Are cities on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030?

Most are doing well on a few targets, but worrying gaps are emerging. And some cities are in danger of backsliding.

We are now almost halfway through the first 1,000 days of implementation of the landmark Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global framework that seeks to eradicate poverty, combat climate change, and promote peaceful and inclusive societies — all by 2030.

In countries around the world, we’ve started to see burgeoning progress on implementation at the national and, to a lesser extent, local levels. But it has become increasingly clear that real action needs to be stepped up if we are going to set the solid foundations needed to meet these ambitious goals by the end of the next decade.

What’s taking place in cities is of particular and increasing interest for many. After all, with more than half of the population globally living in urban areas and this figure set to increase, largely driven by urbanization in developing countries, the SDGs won’t be achieved without active involvement from cities.

But with work on implementing the SDGs at the city level still in its early stages, we know very little about several basic questions: How feasible is the achievement of this agenda for cities around the world? Under current trends, how likely is it that cities will achieve these goals by 2030 — and what level of effort will be required?

[See: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

At ODI, we made a first attempt to answer these questions by running a series of projections for eight selected SDG targets for 20 cities in the developing world. These eight targets were: child mortality, nutrition, secondary education, employment (disaggregated by female/male employment), access to energy, access to water, access to sanitation and access to housing (using both quality of flooring and overcrowding as indicators).

The 20 cities all had Demographic and Health Survey data representative at the city level. Of these, 14 were in Africa, four were in Asia, and two were in Latin America and the Caribbean. (The full report is available here.)

Here is what we found.

The good

First, the good news. On current trends, by 2030 most cities in our study would be halfway or more to achieving at least four of the eight targets we selected. These include: child mortality, universal access to secondary education, universal access to energy, and full and productive employment (for male employment only; it’s a different story for female employment, as discussed below), and access to adequate housing based on quality of flooring. With continued efforts, these targets could be achieved.

The bad

At the same time, the majority of cities in our sample also will require rates of progress more than twice as fast as we’ve seen in the past if they are to meet the other half of the selected targets by 2030. Here the concerns are around aspirations to end child malnutrition, to achieve universal access to drinking water, adequate sanitation, full and productive employment for females, and access to adequate housing (based on overcrowding statistics). Only revamped endeavours and prioritization of policy in these areas could help to adequately accelerate progress for these targets.

[See: How Baltimore is using the Sustainable Development Goals to make a more just city]

The ugly

More worryingly, a minority of African cities in our sample fall under what we called the “reversal” category. This means that cities need to change the direction of current trends if the targets stand a chance of being achieved. Six of these cities — Brazzaville, Ouagadougou, Bamako, Conakry, Nairobi and Maputo — require reversals of trends for the housing target. Harare and Abidjan require reversals for the target on ending child malnutrition, while Nairobi falls under this category for the water target.

Capacity — and data, data, data

So, what needs to happen next? From this first analysis, we extracted two broad lessons.

1. Strengthen local government’s capacities

It has been said many times, but it can’t be stressed enough: If cities are going to meet the SDGs, central governments and donors will need to work to strengthen local governments’ capacities. In many developing countries with growing urban populations, particularly in Africa, local governments’ limited capacities and lack of resources remain huge challenges. Unless this changes, these city officials will be unable to deliver basic services for their growing populations — as the results of our projections show.

[See: Explainer: The challenges of measuring cities’ progress on the Sustainable Development Goals]

In this case, strengthening capacity means training and attracting qualified local officials. It also means that central governments need to devolve the powers and finance required for local governments to deliver on the SDGs. And donors need to get better at supporting rapidly growing cities in the developing world.

2. Improve the data available

While running these projections, we came up against several data limitations that constrained the targets we could monitor. It is clear that good data is the only way for governments to inform policies and for citizens to hold them to account. It may seem too technical, but without facts, particularly at a time when they are politically so contested, it is nearly impossible to inform the long-term planning we need to make our cities more inclusive and sustainable.

“It has been said many times, but it can’t be stressed enough: If cities are going to meet the SDGs, central governments and donors will need to work to strengthen local governments’ capacities.”

Here are four key actions that can be taken to improve the data available to local authorities and to inform policymaking around sustainable urban development. Some of these prescriptions are fairly straightforward and can be slotted into pre-existing statistical structures, while others will need more time and money to be realized. Either way, doing so is a worthy investment.

Achieve quick wins by tweaking existing surveys: Some data improvements could be easily achieved. For example, questions can be added to existing surveys to get a more nuanced picture of the quality, accessibility and affordability of basic services in dense urban settlements. It is also important that big national and international household surveys are representative at the city level.

[See: If cities are to ‘leave no one behind’, disaggregated data is invaluable]

Gather data for marginalized communities: Disaggregation beyond the city level often was not possible for the cities for which we had data; this is particularly problematic when addressing intra-city inequalities. To tackle the deprivations of marginalized groups such as slum dwellers, we need to better understand their specific needs.

Surveys could, for instance, oversample these groups, or slum-specific censuses could be conducted. A specific geographical variable for slum settlements could be added to an existing census so that the data could be easily analyzed for these deprived neighbourhoods. Further data on slums — for instance, citizen-generated — could fill critical gaps about the quality of services in these poor neighbourhoods.

Improve data-sharing: Monitoring and reporting on the SDGs will require not only improving statistical capacity within existing structures of data production in the country and the city, but also strengthening national and subnational coordination and arrangements for data-sharing between government agencies. Interestingly, the Netherlands is experimenting with urban data centres, having national and local experts working together on the sharing and production of data.

[See: Can we actually agree on indicators to measure urban development?]

Invest in open data platforms: Finally, data on SDG performance needs to be made open to the public. For instance, improving data accessibility through open data portals could help citizens hold governments to account. Ultimately, this is where the power of global agendas such as the SDGs can be found.

Next year will provide a window of opportunity to strengthen cities engagement with SDG implementation. Governments produce voluntary reports at the United Nations on SDGs progress, and in 2018 they will report on Goal 11, on cities. This poses a great opportunity and milestone for cities to take the lead, revamp their commitment to this agenda, produce their own progress reports and share their experiences through city networks.

You can access the full “Projecting Progress: Are Cities on Track to Achieve the SDGs by 2030?” report here and infographics here.

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Paula Lucci

Paula Lucci is a senior research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in London. If you are interested in finding out more about ODI’s research on SDGs in cities, you can contact her at p.lucci@odi.