Are progressive cities the key to solving our toughest global challenges?

September 2, 2014 6 By Duncan Green

Hugh Cole, who supports Oxfam’s country teams in influencing at national level, wonders if we’ve missed a trick by focusing too much on nation statesHugh Cole

Given the growing size, number and importance of big cities and their often unique politics, should Oxfam be doing more to work with/on progressive cities to make progress on big global challenges where the global or national solutions are stuck or moving far too slowly (think climate change, tax havens, trade)? And what might this look like?

There are some really interesting examples out there. Here’s a few of them.

In South Africa the Western Cape government, at the time the only provincial government run by an opposition party, was the first administration to start tackling HIV and AIDS head on, while the Mbeki-led national government was still in denial. The opposition controlled city of Cape Town was the centre of this health policy revolt, with a combination of health worker activism, growing disgust with the national government’s position, civil society campaigning (e.g. TAC) and (probably) a dash of political opportunism precipitating some bold decisions. In 2000 the Western Cape Government introduced free Mother to Child Transmission

HIV awareness campaign, Cape Town

HIV awareness campaign, Cape Town

treatment and later that year a delegation went overseas to investigate bringing antiretroviral (ARV) drugs into South Africa for use in Western Cape hospitals. The roll out of free ARV treatment started soon after. This helped to build pressure and deal with objections/myths about treatment. The national government started providing ARVs two years later, after losing a Constitutional Court battle with TAC.

Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York, is an example of mayoral activism on a global issue – climate change. In 2007, Bloomberg set a goal to slash citywide emissions 30% by 2030 through a number of initiatives, such as requiring hybrid taxi cabs, building bike lanes and retrofitting municipal buildings. At the end of 2013 he announced that New York’s emissions had dropped by 19% since 2005, putting the city nearly two-thirds of the way to meeting its goal. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg, an independent, endorsed Barack Obama in the presidential campaign citing the need for action on climate change.  All this in a country which has been a spoiler in the international climate negotiations and where leading politicians have referred to climate change research as ‘snake oil science’ (yes it was Sarah Palin – 10 points). In 2005 Bloomberg played a leading role in setting up the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, an international group of mayors dedicated to tacking climate change. On being appointed by UN Secretary General as a special envoy for climate and cities Bloomberg said, “Cities account for more than 70% of global GHG emissions and two-thirds of the world’s energy use today, and their total population is projected to double by 2050″.  The city and its former mayor are an interesting example of what might be possible in a city even when national political and economic conditions are hostile.

A less well-known, and unintentional, example from South Africa. Before 2001, all water actually consumed had to be paid for, since the new democratic national government only committed itself initially to provide access to water (i.e. infrastructure). But the eThekwini Metro Municipality (Durban – 3rd largest city in SA) could see that this policy was not working. Poor township and shanty town dwellers could not pay for water and were either being ripped off by private suppliers or were finding ways to get it illegally – including by breaking existing infrastructure. The municipal water department did bottom up consultation on minimum water needs and decided to provide 200 litres (a drum) per day per household for free. The success of this approach

Hybrid taxi in New York City

Hybrid taxi in New York City

was noticed by national government (perhaps it was making them look bad?) and in 2001 they introduced a social policy to provide all citizens with free water, using EThekwini’s standard of 6000 kilolitres/household/month. In 2006, less than a decade after the initial community consultations in the Durban townships, the UNDP Human Development Report promoted SA’s free basic water policy as a strategy to meet the MDGs. The point is, a municipal government’s practical attempt to address poverty (initiated by a proactive municipal official) led to a national free basic water policy and is influencing ‘global policy’ (if such a thing really exists). Would this change have happened if it was done the other way round?

Other examples of activist mayors or cities that have been catalysts for wider change include:

  • The Mayors Against Illegal Guns campaign (another initiative involving Bloomberg)
  • Brazil’s famed Bolsa Familia programme, which has made a huge impact in Brazil and beyond, has its origins in the Bolsa Escola conditional cash transfer programme, which was pioneered by the (then opposition) Workers Party city government of Brasilia. It was a policy aimed at reducing poverty and inequality (it succeeded) but it was also part of the opposition’s political strategy.
  • Duncan has written on this blog before about how the  city of Medellín (in Colombia) was turned around, in the face of a pervasive narco-industry and paramilitary-driven violence and chaos.

What are your best examples of a progressive city government, social movement or company helping to shift a bigger problem by first achieving change in a city or several cities? Likewise, where has it failed or been used in a regressive way?