Habitat III should bolster city-to-city cooperation and learning

The New Urban Agenda is an opportunity to recognize and strengthen one of our most efficient and effective tools for institutional learning.

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“It is in cities that the struggle for a more sustainable world will be won,” U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon prominently noted at the launch of the Habitat III process — thus voicing a conviction that has been longstanding at the local level.

This is why local governments must be encouraged and enabled to make use of their peers’ experiences to improve our towns and cities, and to influence global processes. The Habitat III process, which culminates in October in Quito, is a key opportunity in this regard.

In mid-May in New York, local governments took advantage of this opportunity. The United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) network convened the Second World Assembly of Local and Regional Governments to give the Habitat III process a strong local dimension. In the days following that meeting, the United Nations hosted local and regional governments from all corners of the world to give their views and input to the Habitat III outcome strategy, the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Cities clamour for a seat at the table of the U. N. countries club]

This is a strong example of how action by local governments can contribute to global processes: by bringing local realities from around the world to the multilateral table. For instance, at the New York hearings, Platforma’s representative Andreas Wolter, the deputy mayor of Köln, Germany, shared his city’s experience of cooperation with its partner city, Tunis. Tunisian police officers were invited to Köln to shadow their German peers — not to show the strengths of the German approach but rather to help the Köln police become more culturally sensitive, in order to better reach their citizens.

Cooperation: Not only about financing

The Habitat III documents — the body of work that has been created through this process over the past year — pay significant attention to financing urban development. They emphasize that governments need to get more and better access to funding, including around the mobilization of domestic resources but also through the appropriate engineering of official development assistance.

But development cooperation should go beyond financial flows. It cannot omit the fact that without governance capacities, no one can properly manage funding or implementation. And it cannot ignore that peer learning is one of the most efficient and effective tools for institutional learning.

[See: New solutions to close the gap on municipal finance]

“Cooperation between cities is one of the most effective tools we have to overcome the false feeling of isolation that can often afflict local governments. Such cooperative processes enable cities to voice their concerns at different levels and to better understand how they need to act locally while also activating other tiers of government.”

Local governments often are seen as working only on their capabilities to act and deliver. Likewise, support to local government capacities tends to focus solely on these dimensions of governance capacity — after all, they are visible and can be measured. Yet what local governments need to build a sustainable and inclusive society is much broader and, to a large extent, less visible: These are capacities to engage, to self-renew, to commit.

As a result, investing almost exclusively in capacities to act and deliver has resulted in an  emerging fatigue among donors with capacity-building. In this regard, then, it is of utmost importance that the New Urban Agenda strengthens newer thinking around capacity-building, including a focus on overall governance, planning, coordination and multi-stakeholder engagement.

Cooperation between cities is one of the most effective ways to move beyond individual capacity-building and toward actual institutional learning. International cooperation is a way to practice capabilities around engagement — with the institutional partner and with the citizens involved in the projects. It is a tool to self-renew, as it opens practice to constructive criticism by peers. When properly designed, this can positively impact the overall patterns of interaction between administration, politics and citizens.

[See: On climate action, cities need a way to learn from each others’ mistakes]

Dunkerque (France), Bizerte (Tunisia) and Annaba (Algeria) have cooperated since 2004 to strengthen strategic and urban planning in their cities. Each faces port, industrial and academic activities in their territories. Through the French local governments associations AFFCCRE and CUF, lessons were disseminated and a broader knowledge base became available through workshops and job-shadowing exchanges.

Not that this was a straightforward process. Such triangular cooperation faced challenges in terms of differing rhythms of institutional learning between partners. More problematic was the very centralized states in which the Tunisian and Algerian partners had to function, limiting their autonomy to implement lessons learned or new strategies co-created within the partnership.

This example may show the importance of effective decentralization processes in empowering local governments to self-govern their territories. Yet interestingly, the partnerships continued after funding stopped in 2011 and refocused on issues of culture and participative government — underscoring how local democracy is at the core of inclusive governance.

