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A territorial approach to the Sustainable Development Goals: A role for cities and regions to leave no one behind

When we think of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 agenda, we tend to associate them with negotiations between UN member states. This is misleading. In a world that is increasingly urbanised, cities have become major drivers of national prosperity and well-being.

The last edition of the “OECD Regions and Cities at Glance (2018) highlights that in the past decade metropolitan areas represented around 60% of GDP and employment in the OECD area, and drove over 50% of GDP growth. The local dimension therefore matters crucially if we want the implementation of the SDGs to become a reality — as most underlying policies and investments are a shared responsibility across levels of government.

Data from the OECD Observatory on Sub-National Finance and Investment point to the critical fact that subnational governments were responsible for 60% of total public investment in 2016 throughout the OECD area and for almost 40% worldwide. Most of such investments are related to infrastructure for basic services over which cities and/or regions have core competences. The UN has estimated that 65% of the 169 targets underlying the 17 SDGs will not be reached without proper engagement of, and coordination with, local and regional governments.[1]

This reality has been fully recognised in the OECD’s Action Plan to support the implementation of SDGs adopted by its 36 Member countries. The Action Plan refers to the role of local and regional governments in the implementation of the SDGs and stresses that the development of better subnational data presents opportunities to support policies tailored to regional circumstances. In July 2018, at the High Level Political Forum, the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE) launched the programme on A Territorial Approach to SDGs, which aims to support cities and regions in OECD and partner countries in achieving the SDGs.

Preliminary findings of this work from a first set of seven selected pilot cities and regions from across the world shows that they have already started to include the SDGs into their development plans. The City of Bonn, for example, has gone through a comprehensive process to localise the SDGs through its new Sustainability Strategy, using the SDGs to address concrete challenges of the local community. While all these are very positive developments, data limitations and related measurement issues remain an important concern. We need to pay more attention to how global targets make a difference at subnational levels. We need more disaggregated data, to cover all areas relevant to cities and regions, and we have come up with more than 80 indicators. They come from our unique Regional and Metropolitan databases, UN statistics and other sources such as the Gallup World Poll.

The territorial approach to SDGs can be a powerful tool for cities and regions to (re)think sustainability at the scale that matters the most. In the first edition of the Paris Peace Forum in 2018, the OECD was very proud to take part through its Programme A Territorial Approach to the SDGs. One of the most outstanding features of the Forum were the enriching conversations and exchanges of ideas that this unique event provided. The Forum brought together 6000 key players of global governance, to strengthen multilateralism and international cooperation. It also allowed us to identify new partnerships, including with the private sector, and to expand our community of practice, which gathered here at the OECD for the 1st OECD Roundtable of cities and regions for SDGs on 7 March 2019.

[1] UN Sustainable Development Solution Network (2016) Getting Started with the SDGs in Cities. A Guide for Stakeholders

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.


Lamia Kamal-Chaoui is the Director of the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities since 2016. Before, she held several senior positions at the OECD including as Senior Advisor to the OECD Secretary-General, Coordinator of the OECD Inclusive Growth Initiative and Head of the Urban Programme.

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