The United Nations risks stifling its own progress on sustainable urbanization

There will be no sustainable development without action by local authorities. Habitat III needs to discuss a new U.N. council or other body representing cities and regions.

Pavlo Vitanovsky/Shutterstock

The United Nations’ behaviour toward local authorities and non-state stakeholders is ambivalent. The body’s view on the importance of NGOs is highlighted in numerous U. N. resolutions and declarations, but when it comes to decision-making and other commitments, member states recall the U. N. Charter’s principle of “sovereign equality of all its Members” — and continue to focus on relations between national governments.

For at least some member states, there remains a palpable fear: Giving stakeholders a stronger voice will result in a loss of control over the global agenda and its implementation. Unfortunately, time and again this has prevented ambitious visions from transforming into a result-oriented enabling environment.

Most recently, this was repeated ahead of last year’s agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the framework that will guide global anti-poverty and sustainability efforts over the coming decade and a half. Now, it’s being repeated again in the current process toward Habitat III, the major urbanization summit taking place in October.

Although local authorities in all U. N. member states are part of the governmental system, the United Nations categorizes them as one of the official groups of non-state actors — stakeholder bodies formally known as “major groups”. Thus, even if cities build collective associations — such as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Metropolis or ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) — these are not considered international governmental groups but rather international NGOs.

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

The United Nations and its member states do argue that many problems of SDG implementation can be best solved at the national level, thus urging the international level not to interfere with national policies for urban development. But many of the SDG targets still need to be “localized”, to allow for their local-level implementation.

Indeed, several of these goals — to end poverty and hunger, on good health and quality education, or on sustainable and resilient cities — depend on local action and progress. Others depend at least partly on local action, including those around gender equality, sustainable energy, decent work and resilient infrastructure  

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

Mayors and the local civil society need to know what is expected from them and what will be provided to their city as enabling environment. Many are hoping that the Habitat III process can provide exactly that clarity.

Way forward

Unfortunately, the United Nations has continued to hesitate in clearly expressing that the governance and management of implementation will require the strong exchange of information and intensive cooperation between all relevant actors, including local authorities. Instead it has simply entrusted the responsibility of monitoring implementation to member states themselves, through a body called the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), which has been engaging in its first review over the past few weeks.

“For at least some member states, there remains a palpable fear: Giving stakeholders a stronger voice will result in a loss of control over the global agenda and its implementation.”

We need a better understanding of how decisions that will affect cities are made at the international level. In collaboration with academia and others, local authorities need to analyze how international economic, environmental, social and other trends affect their urban development. Such research also will need to look at the impact of limiting local authorities’ cooperation with international bodies to occasional encounters at international conferences and field visits by international representatives. How can the voice of local authorities be strengthened, and how could this bolster international deliberations and related decision-making?

[See: Global mayors pledge collective action on inequality, sustainability]

The Post-2015 Development Agenda does not see the 17 SDGs as 17 separate “silos” but rather as a web of goals. As such, it requires integrated governance and management at all levels of that web. How can this be achieved? There is no master plan, and since the SDGs are unprecedented, the experience of the past is of limited value.

First, mayors and local stakeholders are used to multiple challenges, but whenever possible they tend to try to reduce this complexity by making priorities and addressing these one at a time. But this doesn’t work in case of the SDGs, where the U. N. has provided a set of 17 universal goals with 169 targets — suggesting that all of them are priorities. Thus far, hardly any guidance has been given to local authorities on how to deal with this complexity. Habitat III will need to change this.

Second, we need a better understanding of the institutional environments and individual capacities best suited to cope with the challenges and opportunities posed by the SDGs. Once mayors, local authorities and citizens understand the transformative character of this framework, they will work to identify to what extent their institutions, resources and procedures may or may not be suited to cope with the unprecedented challenge of the SDGs. Yes, many of them will need better institutions, finances and human resources, but they also have to improve and professionalize their own ways of working.

[See: The SDGs don’t adequately spell out cities’ role in implementation]

With respect to local actors, there are numerous open questions. The current and required level of commitment by local representatives to the implementation of the SDGs is unclear. We also don’t know what exactly is needed to mobilize local authorities and to unlock the full potential of cities in order to achieve these goals.

The Habitat III process is indeed starting to look into these issues, including through the deliberations that will result in a 20-year global strategy around urbanization, the New Urban Agenda — key negotiations on which are taking place this week in Indonesia. Yet while the draft agenda, which was first released in early May (two revisions are available here), begins to point to these questions, the action-oriented responses it is offering are currently insufficient.

