Global policies in local context: Local transformation through international engagement

17 March 2021

By Boris Tonhauser, Executive adviser at PLATFORMA. This article was initially published in German in ÖGZ, the magazine of our partner the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns (Der Österreichische Städtebund).

The inevitable internationalisation of cities

Internationalisation of cities is not only a result of modern globalisation trends, but a centuries long process to unite local governments around common goals, to facilitate collaboration, exchange of experience, and finding common solutions arisen from similar socio-cultural and economic urban context. Commercial and defensive collaboration among the cities and merchant guilds of the Hanseatic League culminated in Northern Europe as early as in the 13th century, and with a little hyperbole could be described in modern terminology as an international public-private partnership, safeguarding both economic as well as political interests of engaged cities and private stakeholders.

The first major step in the international municipal movement was the establishment in 1913 of the International Union of Cities[1] (IUC). It took place at the International congress on the art of constructing cities and organising municipal life[2], as a part of the Universal and International Exposition held in Gent from 26 April to 3 November. Whilst international meetings of local elected representatives or practitioners have been convened previously, the congress gave birth to the first universal and permanent institution, and gave a united global voice to local governments as emerging actors at the international scene. International municipal cooperation was reunited for a cause—to defend democracy and peaceful collaboration between nations, but also for a purpose—to find solutions to common problems linked to municipal administration, urbanisation of society, and growth of cities.[3]

After the Second World War, the desire for reconciliation, for lasting peace and collaboration among nations, but also the need to improve and transform local administrations and reaffirm the political identity of sub-national governments have further driven international collaboration among cities. Increased international mobility of people, ideas and capital left municipalities facing new challenges, but also opened the door for new concepts, and for easier collaboration across borders. In Europe, the Council of European Municipalities (CEM) was established in 1951, and under its current name Council of European Municipalities in Regions (CEMR) celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2021. The international town twinning (sister cities) movement, promoted by CEM, is still firmly rooted in the international agendas of cities today.

Nevertheless, it took almost 100 years to unite the major local and regional government associations across the world. The 2004 unification congress in Paris saw the birth of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) through a merger of the largest municipal movements: International Union of Local Authorities (IULA) – the successor of IUC, and the United Towns Organisation (UTO), with the support of the major metropolitan organisation, METROPOLIS.

Internationalisation of cities and municipalities, with the support by their national associations—such as the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns—thus paves the ways towards better understanding of the global context of local public policies, better understanding of how the local level can contribute to achieving global goals, but also opens the door to better learning from and with peers in other countries, and sharing of good practices and common solutions for common problems. To this end, global agendas can provide a common policy framework shared by all, where each individual city or town makes their own policies tailored to local context and needs, addressing specific local challenges, yet still all together contribute to common goals. Last but not least, cooperation with partner cities and towns in partner countries beyond the borders of the European Union, in larger Europe, in Africa, Asia, or Latin America allows for mutual transfer of know-how, peer learning, and improvement of people’s lives towards a more just and balanced development across our planet.

European or international associations of local governments—such as CEMR or UCLG—provide a platform and space for discussion and exchange of experience among cities and towns, but also thematic associations or networks—such as PLATFORMA—act as a hub of expertise on international action of sub-national governments, and aim at boosting the contribution of local and regional governments to national and EU development cooperation policies and international frameworks.

Global agendas – local challenges

The emergence of global development agendas at the heart of the United Nations Organisation (UNO) has seen local and regional governments around the world further recognising the opportunities to improve lives of their citizens. The Millennium Development Goals, established in 2000 for a period of 15 years, became a major global movement to eradicate poverty, protect the environment, safeguard human rights, and protect the vulnerable. However, it is often suggested that its potential impact was largely limited by a top-down approach, and there was little reflection on the processes that need to change, especially at the local level.[4]

Its successor, best known as the 2030 Agenda, was adopted on 25 September 2015 for a period of 15 years (2016–2030) by the UN General Assembly under the title Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It notably lays out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to mobilize global efforts in 5 areas of critical importance to humanity—People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, Partnership—in order to end poverty, foster peace, safeguard the rights and dignity of all people, and protect the planet, while leaving no one behind. The goals apply universally, and can be applied at any level of decision-making: from global, through national, regional to local.

