The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Ending discriminatory development: a truly new Habitat III Agenda

Having established that conflict routinely arises in urban areas and that this impedes our progress on urban development issues, in this second of two articles addressing the New Urban Agenda we propose mechanisms to resolve such conflict in an equally routine manner, with recommendations in the areas of democratisation, accountability, and statistical capacities.

Kerwin Datu and Naik Lashermes

Kerwin Datu and Naik Lashermes

Cities: London

Topics: Regional governance, City politics, Participatory governance, Poverty and inequality, Social conflict, The global urban agenda, The road to Habitat III

If you wish to catch up, read the first part of this article here.

To reiterate the message of the first article, we believe it is essential that the Habitat III agenda acknowledge the political reality that conflict arises frequently and routinely within urban areas and between urban constituencies, that it gives rise to a phenomenon of discriminatory development across many cities internationally, and therefore that policy frameworks must exist at the local, national and international levels to resolve it sustainably and equitably in an equally routine manner, for the benefit of development outcomes for all urban constituencies. We urge national governments and their National Habitat Committees to hear this message, to reflect upon how this occurs within their own borders, and impress these reflections upon the Habitat III process through their own National Habitat Reports and other agenda-setting contributions.

We would like nevertheless to make several recommendations of a global nature, articulated below around three priority areas: democratisation, accountability and statistical capacities. We remain available to help National Habitat Committees adapt these recommendatons to their own contexts, and to develop their own recommendations on how to address these and other issues based on their own domestic experiences, should our advice be desired.


The first priority area is to continue the work of democratising urban development efforts. Much of this democratisation agenda is already present in the Guidelines provided to National Habitat Committees, and much progress has already been made in perhaps a majority of countries, especially in the areas of decentralisation and participation. However our concern is that the way this agenda is commonly understood in government circles is vastly incomplete, causing it to be implemented with effectively one hand tied behind its back.

Opportunities for democratic participation and inclusive governance in urban issues are almost always circumscribed to specific sites or policy areas, and these limits are often so tightly drawn that they undermine the objectives of the whole enterprise. For example, residents in overcrowded areas may be allowed to participate in the re-planning of their own neighbourhoods, but without being given access to enough land or finance that they may actually finally alleviate their overcrowding. Participatory budgeting schemes may allow communities to allot city revenues to expenditure items according to priorities of their own choosing, but without giving them the power to choose to levy further taxes on themselves to increase those revenues overall, and thus fund enough items to address all their basic needs.

These restrictions on the scope for participatory decision-making are usually imposed to prevent the democratic will of participating communities from coming into conflict with the interests of other stakeholders that local authorities wish to preserve. This does not mean that the potential for conflict is thus prevented from undermining development outcomes. In fact the exact opposite is true. By preventing opposing stakeholders from meeting to understand and explore each other's interests in an open, accountable and transparent forum, an opportunity for constructive dialogue between competing interests is lost, and the conflicts continue to go unspoken and unresolved, undermining whatever development outcomes were intended when participatory decision-making was originally introduced.

The two examples noted above hint at the two directions the democratisation component of the Habitat III agenda needs to be advanced towards. First, we need to expand participation into processes of spatial planning at much larger scales, up to and including the spatial planning of the metropolitan region that surrounds a city's urban core. This will give transparency to the process of allocating a region's scarce land resources across all of the constituencies and activities that require it, and allow their conflicting demands to be satisfied on an equitable basis. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the agenda needs to expand participation much more systematically into issues of revenue generation, including vastly expanded rights to self-impose new taxes to finance projects considered of urgent need by participating communities. This shifts the focus from unhealthy conflict over limited government resources towards a healthy dialogue on how to expand those resources equitably and voluntarily. Cities in many countries have already seen the benefits of allowing their citizens to self-impose new levies for vital projects; we would urge those countries to help these benefits proliferate through their contributions to the Habitat III agenda-setting process.

Expanding democratic participation in these two directions is not an attempt to reduce the possibility for conflict but rather to deal with it constructively and routinely. It also improves the ability of participatory processes to help resolve two of the most difficult and universal challenges in urban development: access to land, and the scarcity of government finances.