A local leaders’ body?

In 2013, political theorist Benjamin Barber famously suggested that mayors should “rule the world” — and that they should do so through a parliament of local authorities. According to this proposal, such a parliament would consist of 300 mayors who would be allowed to serve just a single term. The parliament would meet around three times per year, each time in a different city. Its objective would be voluntary action and, accordingly, compliance too would be voluntary.

“Mayors and the local civil society need to know what is expected from them and what will be provided to their city as enabling environment. Many are hoping that the Habitat III process can provide exactly that clarity.”

Yet this idea ignores the reality of public offices and the work of large international bodies. A council with a rotating membership, no permanent seat and voluntary implementation seems unrealistic. It more closely resembles a parliamentary assembly with a consultative role than a parliament as a legislative body.

[See: Cities on the world stage: Players or spectators?]

Members of a parliament need to get to know each other and the procedures and politics of the institution before they can become effective in developing initiatives and vote. In addition, they need resources including qualified staff to support the drafting of proposals. Finally, the formal establishment of a new U. N. body would require a modification of the U. N. Charter, and for the time being this is unrealistic.

Nonetheless, the establishment of a U. N. council or other body representing cities and regions should be further discussed. In the long run, the establishment of an entity channelling the voice of sub-national authorities (and perhaps other major groups) could allow for the strengthening of multi-level communication and cooperation. It may also lead to stronger commitments from and accountability of local actors.

Considering the large number of cities in the world, there would be numerous challenges related to the legitimacy, organization and financing of such a body. If governance networks were to contribute to public policy and service innovation, they would need to be governed with this purpose in mind; in this respect, organizations such as the United Nations would need to develop further.

[See: Cities must be part of defining the New Urban Agenda]

Electronic means of communication offer new opportunities for global dialogue and coordination, but they also pose challenges. At least to date, they seem to be limited in their capacity to substitute for face-to-face meetings.

Finally, strengthening the role of local authorities and other stakeholders also depends on the way these groups organize and present themselves. Mayors and other non-state actors will need to improve the coordination and representativeness of their global activities.

City voice

A year after the launch of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the Habitat III conference is, in principle, an excellent opportunity to continue analysis, dialogue and negotiations on a stronger role for local actors. The United Nations will have to do its part and engage all stakeholders; in turn, local authorities will need to contribute by coordinating and expressing their collective voice.

“An entity channelling the voice of sub-national authorities could allow for the strengthening of multi-level communication and cooperation. It may also lead to stronger commitments from and accountability of local actors.”

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

Thinking beyond the Habitat III conference, the New Urban Agenda still could include provisions that would help create a better framework for SDG implementation at the local level and a stronger role of local authorities. Here are a few recommendations:

  • Following the U. N.’s 1992 “Earth Summit”, more than 5,000 local initiatives helped to implement the that summit’s outcome strategy. Their success may have been mixed, but their rich experience in exploring local cooperation for sustainability should now be used to stimulate new forms of local engagement for implementing the SDGs.

  • The U. N. will monitor SDG implementation with specific indicators for each goal, but to monitor how these goals interrelate, sector-specific monitoring is inadequate. Thus, it will be of utmost importance for the United Nations and its member states to communicate and cooperate closely with actors at the local level. For this purpose, the U. N. should establish a permanent dialogue with local stakeholders at the international level (for instance, their representation at the HLPF) and national level (for instance, dialogues linked to U. N. country programmes).

  • Member states should establish national urban policies and coordinate urban planning with regional and national territorial planning.

[See: Cities respond: Testing the urban SDG indicators]

At the same time, cities should not wait for others to motivate them. Even without Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda, they will need to intensify cooperation with each other and to raise their voice in intergovernmental processes related to sustainable and urban development. As U. N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated in 2012, “The road to sustainability runs through our cities and towns.” Now, it’s up to cities to decide whether they want this to happen with or without their active engagement.

For further information please read the full paper: Ulrich Graute (2016): “Local Authorities Acting Globally for Sustainable Development”, Regional Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00343404.2016.1161740. Available online here.

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Ulrich Graute

Ulrich Graute is a former senior adviser for UN DESA in New York. Today, he works as an independent expert in international cooperation and development. He has also worked for the United Nations Secretariat, UN-Habitat, the European Union, the Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment, the Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development, Cities Alliance, GIZ, and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Ulrich is fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and the Regional Studies Association.