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SDGs: five challenges for city leaders

Written by Paula Lucci

​While global leaders were signing the SDGs, less noticed was that more than 20 city and local leaders endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and committed to implementing them in their own cities. This is interesting and encouraging as many of the goals fall within city leaders’ responsibilities. 


So as it’s World Cities Day on Saturday 31st October, let’s reflect on some of the challenges that cities in the developing world (those that endorsed the SDGs and others that may decide to adopt them) will face:

1.  Lack of good data leaves us in the dark

It may not be the flashiest line of work, but gathering detailed data is the most useful tool for city policymakers to assess their residents’ needs – and target their policies accordingly.

However, many cities in developing countries lack essential up-to-date information on subjects like the location and characteristics of their slums, the state of their housing stock or transport network. It was only recently that a project like Digital Matatus made Nairobi’s semiformal transit system visible.

Without this data, how can officials say whether they are making progress on Goal 11, that is, to make cities ‘inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’? How can they know if basic services are reaching their poorest populations, in line with the SDGs’ ‘Leave no-one behind’ agenda? How are citizens supposed to hold their local governments to account? 

There is growing awareness of the need for good disaggregated data, with a number of initiatives, from a Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data to citizen-generated data and data collected by slum dwellers themselves looking to fill the gaps.

2.  Leaders should pick their priorities from the 169 targets


With 169 targets, city officials need to prioritise. Trying to do too much may result in achieving too little. While this is common sense from a practical perspective, it also leads to a real risk of short-term political calculations giving priority to targets that are easier to achieve, with leaders treating the SDGs as a sort of ‘à la carte menu’.


There is only one way to avoid this: civil society groups must keep a close eye on SDG progress and hold city governments to account.


3. Ambition only works if you can finance it


The SDGs have raised the international community’s ambition. Estimates of their cost reach the trillions of dollars.


While city governments’ responsibilities vary by nation, they are often the ones feeling the pressure of having to deliver basic services – from water and sanitation to affordable housing – while urban populations rise. But the question of how local governments can access new sources of finance, both from domestic and external sources (particularly climate finance), has not yet received the attention it deserves.

4. Local governments face complex challenges – but often lack the capacity to cope

While reforms to devolve power to local governments are under way in many countries, funding and support to improve local government capacity have often trailed behind.

Many local governments, particularly in secondary cities, lack the technical capacity to plan and manage service delivery on the scale needed to manage increasing populations while, for example, negotiating complex contracts with private suppliers on an equal footing.

Unless urban planning capacities are strengthened, cities will struggle to meet the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation.

5. Leadership from cities often have a lasting impact beyond them

Change happens when there is political will. If mayors commit to the SDGs because they can see the benefits (including political ones) – or because civil society groups put pressure on them – then we might see results.

There are plenty of examples of ambitious or innovative mayoral initiatives setting a precedent for national policy. Bolsa Familia, the celebrated cash transfer programme in Brazil, actually had its origins in Bolsa Escola, an initiative from the government of Brasilia. That cash transfer programme was aimed at reducing poverty and inequality, but it was also a key element of the opposition’s political strategy.

How countries manage urbanisation over the next 15 years will be critical to reducing poverty and environmental sustainability. Ultimately, it will help define governments’ ability to achieve the SDGs.  

One way to maximise the role of city governments would be to build on the commitments already made by some city leaders and establish a group of cities that frequently monitor and exchange lessons on policies to achieve the SDGs – in essence, a ‘Cities for SDGs’ network.

Throughout their design, the SDGs have received praise and criticism in equal measure. With the goals now agreed, efforts must focus on implementation – and for that, we need city leaders on board.