On 11 December, the GCH held its Annual retreat to discuss the role of city networks in fostering more inclusive multilateralism. The morning session featured a discussion among city networks/organizations and in the afternoon, representatives of international organizations (IOs joined the meeting.
In the morning, all participants largely agreed on the existence of an urban institutional paradox (i.e., cities are on the frontlines of responding to many global challenges, but they remain largely underrepresented in the international arena). Hence, a debate took place over what tactics shall be used to address this paradox: revolution or changes within the system? Here, GCH affirmed its willingness to continue working within the multilateral system, abiding by its rules, finding entry points to promote LRGs’ participation and also advocating for the creation of a new status for local and regional governments (LRGs) at the UN.
Various issues were addressed in relation to the participation of LRGs in multilateralism, including: which LRGs get internationally engaged and for what reasons; the issue on whether city networks represent their members or not; the added value of involving and building capacity of municipal administrations in order to ensure sustainable city engagement; the potential role of national city networks; the necessity to reflect upon what LRGs could do if they were to get a “seat at the table”; the crucial importance to engage with States, in spite of potential tensions between LRGs and their central State.
Overall, it was felt that participating city networks/organizations were willing to cooperate more to achieve shared goals. For that, GCH insisted on the importance of crafting a common narrative to convince States of the added value that the participation of LRGs can bring to multilateralism, not only on urban topics, but more widely on the global governance of challenges.
In the afternoon, the triangular relationship between IOs, LRGs and city networks was addressed. Reference was made to the UN SG’s Advisory Group on LRGs (AGLRGs), which offers an unprecedented opportunity to promote inclusive, networked, and effective multilateralism. The AGLRGs’ overall objective is to advise the UN SG on how to enhance coordination and collaboration between LRGs the UN system. The AGLRGs will present four deliverables, including a policy brief and recommendations to the SG in the lead up to the Summit of the Future. The next 3-6 months represent a real window of opportunity to inject new ideas and considerations to the process through the secretariat (UN-Habitat) or the participating 15 mayors.
In the ensuing conversation, various good practices were put forward by IOs who increasingly realize the importance of collaborating with LRGs and their networks to achieve global goals. While no one contests the necessity for IOs to work with LRGs on specific projects or the ground (in particular for operational IOs), participants underlined that it was however much more difficult to include LRGs at policy and/or governance level, because these areas remain within States’ prerogatives.
Even in cases where IOs are striving to include LRGs at policy/governance level, they are faced with challenges when it comes to the selection of LRGs (how to select them? what about LRGs from another political colour than the central govt?). In relation to the selection of LRGs, city networks can actually help IOs. And they can also help on a number of other fronts, including to localize and implement global agendas, to say things that the UN cannot say, to help develop and disseminate various kinds of guidelines. Maybe city networks could also help IOs deploy operations more effectively in times of crises, in particular in places where IOs have no prior footprint? An essential point emphasized by city networks was the need for IOs to facilitate access to international funding for LRGs.
Overall, the GCH annual retreat proved successful in bringing together relevant city networks and IOs, fostering a sense of community among actors sharing similar interests and objectives. Despite its relatively recent establishment, the GCH was acknowledged as a credible player in International Geneva, with a potential to bridge the gap between city networks/organizations and Geneva-based IOs. The retreat was deemed valuable by participants, and the GCH was even described as the “missing link” in this context.