[See: Decentralization would boost development, leaders told in Addis]

With these experiences in mind, Habitat III should be seen as a moment of leverage — one aimed at establishing a new working relationship between national and local governments, recognizing that the latter are a fully legitimate, self-governing level of the state. In turn, local government associations play a key role in designing decentralization processes and in harnessing learning opportunities within their constituencies.

Think local, act global

Local governments are faced with the impacts of global phenomena well beyond their spheres of control. Nevertheless, they need to respond to these impacts: boosting resilience to the consequences of climate change, hosting an increasing number of displaced persons, guaranteeing social cohesion between citizens suffering from economic backlash, creating hope and opportunities for a generation of young people increasingly “redundant” in economies that focus on knowledge but to often fail to provide government with sufficient resources to organize high-quality public education.

These are complex issues that still need to be dealt with at the local level. As Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau pointed out at the hearings in New York: “We cannot tell our citizens that we don’t have competencies to act; they require us to come with answers.”

[See: Citizens are telling cities and national governments to cooperate]

City governments and citizens alike understand that what happens at home is not disconnected from what happens elsewhere. Many European cities have been engaged in awareness-raising with their citizens about global issues: pointing at global trends impacting their cities, making the importance of solidarity evident by showing what these global trends do to cities elsewhere that may have fewer resources.

For instance, many today see fair trading relations and ethical production as essential to building a sustainable future, and this includes at the city level. The City of Ghent, Belgium, has a longstanding tradition in promoting issues of fair trade, and in 2004 it formalized this to become the first Belgian Fair Trade Town.

After 10 years of campaigning, Ghent wanted to move beyond the mere “communication” of issues of fair trade. So, it started to engage with local businesses to screen supply chains on ethical responsibility. A learning platform between small and medium-sized businesses began operating at the local level, and through Platforma’s connections a network of European procurers of workwear was launched. Thereafter, a call was sent out to local governments worldwide to share good practices on this issue.

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

The city of Riobamba, in Ecuador, responded. But much to the surprise of city officials in Ghent, the colleagues from Ecuador did not request support on screening their supply chain. Rather they offered their experiences on two different but related issues: on establishing dedicated marketplaces for local producers and on participatory monitoring.

Riobamba requested input on how to build awareness among its citizens on the need to support local producers that act in accordance with sustainable and fair principles. As a result, Riobamba became the first Fair Trade Town in Ecuador. And in turn, Ghent started to think about how to guarantee just commercial relations between the city, its hinterland and the rest of the world within its local food strategy.

Eat this city

Cooperation between cities is one of the most effective tools we have to overcome the false feeling of isolation that can often afflict local governments. Such cooperative processes enable cities to voice their concerns at different levels and to better understand how they need to act locally while also activating other tiers of government.

“The New Urban Agenda’s ‘punch’ in favour of decentralized cooperation could come in the form of a dedicated fund that finances peer learning and exchange. Such a programme could also provide small innovation funds that would allow for the implementation of test cases based on lessons learned or the concepts that have been co-created.”

As could be seen in the Ghent-Riobamba example, food offers an interesting entry point for this process. Today, cities across the globe are engaged in food-related projects, from school catering over poverty reduction to urban gardening. Whereas in European cities this latter issue has mostly been a tool for raising awareness around sustainability and climate concerns, in the Global South it remains a matter of survival for many urban dwellers.

[See: We can’t build better cities without improving nutrition]

In turn, European cities are increasingly learning from their peers in the developing world on how to include poverty reduction and social cohesion in food strategies. Conquito provides an inspiring example. The urban investment company of Quito runs a project in economically challenged neighbourhoods in Ecuador that combine urban gardening with healthy nutrition and marketing the excess products in a parallel market system. As such, food production and cash income are combined — a rare but highly relevant approach in the urban context, where food is almost completely monetized.

