Cities shut out of U.N.’s first SDGs review, advocates say

Events saw many calls for ‘localizing’ the goals but weak reference to Habitat III — a missed opportunity to put local actors at the centre of the global debate on sustainable development, some said.

Cardboard cutouts of the 17 SDGs at the second day of the High Level Political Forum at U.N. Headquarters, 12 July. (Kiara Worth/IISD/

UNITED NATIONS — In September, the United Nations’ 193 member states agreed unanimously to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an ambitious global blueprint for social, economic, and environmental transformation over the next 15 years. At the heart of the agenda are 17 goals — the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — that address the world’s most critical issues, from eradicating poverty to building environmental resilience in the age of climate change.

More than even its predecessor, the 2030 Agenda is coming to life on an increasingly urbanized planet, with 55 percent of the world’s population currently residing in cities. This number is projected to increase to 66 percent by 2050. Consequently, the 17 goals and their 169 attendant targets are deeply rooted in cities as sites of sustainable development. According to some sources, about 65 percent of the SDG agenda depends on the work of local actors, specifically those in urban areas.

The SDGs formally came into effect in January, and over the past half-year countries and cities have been starting to figure out what they need to do to respond to these new mandates. Over the next 15 years, whatever progress they experience will be tracked by an intergovernmental body called the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).

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

This month, that forum engaged in its first such review. Although countries have not yet made enough progress to warrant review, almost two dozen countries did submit to a voluntary such process. At those events, which wrapped up last week, development experts and local leaders made a strong case for recognizing local authorities as key players in implementing the 2030 Agenda.

“Local authorities are at the forefront of tackling most of the SDGs,” Kadir Topbaş, the mayor of Istanbul and president of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) network, said at the HLPF. “Ensuring residents’ safety, security, livelihood and well-being is our daily job. Development policies at the national, regional and global levels need to take local stakeholders into account, and look at how local areas reflect and deal with global challenges.”

[See: SDGs review offers potential preview of how to track New Urban Agenda]

A quick look at global housing trends throws this point into sharp focus. The vast majority of the world’s 863 million slum dwellers are concentrated in urban areas, according to the United Nations. In some developing countries, according to UN-Habitat, slum dwellers account for over half of the urban population.

Thus, in order to meet their obligations under the SDGs — particularly those relating to poverty eradication, reduced inequality and access to sanitation — countries will have to drastically reduce their slum populations. And that is a task that will fall largely on the shoulders of local authorities.

‘Fallen short’

Recognizing this reality, groups like the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments, together with UN-Habitat and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), have been pushing for the “localization” of the SDGs — defining how exactly these goals will be implemented at the local level and the responsibility that local leaders have in fostering that process.

“[The] HLPF has fallen short in recognizing the role of local and regional governments. The reference to Habitat III remains weak and does not clearly link the challenges of SDG 11 with those of the New Urban Agenda to be adopted in Quito.”

United Cities and Local Governments

Advocates are calling for clear language to be included in the outcome document of the recently concluded HLPF, specifically recognizing the importance of local authorities. “Local governments have a democratic mandate to lead local development and can be held accountable by citizens if they fail to do so,” said a statement from the Local Authorities Major Group, a U. N.-recognized stakeholder group, ahead of the political forum. “Such democratic accountability can be a powerful tool to drive the achievement of the SDGs at local level.”

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

The Global Taskforce and its parties’ organizations have been working to create tools, develop policies and devise indicators to support local authorities in implementing the SDGs at the local level, in ways that are adapted to local contexts. Such efforts also feed directly into Habitat III, a major U. N. conference on housing and urbanization held once every 20 years and slated to take place this coming October in Quito, Ecuador. The outcome document from Habitat III, called the New Urban Agenda, will set the stage for the next two decades of urban development.

However, experts told Citiscope that the HLPF failed to establish linkages between the New Urban Agenda and the SDGs. This missed an opportunity to locate local actors at the centre of the global debate on sustainable development, several said.

“[The] HLPF has fallen short in recognizing the role of local and regional governments,” Berry Vrbanovic, the mayor of Kitchener, Canada, and UCLG treasurer, told Citiscope in an email. “It fails to mention the localization process by UNDP, UN-Habitat and the [Global Taskforce] in the final Ministerial Declaration.”

“The reference to Habitat III remains weak,” UCLG’s spokesperson added, “and does not clearly link the challenges of SDG 11 [a goal dedicated entirely to cities] with those of the New Urban Agenda to be adopted in Quito.”

[See: The United Nations risks stifling its own progress on sustainable urbanization]

Christopher Dekki, communications officer for Communitas, a coalition for sustainable cities and regions, agrees.

“[T]he larger localization discussion should have been a central focus of the Habitat III process, and that is simply not the case,” he said. “The ball has certainly been dropped on this matter, as the current draft of the New Urban Agenda barely makes a reference … to other sustainable development frameworks, other than a scant mention of the 2030 Agenda in a superficial way.”

Dekki likewise noted that the HLPF outcome document likewise failed to highlight these linkages.

This is how you localize

Still, groups such as UCLG continue to advocate for Habitat III to drive the implementation of the 17 SDGs, all of which contain at least one specifically urban component.

“According to a consultation on lessons learned during implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, local and regional governments need tools to understand and communicate about the goals, before they could start to implement them.”

