Land ho! Local Governments towards Sustainable Development

Photo by UNDP/Denise Silveira

By Marcio Pontual

On 04 July 2017, the RIO+ Centre was invited to present the 2030 Agenda during a capacity-building session on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the “Líderes Cariocas” (LC) Program. The LC is a group of staff from different sectors of the Rio City Hall strategically selected to receive training and best practices to better manage the city and occupy leadership positions. Choosing the SDGs as an instruction topic for the LC program was a signal of interest in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda from one of the most iconic capitals in the Global South, which was home to the Rio 92 and the Rio +20 Conferences. 

Before launching the 2030 Agenda, the United Nations (UN) faced a challenge: raising the bar in relation to the Millennium Declaration (2000 – 2015). Even though the Millennium Declaration was criticized for its top down approach and by not being able to fulfill all its goals, it managed to achieve an unprecedented level of awareness and participation in relation to previous UN initiatives. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) became widely known and many new players jumped on board. Local governments are a prime example and they played a leading role in the popularization of the MDGs.

Local governments allowed the MDGs to permeate their grounds and public services structures reaching students, teachers, patients and opinion makers. In several occasions, these new actors engaged in the implementation of the MDGs creating a virtuous cycle. And success in some cities and states led its neighbors to follow suit, creating a spreadable momentum for the Millennium Declaration.

By looking back, the UN learned that a successful new agenda would require filling gaps, reinforcing strengths and finding a smooth transaction path to address the unfinished business of the MDGs. That is why an extensive and inclusive follow up process was carried out worldwide after the Rio +20, with 88 national consultations, 11 thematic consultations and 6 dialogues on implementation to build a participatory, bottom-up driven process.

But above all, a successful agenda would require more ambition to accelerate progress and guarantee long lasting results for people and planet. One crucial ingredient was to get all hands-on deck, thus the effort to involve the business sectors and to increase the number of participating subnational governments. Both were recognized as key actors because of their ramification and ability to involve staff, supply chain and citizens. The effective implementation of the agenda requires undivided cooperation.  

The 17 SDGs and its 169 targets are a proxy of the much wider scope, higher level of ambition and universal nature of the 2030 Agenda. It goes beyond the eminently social aspects of the MDGs, by adding economic and environmental concerns that should be tackled simultaneously to provide sustainable and sustained results. The real sustainable development is achieved where and when the three dimensions intersects.

The current lack of confidence from some private sector members to fully engage with the SDGs make the full participation from governments even more important. Governmental participation provides an example not only for business groups, but also for other sectors in society. Moreover, national governments are responsible for setting up the priorities, rules and defining the minimum indicators that should be adopted and/or respected in each country.

National governments are usually big structures that despite being well prepared (in some cases) usually require a long response time (in most cases). The national voluntary reports presented in the Global Political Forum (HLPF) in 2016 have provided compelling evidence that most countries are finding the task of implementing the 2030 Agenda more complex, and time consuming, than anticipated. This situation has created stalemates involving some actors are willing to engage but not sure of which direction to follow.

Local governments were empowered by the MDGs and had their role reinforced in the new Agenda. Some subnational governments are already teaming up and/or discussing alternatives to advance the implementation of the SDGs in their areas. Due to their agility, local governments are not likely to lose considerable momentum in case they are required to perform course corrections caused by belated national government definitions that clashes with the work they have been doing.

Momentum is a key word in sustainability because most of the transformations required will demand time and energy to be achieved, therefore every day counts. Anecdotally, Mr. Jose Moulin Netto, responsible for the LC Program, said in the opening of the capacity building session that “whilst federal governments are slow tankers, cities are quick speed boats”. The RIO+ Centre is committed to assist the capacity-building in all vessels, slow or fast, and point them to sail steady towards sustainability leaving no one behind.