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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 3 - No. 1 - 1997 - Partnerships (HABITAT, 1997, 65 p.)
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Local Authorities: Crucial Partners in the Implementation of the Habitat Agenda

by Jaime Ravinet

The Habitat Agenda says everything we wanted: all we need now is action”. Local authorities can perhaps be forgiven for taking such an undiplomatic attitude, as the nature of our tasks tends to make us focus on practical things. It is we, after all, who are most often in the front line in the tasks of responding to people’s needs for adequate shelter and in planning communities which will be sustainable in this urbanizing world.

It is heartening, of course, that local authorities and other sectors of civil society were drawn so extensively into the whole Habitat II process. For all the hesitations on the part of certain Governments, our involvement did not in fact add all that much to the overall complexities of the process. But, if the partnership principle is effectively pursued, we can add greatly to the energy, imagination and sheer hard work to be devoted to implementing the commitments made in Istanbul.

In its endorsement of the partnership principle, the Istanbul Declaration made a statement of fundamental importance:

“Recognizing local authorities as our closest partners, and as essential, in the implementation of the Habitat Agenda, we must, within the legal framework of each country, promote decentralization through democratic local authorities and work to strengthen their financial and institutional capacities in accordance with the conditions of countries, while ensuring their transparency, accountability and responsiveness to the needs of people, which are key requirements for Governments at all levels.”

Local authorities see this statement, together with the many paragraphs of the Habitat Agenda introduced by phrases such as “Governments at all levels, including local authorities...”, as representing a breakthrough in the (UN). For the first time, local government is duly recognized as a sphere of governance, with its own democratic legitimacy and public responsibilities. No longer can local Government be classed in the UN as a non-governmental interest group: its role as an integral component part of the structure of Government in all our countries, through which UN commitments are progressively delivered in partnership with NGOs, the private sector and all other civil society actors, is now acknowledged. Institutional arrangements to reflect this recognition must now follow.

Local authorities will not be deterred in their reading of the situation by the provisos “within the legal framework of each country” and “in accordance with the conditions of countries” in the text quoted above. We see these as a normal recognition that the position of local government must be set securely within each country’s constitutional or legal framework, certainly not as an escape clause or way out for Governments which may still be wary of decentralization and local democracy and so intend delaying moves in this direction.

As the official report of the Habitat II Conference states in its account of the innovative hearings of partner sectors held by Committee II, the partners’ statements (including, in our case, the Declaration of the World Assembly of Cities and Local Authorities held in Istanbul just before the City Summit) serve as a testimonial to this pioneering initiative and a benchmark for measuring progress in the partners’ participation in the years to come.” There can be no going back on the change made in Istanbul, and the value of the partners’ active involvement will now be measured by progress on the ground.

Rights and Responsibilities

It is upon the partnership relationship between central and local government that much of the implementation of the Habitat Agenda must depend assuring, in turn, a sound basis for the active participation of civil society, including the private sector, NGOs, universities, and so on. For this to work as it should, some key criteria must be fulfilled. Local authorities, as our spokesman at the closing high-level segment in Istanbul, Accra’s Mayor Nat Nuno Amarteifio underlined, are ready to take greater responsibility for community leadership and the provision of vital public services. But in order to fulfill this role effectively, we must have a secure constitutional base, assured access to resources to match the tasks assigned to us, and proper consultation about measures affecting our role and functions.

Local government obviously welcomes the positive commitments made in Istanbul towards institutional and financial capacity-building at the local level and the acknowledgement of the important contribution which local-to-local decentralized cooperation can make to development. It sees the follow-up process operating at four distinct but interlocking levels of activity - local, national, regional and international.

Local Habitat Agendas

At the local level, as I assured the Partners Consultation, held in Geneva on 31 January 1997, we shall invest all our energies in the pursuit of the Habitat II goals. Building upon local government’s strong post-Rio involvement in “Local Agenda 21” programmes, worked out in partnership with all sectors of civil society, we foresee the development of “Local Habitat Agendas” addressing each locality’s priority needs. Of course these will take different forms in different places, but it is important not to under-estimate the atmosphere of expectation generated by the Istanbul Conference and the impetus and authority which this has given to the process of local empowerment. Transparent, costed, local action plans, with clear and realistic allocation of responsibility for their delivery, are needed to chart the way forward.

These local initiatives should, in turn, be informed and encouraged by the national plans of action. We are among those who feel strongly that the broadly-based national committees set up in many countries for the preparation of Habitat II should continue to serve as the focus of implementation efforts, identifying structural needs, combining actions to meet these needs, and systematically evaluating the state of progress achieved in each country. Views may differ about the value and sustainability of formal national plans, but there can be no doubting the usefulness of confronting shelter and sustainability needs in an inclusive process of debate between national Governments and all stakeholders.

At the regional level, a great deal can be achieved through exchanges of experience among practitioners facing similar problems. The established forms of North/South cooperation at local authority level will certainly continue to be of importance. But experience in Istanbul showed us that new ways of facilitating many and various exchanges within the regions also need to be found, building upon shared political and cultural contexts.

And finally, at the international level, systematic monitoring of progress and well-targeted programme interventions must be the order of the day. The international local government associations have set up a permanent coordination mechanism known as the World Associations of Cities and Local Authorities Coordination (WACLAC) to project their united voice in developing the partnership approach in policy formation and programme activities with the UN and other international institutions.

Through this channel, local governments will have the means of being represented collectively in the work of the Commission on Human Settlements dedicated to the implementation of the Habitat Agenda. It will also be developing its active involvement in the objective-setting, design and implementation of the various UNCHS (Habitat) programmes (the Best Practices Programme, the Indicators Programme and the Urban Forum), all of which have considerable potential value for local government practitioners.

We also look forward to pursuing joint work programmes with the UN on priority themes of mutual interest. We have proposed that among the first of these should be the preparation of a World Charter on the Principles of Local Self-government; the development of guidelines for the promotion of decentralised cooperation initiatives; and the launch of a programme for enhancing the participation of women in the leadership of local government.

In a previous article in Countdown to Istanbul (No. 7, May 1996), I suggested that the international community cannot afford to have the world say that there were many fine words at Habitat II but that nothing really changed. Local government is ready to fulfil its partnership responsibilities and is determined that, this time, the effects of the Global Plan of Action will be felt in localities large and small throughout the world.

Jaime Ravinet, Mayor of Santiago de Chile, is President of the World Associations of Cities and Local Authorities Coordination (WACLAC).

For more information on the World Associations of Cities and Local Authorities Coordination (WACLAC), please contact the WACLAC contact office in Geneva, Switzerland, at:

Tel: (41-22) 4182920
Fax: (41-22) 4182901