Cities at the forefront: cooperation as an opportunity for towns to internationalise

A young European volunteer in African village building water well with spatula in collaboration with local old man. [Davide Bonaldo/Shutterstock]

Cities across the world have chosen to go beyond fulfilling their citizens’ needs and contribute to development by engaging in international cooperation. EURACTIV has looked into local and regional leaders’ motivation to do so. 

“The public administration of the regional government of Extremadura (Spain) sees international cooperation as a political responsibility, like any other social policy that aims to put people at its core, ensuring equal opportunities and wealth redistribution,” José Ángel Calle, director of AEXCID, told EURACTIV. 

AEXCID is the region’s cooperation and development agency. Extremadura has been working on international cooperation since 1995, including by making use of EU development funds. 

Among other projects, AEXCID has joined forces with the UN Development Programme to promote inclusive and peaceful communities in Latina America in the context of the Agenda 2030. Calle argued that regions and cities, by being closer to citizens, can offer “adequate solutions and responses to the big challenges of global development.” 

Geneviève Sevrin, the director-general of ‘Cités Unies France’, a network of territorial governments engaged in decentralised cooperation created back in 1975, shares Calle’s vision. 

“Territorial collectivities are closer to the expectations, the needs and the demands of citizens,” she said and being smaller, “they also have the capacity to experiment, to innovate, compare to the national authorities”. Sevrin argued this has been particularly true during COVID-19 crisis.  

A recent study published by the Barcelona Center for International Affairs (CIDOB) pointed out that while countries have played a major role in imposing restrictive measures and coordinating actions to manage the spread of the disease, “despite their lower profiles and smaller operating budgets,” cities have been at the forefront of the anti-pandemic efforts. 

“They have done so by providing essential services such as transport and waste management, adapting public space to enable social distancing, caring for the most vulnerable, supporting companies, professionals and workers affected by the crisis, and strengthening healthcare systems,” the study reads. 

Their ability to identify the needs of the territories allows cities and regions capacity to help localise actions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals anchored in the UN 2030 agenda, often needed to respond to the particularities of developing countries.  

However, Sevrin admitted they sometimes face important difficulties “given that legislation is often meant for the entire nation while maybe some measures should be adapted to the specificities of the territories.” 

For the past decade, ‘Cités Unies France’ has organised ‘Rencontres de l’action internationale des collectivités territoriales’, a yearly event that brings together local and regional partners from across France who work on development. 

The event allows regional and local authorities to meet and exchange experiences and practices with their foreign counterparts too, but also some other actors from the private sector and NGOs. “It is a place to exchange, build and discover,” Sevrin told EURACTIV.

Cities and regions have different incentives to engage in global development projects. “For some, it is a political motivation linked to a political ideology, they believe International solidarity is a value in itself,” Sevrin explained. 

For others, it is the result of local and regional leaders becoming aware of how much they have in common with their counterparts in third countries, from rural development to the fight against climate change, but also that one single territory cannot respond to the challenges.  

“This reciprocity leads us to a common solution to global problems, even if they are implemented locally,” she said. 

Nevertheless, there is also an economic motivation. Cities and regions are becoming increasingly aware of the need to go global, this is particularly true for the big metropolis. ”If they want to exist internationally, they need to become influential, for their companies, their universities, their tourism, for their cultural openness,” Sevrin said. 

Marlène Siméon, director of PLATFORMA, a pan-European coalition of towns and regions active in city-to-city and region-to-region development cooperation, shares this view. “It is about allowing the world into their city or region,” she told EURACTIV. 

For the political representatives, it is an instrument “to learn from others, gain recognition of their territories and reinforce themselves at the global scene,” she explained. But it is also “a unique way to create active citizens, able to participate in the policy-making in their regions and cities,” Siméon stressed.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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PLATFORMA is the pan-European coalition of cities and regions – and their associations – active in city-to-city and region-to-region development cooperation. Its 30 partners are all engaged in international cooperation for sustainable development. PLATFORMA is co-funded by the European Union and its secretariat is hosted by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR).


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