The SDGs don’t adequately spell out cities’ role in implementation

The new development framework lays out a groundbreaking vision on the common good. But it doesn’t say enough about how this is to be achieved, by whom and with what funding — a gap that should be filled by Habitat III.

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The dominant processes that drive cities’ economic success, especially investments in new or expanding businesses, do not of themselves produce healthy cities, or sustainable or inclusive cities, or cities adapted to the effects of climate change. Or cities that are keeping their greenhouse-gas emissions to a minimum.

A focus only on the role of cities in economic growth means that these issues are forgotten. Of course, economic growth is critical to cities in low- and middle-income countries, providing jobs, income and innovation. Growth also often provides many local multiplier linkages — for instance, in all other enterprises whose goods or services they and their employees use. And it usually increases revenue for city governments.

The concept of the common good and its importance for “our common home” — and for the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), finalized at the end of September — was raised by Pope Francis in his speech to the United Nations. Clearly, it is in the common good that “externalities” such as air and water pollution, as well as dangerous working conditions, get addressed. And it falls to governments to implement the laws and regulations that remove or reduce these concerns.

[See: Pope Francis invokes Right to the City amid focus on migration]

The SDGs also elaborate on many other aspects of the common good. These include not only safe working conditions, clean air and unpolluted waterways but also, by 2030, universal access to safe and affordable drinking water, adequate sanitation, affordable reliable transport and modern energy services.

In addition, the new goals highlight the need for access for all to health-care coverage as well as adequate, safe and affordable housing. And they invoke the common good in relation to disaster risk reduction, access to green and public spaces, and safeguarding cultural heritage.

This is an impressive array of issues. Further, the goals do include mention of some of the institutional preconditions to achieve these aims, including ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.

But what the SDGs do not do is say how these very ambitious goals will be realized, by whom and with what funding. For cities, local governments figure prominently in the responsibility of providing most of these goals, although the actual list of what falls within local government responsibilities varies by nation. But they hardly figure at all in the actual SDGs. SDG 17.9, on capacity-building, is all about international support for national plans, for instance.

Answering these questions now falls to next year’s Habitat III conference on urbanization and the 20-year global strategy that will come out of it, the New Urban Agenda.

Expanding the common good

The deficits in provision for all these issues are greatest in low- and middle-income countries. When large sections of a city’s population have to struggle to avoid eviction, place their children in schools, access health care and toilets, get safe and accessible water supplies and have their solid wastes collected, the importance of local government accountability and the need for increased capacity increases dramatically.

[See: The SDGs will not be achieved without local financing]

So there are necessary political underpinnings for the common good. For instance, local governments need to be not only elected by but also responsive and accountable to local populations. They also need to be capable of implementing regulations and meeting their responsibilities.

“Local governments figure prominently in the responsibility of providing most of these goals, but they hardly figure at all in the actual SDGs.”

This substantial list of what is in the common good now needs to be expanded to address climate change adaptation and mitigation, as well as sustainable urbanization.

Within any city, there are concerns that too many demands, taxes and regulations on enterprises implemented “in the common good” will cause new investments, and maybe even existing businesses, to go elsewhere. But most private businesses and their employees benefit from a well-governed city with healthy citizens, good provision of infrastructure and services, and disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.

A city’s large and successful enterprises will generally be in districts well served by  risk-reducing infrastructure, in buildings that withstand extreme weather or earthquakes. Yet while these enterprises may well consider themselves to be resilient, in reality they are not resilient if their workforce and suppliers are not. And indeed, private capital investments are increasingly likely to avoid cities at risk from climate change that are not addressing adaptation and its developmental underpinnings.

[See: Learning the language of cities in crisis]

What is included in the common good is in part constituted by debates of what we want and how they are realized. There are differences between neighbourhoods and local government areas in terms of what their residents prioritize. There are usually powerful groups and lobbies promoting their interests that are often not in everyone’s interest.

But local government should be the forum for discussing and, where needed, defending what its citizens see as being in the common good. Do low-income groups see local government as acting in their common good? Or, rather, do the local authorities make up an institution that is often at the centre of the abuses noted above?

Local links

Success in integrating development, disaster risk reduction, and climate change adaptation and mitigation is inconceivable without local institutions capable of defining and defending the common good.

But we also need local governments that act for the common good of future inhabitants (for instance, with infrastructure improvements that take into account likely future risks from climate change) and the common good of all (again, with climate change mitigation a key part of this). The global common good is not served if the sum of human activities globally is driving us toward increasingly dangerous climate change.

[See: Local linchpins: Mayors commit to the SDGs]

This does not mean that city government provides everything. Private companies built much of our infrastructure and public works, and services may be contracted out. But achieving universal provision of all essential services, as demanded by the SDGs, needs local government to ensure that this happens and to monitor performance and costs.

The SDGs also highlight how national governments need to act to avoid dangerous climate change. But success in this depends very heavily on supporting local governments — those entities that serve both the local and the global common good.

So the SDGs have given us a very ambitious set of goals — what needs to be done. They also acknowledge the need for goals and targets for cities. Now, it is up to Habitat III to set out the how and by whom — and with what funding and support.

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David Satterthwaite

David Satterthwaite is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and a visiting professor at the Development Planning Unit of the University College London.