Where is the local voice in the SDGs review process?

The annual assessment, which starts this week, is failing to address “localization” of the global goals.

Today kicks off the United Nations’ annual review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a two-week process in New York known as the High Level Political Forum. As part of this year’s annual HLPF review, several dozen national governments will offer reports on where they are in implementing the goals, which run through 2030.

Meanwhile, an outstanding question looms: What is the role of local authorities in this review process — or in implementing the goals overall? It is increasingly recognized, after all, that the success of the SDGs will depend on efforts taking place at the local level.

In the past year, local and regional leaders have strongly expressed their political will to contribute to the SDGs through policy action at the local level. They made this commitment clear in the Bogotá Commitment — which came out of last year’s United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) World Congress — and in the Declaration of the World Assembly of Local and Regional Governments at Habitat III, the global conference on sustainable cities that took place in October.

Local and regional leaders also have committed to “localization”, the process of aligning local policies with this global agenda, of bottom-up implementation of related goals, and of local leadership in all of this. Localization will give communities, cities and territories an opportunity to play their part in achieving sustainable development for all. In particular, localization aims to create an environment that can enable local and regional governments to put their citizens’ priorities and needs at the centre of national and global policies — and to develop strategies to promote sustainable development.

[See: Mayors warn sustainable cities are impossible without their direct input]

It is based on this vision that local government networks, in particular those that are part of the Global Taskforce and UCLG, are now defining strategies for monitoring and reporting on implementation and localization of the SDGs and other global agendas. Unfortunately, the HLPF currently is focused almost exclusively on national governments and U. N. agencies.

This is a major gap. It is critical that local and regional governments contribute their unique perspectives to the HLPF’s yearly assessment cycles. Decentralized governments have autonomy with regard to their budgets, have been given a set of specific competences and are accountable to their communities. Reporting on these experiences is crucial to achieving the SDGs.

Preliminary assessment

During 2016 and 2017, 63 countries reported to the HLPF. They have done so either through a full report — known as a voluntary national review, or VNR — or by offering a set of “main messages”.

“For the moment, localization remains a pending issue on the HLPF agenda. With no relevant place for reporting from a local perspective or for showcasing what is being done at the local level, we risk missing an opportunity to enhance the visibility of the role of local and regional governments in achieving the SDGs.”

In addition, UCLG has received 30 reports from local and regional governments and their related associations. These have included first-hand accounts of their involvement in national processes and updated information on SDG implementation at the local level. From this data, we have been able to draw a few preliminary conclusions on these issues:

Local governments are participating in VNR-related consultations, but they are not doing so in all participating countries: Local and regional governments are included in these consultation processes in 37 of the 63 countries that have reported to the HLPF. Most of these countries are in Europe or Latin America.

[See: Cities shut out of U. N.’s first SDGs review, advocates say]

However, in a fourth of the cases where some form of consultation took place, there are concerns with the quality of the consultation process. These included questions over the mechanisms used, the time allowed for the consultation and the directness of the local involvement. Several local government associations said they have not been properly consulted. In most highly centralized countries, local and regional governments did not participate at all.

Uneven involvement and contribution opportunities: Outreach and awareness-raising around the SDGs remains limited globally. Within the 63 reporting countries, awareness of the SDGs among local and regional governments is generally higher in Europe (especially in Northern Europe and Germany) and Latin America (Colombia and Brazil stand out in this regard). In Africa and Asia, local governments’ awareness is relatively strong only in a few countries, such as Benin and South Korea.

What accounts for this variability? The role of associations of local and regional governments may be decisive here, particularly around improving outreach and mobilization.

[See: How do we involve the public in implementing the SDGs?]

Other key points of distinction have emerged, too. In some countries, local and regional governments have been leading the process while national governments continue to define their overall strategy — or even withdraw from international agreements. And metropolitan areas seem to be moving faster than other communities. Durban, Madrid, Quito and Seoul, for instance, are all looking to align their strategic plans with the SDGs.

Moreover, many cities are significantly involved in international networks that support initiatives in specific areas related to the SDGs (for instance, around climate change, sustainability or urban resilience) or are supporting pilot localization initiatives. Several global and regional networks also have put the localization agenda at the centre of their strategies.

Local and regional governments partially benefit from new institutional frameworks: If built on respect of local democracy and autonomy, efforts to improve institutional frameworks for implementation of the SDGs could be an opportunity for local and regional governments in several regards. For instance, such processes could help strengthen the quality of dialogue with representatives from ministries, national agencies, civil society, the private sector, experts and academia.

