Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Screenshot from: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

LOS ANGELES — Speaking at a Conrad N. Hilton Foundation awards ceremony earlier this year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti highlighted progress the city has made on the Sustainable Development Goals.

“Let’s be clear. We don’t take the actions that ... the SDGs represent because the United Nations said we should. We are doing these things because we are part of a global community,” he said.

Cities across the world, but particularly in the United States — where the national government has retreated from a number of international agreements — are trying to navigate their role in advancing progress on the SDGs.

In recent years, with the support of the Hilton Foundation, LA has emerged as an SDG leader.

At the awards ceremony, Garcetti spoke of his work on Climate Mayors, a network of mayors from 407 cities who oppose the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to walk away from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and how it aligns with SDG 13, taking climate action.

“The city is where the rubber hits the road on a lot of the benefits of the SDGs.”

— Peter Laugharn, president and CEO, the Hilton Foundation

While 193 U.N. member states adopted the 17 goals, 169 targets, and 240 indicators, many believe they cannot be achieved by the 2030 deadline without the active support of cities. Such goals, Garcetti stressed, should be universal.

“They don’t just happen in someplace else —  in far off places that are facing different obstacles. They must start with us,” he said. “We won’t achieve these goals abroad if we don’t start here at home.”

Contextualizing the goals

The Hilton Foundation, which has focused a portion of its grantmaking on the SDGs, has found a valuable partner in LA.

Ed Cain, vice president of grant programs at the foundation, has been a champion of LA efforts to localize the SDGs.

Cain, who worked for 28 years within the U.N. system and is set to retire at the end of this year, watched the evolution of the global agenda from the Millennium Development Goals to the SDGs.

“I came from the multinational world, where there was this illusion that we were creating this global agenda that everyone would get on board with, and then found that in other sectors this is a dialogue they are totally unfamiliar with,” he said.

Cain said he made it his mission to bridge those divides and get other stakeholders to see themselves in the SDG framework. When the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles approached the Hilton Foundation, Cain asked what the City of Los Angeles was doing on the SDGs.

They mentioned a sustainability officer focused largely on environmental issues. Cain saw the need for a role that focused on the SDGs across a variety of programs and convinced the Hilton Foundation board to create a bucket of money outside of their programmatic budget to fund this work.

The foundation supported Erin Bromaghim, director of Olympic and Paralympic development for the City of Los Angeles, to serve as Hilton Foundation Fellow on the Global Goals.

Her task is to use the SDG agenda to align, measure, and track the city’s plans and commitments. That includes ensuring that as it plans for the 2028 Summer Olympics, which will be held in LA, it is doing so in a way that supports the SDGs. The Hilton Foundation initially funded her position in full, but the city has begun to cover a portion of her salary, and will soon cover it all.

“The Olympics have given us an opportunity to set a point on the horizon against which we can plan, but the Olympics don’t have to be that horizon for everybody,” Bromaghim said.

“The goal of any major city right now should be to think about what they want to be in 10, 15 years so they can be future guiding as opposed to future passive or future phobic. Because the future will come. So how can cities be more active in charting our own path and describing what they want to establish as a plan and a framework for getting there?”

Cities that want to go from adopting the goals to implementing the goals have to figure out ways to add context from their community to make the targets and indicators more relevant, Bromaghim said.

In LA, for example, the goal in question has been SDG 5: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”

The city plans to revise some of the targets in place, creating new indicators to represent people who are gender nonconforming, and ensuring that the goal addresses LGBTQ rights, she said.

“In an ideal world, you keep as much of the framework as you can,” said Nina Hachigian, who works to broaden LA’s engagement on global matters, and was the first deputy mayor for international affairs in the U.S.  “The whole point is the common set of goals and targets.”

But she agreed that as LA works through ways to make the goals work for them, there are lessons for other cities, including in the challenges LA faces in implementing the SDGs.

Some are budgetary.  The City of Los Angeles has a budget of about $10 billion for its population of 4 million people, as compared to New York City, which is also working on the SDGs but with a $90 billion budget for a population of 8.6 million people.

Others have to do with diffuse ownership. LA has an independent school district, a public health department that belongs to the county, and no clear answer to the question of who is responsible for poverty in LA.

There is also the challenge of messaging. “The SDGs are a tough elevator pitch,” Bromaghim acknowledged. But she said the city is making progress in helping residents understand their value, even working closely with university students in the area to measure the city’s progress.

Equity “is the key lens” LA is using as it develops solutions, Hachigian said.

For example, when it comes to SDG 3.1, reducing global maternal mortality, California has relatively low rates of women dying in childbirth. But a large disparity remains between African American and Caucasian mothers, with black mothers dying at three to four times the rate.

While LA still has a long way to go to close that gap, the SDGs provide a useful benchmark to share what is working city by city.

Hachigian added that the city’s new sustainability plan, which will come out next year, will reference the SDGs throughout.

Getting a seat at the table

The Hilton Foundation, which works both domestically and internationally on areas including homelessness, disaster relief, and HIV/AIDs, believes LA can use its position as a global city to influence others.

In fact, it is part of why the foundation brought its annual awards ceremony from New York City back to LA, said Peter Laugharn, president and CEO of the foundation, who grew up in LA, where the foundation is headquartered.

There has been a real convergence in how Garcetti and Laugharn view not only the role the city can play in achieving the SDGs at home, but also the way LA can contribute to international development.

“The city is where the rubber hits the road on a lot of the benefits of the SDGs,” Laugharn said.

The foundation, which is seeing a doubling of assets from $2.5 billion to $5 billion, is working to frame both its international and domestic work to align with the SDGs.

The foundation has approved close to $10 million in grants to support programs working to advance the SDGs, including its support of the SDG Philanthropy Platform, which identifies concrete ways that philanthropy can contribute to the SDGs.

The foundation has also provided a grant to the U.N. Development Programme and is now working with UNDP to try and get cities to participate in the upcoming U.N. High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, which has traditionally brought country leaders together with private sector and civil society actors to review progress on the SDGs.

But despite the value that the SDGs can bring to cities, Cain thinks more needs to be done.

“We’re still not speaking the same language,” he said.

“The goals and the targets and the indicators, when applying them to Bangladesh versus the city of LA, it’s two different things … We’ll have to come up with a common lexicon that will allow us to compare.”

About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.