The SDGs and 'a new urban agenda'?

If the world delivers on the Sustainable Development Goals, will IIED be out of a job?

A typhoon hits shanties in Manila. Urban governments, which are already struggling to provide basic infrastructure services, also need to build resilience to climate change (Photo: Ernie Penaredondo/Global Water Partnership, Creative Commons via Flickr)

No one can accuse the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of lacking ambition. If all their commitments are actually met, we will have a sustainable, equitable, inclusive, resilient… world by 2030. My institute can pack up – what we have been striving for for the last 42 years will be delivered.

But how can such a transformation be possible with so little change suggested in the national and global frameworks and funding architecture?

I want to explore this in relation to urban areas that now house four billion people and most of the world's economy and new investments. They also house most of the people whose high consumption lifestyles are driving anthropogenic climate change. And they include a billion urban dwellers living in overcrowded boarding houses and informal settlements where few if any of the SDGs are met.

Defining the ends…

The SDGs include strong commitments to almost all aspects of poverty reduction, good health and to leaving no one behind (in rural and urban areas). 

There are explicit commitments to disaster risk reduction and to integrating this with climate change adaptation. Also a strong endorsement of the work of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on climate change mitigation. There is even a goal to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Here are some of the SDG commitments that governments will sign up to achieve by 2030:

  • "Universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all"
  • "Access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all"
  • "Ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services"
  • "Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all"
  • "Ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services"
  • "Achieve universal health coverage" and "access to quality essential health-care services"
  • "Ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education"
  • "Provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all"
  • "Ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums"
  • "Equal access to justice for all"
  • "Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels", and
  • "Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels"

So are we seeing a fundamental (or even transformative) change in global discussions on urban development that combines poverty reduction, disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and mitigation? A change in which the validity and relevance of providing more space and support for urban local governments is recognised? 

Where the examples of innovative cities that provide some of the most tangible evidence that the most pressing global concerns, including the avoidance of dangerous climate change, can be combined with good local development/poverty reduction? Where the best local fit between different agendas is developed with the full engagement of citizens and local civil society – and where through this, urban governments have the legitimacy to represent their citizens in global discussions – and global commitments?  

Where local governments not only commit to the implementation of the SDGs but also to monitor and report on their progress within their jurisdictions (and how this could transform the quality and detail of reporting on the SDGs). Where reports on progress can be discussed in each neighbourhood and city – unlike most of the sources currently used to (apparently) monitor progress?

...but not the means

The SDGs may have a lot to say about what needs to be achieved but not about how, by whom and with what funding and support.

There is hardly any mention of local government and local civil society. But you cannot meet the commitments listed above or indeed most of the other goals and targets in urban areas without their support.

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda that is meant to help finance the SDGs commits to "scaling up international cooperation to strengthen capacities of municipalities and other local authorities (PDF)" but neglects to mention how and with what.

We are faced with the fact that it will fall to urban governments (municipal, city and metropolitan), to plan and manage much of the adaptation to climate change and much of the mitigation; and urban governments will be responsible for planning and managing the necessary integration with disaster risk reduction and poverty reduction, including the universal provision of basic services.  

Urban governments do not have to implement and fund all of this. But they do have to provide the framework, including the regulations, incentives, management and monitoring of coverage and quality, that supports relevant investments.  

Who then holds the governments to account for their SDG commitments?

Within the United Nations, we have had decades of commitments that went unfulfilled. There was meant to be universal provision for water by 1990 – and universal provision for primary healthcare by the 1980s.

We are stuck with international processes controlled by representatives of national government. They make the commitments, ignoring the fact that most of them depend on local governments who work well with (and support) those whose needs are unmet.

It should be local governments that are defining and making commitments – and commitments to monitor and report on their performance so they are accountable to their populations.

David Satterthwaite (david.satterthwaite@iied.orgis a senior fellow in IIED's Human Settlements Group.