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Diplomacy in Action

Opening Remarks to the UN Habitat Governing Council GC23

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Nairobi, Kenya
April 9, 2011


(As delivered)

I want to begin by thanking UN-HABITAT and congratulating you on your election as President of the Governing Council and to thank you for your leadership and service.

I also want to extend my sincere congratulations to Dr. Clos, whom I had the opportunity meet with in Washington just last month and I would like to congratulate Dr. Clos and his staff on the success of the international observance of World Water Day. I know Secretary of State Clinton was pleased to participate in this important event by video-link to Habitat’s Cape Town event.

Let me start by saying that the United States recognizes and strongly supports UN Habitat’s unique mandate and its work. Everyone here today knows the statistics and understands fully the daily impact of growing urbanization and rapidly changing global landscape.

Of course understanding of the need for competitive, sustainable and inclusive cities is just a first step and one that we’ve all taken already. We are gathered here this week to ensure that Habitat is prepared to help governments and their citizens to take their next steps creatively, responsibly, and efficiently. Our presence here today is truly a testament to the value of the multilateral arena to addressing urbanization, and the important role of the United Nations and UN Habitat.

We come together at a unique and difficult time. Global economic challenges are affecting all sides of the equation: from creating new challenges for the urban poor to decreasing tax revenue available to address urban issues. The United States is confronting many of these same broad trends.

This week, I’m certain we will discuss the impact of the financial climate on UN Habitat itself. As you have noted, earmarked contributions have increased slightly over the last two years, but all important voluntary contributions – which form the fiscal bedrock of this organization – are in short supply. The optimism about an upward trend in contributions that shaped the consensus on the budget for the current biennium now seems overtaken by events. If the current trend continues, it will have serious implications for UN Habitat’s ability to pursue its mandate.

However, we cannot point solely to the global economic situation to explain Habitat’s financial challenges. We live in a time when many emerging development actors are demonstrating nimble, transparent and accountable new models. Rather than diversify its work in an effort to compete Habitat must refocus itself on its unique mandate. It is essential that Habitat set clear priorities and concentrate on its normative work, where it has a unique advantage and leadership role, and on those operational tasks that are intimately connected to its normative expertise and where it has established a particular niche.

We need Habitat to continue to document and analyze the pace of urbanization and its many consequences. Habitat has a clear leadership role in the execution of its normative functions, such as the identification of best practices, creation of training materials, monitoring of key indicators, and delivery of guidance to policy-makers. UN Habitat excels in these areas. Its regional reports and flagship “State of the World’s Cities report” are examples of excellent normative work. In addition, the success of the World Urban Forum in Rio last year demonstrated that Habitat is making strides in elevating shelter and urban issues within the UN community.

Despite the challenges that I’m sure we’ll discuss, I want to be clear that I see this as a time of opportunity for UN Habitat. As it continues to evolve and strengthen, Habitat can serve as a model and play a role in leading efforts to update management practices throughout the UN development system. To reach this point, Habitat must become more nimble, more transparent, and more accountable.

In this regard I see that real progress has been made in the last three years with the continuing improvement of audit and evaluation functions. However, further concrete actions are still needed, including greater access to audit information and improved results-based budgeting, monitoring and reporting. In this era, demonstrating effectiveness to traditional and prospective donors is critical.

These challenges and these opportunities do not fall to Dr. Clos and UN Habitat alone. We as the Governing Council have a collective responsibility to help ensure that Habitat has the direction it needs to address the many challenges of urban settlements. Now more than ever it is essential that UN Habitat further strengthen its institutional capabilities through the Medium Term Strategic and Institutional Plan.

UN Habitat management has provided us with a very useful progress report on implementation of that plan. We are pleased with the progress they have made in implemention thus far, and recognize that they have taken important steps forward in enhancing program focus and incorporating results based management. The results-based framework is a very important tool that will guide UN Habitat. But, additional steps should be undertaken in order to make the plan a full success.

As we noted at the last Governing Council, it is important to act quickly to address identified management weaknesses and areas of risk. The UN Board of Auditors made a number of significant recommendations such as implementation of the new accounting standards, improvement in asset management, and adherence to rules for hiring consultants. We are concerned that these vital corrections are not happening as quickly as they should. As you know, President Obama has made accountability and transparency a key issue for his administration, and embracing these ideals is critical both within UN Habitat and across the UN system.

During our deliberations this week we will take up the issue of organizational governance, an important complement to the Medium Term Strategic and Institutional Plan. We have read with interest the external consultant's report and appreciate the concerns of the Secretariat. We need to ensure that oversight and interactions between the Secretariat and Member States are efficient and effective, and we are pleased that a constructive dialogue has begun.

I would also like to commend UN Habitat for building new partnerships with the private sector. Private enterprises have technical skills and

know-how to address urban development issues, such as expertise on infrastructure finance and construction techniques. We are beyond the point where we view the private sector as just a source of funding. Today, they are a critical source for expertise, ideas and true partnership.

The United States looks forward to a constructive dialogue and a robust discussion of these and other issues that are before this session of the Governing Council.

In closing let me recall with respect and affection the memory of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. A man dedicated to thinking globally and acting locally, LaGuardia served as Director General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Commission following World War II. As Mayor of the city that – like Nairobi – serves as host to the United Nations, he addressed the needs of the poor, fought corruption, and prioritized investment in infrastructure. At the time of his passing, he was credited with “translating the complicated conduct of the city’s vast government into warm significance for every man, woman, and child.” That remains our charge. Let us remain equal to that task.

Thank you.

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