habitat. It was also instrumental in bring the agenda of Human settlements into the development agenda. Back in the 1970s certain assumptions were made the proved not to turn out real. This made for the organization of Habitat II.

In the 1970s there were three major beliefs

  1. We could slow down, arrest, and even reverse back rapid urbanization~ this was wishful thinking and many governments back in the 1970 developed policies that went into that direction focusing on rural development and neglecting urban development.
  2. The formal economy will eventually absorb the informal economy---Slums are a very major expression of an informal economy. This also proved not to be the case especially in rapid urbanizing countries.
  3. Governments could mobilize the necessary investments in order to provide housing­­ for the vast majority of the population

All those three assumptions proved not to be true by the mid 80’s and that is what compelled a lot of professionals around the world not to snap out but those who researched and thought about urbanization the we needed a second conference that will face up the challenge of urbanization

How did the agency cope with this?

In the 1980s the agency started gathering the evidence required to argue the point. It wasn’t Habitat that was making these assumptions but the member states were based on the evidence that were made in the early 1970s. By the late 1980s the world of academia and research that were interested in Urbanization were definitely collecting the evidence to show that Urbanization was not something that could be slowed down through public intervention and it wasn’t something good to necessarily slow it down, but Urbanization was something that had a good impact if governments tackled it head on. In the 1980s we had the structural adjustment programme that called for governments to get out of Housing and this again was based on the evidence that was provided that the government was not the best provider of housing but also let the private sector provide a very critical role. That led to another assumption that the private sector could reach the bottom of the pyramid. That the efficiency and effectiveness of the private sector could allow us to envisage bringing housing to the poor. This is not the case as the private sector Governments are not always the be

This was setting the pace for Habitat II and I think it was the first time the international community recognized that we have to effectively deal with Urbanization.

Q. Was that thinking still around when we came to Istanbul +5

During Istanbul+5 there were still remnants of Governments around the world thinking that Urbanization was something that was to be discouraged but by and large it was recognized that we had to think about sustainable urbanization. This is an inevitable process and the best way to deal with it is to face it head on and have proper policies and strategies to deal with it.

11.56 Were there any major Milestones in Habitats History?

Habitat II was by far a biggest milestone; it gave Habitat a normative mandate. The international community paid much attention to what we were doing. The Istanbul meeting gave Habitat a big push as habitat was given Habitat as a follow up to the Habitat agenda. That gave us a very strong monitoring role to play. The two Instruments that were foreseen by the Habitat agenda- Best practices and Indicators, led to new programs within Habitat which were the best practices programme and the Urban Indicators programme. One was the quantitative and the other qualitative means of accessing what is being done.

13:35: Question: The best practices award was something that you started?

Answer:  Yes the best practice is something that I started during the preparatory process for Habitat II, I had already been to a number of the other major summits and I felt that something was missing, we were only talking about problems and issues and not solutions. None of the previous summits did we talk about solutions. So the idea came about that we should perhaps talk about solutions. And it was during Prep com II that I took the lead in preparing a document for the preparatory committee calling for good practices at that time. The preparatory committee deliberated the issue very seriously and this gave rise to one of the longest resolutions in UN-History detailing the definition of best practice, the criteria and procedures. We did launch the first award for best practices at the Habitat II conference at Istanbul in Plenary. We had two sponsors of the award – Dubai municipality and Tokyo municipality. Subsequently that became a programme that is the best practices progrmme which is still ongoing today. A best practice is a common future not only for UN-Habitat but much of the International community; learning from best practices has become a House Hold word, it wasn’t a household word back in 1995- “I can assure you that”

15:39 what did this achieve

Until then our policy documents were providing what were possible option without providing concrete evidence of how those policy options could actually benefit people communities and the entire society. With the advent of pure reviewed best practices, we were able to illustrate a lot of our policy guidelines, outlines and documents with real stories. i.e how people’s lives have changed, thanks to different ways of doing things.

16:32: Question: Did the international community have a change on what Habitat was doing after Habitat II

Answer: It was out of all that data gathering phase together with partners, academia to begin to show what was really happening in urbanization and we were able to show in cases where countries were not fighting urbanization but dealt with it head on, tremendous progress could be achieved both socially and economically. This was a growing momentum to show that urbanization isn’t just about poverty but Urbanization can bring about real positive change. In many instances that slums grew it was because of lack of a deliberate plan for rapid urbanization, Lack of proper policy that would foresee the rapid growth of cities.

18: 09: Tell us about the elevation of UNHCS to UN-HABITAT

After Istanbul +5 the general assembly decided to elevate the status of UNCHS to that of a programme and to convert the commission on Human settlements into a Governing council. It took us quite a few years to grow into the shoes of a fully-fledged programme. We still had many of the processes and procedures of a small technical center. In many instances we were not bold enough to step into the shoes of a programme. Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka was very instrumental on insisting that we were a programme and we should step into those shoes of a programme. The real turning point was when we decided together with our governing body to develop formulate and implement the Medium Term Strategic and Institutional Plan. The MTSIP plan was to show that habitat had grown into the big league that of a programme.


Posted on: 04 May 2016