A way to approach development cooperation delivered by local and regional governments (or decentralised cooperation) is by comparison with central governments. The latter is normally more powerful, in terms of economic resources and of regulatory capacity, both at home and at the OECD-Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the place where this global policy is shaped. However, central-government development cooperation has problems as well. For one thing, policy coherence with other instruments that have a foreign (diplomacy, trade, defence) and growingly domestic (citizenship, migrant rights) dimension.

Meanwhile, decentralised cooperation has managed to turn some of these limitations into assets. Regions and cities do not hold such “hard”, state-like competencies, favouring a development cooperation policy based on values and solidarity rather than on the national interest. Their resources can flow through a vast array of NGOs, allowing direct engagement with civil society in partner countries, and empowering them for tough dialogue with local authorities on democracy and civil rights. The effectiveness of decentralised cooperation has been questioned (on grounds of transaction costs, discontinuities or fragmentation), but its high political autonomy and its freedom to use different channels and instruments have strengthened its transformative capacity. The last two decades have provided us with some examples.

City to city (C2C) cooperation stems from political alliances, often involving Mayors themselves, committed to enhance the capacities and the self-government of local governments in the face of globalisation and bureaucratic central governments. The approach is horizontal dialogue and inclusive development partnerships, including public-private engagement and strategic planning. City networks expand the connections, consolidate the experiences and organise global advocacy. Although C2C projects may receive Official Development Assistance (ODA) when partnering with cities in the Global South, C2C cooperation is not about money, but about pooling resources and building political and technical capacity together.

Also, in the face of covid-19, cities have displayed a tremendous capacity for networking and self-help. A good example is provided here by Cities for Global Health. Created by Metropolis - the global network of major cities and metropolitan areas-, this initiative has allowed local partners to track in real time how cities faced restrictions on public transportation and organised social distancing, disinfected their municipal markets, or used lockdown on public premises to expand spaces for medical attention. In early July 2020, this website maps over 613 measures implemented by 100 cities in 34 countries.

Cities for Global Health

Transformative practices at the regional level are more varied, and the interest lies here in the new approaches (like policy integration, connection of donor-partner priorities, or gender and human rights) that shape their decentralised cooperation. Spanish regions provide some interesting examples. In Extremadura, defending LGBT rights is a strategic objective that adheres to both development cooperation and the domestic agenda. In Catalonia, the Human Rights Defenders programme, managed jointly with municipalities and CSOs, shows that the political sensitivity of environmental conflicts over natural resources (e.g. access to water or deforestation) is scaling up, and that activists reporting violations of environmental rights are the subject of growing persecution and threats to their lives. In the Basque Country, development cooperation is trying to overcome the “silos” of sectoral and country planning by creating “strategic areas” where the interdependence of the economic, social and environmental spheres is particularly visible. Circular, re-distributive economies; gender equality and women empowerment; or sustainable agriculture and the preservation of natural resources, among others, connect the needs and concerns of the Basque government, its society, and those of partner countries.

These different decentralised cooperation styles are the result of different processes, some being more or less intuitive and others well-thought-out. As decentralised cooperation development plans benefit from decades of continuous trial and error in search of transformation, they have also been attentive to the international development debates and their agendas. When the latest and most significant of these –the 2030 Agenda– reached local development planners, enthusiasm was not imminent. Allegedly, the SDGs looked ambitious but lacked boldness on the political front (power and wealth re-distribution; de-growth…), as well as detail about the way ODA was to be organised to achieve the common goals. These were too numerous and ambiguous, its indicators unclear, and the reporting system burdensome. For some, the SDGs were a well-meaning, ultimately unreachable matrix of results.

In the end, it became apparent that many of the ideas identified as more transformative by decentralised cooperation were also present: inclusive, horizontal partnerships; whole of government and whole of society approaches; integrated, cross-sector interventions and projects, or mutual accountability by focusing on the same priorities that could now be expressed as sustainable development goals and targets. This is how global networks of cities and regions, like UCLG or ORU-Fogar, are reading the SDGs: not only as goals, but as a process. Sustainable development is a new approach to global public policy. And development cooperation, decentralised or not, can be the place where the nature of this change becomes visible.