Five challenges the sustainable development goals present to city leaders

The UN building in New York. Image: Getty.

Back in September, the UN ratified the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS): 17 goals that are intended to provide a blueprint for the next 15 years of the world's development.

But while global leaders were signing the SDGs, less noticed was that more than 20 city and local leaders endorsed them, and committed to implementing them in their own cities. This is interesting and encouraging as many of the goals fall within city leaders’ responsibilities.

Here are some of the challenges that cities in the developing world – both those that endorsed the SDGs, and others that may decide to adopt them – will face.

1.  Lack of good data leaves us in the dark

It may not be the flashiest line of work, but gathering detailed data is the most useful tool for city policymakers to assess their residents’ needs – and target their policies accordingly.

However, many cities in developing countries lack essential up-to-date information on subjects like the location and characteristics of their slums, the state of their housing stock or transport network. It was only recently that a project like Digital Matatus made Nairobi’s semiformal transit system visible.

Without this data, how can officials say whether they are making progress on Goal 11 – that is, to make cities "inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable"? How can they know if basic services are reaching their poorest populations, in line with the SDGs’ "Leave no-one behind" agenda? How are citizens supposed to hold their local governments to account?

There is growing awareness of the need for good disaggregated data, with a number of initiatives – from a Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data to citizen-generated data and data collected by slum dwellers themselves – looking to fill the gaps.

2.  Leaders should pick their targets

With 17 goals and 169 targets, city officials need to prioritise. Trying to do too much may result in achieving too little.

While this is common sense from a practical perspective, it also leads to a real risk of short-term political calculations giving priority to targets that are easier to achieve, with leaders treating the SDGs as a sort of "à la carte menu".

There is only one way to avoid this: civil society groups must keep a close eye on SDG progress and hold city governments to account.

3. Ambition only works if you can finance it

The SDGs have raised the international community’s ambition. Estimates of their cost reach into the trillions of dollars.

While city governments’ responsibilities vary by nation, they are often the ones feeling the pressure of having to deliver basic services – from water and sanitation, to affordable housing – while urban populations rise. But the question of how local governments can access new sources of finance, both from domestic and external sources (particularly climate finance), has not yet received the attention it deserves.

4. Local governments face complex challenges – but often lack the capacity to cope

While reforms to devolve power to local governments are under way in many countries, funding and support to improve local government capacity have often trailed behind.

Many local governments, particularly in secondary cities, lack the technical capacity to plan and manage service delivery on the scale needed to manage increasing populations – or to negotiate complex contracts with private suppliers on an equal footing.

Unless urban planning capacities are strengthened, cities will struggle to meet the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation.

5. Leadership from cities often have a lasting impact beyond them

Change happens when there is political will. If mayors commit to the SDGs because they can see the benefits (including political ones) – or because civil society groups put pressure on them – then we might see results.

There are plenty of examples of ambitious or innovative mayoral initiatives setting a precedent for national policy. Bolsa Familia, the celebrated cash transfer programme in Brazil, actually had its origins in Bolsa Escola, an initiative from the government of Brasilia. That cash transfer programme was aimed at reducing poverty and inequality, but it was also a key element of the opposition’s political strategy.

How countries manage urbanisation over the next 15 years will be critical to reducing poverty and environmental sustainability. Ultimately, it will help define governments’ ability to achieve the SDGs. 

One way to maximise the role of city governments would be to build on the commitments already made by some city leaders and establish a group of cities that frequently monitor and exchange lessons on policies to achieve the SDGs – in essence, a "Cities for SDGs" network.

Throughout their design, the SDGs have received praise and criticism in equal measure. With the goals now agreed, efforts must focus on implementation – and for that, we need city leaders on board.

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“The transport equivalent of the Schleswig Holstein question”: why Britain needs to reform bus funding

Look! A bus! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Putting public money into the bus is one of the biggest bargains in transport policy, yet it has been one of the biggest losers from recent trends in transport spending. This makes little sense given the Urban Transport Group’s latest analysis, which shows that supporting bus services aligns with the policy goals of 12 of the 25 different departments in Whitehall.

And it’s not just the departments you might expect. Buses tick the boxes for the Department of International Trade because the British bus manufacturing industry has an impressive export track record. The bus meets the goals of the Department of Work & Pensions, such as providing access to opportunity. It helps out DEFRA because buses support rural economies.

And the bus supports the aims of the Department of Health and Social Care as buses promote physical activity, give older and disabled people independence and because they could play a greater role in a more efficient approach to non-emergency patient transport. In short, every single pound that supports bus services cuts congestion, while contributing to numerous wider social, economic and environment goals. Not many other modes of transport could tot up all these benefits.

But without public support for bus services, labour markets will shrink and more people will be unable to participate in the economy; skills and apprenticeships will be hit because of reduced access to further education. High street regeneration will be damaged through reduced access to town centres, and there will be increased pressure on congested road networks as bus users migrate to the car. And there’ll be public health impacts from more isolation and loneliness, and less physical activity. The young will be hit hardest. A divided society will become more divided.


Despite these risks, that hasn’t stopped all six sources of bus funding being cut back in recent years. This in turn, has given an unhelpful shove in the back to a mode which was already tumbling down the slope, plummeting towards the cliff edge in too many parts of the country.

Meanwhile, Highways England has more money that it can spend to expand inter-urban road capacity which will continue to pump more traffic into cities that don’t want it, generate more car-dependent sprawl, worsen air quality, increase carbon emissions and replace big traffic jams with even bigger traffic jams. An extra £500m a year for buses, for example, would be less than 2 per cent of the annual revenue to Treasury from fuel duty.

It’s not just the total amount of bus funding that is the problem however. Making things worse is the convoluted and uncoordinated way in which buses are funded by different Departments, with no sense across government of the cumulative impact of their different decisions.

So, arguably as important for bus funding as the Department for Transport, is the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government (which indirectly funds concessionary travel, as well as those services which operators won’t provide commercially). And then, in a separate box altogether, is over £1bn of Department for Education funding for schools transport.

All of which makes bus funding the transport equivalent of the Schleswig Holstein question – about which Palmerston said only three people understand it, one of whom was dead, the other mad and the other had forgotten all about it. Put bluntly, it’s a bad way to fund what is a very good thing.

The Treasury’s Spending Review is expected to run the rule over the Department for Transport’s main source of bus funding, the Bus Service Operators Grant, which provides a rebate on fuel duty. The mood music in Whitehall about protecting bus funding is far better than it was last time it was scrutinised in a Spending Review. But with the bus in sharp decline and punch drunk from previous funding cuts, now is the time for something more ambitious than tinkering and holding the line.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group.