Spain’s Leganés lends a hand to the world’s most vulnerable

Leganés helps provide electricity to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.

This article is part of our special report Towns’ and regions’ cooperation on climate and development.

SPECIAL REPORT / For the citizens of the Spanish municipality of Leganés, in the autonomous community of Madrid, solidarity with the world’s most vulnerable populations is second nature. EURACTIV Spain reports.

Leganés tries to meet the targets laid down in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular when it comes to helping developing countries tackle the challenges of climate change. In an interview with EURACTIV Spain, Santiago Llorente, the Socialist mayor of the city of some 186,696 inhabitants, said “poverty is not something natural, it has roots, and these roots can be fought”.

Leganés, part of the greater Madrid conurbation, is located about 11 kilometres southwest of the city centre. With its modern buildings and long avenues, Leganés is the fifth most densely populated city within the autonomous community of Madrid – which has some 6.4 million inhabitants.

The City of Leganés is member of FEMP (Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces – Spanish section of CEMR), member of PLATFORMA, the European network of local and regional authorities for development.

Above all, Leganés is a city proud of its citizens, as over the past 25 years they have shown a great deal of solidarity with developing countries – in particular in Latin America, and Africa, and all this through a decentralised management of development cooperation.

This approach (Overseas Development Assistance, but not directly managed by the Spanish government), has many advantages, Llorente says. “We have established a direct and horizontal relation with the municipalities we work with. We believe this kind of relation, thanks to our inter-twinned cities, acknowledges our role as relevant actors able to provide solutions to their problems, and by doing so directly improving the quality of life of their citizens.”

Transparency and good governance are main guidelines

With this model of development cooperation Leganés wants to make sure that the principles of good governance, transparency and accountability are implemented, and that political commitments are kept, Llorente adds.

Of the projects already implemented by Leganés in developing countries, at least two are directly linked to the challenge of climate change: one is focused on providing electricity to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, using solar panels for kitchens and another, in the municipality of Macará, Ecuador, is focused on sustainable solid urban waste management.

But as Madrid, and Spain in general, battle to reduce their deficit, the country’s generosity has also shrunk. Between 2010 and 2012, its budget for development and cooperation aid plummeted by 67%.

Raúl Moreno, official in charge of international development cooperation in the Spanish municipality, told EURACTIV Spain that “helping the most vulnerable populations in the world has become something natural for the citizens of Leganés. Of course, cuts in the national development-cooperation budget has had a huge impact on many of our development activities”.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government has committed itself to returning to the levels of pre-crisis cooperation if the country’s economic situation improves this year or in 2016.

Solar, a cheap and clean natural resource

The solar energy project for kitchens in Tindouf dates back to 2008. At that time, electricity was a “luxury” almost unthinkable in refugee camps. Since then, the situation has improved thanks, in part, to the solidarity of the Leganés people.

“In Auser (Algeria) they still have to install them (solar panels) in two ‘dairas’ (districts). For the time being, in many houses this is the only way of cooking, thanks to photovoltaic panels and batteries to store the energy”, Moreno explained.

But aid workers from Leganés are also active in other areas of Tindouf: “more recently we have been working in the health sector, with a primary health care unit composed by a pediatrician, a general doctor, a nurse and a male nurse”.

The teams are now trying to combat serious chronic diseases that also affect children, in particular asthma, “and a serious gastroenteritis epidemic which broke out recently in the region, in particular after the floods, which have caused many health problems. Our next team will travel to the region next January”, Moreno says.

The project’s leitmotiv is to make a rational use of the natural resources available in a difficult environment, Santiago Llorente adds. “Refugees have almost nothing of their own, but they have many sunny hours every day.” The key issue for us was to make things easy for the local population: “the functioning of a solar panel is very simple, and this makes their lives a lot easier”, the Mayor of Leganés continued.

Improving solid waste management in Ecuador and Nicaragua

Among the many difficulties encountered so far by Moreno and his team – and the NGOs that work with them on the ground – urban solid waste treatment poses a particularly huge challenge.

“The lack of treatment of all this waste has generated many problems, in some cases very serious, like pollution of rivers in the municipality of Macará, Ecuador, and soil contamination,” Moreno said.

The municipality of Leganés actively cooperates with the Ecuadorian city in designing and implementing the “Global Management Plan of Solid Waste in the Macará Canton”, trying to ease the difficult situation. This way of working “is without doubt the most efficient and closest to the beneficiaries, in the framework of the Spanish decentralised cooperation”, he added.

Among its objectives, the project aims to bring clean drinking water to the population, collecting all solid waste to minimise health risks in remote and poor urban areas, and creating basic sanitation and infrastructures.

In the Tindouf refugee camps, the municipality of Leganés has also financially contributed to a project funded by the EU to install a waste collecting system. “Until recently, dead animals, old batteries, and other kinds of waste, were grounded. But this is very dangerous,” Moreno stressed.

For many years, the municipality of Leganés has also been financing a project by the NGO: “Amigos de la Tierra” (Friends of the Earth),  in Somoto, Nicaragua, with the aim of helping children get out of the landfills, with the implementation of various projects for waste reorganisation and recycling. Before these projects were implemented, “many children lived in a chaotic way, looking in the trash for something to eat or to sell, just trying to survive”, Moreno lamented.

The role of decentralised development cooperation

In a new international environment for development cooperation, with the roadmap of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN General Assembly last September, the approach of decentralised development cooperation plays also a role, in particular in countries like Spain, a highly (almost quasi-federal) decentralised country, with its 17 autonomous communities and local governments and administrations.

“For many years the municipality of Leganés has had a budget specifically dedicated to development cooperation. However, in Spain, decentralised development cooperation, which comes from municipalities and regions, and is also financed with taxpayer’s money, is not homogeneous nor standardised,” Moreno explained.

Local and regional government play a big part in not only raising awareness among citizens of the importance of development cooperation, but also helping share knowledge to make aid more efficient and effective.

Since its inception in 2008, PLATFORMA has been the voice of European local and regional governments active in decentralised cooperation - the town-to-town, region-to-region development cooperation.

PLATFORMA’s role is to increase recognition of the work of local and regional governments in international cooperation, deepen the dialogue with European institutions and promote effective decentralised cooperation for the development of partner countries.

Its 34 members include associations of local and regional governments at the national, European or world levels as well as individual cities, provinces and regions. Based in Brussels, its secretariat is hosted by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR).


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