Elsewhere, local governments throughout the world are discovering that parts of their cities are food deserts, where citizens lack access to fresh, healthy food within walking distance. For many years, this had been incorrectly thought to have been a feature only of North American cities. In response, the City of Milano, Italy, gathered almost 200 cities to write the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact. Its launch in October delivered a first-of-its kind declaration that food is essential to building sustainable cities.

The pact gives leverage to cities to address issues of urban food distribution and the importance of fair trading practices that respect workers and small and medium-sized distributors. Both issues have origins beyond the city scale (and the competencies of city governments) but also have very real impacts at the city and neighbourhood level. This was also an example of local governments cooperating to strengthen their policy capacities at the local level and their advocacy at upper levels of government and toward private-sector actors.

[See: The missing link in the New Urban Agenda: Food systems]

Like the Habitat III process, this is an example of how to bring the voice of local governments to stages beyond their direct spheres of control but with direct impacts on their daily reality. Involving local governments in such discussions should become a structural approach to all global challenges. The New Urban Agenda should lead the way by including local governments in structural governing bodies — for instance, on an International Multi-stakeholder Panel on Sustainable Urbanization, a major civil society proposal currently on the table.

With punch!

Habitat III will result in a document that many are expecting will make progress on formally recognizing local governments as pivotal actors for development, on their cooperation as an essential tool for capacity-building and better service delivery, on their role in international decision-making processes. But Habitat III needs to come with some punch, too. Local governments are ready to deliver on their legacy of cooperation and solidarity to implement the promises in the document.

[See: The only sustainable city is one co-created by all of us]

But they will need actual support, not mere narrative recognition. Too many local governments around the world do not have the financial means to deliver on the promises made on the international stage, let alone to invest in international action. In too many regions of the world, central states refuse to (or only reluctantly) devolve both responsibilities and means for implementation. Nation states and institutions such as the European Union and United Nations will need to share competencies and means.

The thousands of local governments already engaged in international cooperation have shown the relevance of doing so, but they are only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of local authorities in the world. A real enabling environment for city-to-city cooperation would not be an enormous cost to national governments, but it would have enormous impact on the daily lives of citizens worldwide.

The New Urban Agenda’s “punch” in favour of decentralized cooperation could come in the form of a dedicated fund that finances peer learning and exchange. Such a programme could also provide small innovation funds that would allow for the implementation of test cases based on lessons learned or the concepts that have been co-created.

[See: Proposed mechanisms would coordinate post-Habitat III action on urbanization]

Enabling cooperation between local governments is not only a matter of effective decentralization and accessible funding. Member states and U. N. agencies should also play an active role in linking local governments to peers in other countries and recognizing their legitimacy as actors in their own right.

Platforma will pioneer such a mechanism to connect local government expertise this summer. If such a concept becomes part of the New Urban Agenda, it will facilitate peer learning and, in turn, local government capacities to govern. As such, the government closest to the people will become stronger — becoming more responsive and thus establishing more every more trust in democracy.

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Wouter Boesman

Wouter Boesman is policy adviser for Platforma, the European Voice of Local and Regional Governments in Development. Platforma is the network of local and regional governments, and their associations, active in the field of development cooperation between Europe and partner countries. The network has 34 members: national, European and international associations, as well individual local and regional governments. The Platforma Secretariat is hosted by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (more information at www.platforma-dev.eu).

Patrizio Fiorilli

Patrizio Fiorilli is director of Platforma, the European Voice of Local and Regional Governments in Development. He has worked for organized local governments at the European level for more than 15 years. He has also worked for international organizations, including as spokesperson for the Directorate General for Budget of the European Union.

Platforma is the network of local and regional governments, and their associations, active in the field of development cooperation between Europe and partner countries. The network has 34 members: national, European and international associations, as well individual local and regional governments. The Platforma Secretariat is hosted by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (more information at www.platforma-dev.eu).