African dismay at decision to host loss and damage advice hub in Geneva

The UN agencies that will run the Santiago Network recommended it should be based in Nairobi but governments have instead chosen the world’s third-most expensive city

The jet of water fountain in Geneva (Photo: Richard Allaway)


Governments have ignored a recommendation by UN experts and decided to host a network advising on the loss and damage caused by climate change in the expensive Swiss city of Geneva rather than the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

In January, the two United Nations agencies that will manage the Santiago Network on loss and damage recommended that its headquarters should be in Nairobi as it is a relatively cheap location and home to other UN environmental bodies.

But during the first meeting of the network’s advisory board this week, at the four-star Warwick Hotel in Geneva, government climate negotiators rejected that proposal and instead chose the Swiss lakeside city as its headquarters.

Last year, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Geneva as the third most expensive city in the world, twice as expensive as the 141st city on the list: Nairobi.

“Missed opportunity” for Global South

Swiss climate ambassador Felix Wertli called the decision an “honour”. “Geneva will offer great added value to the network” because of the wide range of relevant organisations in the city, while the network will in turn help strengthen that international ecosystem, he added.

But, according to a source who attended the meeting, African climate negotiators only accepted the decision grudgingly, asking for their reservations to be officially noted.

The source said Geneva had been pushed mainly by Latin American negotiators, who were angry that Panama had been ruled out for time-zone reasons and argued Nairobi was difficult to get to and did not have enough embassies.

At December’s Cop28 climate summit, the Swiss government said that, if the network was based in Geneva, it would donate 1 million Swiss francs ($1.1m), cover office costs and provide up to 10,000 francs ($11,000) per person for office materials and infrastructure. The network will spend about $8m a year. The source said the Swiss government had emailed board members last month, making the case for Geneva.

Mohammed Adow, the Nairobi-based founder of the Power Shift Africa think-tank, called the decision “yet another stitch-up by the Global North to keep power away from the places where the impacts of climate change are being felt”.

It “fails to put affected communities at the centre of decision-making” and further erodes the trust between the Global North and South that is needed to tackle climate change, he added.

Tasneem Essop, head of Climate Action Network International, told Climate Home it was “a real missed opportunity”. “It is unfortunate that wealthy countries can use their ability to resource infrastructure as a way to secure the presence of UN bodies in their territories,” she said.

Loss and damage expertise in demand

Governments agreed at Cop25 in 2019 to set up the Santiago Network and tasked it with “averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change” by collecting and sharing expert advice. Since then, the host organisation and location of the network’s secretariat has been debated at UN climate talks.

Small islands wanted the Barbados-based Caribbean Development Bank to host it, while African countries wanted the United Nations Office for Project Services (Unops) and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) to host it in Nairobi.

Both groups thought the other would not place sufficient priority – or have enough expertise – on the types of climate damage they are facing. For small islands, the main threats are rising sea levels and destructive storms, whereas Africa is grappling with more frequent and severe floods and droughts.

At Cop28, governments agreed that Copenhagen-based Unops would be the operational host, while Geneva-based UNDRR would organise the expert advice. The two agencies were commissioned to explore the best physical location for the network’s headquarters.

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They shortlisted five options that were safe enough for staff to bring their families, in the European and African time zones, and had a UNDRR presence: Nairobi, Geneva, the German city of Bonn, Brussels in Belgium and the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

They evaluated the five locations based on staff, office and set-up costs, “operational efficiency” criteria like security, infrastructure and the skills of the local workforce and other factors, including being close to other UN agencies. 

The reviewers recommended Nairobi as “the optimal location”, citing strong UN relations with the Kenyan government, “maximum time zone coverage” for co-ordinating with developing countries, and its hosting of other UN agencies.

Nairobi is the base for the UN’s African headquarters, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and its sustainable towns and cities programme (UN Habitat), as well as Unops and UNDRR’s African regional offices.

But now that the Santiago Network’s advisory board has opted for Geneva, Unops and UNDRR will look for office space in the city. The network will have eight full-time staff members in Geneva and four regional officers based around the world. 

A Swiss government spokesperson said Switzerland had “emphasised its stance of accepting any location choice deemed most beneficial to the affected regions”. It had suggested Geneva to advisory board members “as an alternative venue in case discussions over the future location stalled progress in the creation of the [Santiago Network] Secretariat and its important work”, the spokesperson added.

This article was updated on 21/3/2024 to include the Swiss government’s comment

Read more on: Africa | Loss and damage | UN climate talks