Reaching SDGs from the ground up

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Hundreds, thousands of towns and regions from every continent are working at their level, for the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), writes Frédéric Vallier.

Frédéric Vallier is Secretary General of CEMR, the Council of Municipalities and Regions. CEMR is the lead partner of PLATFORMA – the European voice of Local and Regional Governments in Development Cooperation.

The crowds have gone, conference rooms are empty: the curtain has fallen on the UN summit on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And now starts the really hard part, thankless: paving the road to reach them by 2030, painstakingly, not even brick by brick, rather pebble by pebble. And across the world.

For the first time ever, the UN and the international community in general have irrevocably recognised the key role of our towns and regions in development, not just through goals 11 and 16, but spanning the whole range of those goals. Yet, this should not be newsworthy at all.

Indeed, the journey to achieving to the post-2015 development goals started many, many years ago, in various locations across the world. It started in the Swedish town of Helsingborg and its Indonesian counterpart of Probolinggo; it sprouted in the French Rhônes-Alpes and the Ho Chi Minh province in Vietnam; it was conceived in Leicester (UK) and Gujarat (India), In Florence (Italy) and Thiès (Senegal)… Hundreds, thousands of examples of towns and regions from every continent working at their level, one on one, away from the limelight, for a better, fairer world. Partnerships for health, the environment, climate adaptation, gender equality, local infrastructures have been blossoming between Europe and Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Far East long before the UN Sustainable Development summit. Each of them helping us reach those goals even before they were adopted.

“All SDGs are local.” That was the title of statement of the world’s representatives of towns and regions gathered in New York on 27 September. A statement in which we felt the need to stress that cities and territories are where women and men, girls and boys live, where poverty and inequalities are tackled, where health and education services are provided… With this, we call for all local governments to be empowered, have the means and capacity to improve administration as well as to plan and implement solutions; simply because every single SDG addresses problems that are local, and because the real target is for all the SDGs to be reached in every single town and city in the world.

Decentralised cooperation: gentler, faster, better

Once upon a time, in 2004, Edegem (Belgium) and San Jeronimo (Peru) embarked on a cooperation centred around the huge San Jeronimo market (some 2,000 producers). The size of the market had an obvious economic and environmental impact as well put a strain on the local public services (road congestion, health and hazard issues, waste collection…). Local civil servants and experts from both towns worked together to bring effective and sustainable solutions: today over two tons of organic waste are collected daily and processed in the new compost plan and San Jeronimo has received the “eco-efficient municipality” award; also better access to the market and cleaner streets have led to an increase of buyers which contributes to the local economic growth, and all the initiatives included local stakeholders. In short, most of the post-2015 SDGs are already being implemented there at a minimal cost (€60,000 a year).

Now, imagine hundreds of thousands of towns from all over the world working along those lines. This is how we will reach the Sustainable Development Goals.

Of course the question is what it takes for local and regional governments to help translate the SDGs into reality. Concretely.

Based on their very mandate, local governments are experts in local development. Our towns and regions need to boost exchanges of information, experience and expertise in order to highlight the gems to be shared with all. Enter PLATFORMA, the network of European local and regional government and their associations active in development cooperation. Through its 34 partners, its raison d’être is indeed to be the link between all those active in or eager to embark on decentralised cooperation. Through events and publications, exchange of experience and advocacy, PLATFORMA acts as the cement holding cooperation at the local and regional level together. Hundreds of examples to draw from as our Twitter campaign demonstrated during the New York Summit.

We, towns, and regions, also know that local projects fail unless you broaden the range of partners. That’s the reason why in all our work, we endeavour to take on board the private sector, NGOs, civil society in general, as everything within towns and regions affects them and as local governments needs their experiences and knowhow.    

Finally, to be successful, experience has shown that cooperation at the local and regional level is the more effective way to invest in the SDGs as there are no intermediaries, the objectives are realistic and measurable and their purely local nature means greater efficiency as with relatively smaller amounts of money, big impacts can be achieved. Yet, improving access to water or education, improving local administration or erecting solar panel on public buildings is not cost-free. Maybe in some cases public-private partnerships can help, but it seems clear that most projects will need extra resources. That’s why in New York we called for the preparation and future adoption of a code of conduct between local governments and national states on responsibility and finances. The idea is to empower local and regional governments, give them the ability to address their own needs and implement local policies to tackle the challenges addressed through the SDGs. This code of conduct could be adopted in Quito at the next Habitat 3 conference in 2016.

In the end, world leaders and representatives of international organisations have recognised the key role of towns and regions in reaching the SDGs. They have also committed themselves to invest in those post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. The future will tell whether these were genuine pledges.

In this context, PLATFORMA would play a dual role. On the one hand strive for the achievement of SDGs by placing an effective decentralised cooperation at the service of the world’s most vulnerable. On the other hand via its members let national governments and international bodies know that we will remind them of their promises if needed. In Paris at the COP 21 conference, in Quito at the UN HABITAT conference, everywhere, every day.

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