How Can Africa Deliver on Its Ambitious Vision for Habitat III?

The Habitat III Africa Regional Meeting took place February 24-26, 2016 in Abuja, Nigeria. Africa’s population is projected to double from 1 billion in 2010 to 2 billion in 2040. Photo by pjotter05/Flickr.

From February 24 – 26, 2016 African ministers and stakeholder representatives from numerous civil society organizations gathered in Abuja, Nigeria to discuss African priorities for Habitat III, the U. N.’s 20-year urbanization conference that takes place in October.

At the end of three days of deliberation, they affirmed the Abuja Declaration, which will inform the final outcome document of the Habitat III process, the New Urban Agenda, with a united voice for the continent.

The declaration made important points, especially regarding access to basic services for the underserved, improving inclusive governance systems, inclusion of and equity for women, and strengthening the capacity of cities to implement environmentally sustainable and contextually sensitive solutions.

Yet the document is lacking in concrete targets, timelines and commitments to change. Conceptually, then, the outcome of the meeting was strong. But the challenge remains: How do cities access the financing and secure the political will needed to implement the solutions necessary to achieve the ambitious goals set out in the Abuja Declaration?

One key avenue to implementation of the priorities set out in the declaration is linking the goals to other processes that already have political and financial momentum driving them forward, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on climate and Agenda 2063 — the latter, a development plan developed in 2013 by the African Union.

Two of these frameworks, the SDGs and Agenda 2063, garnered significant attention during the discussions in Abuja. However, specific focus on the Paris Agreement and African cities’ roles in achieving its 1.5 degree scenario warranted a more prominent conversation.

Adopted by global players in September, the SDGs set the stage for sustainable development over the coming 15 years. Agenda 2063 established a development agenda for African countries for the next half-century. While not directly linked, these two have a common direction and are seen as mutually supportive. The SDGs more broadly aim to set the aims for global sustainable development; while its aims align with those of the SDGs, Agenda 2063 pointedly reflects African challenges and sets more specific targets for development.

Unlike in many of the conversations in the West, African urban players see Habitat III as a logical and foregone follow-up to the implementation of the SDGs and Agenda 2063. Sustainable Development Goal 11 — the landmark cities-focused “urban SDG” — and other relevant targets and indicators can be achieved by creating meaningful commitments and targets in the New Urban Agenda that align with the targets and indicators set forth in the SDGs.

In the African context, these statements and commitments should also align with the goals of Agenda 2063. The Abuja Declaration acknowledges these linkages, as well as links with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, but it does not operationalize these connections.

National Policies

Moving forward, how can the New Urban Agenda incorporate the Abuja Declaration and make an ambitious, actionable statement for the future? The agenda will need not only to include conceptual statements but also to set forth commitments and targets that inspire actions from urban, regional, national, private sector and civil-society actors.

There are many avenues for actions that can contribute to achieving the goals set out by the Abuja Declaration and those that an ambitious New Urban Agenda would establish. Two of the primary opportunities to operationalize the New Urban Agenda and the Abuja Declaration are national policies and leveraging financing.

One of the more understated but important articles in the Abuja Declaration reads: “Enhance people-centered urban and human settlements through … Adopting integrated National Urbanization Policies in the context of national development planning to facilitate multi-sectoral coordination and collaboration and avoid sectoral silos.”

Placing priority on national urban policies is a significant step. Such policies can enable countries to bring solutions to scale and ensure that responsibility for achieving both national and international goals (for instance, those laid out in the SDGs and Agenda 2063) is distributed across cities. In addition, there is an opportunity for national policies not only to establish goals for overall urban policy but to allocate federal funding to aid cities in implementing sustainable solutions across multiple sectors — energy, housing, transport, and water and sanitation.

However, it is essential that national policies are put in place that allow cities to implement solutions in contextually appropriate manners. For example, the solutions to Lagos’s transport challenges will be inherently different from those of Abuja, but a national urban policy on transport would still need to provide equal funding and support for both cities to achieve the goals.

Cities also will need access to increased, targeted financing in order to implement the solutions necessary to build the cities of the future.

Cities of the Future

Fortunately, there are a number of ways global and local actors can come together to create the capacity needed for action on the ground. International financing institutions can pledge increased proportions of annual grants to projects aligning with the Habitat III goals. Federal governments can reallocate capital to projects that solve their most pressing urban challenges from projects that would otherwise be detrimental to sustainable, equitable urban development.

As part of the effort to rethink land-ownership regulations and development practices, cities can establish taxes that will route funding toward sustainable urban solutions and accessible services. Cities and regions can also explore more innovative funding mechanisms, such as partnerships with the private sector through public-private partnerships and other similar arrangements.

There is a wealth of solutions available to countries and cities that are committed to developing the sustainable, accessible cities of the future as described in the Abuja Declaration. The challenge rests on generating the political will and securing funding commitments from players at all levels.

The discourse in Abuja and the resulting declaration show that the shared vision of sustainable, resilient and equitable African cities is within reach. Now the task remains to create strong commitments to progress throughout the Habitat III process and to operationalize those commitments to create real change on the ground.

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