This democratisation agenda is already widely understood, and the New Urban Agenda is well primed to address it, despite its substantial omission from the Guidelines. What is however almost entirely missing from the New Urban Agenda and the Guidelines is any prospect of improving accountability on these issues, which the following recommendations seek to address.

At the local and national levels, we must begin by propagating awareness of the systemically discriminatory nature of urban development, which we can do first and foremost by putting the ambition of ending discrimination in our cities at the core of the Habitat III agenda. With this achieved, we will then need to develop training and capacity-building programmes within individual countries to build awareness of these issues amongst national and local authorities, and amongst the various other large stakeholder groups involved in making major urban development decisions. Countries should be supported by organisations such as UN-Habitat in the development and implementation of these programmes

We must work towards establishing, through national and international legislation, a prohibition on discrimination against the urban poor and similar constituencies, alongside our existing prohibitions on discrimination against groups such as women or ethnic and religious minorities (to repeat our previous examples). We can begin (for example within UN-Habitat or the offices of the Special Rapporteurs) to catalogue specific forms of systemic discrimination against various vulnerable urban constituencies, such as arise in spatial planning, in the allocation of public investments, in the elaboration of individual development projects, and in their approval and implementation. We can begin to include, in national legislation and in local policy documents, regulations prohibiting these specific forms of discrimination individually.

These efforts need to be reinforced by improvements in the judicial sector. Just as we must develop training and capacity-building programmes amongst national and local authorities, so must we improve awareness and capacities amongst all levels of domestic judiciaries, so that they effectively enforce the laws, regulations and international covenants that already exist, and those we would hope to introduce. Once again, countries should be supported in this effort by UN-Habitat and similar agencies.

This needs to happen at the international level as well. The core international legislation governing rights for urban constituencies is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which 161 countries are currently bound. However an effective accountability mechanism has never been built for this covenant in the way that the UN Human Rights Committee has been empowered to enforce the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by the ratification of the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR. An equivalent mechanism for the ICESCR, the Optional Protocol to the ICESCR has been drafted, which 45 countries have signed but which only 13 countries have ratified: Argentina, Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Finland, Gabon, Mongolia, Montenegro, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Uruguay. We applaud these 13 countries for the leadership they have shown on this supremely important issue, and call on all other countries to prove their own ongoing commitment to the economic, social and cultural rights of their citizens by doing likewise. It must become a priority matter for the Habitat III Agenda that all countries sign and ratify this protocol, giving real teeth to the ICESCR for the first time in history, and finally establishing an enforceable international right to adequate housing and urban services.

Countries should also commit to bolstering the numbers and the offices of the UN Special Rapporteurs on the right to adequate housing and other economic, social and cultural rights protected by the ICESCR, to ensure that the benefits of the Optional Protocol to the ICESCR for urban constituencies become ubiquitous. This should be matched by a commitment to hold international organisations themselves, such as the World Bank as indicated by its own Independent Evaluation Group, to account in their handling of the economic, social and cultural rights of those affected by their interventions. Countries should demand that international development agencies such as the World Bank comply with their own policies regarding the rights of vulnerable constituencies to participation, inclusion, compensation and redress. International agencies must be made to prove their commitment to vulnerable constituencies by finally placing these concerns at the core of their project design activities (as indeed must local authorities), costing them completely in their project plans, and systematically providing sufficient funding to beneficiary countries to fulfil the burdensome responsibilities that these policies imply. These policies can no longer be considered auxiliary or "tacked on" to the other development efforts of these agencies, nor shifted unilaterally onto the already strained budges of lower-income countries.

Statistical capacities

To understand our progress on any of these issues will require enormous improvements in the way we monitor urban areas, collect data within them and produce aggregate statistics for them. Current proposals to improve the Global and Local Urban Observatory (GUO/LUO) programme must be pushed much further and supported with much higher levels of funding to become a truly authoritative monitoring organ. The GUO/LUO programmes must be elevated from an ad hoc voluntary programme to a permanent and systematic process of urban data collection at the local, national and international levels, equivalent to the World Bank data programme for national and international economic indicators, or the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Health Observatory for national and international health censuses. The GUO must be capable of driving the expansion of urban statistical efforts across all countries, applying and extending existing statistical methodologies in scientifically robust ways, just as at the World Bank and WHO. The GUO must prove equal to the criticisms levied at existing urban indicator programmes, and not be satisfied with simply apologising for their limitations.

