Rosebella Kottonya Administrative Assistant, Secretariat of the Governing Council

06 Jun 2016

Question 1: Give us a brief history of UN-Habitat?

Well, Habitat was started in 1976 by a conference in Vancouver organized by UNEP. That was June 1976, and then Habitat came to Nairobi in October 1978 when the office in Nairobi was opened. After that we had Habitat II which was held in Istanbul, Turkey in 1996 then followed by Istanbul plus 5 which meant the crowning of Habitat II done in 2001. In 2000, we had a new Executive Director, who worked hard and in 2002 Habitat became a Programme which it is up to now.

Question 2: Tell us exactly the day you joined UN-Habitat?

I joined Habitat on 19th November 1979

Question 3: Are there any colleague whom you worked with all those years that are still around or you are the longest serving right now?

No, I am not. I found Robinah Bungeri and nobody else. Robinah was already here by the time I joined Habitat.

Question 4: What do you consider to be UN-Habitat’s major milestones?

Starting of Habitat here in Nairobi was a milestone, even for it to set up, start off and being what it became. Then for 14 years, the then Executive Director worked very hard and Habitat was stabilized, became very strong and was recognized worldwide on stable funding. But then again had challenges, rather the greatest milestone for now are that it’s a Programme which it became in 2002. 

Question 5: Before Habitat became a Programme how was the structure of UNCHS and what was the different from now?

The difference was the fact that at that time, Habitat was answerable United Nation Headquarter in New York; it could not run its programs by itself and also using executing agencies like UNDP to do our programs. But right now we can do our programs on our own without going through anybody.

Question 6: What were the successes of UNCHS?

There were big successes starting with when it was set up and the main mandate was Housing for all world wide and the state of the world at that time was lacking housing in most of the countries especially the developing ones. So what Habitat saw at that time was a million middle-class houses in Pakistan (Asia) and Malawi (Africa). Malawi got the award for best practice. Rehabilitation of some of the African countries if I may mention Uganda after their war, Habitat played a big role in rehabilitating Uganda and those are successes. Even right here in Kenya, some of these institutions like Lake Basin Authority and this big Estate which has become so confused (Dandora in Nairobi) were the brain-child of Habitat. Habitat could send the technical staff to go and does feasibility study, Habitat had bigger ideas for Kenya, Kenya would have been very far. Upgrading of slum started with Mathare (Mathare Slum Upgrading), at that time Kibera was not even big, it was not something you could think of, Mathare was the one Habitat had identified to upgrade but due to political problems in Kenya, the then Member of Parliament of that area did not allow Habitat because they look at the voters as their milk-cow, so they don’t let development set in.

Question 7: Tell us about UN-Habitat under Arcot Ramachandran, Wally N’dow, Elizabeth Dodswell, Johal and Toepfer.

Under Ramachandran, there was a lot of stability, Habitat was definitely stable and the working condition was different from now in the sense that there was a lot of openness, transparency and accountability which was 100%. Staff were getting their promotions every 3 years as stipulated by the UN rules, so at that time, it was automatic once you reached 3 years, your file would be sent round from Human Resources to the heads of departments or sections and if their was a vacancy or room promotions would just be given without people going to lobby for it or any thing like that. Employment was also transparent; people were given jobs on merits which is not the same now.

Wally N’dow came in as the Secretary General of Habitat II, let me not talk about Wally N’dow first rather about Dodswell, who came immediately after Ramachandran and left in 1993, and she came with a different agenda, she came and under her Habitat was merged to UNEP, so Habitat was again like down graded. Under Dodswell, Habitat was combined with UNEP and it took a bit of a struggle, because Habitat was now under her as the Executive Director of UNEP but again covering in for Habitat. Her agenda was to subsume Habitat into UNEP so that even the headquarters would not be here any more. But after a big struggle at the General Assembly from the developing countries, we again came back to our footing. So Wally N’dow was appointed as a result of the success of the struggle by members states to restore back Habitat. When he came and since there was already a problem and at the same time there was this conference for Habitat II, he was the Secretary General, funds were already diminishing. When Ramachandran left the surplus was very high, but because of the transition and there was nobody fund-raising (we live on funds) hence the funds were going down. By the time Wally N’dow accomplished conference in Istanbul, Habitat ran out of funds. All our funds went because there was no continuation.