Pedestrians pass in front of U. N. Headquarters during last year’s first-ever SDGs review, July 2016. (Freya Morales/UNDP)

In reality, however, the picture is largely mixed in this regard. Only 39 percent of the VNRs mention the integration of local and regional governments in high-level policy mechanisms or national committees (for instance, Benin, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Japan, Montenegro and Togo) or have regular consultation procedures (Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden). In some countries, only counties, regions or federated states participate in high-level committees (Belgium, India, Italy and Kenya).

[See: Cities poised to play a bigger role in SDGs review process]

Aligning the SDGs with development plans needs further localization: Besides aligning national priorities with the SDGs, effective change and progress also can be achieved by incorporating the SDGs into regional and local development plans. Of the 63 reporting countries, 27 make overt reference to the need for improved coordination of development plans among different levels of government.

Colombia’s government particularly stands out in this regard, having made strong efforts to align sub-national development plans with the SDGs. But several other countries are likewise working to integrate the SDGs in local plans and priorities, including Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Germany, South Korea, the Netherlands and Sweden. Other examples include federated states in India, Mexico and Nigeria, counties in Kenya and provinces such as Riau in Indonesia.

Persistent challenges include lack of enabling environment and means of implementation: References to the mobilization of adequate means and capacity-building programmes to support sub-national levels in the localization process are still vague or absent in most VNRs.

In the current versions of the reports, 19 countries singled out decentralization or devolution as one of the key dimensions for successful implementation of the SDGs. Likewise, many local and regional governments stress weak or incomplete decentralization processes as a major obstacle for the localization of the SDGs. Furthermore, very few countries report on local financing reforms — despite the recommendations of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (Paragraph 34), the 2015 agreement around how to finance global efforts at sustainable development.

[See: Are cities on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030?]

Localizing indicators: With regard to indicators for tracking progress on the SDGs, 27 countries reported on their efforts to disaggregate data or at least mentioned disaggregation as a key challenge. Several local and regional governments report that they are working to integrate SDG indicators at the local level and to develop mechanisms to ensure follow-up. Examples here include Brazil, Ecuador, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and some counties in Kenya.

Next stops toward localization

With a few exceptions, the SDGs have only just begun to make their way into the agendas, policies and plans of local and regional governments around the world. Global and regional networks such as UCLG are making important efforts to raise awareness and support peer-to-peer learning on linking the global goals to local action. But strong local leadership and commitment must be promoted if local governments are to be included in the whole process. In this regard, national governments and international institutions could do better.

However, a rethink also is needed to create real co-ownership and achieve localization of the SDGs. The goals should not be a top-down imposition or an additional burden without providing adequate means to achieve them. Local and regional governments must be empowered to fit this framework in their daily agenda.

[See: If cities are to ‘leave no one behind’, disaggregated data is invaluable]

It is also important to recognize that implementation of the New Urban Agenda, the strategy document adopted at last year’s Habitat III conference, will do much to help local and regional governments achieve the broader SDGs.

Changes also are needed within the HLPF process. While the role of local and regional governments in implementation of the SDGs is increasingly being recognized, this recognition has not yet translated to this critical review mechanism. References to the local role in policy development, decentralization and more need to be strengthened in national and international reports, including the VNRs.

For the moment, localization remains a pending issue on the HLPF agenda. With no relevant place for reporting from a local perspective or for showcasing what is being done at the local level, we risk missing an opportunity to enhance the visibility of the role of local and regional governments in achieving the SDGs.

[See: Habitat III struggled to deliver — but nonetheless, a new global urban agenda is upon us]

A robust reporting framework would reward examples of where localization is actually happening — and foster more local involvement. Many observers have great expectations for several new initiatives that seek to provide just this type of visibility. Three in particular have the potential to provide great impulse to local government involvement in partnership with the United Nations and civil society.

One is the capacity- and awareness-raising initiative “Localizing the SDGs” partnership with the U. N. Development Programme, UN-Habitat and the Global Taskforce. A second is the United Nations-wide Local 2030 Hub, facilitated by the Office of the U. N. Secretary-General, which offers a collaboration and innovation platform. Third is UCLG’s Local4Action Hub, a local-government-driven initiative aimed at learning about, reporting on and mobilizing this constituency for the SDGs.

The journey toward achieving the SDGs has just begun. The process will not be linear, and the results cannot be guaranteed. Nonetheless, localization and the involvement of local and regional governments are fundamental steps in the ambitious mission not to leave anyone behind.

The conclusions in this article are drawn from a report, “National and sub-national governments on the way towards localization”, to be presented at the HLPF this month. This article was written by the United Cities and Local Governments World Secretariat and its Capacity and Institution Building Working Group.

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UCLG World Secretariat and its Capacity Building Working Group

United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) is an umbrella organization for cities, local governments and municipal associations throughout the world.