Old challenges in a new context: the pandemic accelerating city multilateralism

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Felipe Llamas [1][1]I would like to thank Eugene Zapata-Garesché, Managing Director for Latin America at 100 Resilient Cities (100RC); Agustí Fernández de Losada, Director of the Global Cities program at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), and Rodrigo Perpetuo, Executive Secretary of ICLEI South America, for their contributions. They are founding members of PHARE Global Territories. This article expands on the authors’ thesis published in America Quarterly «How Mayors Are Ignoring Dysfunction and Handling COVID-19 Among Them», November 16.
Nov, 2020
MUSIC:

In the midst of a brutal pandemic, instead of caving in to selfishness and fear, we have witnessed millions of people in big cities, and even in the most remote of territories, manifest interaction, solidarity and cooperation as key ways in which to rebuild society’s future.

However, we have also discovered how the COVID-19 pandemic has extended beyond its very serious impacts on global health, causing unprecedented economic crisis and social emergency. It has also accelerated nationalism, authoritarianism, and populism, which has put traditional multilateralism in check. From the United States to India, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey or China, responses have been limited to national priorities and self-interest, with cooperation and multilateralism relegated to oblivion.

The good news is that this trend has met with strong resistance from local authorities, who we view as new, emerging players in the international system. In a world impacted by COVID-19, so-called municipal diplomacy and the international involvement of cities works as a gear of solidarity, both opportune and necessary. It manifests as an interchange of knowledge and solutions. At the same time, this activism is fundamental in order for new leadership to merge. It will be key in finding a way out of the complex scenario in which we find ourselves.

Photo_ Martin G_ CC BY 4.0

In this sense, it is important to remember that this pandemic, of unprecedented magnitude when considering recent history, manifests humanity’s elevated vulnerability and level of interdependency. A framework of uncertainty, affecting all of life, is added to this crisis. The virus has amplified or triggered several other pandemics: economic, social, environmental, cultural and political crises. Many of these are also unprecedented. Some already existed, but we refused to acknowledge them.

At this juncture, with both decimated and discredited multilateral institutions, COVID-19 has inspired domestic agendas and protectionist rhetoric. Closedness and isolationism, if not denialism, prevails. Regulation of borders and mobility, with security and economic protectionism, have increased, putting national governments at the forefront. This opposes and works to the detriment of supranational and integration mechanisms throughout all the world’s regions.

In a world impacted by COVID-19, so-called municipal diplomacy and the international involvement of cities works as a gear of solidarity, both opportune and necessary. It manifests as an interchange of knowledge and solutions.

Inversely, authorities governing some of the world’s cities have opted for international relations as a manner in which to pursue effective solutions to the pandemic’s main challenges. COVID-19 has been a predominantly urban crisis, and the challenges that cities, their governments, and their actors face have also been critical for their citizens. Sharing solutions has been key in addressing issues of mobility, management of public space, teleworking, distance education, and care for society’s more disadvantaged and vulnerable populations. Beyond exchange, diplomacy between cities quickly transformed into an instrument of knowledge-sharing and strategic action, facilitating accelerated responses at the local level, with shared insights from both success and error. This reality invites us to rethink and redefine the concept of territory. Cities, both large and intermediate, are key as centers of demographic concentration. While the health crisis has facilitated many human diseases and deficiencies, today cities emerge as transformative elements that take command of territory. This territory serves as the raw material of a new fabric with which the future must be rebuilt. It will be increasingly impossible to conceive of isolated territory, impervious to what happens in «the rest of the world.» A new paradigm is posited: tomorrow’s world is a world of global territories.

One of the most powerful instruments of positive transformation is cooperation. For decades, cooperation between cities and territories has demonstrated that together and united, societies are truly capable of facing threats and solving problems via an exchange of experience and knowledge. Cooperation has undoubtably been one of humanity’s most valuable characteristics in order to achieve progress together in the spirit of collaboration, wisdom, creativity, generosity and unity; it enhances synergies among hundreds of millions of people.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, there have been constant virtual meetings between mayors and authorities of Buenos Aires with Bogota, of Belo Horizonte with Quito, of Montevideo with Ciudad de México, or all of these with Paris, Barcelona, Seoul or Montreal, for example. Bilateral cooperation between cities has been complemented with the dynamics of city and territory networks that operate by region or area, including ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) in South America, Mercociudades, or the Euro-Latin American Cooperation Alliance between Cities (ALLAs). Together with global allies like United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) or the world organization Metropolis, they have been able to promote key initiatives like Cities for Global Health. Via this platform, over 100 municipal authorities from 34 countries have shared more than 650 concrete projects addressing COVID-19.

Contemporary diplomacy emerges as an instrument that is no longer exclusive to the nation-state: local governments have assumed a new role. Cities and regions have leveraged traditional diplomatic mechanisms, like representation, negotiation and communication, to defend their interests via international action. Cooperation is thus a powerful manner in which to utilize city diplomacy in order to confront old, unresolved challenges in the current pandemic context.

The effectiveness of this cooperation has allowed cities to move beyond public health responses, and to prepare for and anticipate the socioeconomic crisis the pandemic has brought upon the entire world.

Beyond exchange, diplomacy between cities quickly transformed into an instrument of knowledge-sharing and strategic action, facilitating accelerated responses at the local level, with shared insights from both success and error.

