Commonwealth Local Government Forum

Helen Clark addresses CLGC2017

22 November 2017

It’s a great pleasure to be addressing the Commonwealth Local Government Forum Conference for the fifth time, and to do so as one of your patrons. I am proud to be associated with this very important Commonwealth institution, and to be able to meet delegates from across the world’s regions, and from both the Global South and the North. It is this broad base of membership which always gives the Commonwealth its strength. 


As Prime Minister of New Zealand, I was delighted to welcome the Conference to my home city, Auckland, in 2007. I have been pleased to see the important contribution of New Zealanders in the Forum before and since that time, including by Basil Morrison and Lawrence Yule who both headed the New Zealand Local Government Association in recent years. I am delighted to see Mayor David Cull from Dunedin, New Zealand, attending this Conference as the new leader of Local Government New Zealand. 


When I moved to New York in 2009 to lead the United Nations Development Programme, the former Secretary-General of this Forum, Carl Wright, was an early visitor. UNDP, like the Forum, is an active contributor to strengthening local government capacity, and so is its associated programme, the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF). That meant that our organisations were natural partners. Carl persuaded me that I should continue to come to the Forum’s biennial conferences, and I’ve been pleased to be with you in Cardiff, Kampala, and Gabarone.  


Fast forward to November 2017 – I am honoured to continue as your Patron, to continue to support the Forum, Secretary-General Greg Munro and his staff, and to participate in this conference. 


At past conferences, I’ve spoken about the role of local government in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The Forum recognised both the importance of the Goals, and their relevance to local government. 


But now we are in a new era – with a bigger, bolder global agenda – and a universal one. The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals are challenging for all countries – rich, middle income, and low income. It’s all the more important therefore that an inclusive organisation like this Forum brings its members together to share experiences and ideas about how local government can help drive progress on sustainable development – indeed, as I will go on to say in my address, actually to help lead that progress. 


I observed in my time at UNDP that there is a lot of awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals in developing countries. Perhaps that is because these goals are the successor agenda to the Millennium Development Goals - on which developing countries made such huge efforts to achieve progress.   


But I do wonder how much awareness there is currently at local and central government level in developed countries that the SDGs are a universal and progressive agenda, and that aligning vision and action with them will be a powerful tool for taking communities towards sustainable development?  


A number of developed country governments also have shown few signs of intending to embrace the SDGs as an agenda for them – adhering to a notion that development is for somebody else, somewhere else. Yet the 2030 Agenda’s focus on poverty eradication, reducing inequalities significantly – including for gender inequality, and producing, consuming, and living sustainably has messages and challenges for countries at all levels of development. 


This session focuses on local government as a partner in achieving sustainable development. I would go even further and say that local government is an indispensable partner – without the full and active engagement of local government with the global goals, little will be achieved. 


That’s because it is at local government level that many of the critical decisions about sustainability so often lie; for example: 

  • Let’s look at the physical design of our urban communities– are they built with a light carbon footprint, or are they built to be big greenhouse gas polluters? Can they be retrofitted for sustainability? 

  • Are our communities equipped for walking, cycling, and clean public transport – or do they favour motor vehicles? 

  • Are the community’s buildings - from the commercial and administrative to the home - energy efficient – or do they leak energy during both a hot summer and/or a cold winter? 

  • How about the community’s waste? Does it go unsorted to a dump where it will ooze methane and other toxins for generations? Or is the local government promoting a zero waste to landfill approach based on the Three Rs of reduce, reuse, and recycle? 

  • Do polluters pay for the pollution they cause – whether in the cost of recycling and disposal of used goods – e-waste and appliances being particular problems - or for the cost of greenhouse gas and other pollution in general? 


Then, let’s not forget that sustainability also covers the economic and social spheres -  

  • Are our local governments active in creating the environment for decent work and opportunity for their citizens? 

  • Are they fostering social cohesion – with the objective of seeing no one left behind in their communities?  


No one can deny the importance of federal and central governments in advancing sustainable development. But if a country is to have a good story to tell on reaching the SDGs, local government will have to be engaged as a full and willing partner and a leader in its own right. 


Where national-level governments have little regard for sustainable development, it’s especially important that sub-national government steps up. We see this now in the United States, where progressive states and cities are making it clear that they support the Paris Climate Agreement, and will do whatever they can to make their administrations part of the solution to climate change - and not part of the problem. 


So, what will local government need in order to play its full role in the new global agenda?  Let me offer a few thoughts: 


1) I do think that empowerment of local government to act in accordance with the new global agenda and the wishes of its community is critical. In many countries, local government continues to be kept on a very short leash – able to do only a narrow range of things set out in statute.  


This is not good for communities, and it’s not good for countries as a whole. Excessive centralisation leads to a “one size fits all” approach, and can lead to bottlenecks in policy-making and implementation – when empowered and capable local government could just get on and get things done. 


