This form of city-to-city cooperation is starting to drive SDGs implementation

Multibillion-dollar flows of “decentralized development cooperation” — essentially, city-to-city development assistance — are expanding rapidly.
De Mango/Shutterstock

Development cooperation increasingly is taking place not only in the traditional way, between national governments. Rather, it also is happening between local and regional authorities in different countries, a process known as “decentralized development cooperation”. In the decade leading to 2015, these global volumes grew by some 12 percent, to USD 1.9 billion.

Not only are “DDC” flows expanding despite the 2008 economic crisis and the rise of populism, they also are increasingly helping cities act on and prioritize their own development work. That includes around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global framework that went into effect last year.

As yet, however, there is no common definition on what exactly constitutes DDC, nor even agreement on the key actors. While Italy sees universities as relevant players, for instance, Portugal, Italy and Switzerland consider the national government as playing an important role in DDC — not the case in other countries.

Experts and practitioners have differing views, too. Some consider DDC to be only those activities that entail financial transfers to regions and cities in partner countries. Others see it as a broader set of activities from one city or region to another to include “twinning” of cities, peer-to-peer exchanges or other forms of cooperation and partnerships. Some say DDC only can take place amid city-to-city or region-to-region cooperation, while others suggest that it should include sub-national donors interacting with central governments in partner countries.

[See: Three ways to ‘localize’ financing for sustainable urban development]

Regardless of these differing definitions, however, there is a key similarity: Across most countries, it is cities that tend to be directly implementing DDC activities, particularly those that aren’t linked to official development assistance. In France alone, for instance, more than 4,300 cities and municipalities are reported to be extremely active in such initiatives, according to an OECD survey.

In Belgium, cities and municipalities facilitate — including through municipal subsidies —- the international action of their solidarity organizations, while also implementing city-to-city cooperation. Even small cities can play a key role in such partnerships, as is the case of Zoersel with the city of Bohicon in Benin, or Sint-Niklaas with the Senegalese city of Tambacounda. Such twinning initiatives covering a broad range of topics — technology transfer, service delivery (for birth, death and marriage certificates), local governance, waste management and more.

Rising significance

Even as experts wrestle with its exact definition, decentralized cooperation is increasingly recognized as a key tool to complement traditional development assistance to achieve global commitments.

Despite the ongoing global economic crisis and the crunch in local and regional governments’ revenue sources, the importance of DDC has increased both in terms of flows of ODA — the type of aid initiatives that governments typically engage in bilaterally — as well as non-ODA activities, such as technical or knowledge exchanges between cities.

For many, the idea of non-ODA cooperation is fairly straightforward. But what about DDC though official assistance? This refers to grants or concessional loans from local and regional governments in developed countries to developing countries, including to recipient cities and regions. These funds are provided to advance development in areas such as health, sanitation, education, infrastructure, water and administrative capacity, among other areas.

[See: The New Urban Agenda needs to recognize a future of city-to-city networks and trade]

In terms of ODA flows, Germany, Canada, Spain and Austria are the main DDC providers; indeed, between 2005 and 2015, Austria saw this spending increase by 360 percent. In turn, China was the largest beneficiary during that period, although there is disagreement about this figure. The Chinese government tends to view its DDC principally as “imputed” student costs, or integrating students in donor countries, while most practitioners see DDC as something that’s done on site. Without considering these costs, the main recipient is Malawi, followed by Peru, Morocco, Senegal and Nepal.

And what is this ODA spending going toward? Globally, we are seeing increasing focus being given to two issues in particular: climate change and gender.

A woman gets her hair done at a street-side salon in Lilongwe, Malawi, 2009. The country is one of the top recipients of decentralized development cooperation. (Andrea Willmore/Shutterstock)

But significant decentralized cooperation also goes beyond these official flows — twinning, capacity-building, peer-to-peer learning between local and regional governments, and more. In a survey, two-thirds of donor countries on the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) reported that their main such programmes in 2015 were peer-to-peer learning, and transfer of technology and know-how.

That same year, half of the countries receiving aid from DAC countries indicated that decentralized cooperation supported local governance, democracy, decentralization and social inclusion as the main policy areas, followed by health. Education is still a key sector, although its importance has decreased over time, while economic development is becoming an increasingly strategic area for DDC.

DDC and the SDGs

In a period of limited resources, prioritizing geographical DDC interventions is key. About half the countries surveyed reported that, in 2015, the main criteria for the definition of geographical priorities by DDC actors was the level of extreme poverty and addressing global priorities — in particular the SDGs, which are gaining more and more importance also for the strategic decisions of regions and cities.

“‘DDC’ flows are increasingly helping cities act on and prioritize their own development work, including around the Sustainble Develompent Goals.”

Regions and cities are the key actors in decentralized cooperation, but their roles tend to differ. Regions mainly ensure coordination and monitoring of DDC activities to avoid duplication and overlaps. They also are involved in bilateral and multilateral cooperation activities.

