When you think of the UN, you have certain perceptions. Mostly I think of the prestige that accompanies it, the nobility of attempting to unite the hundreds of diverse countries – in economy, stature, values, environment, conflict, comfort, etc. – around the common agenda of advancing our one planet for greater good. For we truly are all connected; the import/export of each country affects the other, and no clearer is our commonality than when you are flying between countries and touching down on the opposite side of the globe in landscape you swear you just left.
Anyway, my point (aside from that we are all connected on this fragile earth) is the honour and immense undertaking the United Nations commits itself to. So it was a real privilege that the organization I work for, Community Foundations of Canada, gave me the opportunity to accompany my COO to Habitat III, The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, which only takes place once every 20 years, making my attendance all the more rare and special (thank you, CFC!).
One of the beautiful things about Habitat III is that attendance is free – helping to level the playing field for more countries to attend. (Each attendee must still pay their airfares, accommodation, food, vaccines, visas, etc., but). I had no idea what to expect, but imagined very formal proceedings, the highest degree of attire and most diplomatic of engagements. This was very likely accurate for the formal proceedings, where Ministers and Heads of Delegations came together to present their country’s statement and ratify the New Urban Agenda (which obviously I wasn’t privy to), but it turned out the special sessions and side events were accessible to all and far more casual in nature. People still dressed nicely (but not everyone – I saw a few ripped jeans), yet nobody was suited up.
I compliment the organizers of Habitat III for securing a very safe event, with thorough security procedures and, after the first day, short queues to enter. The site itself – La Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana – was aesthetically very pleasing, and following the first day of getting over the altitude adjustment (2,800 metres above sea level Quito is situated), I found the venue very comfortable, despite the three levels of stairs that felt like small mountains on that first day.
My takeaway from my first (and who knows, hopefully not my last …) UN conference was that it is not the forum for diving deep on an issue, for despite having world-class experts presenting, each only receives a relatively short period to speak, and let’s face it, who can drill down in eight minutes – substantially? But it was a great opportunity to get up to speed on a range of issues, and be in the right place and space to fortuitously run into like-minded people from a range of countries, who quite potentially had the stature to effect policy change in their country or at least begin the dialogue. And even within your own country, it was a wonderful opportunity for new dialogues and relationships to form. I think many members of the Canadian Delegation (which Community Foundations of Canada was officially a part of) left with new connections as we did, and possibly altered ways of thinking.
Below are some of the highlights for me; and I’ll start with mentioning that 170 countries unanimously adopted the New Urban Agenda (which is not a treaty, but a set of guidelines for governments to implement).