After N’dow, came Johal, who was a stop-gap just to hold the staffs because the organization was just going down and down, there were no funds, staff contracts were very short but since he was a former staff member who had retired and had the experience (since he was the director of funds when he was here), he was called upon to come and see what could be done to salvage Habitat from the predicament. He tried all that he could until Dr. Toepfer came.

But Dr. Toepfer was a politician; his main concern was not really for Habitat, he was more concerned with UNEP but of course he covered because there was a vacuum of leadership for Habitat. He didn’t do much for us, he concentrated on UNEP and during that time we almost became a department of UNEP again but we thank God Mrs. Tibaijuka was appointed which took a lot of lobbying by the members states especially from the developing nations so that we could have our housing mandate here. You know, UNEP mandate is about environment.

Question 8: What administrative and operational changes were witnessed with the arrival of Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka?

Toepfer being a white and coming from one of the top donors’ states, of course there was confidence in him but at the same time the donors did not do much which was also very funny. There was a bit of calmness, so Tibaijuka when she arrived, she was a good fund-raiser and being a good fund-raiser and hard working person she got the agency back and on its footing. The first thing she started with was to restore the morale of the staff which was very low by the time she joined Habitat. Before then there was a lot of uncertainty, because the job tenure was not there and people did not know what to expect even for the future.

Getting a one year contract was a dream. If you got so many months was six months but people were even getting one month contract and three months was like the norm and then six months was a milestone. When Tibaijuka came she realized that there was need to boost the morale of the staff. Once the staffs were not motivated even their own production was not there. Salaries were regular as usual and have never been affected as such but the only thing was that people were stagnant; no one knew what would happen the next day.  So without contract even if the salaries were there, no promotions and job freeze (the restructuring started). The first restructuring started in 1988 and went on for along time. Quite a number of people were laid off, those who were on regular budget were few just like today but people on projects and short term projects definitely had no stability at all. People on short term contract were laid off just like that and others were disillusioned and were resigning and looking for jobs elsewhere. As a result also we have had quite an exodus to UNON and even to UNEP and not vice verse.

Question 9: How different is the UN-HABITAT of today compared to earlier days in terms of meeting its mandate.

The agency has gained world acclamation, it’s strong but again right now as we stand I wouldn’t tell you where the agency is, I don’t know where it is.  It’s like going again back to where we came from, that’s my feeling. Its becoming an enclosed agency again not like what it was before but perhaps with the World Urban Forum still continuing it might boost the morale of UN-Habitat. You know, WUF is where the world knows about it and come to chat a little bit. Agency is still going strong except that with the now the funding problem, that’s a big challenge for the fact that the top donors countries have backed out is not very good at all for the organization growth. I would even think about it much and I cant even tell you why because it came as a surprise to us. The agency has been doing well, though the reasons that we have been given is that world economic recession but even though it should not have been that drastic because the actions that the donor countries has taken is very serious because backing out 100% is very serious! I don’t know where we will start from to be able to again get them back. Donors’ countries once one gets out it’s like the others follow suit. There are ten top donor countries, once one pulls out and the exit become big. So that may affect Habitat, a strong Habitat has been felt all over the world, what Habitat does but with this funding problem something should be done and quickly.

Question 10: What are the highlights and low lights of your career with UN-Habitat?

My highlights are that; I have enjoyed working here with Habitat and also been able to work even outside Habitat. I was for two and half years working in Kosovo which were challenging moments but they made me. I was made by working under extremely difficult condition and being able to achieve for the course of humanity, I enjoyed that because our mandate is also for humanity and UN mandate is to improve the living conditions. So I am glad that I have played a part in this exercise. The other bit is that right now as I am leaving from the ministry of foreign affairs of Habitat (GC Secretariat), which is the last station I have worked in for the about 10 years, to work in the protocol world so that is an asset for me, to go outside their with diplomatic experience and being able to handle international meetings.

