Museologia Social e Urbanismo XLVI

Sustainable Development Goals and other global processes

Discussion prompts:

  1. What are the ways in which the SDG 11 connects with the other SDGs?
  2. How can cities play an anchoring role for achieving all these related SDGs?

Sustainable development, the SDGs and the urban SDGs in particular, are not a short term miracle that have appeared from nowhere, they’ve emerged from nearly a century of debate, contest, experimentation, failure and success.

This debate has brought together multiple actors and stakeholders from the local, provincial, national, regional to the global and created 17 goals and a 169 targets within the SDGs. But why are there 17 goals? The formation of the SDGs was deeply influenced by the experience on the MDGs. The MDGs demonstrated the value of clear, quantified, limited sets of goals, they highlighted the importance of partnerships to achieve all these goals, they proved the value of common metrics, global indicators that are achieved through local and national processes.

At the same time the MDGs showed the shortcomings of a top-down rather insular process of designing goals and the missed opportunities of ignoring large sectors and areas of global action like cities.

The design of the SDGs was spearheaded by the UN Secretary-General informed first by a grassroots consultation through ‘The World We Want’ managed and solicited by the UN but bringing in voices of over a million people from all backgrounds, communities and nationalities. A high-level panel of eminent persons then brought together a global policy consensus on the SDGs.

Once the technical priorities were determined the process was handed over to the member-nations at the United Nations Open Working Group which forged the political consensus and the negotiations needed to effect priorities of 193 countries.

No mean feat, but one achieve by painstaking discussion, debate and negotiation. As urbanization and cities have become more important in the economic, social and political life of the world, the urban sector and its institutions have struggled through multilateral processes.

Until relatively recently the sector was fractured around narrow geographical, thematic and institutional themes and mandates. Recognizing the imperative role of cities and settlements in development, the global urban community has come together over the last few years to present a coherent political front, clear arguments and a commitment towards action and implementation.

This has happened because cities are now being seen not as problems but as sites of opportunity and effective implementation. To understand this, it may be useful to examine what happened on the morning of 7th January 2014, on the floor of the United Nations. When a debate took place on the value of sustainable cities in global development – taking part in that debate representatives of UN member countries, the global campaign for an urban SDG and UN officials. A few short clips from that day:

we have a set of challenges in the developing world which is the challenges that we have been talking during those days, yesterday and today but also in the developed world we need to change our cities, we need to retrofit our cities and this is why also something that should be if it is the case in the targets because we know that we cannot go on with the level of greenhouse emissions that we have in the developed cities. (…)

But eventually if you have to manage such large and complex and interdependent systems, you do have to transfer both the authority and the ability to respond to the local level because that’s how innovation will actually function.(…)

So if this, if these two aspects are true and this is as multi-dimensional, the question we would ask is how could you address that there probably will not be an SDG on transport. We would not support it for the simple reason that everybody wants something an SDG on, and we’re going to end up with about 327 SDGs at my last count including things like nuclear ways, breast milk, diarrohea – I’ve heard as a candidate the list is endless. (…)

So you can imagine how complex and challenging this is. The solution of course will not come from the co-chairs, the solution will come from the membership. That’s one way of I getting out from that particular challenge.”

We just saw an example of the existential debate on the value of the city’s goal. It’s actually quite remarkable that the SDGS include Goal 11.

How did we get here? How has the world changed in the last 70 years since the UN was created?

Where has the idea of Sustainable Development come from or more pertinent to us where has the idea of Sustainable Cities come from? The United Nations was formed almost 70 years ago after the end of the second world war in 1945 with 50 member-states.

That was a world that was still colonized desperately in need of post-war reconstruction and development. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 laid the foundation of the universal entitlements that underpin both the MDGs and now the SDGs, but the process of developing the urban SDGs started well before this in 1913 with the organization of local governments and the creation of the International Union of Local Authorities. The UN had a 152 members by the time Sustainable Development was born in the 1970s.

This came together by bringing together development and the emerging idea of sustainability that came from the global environmental movement after the publication of “Limits to growth”, the first oil shock and the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. Four years later, the first UN Conference on Human Settlements that we call Habitat-I in Vancouver, recommended national action for sustainable human settlements, with an emphasis on social sustainability and socio-economic development, minimum standards of urban basic services for an acceptable quality of life and reducing disparities between rural and urban areas. It also helped create UN-Habitat, UN-CHS as it was known at that time. Even though its lead sectors were housing and access to basic services Habitat-I laid the foundations for the urban SDGs that would come nearly 40 years later. In the late 1980s the World Commission on Environment and Development – the Brundtland Commission helped define sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This decade also saw the International Year for the Shelter, for the homeless, building on the momentum of Habitat-I, the period also saw the establishment of the IPCC to address Climate Change, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 led to a significant increase in the number of UN member states to 159.

The World Summit on Environment and Development at Rio set the frame of bringing environment and development together in 1992 and laid the operational basis for Sustainable Development via Local Agenda 21 and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which in turn, led to the Kyoto Protocol. The launch of the Human Development Index, the World Conference on Women in Beijing and the World Conference on Education for All at Jomtien, established the basis for universal goals on poverty and inequality, women’s equality and education.

