By Daphne Costa Besen
To attain the SDGs, local implementation is key, and cities bear a special responsibility in that regard. But what does the situation really look like on the ground – is there enough awareness and commitment to this global process? Daphne Besen analyses the situation in metropolises and small and medium size cities in Brazil.
Implementing the SDGs on a local level
When we talk about localising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it seems to be a simple task: translating the goals for the local level in order to implement them in the cities. However, in practice, it is not that easy. Local governments sometimes face major difficulties to adapt the SDGs to the city level, lacking the ability, resources and expertise to do so.
Most of the existing roadmaps1 and reports about localising the SDGs were written by city networks and international organisations that are located in developed countries. These documents are addressed to cities worldwide, but I am afraid that they don’t reach the local governments in the Global South, as they are expected to. This creates a problem because the cities in the Global South are the ones most in need of support to adopt and implement the SDGs.
Although the SDGs were designed to be universal and are supposed to be implemented around the globe, there are still cities where leaders and elected representatives do not even know what the SDGs are, let alone how they should be implemented. This is not the case for capitals and metropolises, but for small and medium cities in the Global South that still face major difficulties regarding basic services in the sanitation, education, health and public transport sectors. For these cities, solving the structural problems that affect the daily lives of their citizens is a priority, and often part of their elected representatives’ campaign promises. International agendas are at the end of the priority list, if they are included at all.
Communicating the SDGs
The SDG’s 17 goals split into 169 targets work towards comprehensive social, economic and environmental sustainability. The chances of one city to find its challenges mentioned in one of the SDGs are high — so why don’t city representatives simply focus on SDG implementation?
The answer is simple: the term SDGs brings neither votes, nor popular approval in poor cities, where citizens still need hospitals, schools and clean water. Citizens in such places usually do not know what the SDGs are and why they were established. For instance, during the last mayor’s campaign in Rio de Janeiro state with 92 municipalities in 2016, there was not a single candidate who announced that he or she would implement the SDGs in their city. However, most of the mayoral election campaigns have something in common: they focus on health, education, transportation and economic development.
Hence, local authorities focus on issues of social, economic and sustainable development, but they are not doing it under the umbrella term or label of the SDGs. Most local authorities are probably not even aware that their public policies are actually part of SDG implementation, working towards the same vision of sustainable social and economic development. This indicates that and monitoring, and ultimately for their success.
It is questionable whether the label “SDGs” as such is going to succeed in these cities. The challenge is rather how to communicate and raise awareness about the intertwinement of global debates and goals that were decided upon on an international level, and issues and policy making on the regional or local level that directly affect citizens and communities. If we want local authorities and the population to understand the SDGs and participate in their implementation, we need to explain to them why global and local efforts are complementary and why implementing the SDGs are beneficial for everyone.
The situation in Brazil
The situation in Brazil is characteristic of the problem just described. The country has been playing an important role for the SDGs2, both in their development process and their implementation at state level. However, when looking at the local level, the situation is quite different. Brazil has 5.570 municipalities, which means 5.570 mayors and city halls. Bringing the SDGs to the local level in this context implies trying to convince a large number of politicians to dedicate staff, time and knowledge to goals that do not work as advertisement or selling points for their political agendas. Many mayors of small and medium size cities thus dismiss integrating the SDGs into their campaigns and political communication, assuming they do not contribute anything to their ultimate goal – re-election.
Issues related to international politics are sometimes seen by the population as secondary concerns, or even as threats to their local wellbeing. To illustrate: it is very common to see the Brazilian population not approving international missions of local authorities. Citizens do not always recognise the local impact of cities’ international engagement, or question critically the amounts of money spent for international events that take place abroad.
As a result, few municipalities are putting an effort into the localisation of the SDGs. Those who do are mostly capitals and more developed cities that already have departments dedicated to international relations, such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte. These three cities have a strong track record of international engagement through participating in international events and city networks, exchanging best practices, engaging in policy diffusion and hosting mega-events. Their local authorities were involved in the SDG process and the adoption of the New Urban Agenda.
The cases of Rio de Janeiro and Duque de Caxias, Brazil
The difference between larger and smaller cities in their ability to integrate SDG implementation into their public policies can be observed by comparing the two cities of Rio de Janeiro and Duque de Caxias. Rio is a megacity, while Duque de Caxias is a city of almost 1 million inhabitants3 located in the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro, but hardly known even in Brazil. While in Rio the SDGs were already included in the 2017 – 2020 City’s Strategic Planning4, the municipal government of Duque de Caxias still needs to be convinced of the importance of implementing the SDGs locally.
Rio de Janeiro has close ties to the international and sustainability agendas since 1992 when the city hosted the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit), which resulted in the Agenda 21 (Rio Declaration on Environment and Development). Twenty years later, the city hosted the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), where the debate about the Sustainable Development Goals initially started. Moreover, in 2013 former mayor Eduardo Paes (2009-2012 and 2013-2016) was elected as Chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group5, boosting policies on sustainability and resilience during his mandate. Thus, there were no major difficulties to convince the city’s government of the importance of implementing the SDGs locally.
In Duque de Caxias, the situation is different: The structural problems of the city are huge, so the priorities of the mayor follow what the population asks for. Given this reality, approaching the SDGs would possibly provoke criticism from the population about the mayor allegedly running away from his duties. Making matters even more difficult, there is no or very limited knowledge both among members of the local government and their staff as well as the population about what the SDGs are and how the city could possibly benefit from their implementation. For a municipality that has never before dealt with international dialogue, having an international relations department in the city since the beginning of 2017 is already a small step in the right direction because it provides the opportunity to raise the topic of the SDGs and include it in municipal politics.
How to promote the SDGs?
There is good reason to worry that only the biggest cities will implement the SDGs at the local level and that the majority of Brazil’s municipalities will reach 2030 without even knowing what the SDGs were for and that they should have participated in the implementation process.
When mayors are delivering on policies in the fields of education, health and social development, they are in fact localising the SDGs – but they are either not aware that they are doing so, or they are not communicating it to the public. and to explain that it is only a global label for social, economic and sustainable development. Moreover, presenting examples of SDG implementation on the local level would help to raise awareness and get the public’s support. Doing so would mean to always point out the connection and interdependency between the global and local levels, for instance that the improvement of health and education services in a city is an integral part of achieving SDGs 3 (Good health and well-being) and 4 (Quality of education).
To conclude, I believe that the local implementation of the SDGs should be accompanied by a strong effort of marketing and communication, explaining (i) what they are, (ii) their benefits to the population, (iii) how they can be implemented, (iv) and how civil society and the public sector can contribute. Then, I believe that local governments of small, medium and poor cities in Brazil and in the Global South in general would be ready to localise the SDGs. Also, we shouldn’t forget that SDG localisation not only encompasses the work of the government, but also the work of civil society and the private sector. Therefore, every single person can contribute to their implementation and achievement, be it a mayor, a student, a teacher or a business leader in the capitals, metropolitan regions and countryside.