Low lights; is the bureaucracy in the UN system not only in Habitat but may be UN-Habitat could be more does not make things work. It’s a pity that you see bureaucracy being used but in disguise. They keep on using the UN rules which are not even followed to the latter. Transparency is now a thing of the past, Habitat has become a place where people now get jobs behind bars. You wake up the following day you find people are there, so there is no transparency and accountability whereas in the UN, human rights is being shouted aloud, but its not being exercised in the system. Finally about the job satisfaction, I am satisfied, yes! But I am concerned that having given my years here, the experience that I have, they call me an institutional memory but there is nothing to commensurate or demonstrate that I am what they are saying I am. So in actual fact it’s a bluff to me. Yes, its hurts! No promotion, no nothing and you are told you are working as professional of even like a P3 level, my production could be enumerated at P3 level but I am stagnated as a G6 to the end, so what? That’s very low because my services have been misused. Misuse of the General Service staff is quite common here.

Question 11: From your experience what are today’s challenges to UN-Habitat and how do you think we can overcome them?

Yes! There are challenges, first there is no transparency but the major challenge now is funding which already being felt. People’s jobs are threatened, and once people’s jobs are threatened, the production and morale goes low so that is a challenge. So something has to be done to get the funding back during this transition, because now we are told that there is a second restructuring. Now with this second restructuring there is need also to do it in an open manner. Right now the leadership is not open any more; it has become a closed door policy whereas before it was otherwise. Let’s have an open door policy for the organization; most of the things are being heard along the corridor rather being told to staff maybe at town hall meetings but even at town hall meetings things are not clear, facts are not given out clearly.

Question 12: What would you miss in UN-Habitat and what would you wish to forget?  

I will miss my colleagues, international environment and my job which has been interesting. It has been very interesting, so I will miss it.

What I would like to forget and even to burry is the stressful working atmosphere in this organization. Our UN system is so stressful especially in my office; we have had very bad experience to the extent that some staff members have gone down to the grave and one staff went away after getting a stroke due to the stressful nature of our office. But its not only in our office, its everywhere and that was the reason why the Joint Medical Unit was concerned and asked everybody to come out at lunch time, to be able to run or to walk and also advised us also to eat healthily. The condition in the UN system is such that it’s stressful and so it isn’t a condition I would like too remember. I would like to remember a healthy environment where people are happy.

Question 13: What is your last message to UN-Habitat?

My last message is this; UN-Habitat having a critical mandate to improve the lives of the poor should have more impact in the host country. They are trying but not as it started before. When Habitat was started it covered all over the country (name it whether it was the coast, west, or east) Habitat was somewhere. Right now Habitat is trying, there is the water project which is reaching people there is upgrading of slum but the impact is not very remarkable. Secondly, again with the current reorganization the job tenure is again not reassured. There is uncertainty and the staff morale is starting to go down, let it be boosted. Finally, The General Service staff (the local staff) should be given the same treatment, ok! Salary-wise will not be the same but let the local staff be motivated by being treated the same as the professional staff whom we serve diligently to the extent that most of the credit that they get come from the general staff (the local staff), but they are never recognized and nobody cares what happens to them. There is a gap between the local and the professional staff. If something happens to a local staff, you hardly see professional staff being there, even if a local staff dies, how many professional staff would go there? Very few, yet we are a family. If not it’s only the supervisor of that staff that has concern. So let’s have an atmosphere where the local and the professionals are treated the same and lets also consider the staff promotion in an honest and transparent manner. So that the organization can be strong because if the staffs are not happy the organization cannot be strong at all and there would be loopholes to pull the organization down. First of all the staff, staff relationship and staff recognition should be highlighted.



Posted on: 06 Jun 2016