Accelerating progress toward the SDGs through city-led initiatives

May 26, 2021

Accelerating progress toward the SDGs through city-led initiatives


  • Devex partnered with City Cancer Challenge Foundation to learn more about how city-led initiatives can accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Download the report

As the number of people living in urban areas continues on an upward trajectory — with more than two-thirds of the world’s population expected to live in such areas by 2050 — the role of city-led initiatives in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is becoming increasingly important.

SDG 11 specifically focuses on supporting “positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas,” but cities have a role to play in achieving the other SDGs. For example, COVID-19 has underscored the critical role of cities as first responders, with 90% of cases occurring in urban areas.

As the majority of urban growth is expected to take place within low- and middle-income countries, or LMICs, cities’ ability to provide essential services — water, infrastructure, and education, for example — will impact progress.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development predicts that 65% of SDG targets won’t be reached without proper engagement of and coordination with local and regional governments. But what does that engagement look like, and how can progress toward the SDGs be accelerated through city-led initiatives?

Devex partnered with City Cancer Challenge Foundation, or C/Can, to conduct a series of in-depth conversations and a survey with leaders and program implementers from city-led initiatives in the SDG space to find out. The key findings, case studies, and best practices identified have been compiled into a new report.

Below are five significant takeaways:

1. Effective data use drives strong awareness of city needs

Among the insights gained, findings confirmed that when data drives city-led programs to have a deep understanding of contexts and needs, they yield better, more sustainable results. SDG target 17.18 calls for LMICs to be better supported in increasing the availability of high-quality, timely, and reliable disaggregated data by 2030.

“Data is fundamentally important because it allows you to measure how the city is changing, and understand the key points and areas that you have to address,” Asher Lessels, task manager for Latin America and the Caribbean at the United Nations Environment Programme, told Devex.

“Only by working faster and smarter — and tapping into the transformative potential of cities — will we deliver for the communities we serve.”

— Devex and C/Can’s “Accelerating progress toward the SDGs through city-led initiatives” report

According to respondents, the top three enablers for ensuring that city-led initiatives are data-driven include streamlined data collection and reporting mechanisms in public sector institutions, adequate human resources and city-level capacity for data collection, and data-sharing platforms and networks.

C/Can is one just organization that takes a multidisciplinary, data-driven approach. Rather than determining cancer care interventions for each city, it creates a multisectoral group of local decision-makers and health practitioners to conduct a needs assessment. More than 1,100 data points on the quality and capacity of cancer care services in a city are collected, helping to identify gaps.

In contexts where quantitative data is lacking, qualitative data from images or interviews can also inform decision-making, according to Solophina Nekesa, professional officer for urban systems at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

2. Engaged communities generate smarter, tailor-made solutions

Tapping into local expertise and knowledge is another way to better understand the context and ensure a sustainable project. In fact, 75% of survey respondents said community-owned initiatives are more sustainable because they tend to meet community needs better and win support.

Highlighting one way to engage a community, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, or UN-Habitat — through the support of the Block by Block Foundation — uses the video game Minecraft to help the urban poor and other marginalized communities co-design inclusive public spaces that meet their needs. These are then presented to decision-makers.

Christelle Lahoud, program management officer at UN-Habitat, said, “if you create a good public space but the community is not involved, then it won’t work,” adding, “if the community creates a public space but the government is not on board to maintain and manage it, you risk having complex and segregated spaces that are not inclusive.”

According to survey respondents, other ways of engaging communities include raising awareness with local governments, securing endorsements from local mayors to encourage participation, and involving communities throughout the implementation of projects.

3. Multisectoral approaches catalyze systemic change

For 96% of respondents, multistakeholder collaboration at the city level is essential for ensuring impact and sustained results. For 73%, private sector involvement in city-level program design and implementation also plays a big role.

The report states that working across sectors — including the private sector — improves efficiency, boosts resilience, and allows multiple, interlinked SDGs to be tackled simultaneously while helping facilitate the replication of projects in other locations.

For example, the Resilient Cities Network relies on a so-called chief resilience officer who works within local government in Cape Town, South Africa, to foster collaboration across different agencies and stakeholders.

“Cities often work in silos. The Chief Resilience Officer acts as the collaborator and communicator to bring all these experts and various stakeholders together,” said Katrin Bruebach, global director of programs, innovation, and impact at R-Cities.

Interacting with such a broad range of partners requires a robust process to ensure that they have an “alignment of interest,” according to the report. C/Can’s Constructive Engagement Framework aligns stakeholder interests to “deliver maximum, balanced and legitimate benefits for all – while addressing any … real or perceived conflicts of interest” that might arise.

4. Exchanging knowledge and skills boosts local capacity

According to 63% of respondents working in urban development, the biggest challenge when implementing city-level initiatives in LMICs is a lack of capacity among city-level stakeholders. This can hinder program implementation. “Officials often do not have sufficient time to invest in programs and integrate sustainability,” said Aloke Barnwal, senior climate change specialist at the Global Environment Facility.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes that capacity building is a crucial aspect of SDG implementation. To address this, the report suggests identifying capacity gaps — perhaps via feasibility or pre-feasibility studies — to determine how much and what kind of support is needed by city-level institutions.

It also cites peer-to-peer learning and the exchange of knowledge via city representatives, city twinning, global summits, or other activities that convene stakeholder groups. For Kathleen Jovellanos, capacity development specialist at Cities Development Initiative for Asia, getting city-level partners at the table to share their experiences in project implementation — including the difficulties they encountered, partnerships they formed, and innovative solutions they employed — is a good way to encourage cross-community learning.


This article was first published by Devex on May 25, 2021.