Fifteen years ago in New Zealand, my government took a new Local Government Act through Parliament It provided local government with what we called a “general power of competence”. The only competency we entirely reserved for central government was in the realm of the country’s foreign affairs and defence arrangements. Those aside, local governments, through proper planning processes, were free to respond to the aspirations and needs of their communities. 

That autonomy and power to act would greatly assist local governments to get on with Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. And the fast movers among them could be showcases for what others can do – and perhaps even inspire more action at the national level. 


2) With this greater autonomy, it becomes even more important that local governments practise the inclusive and responsive governance called for in the SDGs. They can be models for collaboration between citizens and local authorities – ensuring that all are heard as the local government goes about its planning, policy-making, and implementation.  


That means paying special attention to those whose voices have not been heard as much – the voices of women, of youth, and of marginalised communities generally. The local government which wants to pursue sustainable development must be open, receptive, and worthy of the people’s trust. 


3) Let me make that point another way: trust is built when there is zero tolerance of corruption. So often, citizens get services which should be their right only for a “small consideration” – or, in plain words, a bribe. If local governments aren’t seen to uphold the rule of law, citizens will rightly be cynical of whatever local and central governments claim to be their priorities. That is not a good climate in which to pursue sustainable development, as the engagement of every citizen and household is required to make the changes that need to be made.  


There is an SDG target, in Goal 16, which calls for “substantially reducing corruption and bribery in all their forms”. This target should be given priority – achieving it is rather fundamental to getting good results on investment in infrastructure, the local economy, and public services – which in turn are rather critical for getting inclusive and sustainable development.  


4) Achieving the SDGs requires a capacity for “whole of government” planning and co-ordination. My view is that local governments can lead on this – after all, planning for the community’s basic needs and delivering on that plan are at the core of what local government does. Most developed countries have long since abandoned any serious national planning at the national level – but their local governments are expected to plan, and they do plan. 


But if sustainable development is the objective, then old ways of fostering growth at any price to the health and wellbeing of the people and the environment must go. Let’s say it again – the new agenda is looking for inclusive and sustainable growth. It should be growth which advances human well-being, does not widen inequalities, and does not trash the environment. Growing now and cleaning up later is not an option – that approach has got the world into the mess it’s in today as it exceeds its planetary boundaries. That won’t do – we have only the finite resources of one planet to live on – but collectively we live in a way which assumes that we have the resources of three, four, or more planets. 


Capacity will need to be enhanced to do this kind of planning – and for developing countries, I hope that development partners will see this as a priority. Capacity will have to be beefed up in developed countries too. There’s a role here for the Commonwealth Local Government Forum in supporting experience sharing on sustainable development, so that best practice can be studied, and adapted or adopted as appropriate. 


To be fit for purpose, local administrations will need capable staff, good policy frameworks, and to be effective and efficient – continually modernizing, streamlining, and ensuring that form fits function are vital. 


5) Resources. I’ve left this until last in my list because my view always is that money isn’t everything, but of course it does help.  


Quite a lot of time is being devoted to issues of resourcing and financing at this conference. It’s estimated that the financing of the MDGS was 77 per cent domestic financing. I think it’s unlikely that the domestic burden of financing the SDGs would be less – the goals are much more ambitious. 


The Addis Ababa Action Agenda of 2015 was realistic in urging that all sources of finance need to be drawn on for development – public and private, and domestic and international. I would add to that developmental and environmental, as among the greatest sources of finance available to developing countries now are the Green Climate Fund and other climate change financing mechanisms. 


Local government in most countries tends to have been hemmed in with traditional financing options – rates on properties, fee for services, local sales taxes in some jurisdictions, and central government grants. Opening up these options is a discussion to be had with central governments country by country. 


I do think it’s important to evaluate carefully what may look like easy options, but which may have significant hidden costs. Public-private partnerships for transport infrastructure, for example, I believe to be inherently risky – with a chance - in poorly designed contracts - of the local (or national) government paying out excessively. 


On the other hand, productive investment locally is what every local government wants – and getting it should increase jobs and revenue. Local governments can make their luck in this respect – if the local environment is transparent and honest, and if the local policy and regulation is well designed. There is also the opportunity to steer investment towards sustainability – for example in local energy infrastructure. 


In conclusion 

Local government is an indispensable partner in sustainable development – indispensable to central governments wanting good national results, and indispensable to citizens and local stakeholders.  


Local governments need to nurture all those partnerships – because it can’t succeed on its own either. It needs the good will and positive support of central government; it needs an active and engaged citizenry; and it needs quality private sector investment in its locality. 


Its history of planning means that it has a capacity for co-ordinating policy – but now must exercise those skills in the service of sustainable development. That means ensuring the health and well-being of people, the local economy, and the environment simultaneously – which is business unusual for many. Yet worldwide there are good examples of what we can call triple win policies where all these objectives are advanced together. 


I wish you all a very productive conference – and hope that you will return home with new ideas and new enthusiasm for the task of achieving sustainable development. It can’t be achieved anywhere without local government being a driver and a leader of sustainability. 


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