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The First Session of the UN-Habitat Assembly: Innovation for Better Quality of Life in Cities and Communities

Image of Cynthia Campbell, Director of PD&R's International and Philanthropic Affairs Division.Cynthia Campbell, Director of PD&R's International and Philanthropic Affairs Division.

I represented HUD as part of the U.S. delegation to the first session of the universal United Nations Habitat (UN-Habitat) Assembly of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. This first session of the UN-Habitat Assembly was held from May 27 to 31, 2019, at UN-Habitat headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. The theme for the assembly was “Innovation for Better Quality of Life in Cities and Communities.” UN-Habitat, the urban arm of the United Nations, works on issues involving human settlements and sustainable urban development, focusing in particular on adequate shelter for all and the development of sustainable human settlements in an urbanizing world. This branch of the United Nations was established in 1978 following the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat I) held in Vancouver, Canada, in 1976. The Habitat conferences are held every 20 years; the most recent conference, Habitat III, was held in Quito, Ecuador, and attended by former HUD Secretary Julián Castro. UN-Habitat also hosts the biennial World Urban Forum, last held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in February 2018. Former Assistant Secretary Neal Rackleff, Chief Operating Officer Ralph Gaines, and I attended this meeting on behalf of HUD along with U.S. State Department officials.

This was a widely attended General Assembly, with delegations from 127 countries, including four heads of state and 49 ministers. Of the more than 2,900 delegates attending, more than a third came from national governments. UN-Habitat is working to eliminate slums around the world, mostly in the global south. This meeting focused on several resolutions that will guide the mission of UN-Habitat over the next few years. I was part of the U.S. negotiation team that worked in the draft committee to review the resolutions for alignment with U.S. policy and objectives. A few of the resolutions included the following:

  • Safer cities and human settlements.
  • Capacity building for implementing the New Urban Agenda and the urban dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  • Gender equality to support inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities and human settlements.
  • Enhancing urban-rural linkages for sustainable urbanization.

For several of the resolutions, I was the lead negotiator, engaging in sometimes tense discussions with dozens of other member states in the draft committee. Negotiations do not stop until they are resolved; on one evening, negotiations did not end until midnight.

The United Nations compound is located in an affluent suburb outside of Nairobi. While in Kenya, I had the opportunity to see one of the world’s largest informal settlements, Kibera, located on the outskirts of downtown Nairobi. The difference between the wealthy and poor areas of the city is stark. Those with means live in gated communities and heavily fortified compounds with high walls and barbed wire fencing.

Although the official Kenya Population and Housing Census states that more than 170,000 people live in this informal settlement, other sources state that its population exceeds 500,000 and may approach 1 million. Most residents of this slum earn less than $1.00 per day. There are few schools, and most cannot afford to send their children to secondary education. Residents have difficulty obtaining clean water, and diseases associated with living in these poor conditions run rampant. In fact, Kibera had a polio outbreak in 2018. After discovering the polio virus in sewage samples, the nation embarked on a massive vaccination campaign that seems to have eradicated the disease.

My experience as part of the U.S. negotiation team was very positive. The delegates attending this conference were dedicated to making the world a better place through better policy and practice. Witnessing the enthusiasm and dedication of my ministry counterparts was heartwarming.