As urbanization intensifies, the role of cities is changing to adjust to this new reality. This evolution is aided and abetted in part by national governments that are increasingly abdicating their responsibilities on the global stage on issues like climate change, migration and – as we are seeing with the COVID-19 pandemic – public health. As a result, cities are banding together to tackle these crises and exerting their collective power to effect change for their constituents.
At the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, we work to connect New York’s local initiatives to global efforts. Our city hosts the largest diplomatic corps in the world and so we are privileged to draw on international expertise from 193 permanent missions, 116 consulates and more than 70 trade missions.
After the United Nations ratified the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015, my office mapped the commonalities with our city’s OneNYC sustainable development plan and created Global Vision | Urban Action, a platform that highlights ways to localize the Global Goals.
We brought UN diplomats into our community to exchange ideas about addressing global challenges like poverty, hunger and sustainability, on a local level. For example, in summer 2018, the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs invited a delegation of UN sustainability experts to tour our community gardens to exchange ideas on urban resilience and addressing hunger.
Still, we knew we had to go further
Each year, the UN’s member states are invited to share their progress on achieving the Global Goals through an exercise called the Voluntary National Review. The United States has never committed to doing this report. My office recognized, however, that New York City was already collecting all the data needed for these reports as part of local efforts to update the OneNYC plan on a yearly basis. And so we proposed the idea of a Voluntary Local Review.
After receiving favorable feedback from senior UN leadership, New York City became the first to submit a Voluntary Local Review during the High-Level Political Forum in July 2018.
In the ensuing months, we worked with other cities around the globe to do the same. Then during the 2019 General Assembly, we launched the NYC Declaration on the Voluntary Local Review. Two dozen cities representing nearly every continent on Earth signed on to formally commit to reporting on their progress in achieving the SDGs.
The Declaration consists of three key commitments:
Commitment 1: To identify how existing strategies, programs, data, and targets align with the Sustainable Development Goals
Commitment 2: To provide at least one forum where stakeholders can come together to share experiences, lessons learned, and information gathered using the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals
Commitment 3: To submit a Voluntary Local Review to the United Nations during the United Nations High-Level Political Forum
A key feature of the Declaration is the emphasis on using existing resources. Our offices were intentional about keeping the entry bar low so that subnational leaders could engage in the process in their own time, using their own resources and navigating their own processes. In this way, we can level the playing field for smaller localities and ensure that the exercise is meaningful for all, regardless of region or size.
Take Helsinki, Finland. This city was the first to join the Declaration. With guidance from New York City, Helsinki initiated its VLR process by creating a cross-disciplinary research group to draw comparisons with the city’s sustainable development strategy and the SDGs. From this exercise, Helsinki was able to identify their primary school and public library systems as areas for SDG implementation. In July 2019, Helsinki submitted its first VLR, From Agenda to Action – The Implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Helsinki 2019, to the High-Level Political Forum at the UN.
The City of Freetown is in the beginning stages of undertaking its VLR process. In January 2019, Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr released Transform Freetown, an 11-point development report, with the goal of combatting socio-economic and environmental issues in Sierra Leone’s largest city. Using the VLR process as a tool, the City of Freetown is mapping the synergies between their targets and the SDGs. As Freetown moves through the VLR Declaration commitments, city leaders will be able to exchange best practices with New York and other cities worldwide, moving ever closer to not only submitting their own report, but most importantly, effecting change for their constituents.
When it comes to the sharing of ideas, the possibilities created by the Voluntary Local Review are endless. Take the current crisis of the novel coronavirus, for example. By undertaking the VLR process, subnational governments can learn from each other what proactive measures can be taken and what resources might be needed to stop community spread of this disease in its tracks.
Ultimately, the Voluntary Local Review is a vehicle that cities of all different sizes can use to exchange best practices and be transparent about what is working and what does not. In our increasingly interconnected world, subnational governments can use the SDGs as a common language to find solutions and accelerate impact in their communities. New York is moving aggressively to grow this movement (more than 60 cities have now signed the Declaration) because our people are on the frontlines of global challenges like climate change and pandemics (NYC is now the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.). It is imperative that we act. In fact, we have a moral obligation to be part of the solution.