On 24 September I attended the second High Level Local and Regional Government Forum which took place on the sidelines of the UN SDG Summit. While the SDG Summit, the first to take place under the auspices of the UN General Assembly since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, counted with the participation of Heads of State and Government, the Local Forum featured the participation of local and regional government leaders, networks and their partners to showcase results on SDG implementation.
The Local Forum stood in stark contrast to the Heads of State meeting, which was marked by incremental promises at best and silence by major global powers at worst, falling short of the bold action called for in growing street protests around the world, especially when it comes to the need to combat climate change. It also illustrated the increasing fragility of the UN system, which as UN Secretary Guterres warned in a later meeting, is on the verge of bankruptcy, with the possibility of entering the month of November without enough cash to cover UN payrolls (the main debtor at present is the United Sates, which is responsible for 22% of the more than US$33 billion regular budget for 2019).
The need for local action
The political declaration adopted at the Summit highlighted the need to ‘bolster local action to accelerate implementation’ by committing to ‘empower and support cities, local authorities and communities in pursuing the 2030 Agenda’ and recognizing their ‘critical role in implementing and realizing the SDGs’. However, the association of United Cities and Local Governments in its most recent study of SDG localization has found that the Voluntary National Reviews that so far have been presented at the annual UN High Level Political Fora show that few governments have made substantial efforts to include local governments in their efforts to plan, implement and monitor SDG progress.
Cities stepping up
The High Level Local and Regional Government Forum counted with the participation of Mayors from cities across the world and showed how cities are stepping up the game. A passionate speech by one of the opening speakers Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau, a political activist and first woman to hold the office of the Mayor, who was one of the opening speakers, illustrated the kind of leadership that in many countries is missing at the national level by stressing the importance democratic governance, solidarity, human rights and the protection of the most vulnerable in society. Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor of Freetown, in turn highlighted that just as SDG 11 is central to achieving all SDGs, the targets of SDG 13 on climate action can also not be met without taking cities into account. Several other Mayors presented the actions that they have been undertaking in the area of climate change, as well as multi-stakeholder engagements such as participatory budgeting and data monitoring for SDG implementation (the speeches can be watched back here).
Voluntary Local Reviews
The Forum was followed by the adoption of a Voluntary Local Review (VLR) Declaration, in which over 20 cities from more than 15 countries formally committed to report on the SDGs. This includes identifying how their existing strategies, programmes, data and targets align with the SDGs and presenting these reviews to the UN. The initiative is led by the City of New York, which was the first city to present its VLR at the UN in 2018. The group of cities also includes Buenos Aires, Cape Town and Malmö, three out seven cities where we have been working as part of the Mistra Urban Futures comparative research project on the implementation of the SDGs and New Urban Agenda. Through cross-city exchange and learning the project has showed the value of the SDGs as a common language to discuss priorities and share knowledge. In doing so, cities are showing how together they can lead the way in advancing the SDGs.
Sylvia Croese is a researcher at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. From 2017 to 2019 she worked as an embedded researcher in the City of Cape Town as part of the Mistra Urban Futures research project ‘Implementing the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals: Comparative Urban Perspectives’.
Photo: Sylvia Croese at UN Headquarters 24 September 2019