Cities, on the other hand, are at the forefront in the implementation of non-ODA DDC activities. In addition to the activities outlined earlier, they are also involved in peer-to-peer exchanges of best practices and mutual learning around participatory governance, direct partnerships arrangements, twinning and more. Metropolitan and large cities play particularly important roles in sustainable urban development, around issues such as public transport, green and sustainable public spaces, economic development and more.

[See: Proposed ‘UN Urban’ would coordinate global approach to urbanization]

The SDGs, which were adopted in 2015, are becoming one of the main drivers for the DDC strategies of regions and cities, being the main criterion for the definition of geographical priorities. The contribution of cities and regions to designing territory-based integrated strategies to attaining SDGs is key to ensure that “no one is left behind”.

At the OECD, we are promoting a place-based approach to the SDGs to go beyond a top-down implementation model and stressing the importance of mainstreaming SDGs into cities’ policies and plans. DDC clearly has a role to play in this, and we are currently creating an inventory of cities and regions using this mechanism to “localize” the SDGs in their own countries and in partner countries. While it is too early to single out prominent such examples, the initial findings suggest that around half of surveyed countries consider “global agendas” such as the SDGs to be a prominent criteria in defining their sectoral and geographical DDC priorities.

At the same time, cities have to address the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs in their own territory. It is estimated that 65 percent of the 169 targets associated with the 17 SDGs will not be reached without the proper engagement of cities and regions. Good practices on how regions and cities are proactively adopting the SDGs can be found in several parts of the world.

For instance, New York City has launched a programme called “Global Vision | Urban Action” to combine and align its development strategy with the SDGs. The city’s local development strategy also was revised to include in its objectives the full achievement of the SDGs. Given that New York is particularly active in DDC twinning agreements — including with several cities in Africa, such as Cairo, Accra, Nairobi, Lagos, Libreville — it is likely that DDC also contributes to the city’s commitment to address global development issues, such as poverty, food insecurity and climate change.

[See: 3 lessons from Brazil on how to deliver on the SDGs — sans national government]

At the regional level, Tuscany in Italy is using its DDC strategies and activities to foster SDGs localization in partner countries in three particular fields: citizen participation, youth policies (including housing, entrepreneurship, employment, education and training) and local public services (in particular, integrated management of urban solid waste). This means that most of Tuscany’s DDC projects now and in the future will be reoriented toward these areas, which directly link to most of the SDGs and should help partner countries achieve related universal standards and report on progress.

Disaggregation is key

We know from past experience that in reporting on progress, national averages can misrepresent realities on the ground. In the context of the SDGs, this highlights the need for “disaggregated” sub-national metrics. Such indicators can reveal regional disparities in achieving all targets, as well as allow for solutions to be tailored to the local context. Disaggregation is important not only to know where a given city or region stands vis-à-vis national average and its peers in other countries but also to capture how a given city or region helps other cities or regions achieve the SDGs.

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

This is where more-granular data on DDC can help. Yet currently, challenges exist on collecting data around decentralized cooperation, particularly in terms of geographic and sectoral allocations by cities and regions, and in identifying their particular strengths as actors on the international scene.

“It is cities that tend to be directly implementing DDC activities, particularly those that aren’t linked to official development assistance. In France alone, for instance, more than 4,300 cities and municipalities are reported to be extremely active in such initiatives.”

Cities and regions also will need additional tools to monitor progress on SDGs implementation. Key to this will be to identify data gaps that prevent an appraisal of where regions and cities stand vis-à-vis the SDGs — not only against their national average but also with respect to their peer regions in other countries.

But it will not be enough to implement in cities and regions commitments made at the national and global level. Rather, the SDGs offer a unique opportunity for cities to re-think their strategies and policies through the lens of the SDGs. Many regions and cities in OECD countries can support their peers in partner countries through DDC as a means to contribute to achieving the SDGs achievement. For instance, they can provide good practices — in terms of indicators, monitoring systems, examples on the implementation of a territorial approach — take part in capacity-building and knowledge-exchange activities, among more.

[See: North American cities are innovating on community-level development indicators]

The OECD is developing an ambitious programme to support cities and regions to develop, implement and monitor their strategies and policies to achieve the SDGs, and to enhance dialogue with other levels of governments and citizens in doing so. Expected results in the medium term should deliver sound and comparable metrics for regions and cities’ progress in SDGs, tailored policy recommendations to prioritize efforts based on demand-driven policy dialogues across levels of government, and a community of practice for cities and other local governments to share good practices and pitfalls to avoid.

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Stefano Marta

Stefano Marta is a policy analyst in the Regional Development Policy Division at the OECD’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Local Development and Tourism.

Aziza Akhmouch

Aziza Akhmouch heads the unit for Sustainable Development Goals, Water and Local Public Services in the Regional Development Policy Division at the OECD’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Local Development and Tourism.