In a bid to streamline this process, the Global Taskforce this month released a roadmap for localizing the SDGs, a toolkit aimed at raising awareness about the 17 goals in local contexts and advocating for the active participation of sub-national actors in the implementation process.

[See: Are we ready to implement the SDGs?]

Carl Wright, secretary general of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF), said that the roadmap followed on the heels of a consultation process on lessons learned during implementation of the Millennium Development Goals — predecessor to the SDGs. That process clearly revealed that local and regional governments needed tools to understand and communicate about the goals, before they could start to implement them.

He said that despite local governments’ inherent commitment to the SDGs, “the link between global and local agendas is not always obvious.” The roadmap attempts to fill this gap, highlighting best practices of how local authorities can galvanize citizen support for the SDGs.

[See: Launching soon: A way for cities to exchange ideas on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

For instance, the government of the Spanish city of Valencia is establishing an alliance of cities and NGOs in order to conduct awareness-raising campaigns on the 17 goals with schools and universities, in a bid to bridge the knowledge gap between policymakers and young people.

In October the government of Belarus organized the UN70 Belarus Express for the Sustainable Development Goals, a multi-stop train journey that drew thousands of commuters by offering an on-board programme that included movie screenings, concerts, flash mobs, talk shows and culinary events. And to solidify local commitment to the 2030 Agenda, the heads of the executive committees of each region along the train route signed a Declaration of Commitment to the SDGs.

The roadmap also highlighted efforts such as the Inclusive Growth in Cities campaign, a platform that will offer a global coalition of mayors a space to share concrete strategies on reducing inequality and fostering inclusive growth, a key focus of the 2030 Agenda.

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

Another crucial aspect of localization, according to experts, is including local communities in implementation efforts. The roadmap highlighted the work of the provincial government of Azuay in Ecuador as an example of a local authority using the principle of active social participation to realize the SDGs. In its Territory Vision 2019 plan, the provincial government aims to practice its Participatory Planning System, combining a People’s Provincial Parliament and the Cantonal and Community Assemblies “to bring together a wide range of sectors for coherent institutional planning.”

And in Wales, a new law — the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act — seeks to implement the SDGs by aligning the goals with existing local and regional plans. The act brings into law seven “well-being” goals for Wales that reflect existing commitments to environmental and economic sustainability. It also establishes the role of a “Future Generation Commissioner” and requires Welsh ministers, in their planning for the future, to take account of the U. N.’s ongoing work on the SDGs.

Primacy of data

Of course, localizing global goals is easier said than done. In many countries, national budgets are far removed from urban or municipal coffers, while grass-roots stakeholders tend to be sidelined in national processes that feed into international decisions and deliberations on the development agenda.

Another common obstacle, according to Jessica Espey, associate director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), a technical group formed by the U. N. secretary general, is data.

“Data is integral to designing smart strategies and to tracking progress toward achieving the SDGs,” Espey said. “But there are several challenges — for example, existing data is diffuse, owned by several departments or agencies across local and central government. It is often patchy or specific to political agendas, rather than considering the whole suite of sustainable development challenges.”

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

In a bid to address some of the gaps between the local and the global, SDSN this month released a guide for cities to begin operationalizing the 17 goals at the local level. Primarily aimed at urban governments, the handbook offers resources and tools for applying the SDGs locally, and it presents best practices in involving multiple stakeholders in the implementation process.

“Local-level action is relevant and quick,” Espey said. “Local authorities can step in and take action to achieve context-specific development targets.” The guide “aims to support local government actors to take that action and to drive progress within their countries,” she said.

Local-level action can in some instances help galvanize national commitments, Espey suggested. In others, it might be done in partnership with national governments.

“Some of the important issues and challenges [the Guide] raises relate to the relationship between national and local government, and the need to ensure local governments are equipped with the resources and mandates to bring about local-level change,” she said.

In Bangladesh, for instance, where urban areas generate an estimated 20,000 tons of organic waste matter each day, an NGO called Waste Concern created an integrated recycling system that produced organic compost from urban waste.

According to the guide, the project involves public-sector actors like the Ministry of Environment and Forests, donor agencies such as UNDP, as well as local communities. Over the past 20 years, the NGO has built a network of over 60 neighbourhood recycling and composting centres, employing thousands of workers in an environmentally friendly operation that also addresses the pressing issue of waste management.

[See: Inextricably interlinked: The urban SDG and the new development agenda]

Another example of localizing the SDGs can be seen in New York City’s Hunts Point Food Distribution Center (HPFDC), which boasts a workforce of 8,000 people and serves as a hub for 60 percent of the city’s produce. Through OneNYC, the city’s sustainable development blueprint, the centre will receive a major boost aimed at strengthening its resilience to extreme weather and integrating it with other initiatives — such as the Hunts Point Wastewater Treatment Plan, which will use the centre’s waste to generate energy for a local micro-grid.

In order to translate scattered efforts into a powerful global policy, however, the United Nations must make a concerted effort to explicitly name local actors as partners in the implementation of the SDGs, experts say. Until that happens, local authorities will be hamstrung in their efforts to truly localize the ambitious 2030 Agenda.

Note: This story has been updated to include reference to Mayor Vrbanovic.

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