In Kuala Lumpur, the UN promotes a wide-ranging partnership for cities

Sixteen months after adopting the New Urban Agenda (NUA) in Quito in 2016, the 9th session of the World Urban Forum (WUF) took place in Malaysia’s capital from 7th to 13th February 2018 with a focus on how to implement the NUA. The question of how it will be financed, and the extent of private sector involvement, were amongst the many issues to resolved, and the 9th session issued a call for private sector funding.

Running from 7th to 13th February and attended by over 22,000 delegates from 165 countries, UN-Habitat convened the 9th WUF in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). The week-long event brought together stakeholders from national and local governments, NGOs, community-based organizations and specialists from other related institutions and agencies to push forward the commitments adopted within the NUA, at the UN’s Habitat III conference in October 2016 in Quito.

The 9th session of the World Urban Forum brought together 22,000 delegates from 165 countries. ©JGP

The NUA outcome document, containing 175 paragraphs, sets out the (general and unquantified) commitments to be shared between Member States. These include reducing pollution in cities, providing safe, accessible and green public spaces, and ensuring that all citizens have access to basic services, all within inclusive cities where there is no discrimination. And urgent action is now needed: since 2009, over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities. These in turn are responsible for more than 60% of energy consumption and 70% of greenhouse gases. And furthermore, almost a billion people live in slums.

Indicators to be defined

Today, an enormous amount of work still needs to be done to implement the NUA and especially in terms of securing agreement on global monitoring mechanisms to measure progress and of the role of UN-Habitat, a small UN agency with limited resources, whose restructuring has often been announced on various occasions in the past. This must all happen within a framework based on the good will of Member States alone, in the absence of binding commitments.

The launch of Cities Partnership Challenge during the 9th session of the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur. ©JGP

Nevertheless, the existence of the NUA text – ratified at the highest international level – is a significant boost in itself. Member States use it as a point of reference. It already influences some domestic policies in the field of public financing, all the more so given that it echoes the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the UN in 2015, and more specifically its Sustainable Development Goal number 11, to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

“Between 4,5 and 5,4 trillion US dollars are needed”

Nevertheless, there are huge hurdles to overcome, amongst which is the funding for the NUA. Whilst praising the NUA’s “transversal approach”, the French Development Agency (AFD) – which currently commits financing of around €9.5 billion a year for development projects – recognises that due to their more binding nature, international commitments to fight climate change made under the 2015 Paris Agreement tend to be more successful in terms of bringing projects to fruition. In any case, official development assistance constitutes a drop in the ocean compared with actual requirements. As part of a new multi-level partnership initiative ratified in May 2017 by UN-Habitat Member States, called the Implementation Facility for Sustainable Urban Development (IFSUD), the World Bank – which seeks solutions as much from national and local stakeholders as from the private sector (see inset) – recently announced that “between 4,5 and 5,4 trillion US dollars are needed to fill the urban infrastructure finance gap”.  However, local-level stakeholders are now voicing concerns.

Illiteracy of local leaders

At one its recent events, the International Urban Development Association (INTA) underscored the risks associated with “financialisation” of cities from lack of regulation by public authorities. “Whole districts in countries such as China and Egypt have already sprung up that correspond neither to the financial means of the local population nor its actual requirements for living, and as a result they remain largely empty”, condemns Eric Huybrechts, Senior Architect and Regional/Urban Planner in charge of International Affairs for Ile-de-France Regional Planning Agency (IAU).

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi, General Secretary of UCGL Africa and Frédéric Vallier, Secretary-General of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), at the 9th session of the World Urban Forum.©UN Habitat

Meanwhile, Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi, Secretary General of UCLG Africa sounds the alarm: “in Lagos, Nigeria, money flooded in, to create a Dubai-style city on Victoria Island. Meanwhile no investors could be found when it came to finance for new roads”. His counterpart from UCLG Asia-Pacific, Bernadia Irawati Tjandradewi, highlights “the illiteracy of local leaders, in the South, in terms of financial matters and public-private partnerships” and the importance of educational programmes like those implemented by her organisation.


In her closing speech, UN-Habitat’s Executive Director, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, once again emphasised her much-cherished expression: that “every PPP should be a public, private and people partnership”. Several hours earlier, the UN’s Global Compact Cities Programme launched its Cities Partnership Challenge.

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, in her closing speech. ©UN Habitat

The Challenge will support the formation of innovative partnerships between city governments, private sector and civil society organisations, and will develop and improve skills at the local level. Projects chosen for development will be designed to attract “private sustainability finance”, with around 200 projects expected to be considered in the context of Horizon 2030. Think tank The Grand Paris Alliance hopes to bring together a number of the “Grand Paris” projects for submission to this Challenge. The call for expressions of interest is open until May 28.

Marie Bidault