These programmes must not only monitor access to basic services such as "adequate" housing or "improved" water sources, but must also systematically monitor infringements of urban rights such as numbers of citizens forcibly evicted or economically deprived. They must therefore be created fully independent of domestic or international influence, to provide confidence in the objectiveness of their reporting. They must be funded on a permanent basis just as national statistical offices are, and countries with insufficient means should be supported by donor countries in this requirement, even if only for the monitoring and evaluation of all the other urban development efforts donors already fund without the backing of sound statistics.

National Habitat Committees should be aware that it has long been known in academic circles that urban poverty and other deprivations in urban areas are systematically underestimated by existing development indicators, often because of censuses and statistical methodologies which have been designed around stereotypes of rural poverty, broadly ignorant of the realities of poverty and deprivation in urban areas. It is essential then that even existing statistical efforts be redesigned around contemporary knowledge of these realities.

Finally, as the bedrock on which the entire New Urban Agenda will rest, we urge the following. Donor governments need to stop undermining UN-Habitat and recognise that it exists to fulfil an essential function that no other international organisation fills, namely of addressing the complexity of the development challenge facing our urban areas. Whatever the shortcomings of the agency as it is currently constituted, the world's cities need an agency capable of implementing and monitoring the New Urban Agenda, whether that described in this briefing, or whatever other form it ultimately takes. Donor countries need to commit their considerable talents and financial resources to developing it into the international agency our cities deserve, one with the legal mandate, the expertise, and the muscle to lead the implementation of whatever New Urban Agenda we finally agree upon, just as agencies such as WHO enjoy the resources necessary to fulfil their considerable mandates.

Coda: Not just a "pro-poor" problem

While the matters we have drawn attention to are political in nature and cannot be addressed by a simply technocratic agenda, none of this is ideological. The same discriminatory processes occur in cities throughout the world, under political regimes of all stripes — democratic, autocratic, left, right, liberal, conservative, centralised or decentralised. What we have attempted to argue is that these potential areas of conflict are an irremovable aspect of all urban areas, part of the nature of cities themselves. While they operate at the local level, the way they occur in parallel in cities in every countri indicates that they are in fact universal, global phenomena.

It is not only out of concern for vulnerable constituencies that couuntries and their National Habitat Committees should address the issues raised in this briefing. Even if one is persuaded that the trickle-down theory of development doesn't work, there is still a trickle-up effect that does take place. This is the fact that the deprivations experienced by one segment of the population "trickle up" to affect the quality of development outcomes for other segments of the population. This is true in economic terms but may be seen quite readily in the area of environmental health. For example, the lack of waste and sanitation services in one area of a city often produces unsanitary conditions in other parts, causing outbreaks of disease in adjacent waterways, farmlands and food supplies, and thus amongst other (wealthier) constituencies. A lack of energy provision in cold-climate cities may force one segment to depend on crude fossil fuels for heat, creating toxic levels of air pollution for all segments. A lack of public transport coverage for one segment of the population causes them to rely on inefficient road-based informal transport alternatives, worsening traffic and congestion throughout the entire city.

These two examples show that when looking at the city-wide scale, deprivations experienced by one large segment of the population come at a very high cost for other constituencies. More examples of how the failure to address the needs of the urban poor undermines our ability to address the needs of other constituencies should readily come to the minds of National Habitat Committees.

Thus we urge national governments to use this opportunity to design the New Urban Agenda explicitly to address the issues of discrimination and deprivation occurring in cities across the world, and to work together to address them now, at the Habitat III conference in 2016, and in the following 20 years.

and Naik Lashermes are the Editors of The Global Urbanist.

In the first part of this article, and Naik Lashermes writing on behalf of The Global Urbanist's editorial board argue that the agenda currently on the table comprises several serious omissions, including any acknowledgement that conflict routinely arises in urban areas and must be addressed in an equally routine manner.

We are also releasing both articles in the form of a single PDF briefing available here, which readers are free to distribute and make use of within their organisations under conditions set out within.