Addressing the complexity of these challenges in isolation is not a viable option. When we cooperate, we are able to offer the very best of our shared humanity. The pandemic has illustrated the importance of forging alliances between cities, moving forward in a collaborative strategy with other transnational, governmental or private actors. Platforms like the Network of Resilient Cities or the C40 network (of cities for climate change), which bring together cities with international organizations, philanthropic foundations, businessees, civil society organizations or universities and research centers, demonstrate their relevance and usefulness as they put solutions and innovation within reach of local authorities.

Each day we witness how, despite the threat of disease, confinement and the consequences of this crisis, valuable manifestations of solidarity occur at the community level. Today’s solidarity does not only revolve around the state and the public, which protects us from risk, disease or unemployment. Lived experiences of solidarity are also interpersonal, encountered within families, between neighbors, among friends and increasingly between territories. Associations, mutualism and cooperation allow us to mobilize in order to provide for the basic needs of the very weakest.

We can also observe a citizen mosaic of mutual support networks, or neighborhood networks and associations, which organize and respond to immediate care emergencies. They attend to basic needs and provide food to the most vulnerable, by serving the elderly and those who live alone. They may share cultural or artistic expression via social networks in order to make the situation more bearable.

In keeping with the same logic, and taking into account the pandemic effects extending beyond health, cities have assumed a leading role in promoting and reinforcing inspired responses to urban conflict, confronting the deep scourge of urban violence and the toll it takes on human life. An example of this includes the World Forum for Cities and Territories of Peace, led by Mexico City, which calls for shared, joint efforts to effect policies for improved coexistence, which directly address and mitigate violence.

The COVID-19 response offers a clear learning point: we must adopt the principle of coexistence as the new paradigm of urban management. Defending the public and working for the commons is perhaps the most important lesson at the moment. We have the opportunity to redefine models for existence, thinking beyond what is productive. Reimagining the city in light of this social emergency, and the need for ecological transition, is both a challenge and opportunity for cities. This must be grounded in advancing towards models of multiple centralities, as is the case with the Territorial Organization Plan of Bogota, which is attempting to implement the innovative 15-minute city developed in Paris. Another example includes how Barcelona is creating «superblocks» in order to increase green and pedestrian space in the urban fabric. These movements recognize population-dense spaces, and seek to ensure access to basic services like housing, health, education and work. They create transportation systems that prioritize pedestrians, as well as opt for non-pollutive vehicles, in order to provide friendly and safe public spaces. Today, this type of model has become a priority for many cities; until a few months ago, city models resembled the exact opposite of this form of urbanization.

Those charged with city management are cognizant that they must establish new methods of reconstruction in the wake of the pandemic, bearing in mind that many threats to human security are not geographically isolated phenomena, but rather reach beyond national borders to take on international dimensions.

As such, we have an opportunity to pursue a new way of managing territory. Local governments have assumed management of the pandemic, but more funding and new systems of governance are necessary. We are facing an unprecedented spiral of increased public spending and reduced revenue, which signifies a dramatic increase in public deficit and debt. As a result, the response should take the form of a progressive taxation that allows for reducing inequalities, without detracting from the ecological transition that cities have initiated. Today, we live in a world that is wealthier, but more unequal, than ever. Too many around the world are denied social and economic rights, including the 800 million living in extreme poverty. Moreover, as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has pointed out, more than 400 million more have been added to this number as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects.

Due to scarce resources, cities will have to prioritize spending so as to ensure the continuity of public services throughout this crisis, as well as in order to resume normal economic functioning once the COVID-19 crisis is under control. Without adequate financial support to preserve and create jobs and restore production, within a framework of ecological transition, it will be difficult to return to previous levels of well-being. Moreover, we will not be able to advance forward without pointedly addressing wealth distribution in the context of scarce resources, economic shock and imperiled employment rates.

Those charged with city management are cognizant that they must establish new methods of reconstruction in the wake of the pandemic, bearing in mind that many threats to human security are not geographically isolated phenomena, but rather reach beyond national borders to take on international dimensions. Incorporating the international dimension into local management via strategic policies is a manner in which to mitigate the crisis’ effects. This can accelerate and legitimize decision-making, streamline shared knowledge, improve collective intelligence, increase efficiency, and align public services with global guidelines. We propose this strategy in an effort to fight against social inequality, address cities’ digitization and new technologies, improve urban coexistence and achieve resilience and ecological transition, among many other issues and potential local actions.

Nation-state multilateralism, so key in achieving peace and cooperation among countries after the 20th century’s two world wars, faces declining legitimacy today. The pandemic has demonstrated that traditional diplomacy, involving geopolitics and national interests, has not provided immediate or effective responses to the daily needs of neighbors, families, youth, children and the elderly, who need rapid recourse. Moreover, this great crisis is taking place in a world of digitization and data, Big Data, in such a way that the most vulnerable groups—migrants, those in overcrowded dwellings, those in elderly residence homes, people without access to internet—are not on the radar of national policies. However, local governments can address and care for these vulnerable groups and people.

The proximity of local government, anchored in territory, and conscious of the pressing needs of its population, provides it with an unparalleled comparative advantage. This, together with formulating well-defined strategies of internationalization—strategies based on robust and diverse alliances centered around knowledge, experience and social innovation—creates pathways for a new generation of local leadership so key for the future.  In this sense, big cities and their political leaders, who have already been collaborating with counterparts from all over the world, will have to engage surrounding small and medium-sized cities in this cooperation.

The pandemic and its urban impact this opens the door to a world of cities, perhaps planting the seed of a future world order. This means we must listen, globally, to the voices of cities and local governments, as we seek solutions and reimagine our daily life.

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