Accelerated urbanisation is still a major driving force for transformation of local communities. Fostering social peace in increasingly diverse social settings, safeguarding economic prosperity in a global marketplace, mitigating pressure on environment and global climate, as well as delivering fundamental social and public services in a sustainable way became common problems faced by municipalities around the world.[5]

The UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) recognised specifically, that the key principle of “leaving no-one behind” requires a generalised shift in deeply rooted economic and political systems, but also adoption of policies and mechanisms that empower and actively encourage the participation of all in relevant decision-making processes and ensure the respect, protection, and fulfilment of human rights.[6] Free, universal and fair elections, including modern mechanisms to assure equitable representation of women and men, minorities, or vulnerable groups are the most visible manifestation of a well-functioning local democracy, but most issues of today are too complex to be solved by a simple ballot once in several years. At the local level, involving citizens in policy-making, implementation, and evaluation improves information flow, builds trust in public institutions, their accountability, and—most importantly—gives a voice to those most directly affected by local public policies.

Climbing the citizen participation ladder

In Europe, the evolution of local democratic governance has made significant progress in the last decades. Whilst decentralisation and empowerment of cities to organise local life on their territory under their own responsibility is by no means an accomplished process, the most significant step was achieved by adopting, in 1985, of the European Charter of Local Self-Government[7]. Based on the European Charter of Municipal Liberties drafted by the Council of European Municipalities as early as in 1953[8], the Charter was ratified by all member states of the Council of Europe and legally came into force on 1 September 1988. Already in its preamble, the Charter underlines that “local authorities are one of the main foundations of any democratic regime”, that “the right of citizens to participate in the conduct of public affairs is one of the democratic principles that are shared by all member States of the Council of Europe”, and “it is at local level that this right can be most directly exercised”.

Involvement of citizens in local political decision-making process can achieve different levels of engagement, from (i) information, through (ii) consultation and (iii) dialogue, to (iv) partnership and empowerment. Information (including the right of access to public information) is the first step for further participatory engagement of citizens individually, through local neighbourhoods, local communities, interest groups, or formal civil society organisations. Yet it is still a one-way road. Consultations allow for two-way communication between public authorities and citizens, and unlike information they allow for feedback and input for drafting, monitoring, and evaluation of local public policies. At the next step of the ladder, dialogue is built around mutual interests, and is characterised by joint agenda setting, where all participating stakeholders have an equal say on the topics, and have the opportunity to jointly formulate and agree on desired outcomes. At the highest level of the ladder, partnership vests all stakeholders with shared responsibility for achieving agreed outcomes in a collaborative manner. Key elements of successful partnership are joint decision-making and collaborative action by empowered stakeholders.

The importance of building partnerships is also recognised as a specific Sustainable Development Goal 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development. In this context, specifically multi-stakeholder partnerships are recognised as means to mobilise and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, to support local, regional, national or global development.

Ways forward

Whilst the development and implementation of participatory governance mechanisms by local governments is strongly encouraged by global policy documents and international agreements, the practical organisation also depends on the political willingness of local leaders to transform and modernise local democratic governance, as well as on financial, technical, and personnel capacities of individual administrations. Internationalisation of local governments provides a tool to better learn from peer cities and towns, discuss common problems, or to jointly find and share innovative and effective solutions for challenges that are at the same time both local and global. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown how the world of today is tightly interconnected, and “splendid isolation” or “my country first” principles have no place in the new world of tomorrow, which is not likely to stop being globalised, interconnected and interdependent.

[1] Union Internationale des Villes

[2] Congrès International de l’art de construire des villes et de l’organisation de la vie communale

[3] Renaud Payre, Pierre-Yves Saunier. Municipalités de tous pays, unissez-vous ! L’Union Internationale des Villes ou l’Internationale municipale (1913-1940). Amministrare, 2000, XXX (1–2), pp. 217–239.

[4] The Millennium Development Goals and Local Processes. Hitting the target or missing the point? International Institute for Environment and Development, 2003.

[5] Democracy at the local level: The international IDEA handbook on participation, representation, conflict management and governance. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), 2002.

[6] Committee for Development Policy, Report on the twentieth session. Official Records of the Economic and Social Council, 2018, Supplement No. 13 (E/201833)

[7] European Charter of Local Self-Government, Council of Europe, European Treaty Series No. 122, 1985

[8] Adopted by the General Assembly of Europe’s Municipalities at Versailles (France), 16–18 October 1953.

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