A session during the World Urban Forum held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo by: UN-Habitat

KUALA LUMPUR — As the international community gears up to review global progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 11, the so-called “urban SDG,” getting cities right is increasingly seen by many development experts as essential to deliver on the entire 2030 Agenda. That perspective was the message delivered over the past week in the Malaysian capital during the ninth World Urban Forum, the world’s largest conference on cities, hosted by UN-Habitat.

In the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, which over 160 countries agreed upon after the seven-day conference that drew 22,000 people, investing in urban development is considered an “accelerator” for delivering on the SDGs with the United Nations recently adopted New Urban Agenda as key roadmap to that approach. Goal 11 will be among the five focus goals at this year’s annual SDG review in July.

“Well-planned and well-managed urbanization is a positive tool for development and the effects are felt through villages and townships, in rural as well as urban areas and across regional and country borders,” said UN-Habitat’s recently appointed executive director, Maimunah Mohd Sharif. “And if we want to have any chance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to get our cities right.”

That focus in turn could create opportunities for development professionals to sharpen their urban bonafides on topics such as land use, transportation, and municipal governance. The United States Agency for International Development’s urban program has a $650 million indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity commitment and no lack of interest. “As cities are complex systems, we can achieve better, mutually reinforcing results by integrating and focusing our approach across different development sectors: health, infrastructure, economic growth, etc. Sometimes this means looking beyond individual technical sectors and looking at the connections between different issues,” said USAID’s Kevin Nelson, who directs the program, in a statement emailed to Devex.

USAID has pioneered the new approach in the Philippines with the Cities Development Program. There, some 60 projects in areas like WASH, health, education, and economic development must justify how they are enhancing the equitable growth of secondary cities in the archipelago nation.

Health projects, for example, have focused on whether people have access to public transportation or safe pedestrian routes to reach clinics, as much as on what happens once they are meeting with a nurse.

One development NGO working on health issues through an urban lens is Vital Strategies, which is currently the implementing partner for the Bloomberg- and World Health Organization-funded Partnership for Healthy Cities. Under the program, 54 cities are funded to pursue the public health intervention of their choice. That’s meant promoting helmet use among motorcycle riders in Fortaleza, Brazil, and fighting obesity in Colombia’s biggest cities.

“Many of the best public health policies took root in cities — from passing smoke-free laws, to controlling obesity through menu labelling and trans fats bans, to reshaping transportation infrastructure to enable safer roads and physical activity,” Nandita Murukutla, vice-president of Vital Strategies’ India office, told Devex. “We see this enthusiasm in India from the national and state governments.”

USAID sees this nexus as a way to enforce the kind of silo-busting that is often just talk. When it comes to health, that means drawing on knowledge far beyond medicine in order to achieve health-focused goals such as increasing immunization rates. “Urban issues are cross-cutting across multiple sectors,” Nelson said.

Experts want workers in one area to think about others. For example, public health workers should also be thinking about the transportation industry, which has been front and center of GIZ, the German Corporation for International Cooperation’s big push into the urban sector. At the Habitat III summit in October 2016, the German development agency announced a 1 billion euro ($1.25 billion) commitment to boost urban mobility in the developing world. Fifteen months later, the agency’s Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative is active in over a dozen countries and seeking candidates for pilot projects inspired by apps like Jakarta’s motorcycle-hailing tool Go-Jek that will be funded to the tune of 200,000 euros ($250,702) each.

“The idea of having a direct relationship with international development banks for financing could be a way to overcome a potential obstacle to reach financing if you have to go through the national government for a guarantee.”

— Mauricio Rodas, mayor of Quito, Ecuador

Crucially, Germany’s approach to development funding emphasizes that municipal governments should be protagonists, not recipients at the long end of a daisy chain starting with foreign aid to a national government. Ways to empower cities directly was a major theme at the World Urban Forum.

Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas, for example, is trying to cut through national-level red tape to fund the greening of his city’s public transit fleet. “The idea of having a direct relationship with international development banks for financing could be a way to overcome a potential obstacle to reach financing if you have to go through the national government for a guarantee,” he said.

That’s the kind of approach that Germany hopes to push. “We have the strong conviction that urban development is the key for the sustainability of our world,” said Franz Marré of BMZ, the German foreign ministry, which funds GIZ. “We want to support cities as actors for development.”

Even under that cities-first rubric, however, there is still plenty of room for traditional development projects with traditional development challenges. In the 1990s, GIZ funded piped water on the outskirts of Kasese, Uganda, as part of efforts to prepare the villages for the eventual outward expansion of the gateway city to Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. Years later, Mayor Godfrey Kabbyanga laments the lack of community buy-in to maintain the water supply.

“The community still calls it the ‘German tap’ if the water turns off,” he said.

About the author

  • Gregory Scruggs

    Gregory Scruggs is a journalist based in Seattle. He has a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree from Columbia University. A specialist in Latin America and the Caribbean, he was a Fulbright scholar in Brazil. His coverage of the Habitat III summit and global urbanization won a 2017 United Nations Correspondent Association award. He coordinates the Seattle chapter of the Solutions Journalism Network.