The IPCC issued its First and Second assessment reports on Climate Change and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development was also founded to reorient the role of the private sector in sustainable development. On the urban front the UN City Summit, Habitat-II in Istanbul, acknowledged increasing global urbanization but focussed largely on the global south and addressing the needs of the urban poor. It built on Habitat-I and discussed universal goals for safer and healthier cities and ensuring adequate shelter for all. A new emphasis on the importance of local and regional governance emerged that echoed the message from the Rio conference. Cities Alliance, ICLEI, WEIGO and SDI were all founded in the spirit as was the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights.

The 2000s kicked off with the Millennium Summit in New York that established the Millennium Development Goals- the MDGs. 8 international development goals to be achieved by 2015 focusing on extreme poverty and hunger, primary education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, infectious diseases and environmental sustainability.

The MDGs did not focus on cities, they did however have a strong sectoral focus including a limited emphasis on water, sanitation and slums. But this provided the scaffolding on which the SDGs were built. This decade also saw the release of the Third and Fourth IPCC assessment reports that established the anthropogenic basis for Climate Change. The Hyogo framework for Disaster Risk Reduction established the first global framework in this area.

The First and Second International Conferences on Financing for Development in Montreal and Doha started to build a global framework for financing sustainable development in the 2000. On the urban front, the C40-cities Climate partnership group was established and the UN General Assembly adopted this Declaration on Cities and Human Settlements. The 2010 saw a significant activity around Sustainable Development as 2015 was a target year for the achievement of the MDGs. In 2012 the Rio+20 conference was held to commemorate two decades of the First World Conference on Environment and Development. This created the impetus for and the mandate for the creation of the SDGs in 2015.

In 2012 the UN Secretary-General initiated a series of processes within the UN and created SDSN to facilitate the SDG process – this culminated in the SDG summit in September 2015 in New York, where 193 countries endorsed a set of 17 universal goals to be achieved by 2030. On the environmental front the Fifth IPCC Assessment Report was issued with a special focus on urban areas addressing the Climate Challenge gathered momentum at the 2014 Climate Summit and finally at COP21 in Paris in December 2015, a global agreement around Climate Change was reached to keep mean global temperature rises below 2 degrees centigrade. On the urban front the Global Taskforce for Local and Regional governments was created in 2013 at the same time as a global campaign for a standalone urban SDG was launched.

This culminated in the successful creation of SDG11 on sustainable cities. In 2016 Habitat-III and the third UN conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development frames the new urban agenda.

Why have the SDGs become so important for sustainable cities?

1) The SDGs are universal setting out a single normative base for all people everywhere, unlike the MDGs that focussed on poor people in poor countries. SDG-11 spans the urban-rural continuum.

2) The SDGs are based on the interdependence of social, economic and environmental outcomes- all operating within planetary boundaries including the challenge of Climate Change.

3) Inclusion and equity are central to the SDGs.

4) The global urban agenda is now being debated alongside issues of global, national and local finance.

5) The SDG monitoring and reporting framework becomes spatially explicit using new geospatial technology, crowdsourcing and big data analysis-this enables us to track outcomes from the local to the global.

How do countries address the challenges thrown forward by the SDGs? The fundamental unanswered political question about sustainable cities is that of subsidiarity and devolution. At what level of governance – national, provincial or local should have function or service be provided- staffed, financed and delivered?

The current SDG frame because it was agreed by national governments imagines that they are the primary agents of delivery with local governments and other actors as implementers or part players. We know that this is not possible from history- experience of implementation and the ambitious scale of the universal agenda in the SDGs. How do countries move forward from the current aspatial imagination of the SDGs to one where territorial development could move to the forefront of partnership between national and local governments?

How do cities become prosperous and how does that enable poverty reduction, employment and growth? How could cities built resilient infrastructure and foster innovation and what kind of national and international financial architecture could enable this?

How do cities reflect adequately the agency and role of the poor, vulnerable and the informal sector in driving the global and urban economy? How do cities address the challenge of Goal 13 – Climate Change by making them an important actor in implementing the Paris Climate Accord? A new partnership that involves national governments, local and regional governments, informal and formal enterprises, civil society, universities and knowledge institutions and inevitably citizens, will be required to deliver the urban SDGs and sustainable cities in 15 years.

In short – 1) the SDGs and the idea of sustainable cities have emerged from nearly a century of debate, contest, experimentation and implementation; this involved multiple actors from communities to local regional and national governments.

2) The urban community has come together over the last few years after recognizing the role of cities in Sustainable Development. They have presented a coherent political front and a commitment to action.

3) The SDGs especially those focused on sustainable urbanization outline a universal developement agenda for all people everywhere.

4) Implementation will be challenging, it will involve addressing the deeply political question of partnerships and devolving power mandates and finances from national to regional and city governments and a range of other ideas.

The SDGs are an important milestone in a long and complex journey that we’re embarked upon. They help outline a universal agenda that all major nation states are expected to endorse.

More important, they make the commitment that no one will be left behind and specifically within the context of the urban SDGs that no place will be left behind.